In fact more and more children are struggling with emotional and mental health problems. Current figures suggest that one in ten children aged 5 to 16 – that is three in every average school class – now suffer with a diagnosable mental health disorder. So how do we respond to what has been called a crisis in children’s mental health? What do children need for good emotional health and what might we be able to do to make a difference? How can we help children grow to be resilient, and weather whatever storms life throws at them?
SHAPING YOUNG BRAINS
One thing that we need to understand is just how much influence the world around children has on their brains in their earliest years. Newborn brains have nearly all the neurons they will ever need, but they are not very connected. In the rapid learning of the early years, millions of connections, called synapses, form between these neurons. In fact more synapses form than in the adult brain: from three years old brain, development is all about ‘pruning’ – fine tuning these connections.
Some of this sophisticated change in the architecture of young children’s brains is down to genetics, but the vast majority is influenced and stimulated by what is going on in the world around them. In fact, even while they are still in the womb, babies’ brains are influenced by their surroundings – by just a few days’ old they already recognise sounds from their mother tongue better than they do sounds from another language. Emotional development also starts early, and by 3 months old emotion centres in baby’s brains are stimulated by sounds associated with sadness, such as crying.
What we must recognise is that for young children, their experience of the world around them is imprinted on their brains in the form of those vital connections and links. Stark evidence of this is the impact on brain development for children who have been exposed to severe neglect, whose brains are dramatically smaller and less complex than those of normal children the same age. As one Harvard study concluded, ‘As young children develop, their early emotional experiences literally become embedded in the architecture of their brains.’ The same study continues, ‘The emotional health of young children is closely tied to the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which they live.’
So, we know that what children understand about people, emotions and empathy is significantly shaped by what they witness as they grow up. But how does a child’s eye view of the world differ from an adult’s? Here are five things about the way children understand, which influence their emotional development:
The world revolves around them
Children are ‘egocentric’. This means that they can only take one perspective on the world around them: their own. As they get older they get better at understanding that other people have different views of the world – clear evidence of this is when they learn to lie. (I will never forget the day my four-year-old son, asked if he had eaten a certain cake, said to me, ‘You weren’t there so you doesn’t definitely know it was me.’) However, they still retain a basic bias to assume that everything happens around and because of them. This means children are more prone to interpreting difficult or traumatic things as being their fault: in their world everything happens because of them or is related to them, so it is natural that they assume bad stuff is down to them too.
Attention is tricky
Learning to focus your attention on one thing is a skill and takes time. Some children learn quicker than others but most struggle, either with the challenge of learning to focus on something for longer than a few minutes, or becoming utterly fixed on something and forgetting about all other important demands on them (that they need the toilet, for example!). Here is one area where the gentle support of care givers really does make a difference – anyone who has raised children will know how much they learn about sitting still once they start school. Children living in more chaotic, unpredictable homes can struggle more with this skill, as can those who have additional needs which affect their ability to concentrate or manage their attention.
Beware of the unexpected
In this early phase of life, children love the simple power of one thing causing another thing: lots of early toys exploit this. They instinctively test this consistency in the rules of different parents or care givers. So the fact that the same behaviour might not always get the same response is confusing. Why do you love it when they draw on the blackboard but shout when it is on the nice white wall in the hall? Why is loud singing encouraged in one circumstance but disciplined in another (church prayer times, for example)? Another impact of this bias is that children assume the same simple cause and effect for other things.
This, combined with their egocentrism, leads them to often assume that they are the cause for things actually much more complex – a parent’s bad mood or traumatic experiences. Similarly, traumatic experiences (in particular loss) can shatter the illusion that the world is basically predictable and safe, triggering understandable and sometimes powerful anxiety. Probably the hardest thing for children to manage is unpredictability, particularly in the emotions of those they care about the most. Volatile tempers and powerful emotions that might stem from sadness or depression can be really tough to understand.
Abstract is confusing
Children really struggle to grasp abstract concepts – those separated from the here and now. How fast they learn abstract thinking varies and is dependent on the help they get from the significant grown-ups around them, but some children struggle right into their teenage years. These children are much more literal in their understanding of things. So, emotionally, kids might get that mummy loves them, but struggle to comprehend emotions like anger or fear. Time is another classic abstract concept; when I ask my son to hurry because we need to leave in five minutes this means very little to him. And one final, vital abstract concept is that of ‘truth’. For children, what is ‘true’ or ‘real’ is still entirely up for grabs. They struggle to separate truth from fiction and understand that some things are just ‘make believe’. As they grow they get better at this and by around the age of five, children have some concept that some things are not real, but they remain vulnerable to what they are told is true. Their default is to believe what adults say. So, fairy stories are still things of wonder, and they really might believe that elves live behind those little doors, but this same flimsy grasp of reality also means that they are vulnerable to other messages, such as that they are bad or naughty, that things are their fault or that they will never amount to anything. Children are very vulnerable to labels because they are still learning what is true about themselves as well as about the world.
