What Parents Need to Know About the Connection Between Mental Health and Child Development

Good child mental health is synonymous with good social and emotional development. Photo by Susanne Jutzeler/Pexels

What Parents Need to Know About the Connection Between Mental Health and Child Development

Gloseeker Article Writer

Mental health disorders or psychological problems also occur in children and adolescents and can disrupt their development and smooth transition to adulthood. They can range from the consequences of minor subjective dysfunctions in the family to severe illnesses affecting the child or adolescent.

Child mental health definition

Mental health is a state of well-being that implies that a person is able to manage the usual problems of life and perform productive work.

Translated to the pediatric age, it could be translated as the capacity of a child to be able to experience, regulate and express emotions, ensure good interpersonal relationships, explore the environment and learn all that is necessary for the family, community, and cultural context. In other words, good child mental health is synonymous with good social and emotional development.

Mental health is an evolving and dynamic process. Multiple factors are involved in this process:

  • Heredity.
  • Normal neurobiological development.
  • Family and school education.
  • The level of social well-being.
  • The degree of personal fulfilment and a balanced relationship between the individual's capacities and social demands.

Why is child mental health important?

Mental health goes beyond mental disorders. Mental health is an essential resource of everyday life and is shaped by personal, individual, and collective experiences. In families, schools, on the streets, etc. There is clear evidence that early life experiences have a crucial impact on mental health in adult life. 

It was denied that children suffer from mental disorders for a long time, or their importance was minimised. However, the reality is quite different, as the report published by NHS Digital records. More than half of mental illness in the population arises in childhood, and there is no doubt in the scientific world that there is a continuity between childhood mental disorders and those of adulthood. 

A child with stable mental health demonstrates that he or she can cope with a stressful situation, share at home and in the community, and go to school without anxiety, anger or depression. Therefore, child mental health conditions are fundamental to a child's development to achieve his or her full potential.

Effects of mental health on child development

Mental health is as essential as physical health. Different factors can affect a child's mental health, including:

  • Hereditary factors, brain chemistry, or genes
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Lifestyle, such as physical activity and nutrition.

If children with mental disorders are not diagnosed early and treated, they may have problems at home, school, and socialising. These problems are likely to interfere with their healthy development and, as a result, will continue into adulthood.


Most common child mental health disorders and their symptoms

The onset of most common neurological disorders occurs during the first years of life. It is crucial to detect mental illness in children to intervene as early as possible so that its adverse effects are less likely to gain strength and threaten the child's well-being.

Some of the most common disorders in childhood are:

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders typically begin in the early period of development. These disorders are characterised by deficits in a child's development that affect personal, social, academic or occupational functioning. Children with these disorders are often impulsive, have difficulty concentrating, cannot follow the rules or regulations, and are easily frustrated or bored.

These pathologies include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities, behavioural disorders, cerebral palsy, and olfactory or visual impairments.


  • Anxiety disorders

Children with anxiety disorders respond to specific changes or situations with fear and dread, as well as physical signs of anxiety and nervousness, such as rapid heartbeat and sweating, which affect their normal functioning.

Examples are obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, panic, particular phobias.

With no time to play or under a lot of pressure, children with constant worries may end up with depression.


  • Disruptive behaviour disorders

One of the usual phenomena that appear within the person's vital development, especially in the infant and adolescent stages, is the need to challenge authority. But what may at first be considered an age-appropriate act may hide an altered pattern of behaviour.

Children with this disorder tend to defy rules and often display misbehaviour in structured settings such as school. According to DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), some of these disorders are oppositional defiant disorder, kleptomania, and intermittent explosive disorder.


  • Eating disorders

These disorders include intense emotions and attitudes, as well as unusual behaviours related to weight or food. Bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, and purging disorder are eating disorders that can occur during childhood.


  • Elimination disorders

Elimination disorder is defined as difficulty in sphincter control. This disorder can present in different ways. The most common is enuresis (urine control) and encopresis (stool control).

Often, the elimination disorder appears to be related to the experience of negative feelings, such as stress or anxiety. Thus, it is common for situations that generate fear or anxiety to trigger this problem in children. Fortunately, this type of disorder is usually limited to childhood and is only rarely prolonged over time.


  • Affective disorders

Involve persistent mood swings and/or feelings of sadness. Depression and bipolar disorder are part of this group of disorders.

A more recent diagnosis is disruptive mood deregulation disorder, a childhood and adolescent condition involving chronic or persistent irritability and frequent outbursts of anger.


  • Tic disorders

These disorders cause a person to make repeated, sudden, involuntary, and often meaningless movements and sounds, called tics.

Basic motor tics would be eye blinking, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, neck stretching, mouth movements, jaw clenching, and spitting. Simple vocal tics consist of sounds that do not form words, such as throat clearing, grunting, coughing, and sniffing.


Detecting symptoms of mental illness in childhood

It is essential to be clear that detecting mental illness signs is a task that must always lead to medical and psychological examinations. A child mental health diagnosis can only be made by accredited professionals. Neither parental concern nor the child's complaints are a valid reason to initiate improvised treatment outside the health system.

At the same time, it should also be noted that it is normal for children to feel unwell from time to time or to engage in behaviour that may seem strange to us from time to time. The likelihood that this has to do with mental illness is related to the following:

  • Whether the onset of these behaviours is more or less abrupt.
  • Whether it coincides with a traumatic or stressful event or injury.
  • The intensity of these symptoms and the degree to which they deviate from what is considered normal.
  • Whether these behaviours are likely to be detrimental to the child's well-being or someone in the child's environment.


Mental health child protection

To take care of mental health and child development, you can take measures such as the following:

  • Show affection

 It is essential for the good emotional development of children that they feel their parents' love. Words are not enough, there must be gestures, hugs, and kisses.


  • Teach them to understand their emotions

Sometimes children feel anger or fear and are not able to understand why. Reflect with them to know what emotion they are feeling, name it and learn how to manage it. Explaining mental health to a child is an act of responsibility and prevention.


  • It helps to develop their emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand one's own and other people's emotions. It can be fostered through books, for example, to know how people feel in difficult situations so that children can put themselves in their place.


  • Set boundaries

While it is essential to understand our children's emotions, it is also necessary to set limits and say no to them.


  • Listen to them

Children have their own opinions, and active listening is essential. Pay attention to what they say, how they say it, and ask them questions to make them feel heard and understood.


  • Watch for changes in behaviour

We must assume that a child will not tell us that they have low self-esteem, for example. It is important to look for signs that there may be a problem with your child. To do this, observe your child and talk to his/her teachers, and if they report any changes in behaviour, be alert to see what it is.


  • Look for physical signs

Emotional pathologies are usually accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, palpitations, or muscle tension.


  • Stay calm

Although it is difficult at times, it is essential to remain calm and avoid shouting at children. Try to empathise with them, be firm and not be nervous.


  • Share with your children

One of the best and easiest ways to take care of our children's emotional health is to spend quality time with them. Enjoy them, go for a walk, play, read a story... What your children will be most grateful for is your company.


  • See a psychologist

If you consider it appropriate, you can go to a psychologist with your son or daughter to help them control their feelings and develop their emotional intelligence. 


  • Build trust

If you work on creating an environment in which your child feels comfortable, you will build trust, so that if they have a problem, they will tell you so that you can help them.

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