10% of children have clinically diagnosable mental health disorders
For the purposes of this article, we shall be focussing on mental health and childhood. We tackle teenagers in a separate post as the two pose different issues.
Put simply, childhood brain development in the first 8 years of life is the key foundation for all future learning, health and success in life. The development of the brain is affected in three key-ways – nutrition (starting during pregnancy), being exposed to infection or toxins, and experiences with people and the world around them.
From birth to the age of 5, a brain develops more than it does at any other point in life. A baby’s brain nearly doubles in size within the first year – interestingly it is why human babies are born so dependent on mothers unlike other animal species. Human babies must be born earlier in development so that the mothers and babies actually survive the pregnancy . By the age of 3 a baby’s brain has grown to 80% the size of an adult’s brain. By the age of 5, it’s 90%.
A baby has all of the neurons that they’ll ever have, but it is how those neurons are being connected together that determines how their brain will work. Babies are making almost 1 million neural connections per second. Aspects of their character are being defined, at this stage babies are developing the foundations of their skills around such things as self-regulation, motivation, problem-solving and communication.
Neural connections are made through the baby’s experiences. A child’s relationships and interactions with the adults in their lives are the most important factors in building neural connections. Babies and young child require quality care, stimulation and interaction. Giving attention, reacting and interacting with babies and children is literally building pathways in their brains.
Roots of Issues
Mental health issues in all cases are difficult to pinpoint in their origins. It is not so simple a matter as saying ‘I am sad because of…’. This is especially so of children who can’t express when they have symptoms and when issues arise. There are no hard and fast rules, however there are things that we do know for certain regarding brain development and issues in childhood that have a significant impact on the future development of children.
As mentioned, children and babies naturally reach out to caregivers and those around them. Through a process called ‘Serve and Return’ they attempt to communicate, offering opportunities for people to interact with them. Babies coo, cry, gurgle and physically reach out and we respond through vocalisations and gestures.
If these responses are lacking – perhaps ignored or placated by inanimate distractions, or worse modern technology – or if they are unreliable or inappropriate then the brain does not form as expected. If a child is ignored or left to their own devices their brains don’t become formed correctly.
Reading, talking and playing stimulate brain growth. Sitting a child in front of the TV as a babysitter does not, no matter how educational the show. The most important element of a child’s life and development is interaction. Low quality, dismissive caregiving equates to underdevelopment of the brain.
Imagine you are wiring a fuse box in a house. You could be given instructions but if you lack the necessary care and attention to the needs of the task then you are potentially creating problems for the future.
Sadly unavoidable, some aspects of mental health disorders have a genetic element. Some become hardwired into children before they are even born. Bipolar disorder, ADHD, major depression and schizophrenia have tendencies to run in families which would suggest a genetic link. However, current studies show that genetics may only have a minor impact.
There are other issues of heredity – for instance a mother who suffers from stress related issues may be inadvertently flooding their child with the stress hormone Cortisol in the womb. This exposure to the hormone can impact upon growth and development of tissue .
We think of stress in terms of the adult world. As with our impression of depression, it is easy to misjudge and misunderstand stress. For an adult stress may be linked to the uncomfortable feeling of overdue bills and the like. It may cause tiredness, sleepless nights and irritability. It is a real problem. Stress for babies and children is even more extreme and toxic and moreover it can be even harder to detect the signs of the stress being endured by children.
Poverty, abuse, parental conflict, relationship dissolution and maternal depression are examples of the more extreme ends of the stressors that can be toxic to the neural development of children. It is important to note that there is a clear distinction between positive stress – those from which babies and children learn coping strategies – and toxic stress.
Positive Stress in Children
Positive stress is related to moderate and short-lived instances, an infant deliberately not being attended to when crying to enable them to learn self-soothing strategies. For example – a child having to wait a minute or two longer to be taken out of their high-chair may cry, demanding attention, but the action of making them wait ultimately creates positive neural pathways allowing them to cope in future. It helps the child to develop positive responses to uncomfortable experiences.
Toxic Stress in Children
Toxic stress is related to the persistent, unrelenting and ultimately unrelieved activation of the child’s stress system. Without the adult caregivers’ intervention this reshapes the literal architecture of the child’s brain. Toxic stress even affects neurons to the point that they become visibly damaged. The stress of hunger with no end. Of parental inadequacy failing to offer support. Of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All at an age when you are completely unable to express even a little of the difficulty that you face.
Imagine an infant sleeping in their cot. They no longer need night feeds but on this particular night they awaken and begin to cry. Certain methods – the Ferber method most notably – require zero parental intervention. The infant is left to cry and cry until they ultimately fall asleep again. The theory states that this creates greater independence. However, studies show that this leads to high levels of stress hormones and potentially stunted neuron development. Instead of a positive stress, the child is offered no ultimate relieving experience. Now, gentler sleep training strategies are encouraged which focus on caregivers intervening to offer comfort at gradually increasing intervals to create positive stress situations. 
Screen time has a great deal to answer for. Physical issues, such as obesity, are caused by more sedentary upbringings. Mentally, a whole plethora of issues are coming to light almost as quickly as technology is marching on. Put most simply, several studies are beginning to suggest a causal link between screen time and increased risk of depression and lower overall wellbeing .
In greater depth, social media opens children to a greater scope of bullying, victimisation and bullying, damaging presentations of self-image and sexualisation. And the age at which social media is being opened to children is being lowered.
Time spent engaging with screens comes at the penalty of reduced much needed face to face interactions and reduced quality and quantity of sleep. Screen addiction itself. Screen time is also linked to ‘over-stimulation’ (which can lead to anxiety issues).
Screen time is now being linked to irritability, anxiety, depression, excessive tantrums and impairments. And this is not restricted to teenagers using technology. Increasingly, children are younger and younger when they are being exposed to screens. More often parents are turning to screens as electronic babysitters, given to stop tantrums – unfortunately creating dependence on devices which ultimately create even further psychological issues. 
Children who use screens up to as little as an hour a day without parental involvement – i.e. active discussion of what is being seen, face to face interactions – – are actually having their brains ‘rewired’ leaving them unable to seek stimulation elsewhere. It can interfere with everything from creativity to sleep through what is referred to as ‘impoverished stimulation’ 
Please note, that screens and technology do have their positive roles to play in the lives of children. However, they must be carefully managed. One must not simply hand a child a phone to keep them quiet on YouTube or Minecraft. Instead, they should be used as stimuli for real world connection.
Common Mental health Issues
Some of the most common mental health issues found in children are:
- Eating disorders
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Anxiety disorder
Childhood is a time of huge change. Rapidly developing brains and an inability to express oneself make it a challenge. Children are so completely reliant on their caregivers and each and every second of their lives with us are helping to create the person that they are going to become. A parent, teacher or care-giver may feel tired, stressed or distracted by other issues but children are relying on us to help them navigate the world.
If you’d like to learn more about teenagers next click here.
We can help
Based in Wolverhampton, Mental Health Midlands is a first-class training provider supporting businesses in Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country. We provide recognised course in mental health such as two-day courses to become Mental Health First Aiders to basic entry level half day mental health courses to aid understanding of a misunderstood area. We help businesses to overcome mental health issues and break the stigmas around mental health in the workplace.