Who am I?
Children are yet to develop a full concept of ‘self’. Babies literally don’t know who they are: they do not even understand that they are separate from their mother or main care giver. Realising this is a source of alarm, and most parents recall less than fondly the ‘clingy stage’ when babies (typically at around 9 to 20 months) refuse to let you out of their sight in case you disappear. Their developing sense of self offers exciting possibilities though and this is the golden age of make-believe as children experiment with different ‘selves’. This is why dressing up is so much fun – for them they are not just themselves in a dragon’s costume – in their minds they actually become a dragon! As they learn more about themselves in later childhood, they begin to form the early foundations of self-esteem, in fact research suggests that this begins sooner than we think and that self-esteem, at age five is a very good predictor of future self-esteem. So early messages about themselves can be very influential – not just for what they believe about themselves but also about the world.
Of course, childhood isn’t the end of the story in terms of brain development. In fact that now brain imaging is so much more sophisticated, we realise that adolescent brains undergo as much dramatic change as children do – and much of these changes complete learning around some of these complex skills and concepts like emotion, motivation and abstract learning. So, bearing all this in mind, what do children need for good emotional health and development? What skills or environments set them up best to grow into the tricky teenage years resilient and confident against whatever life throws at them?
The vast majority of change in the architecture of young children’s brains is influenced and stimulated by what is going on in the world around them
Consistency is key and boundaries matter
Children learn best from consistent, clear messages – whether this is helping them understand emotions (theirs or others), or concepts such as time or behaviour. The more that rules and boundaries match - at home and in school, the more quickly they will grasp them. Of course some children love boundaries and thrive in the safety they offer. Other children instinctively challenge any boundary they are ever given. But both kinds need and benefit from them. Children may crave control, but they actually need to not to be too powerful. The gentle but firm taking charge a parent offers is a really key factor in emotional health as children grow.
Relationships are central
The value of consistency extends to the key relationships around a child. The more consistent the key people in their life can be, the stronger the support that relationship offers them. In fact, developing strong consistent emotionally supportive relationships outside of the family can also be really powerful. Research suggests that one of the strongest predictors for how well older children and adolescents will manage difficult life events is whether they have a reliable strong friendship with an adult other than their parents. These friendships help children learn immense amounts about themselves and their strengths (and maybe some weaknesses), about other people and how things they do influence them, about empathy and how to understand others. Children’s workers listen up: your role could be one of the most influential in a child’s resilience.
Find words for feelings
One of the biggest challenges children have is to learn about their emotions. These often powerful feelings can be overwhelming at first, as anyone witnessing a toddler’s temper tantrum can confirm. Link them to an abstract concept like ‘emotion’ is even harder. We need to help children put words to their feelings and learn positive ways of managing and coping with emotions, including appropriate ways to express them, and when and how to control them. This is why we must not feel we should always hide our feelings from children: instead they need to see and learn from how we deal with them.
Give them the chance to shine
It is an unfortunate reality that throughout life, negative things tend to get more attention than positive ones, and it certainly holds true for child behaviour. Too often children hear a lot about the things they do wrong - and not nearly enough about what they do right. Particularly for children who may struggle with behaviour, they can all too easily become labelled as ‘the naughty child’. And on the whole children live up to the labels placed on them. Look for opportunities to help every child shine, even when that is difficult. Make sure they know about the things they do really well and if you are not sure what those things are go on a voyage of discovery and help them learn as well.
You may feel like the person missing out on the most sleep in your household (or church?!) is you, but research suggests that many children are also chronically sleep deprived. Sleep is one of the most common behavioural issues for parents with younger children and unfortunately those who tend not to sleep well as younger children often still don’t get good quality sleep when they are older. This kind of sleep deprivation is more than a nuisance: it is linked with problem behaviour, poor attention and more erratic moods and emotions. We need to prioritise sleep for our children and get help for those struggling with children who are poor sleepers, recognising that if they are not sleeping well it affects them as well as us.
The statistics and figures about childhood mental health can feel overwhelming, and it’s easy to fear for the generation of children growing up now. We must prioritise the emotional and mental health of children as much as we do their physical growth and wellbeing.
Thankfully, the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ has never been more true. And as much as we fear because we cannot control all the influences on a child’s life, we can also be glad that we too can be part of what they learn and understand as they grow. It’s good to pause and remember that we have the opportunity to influence our children in a positive way: to teach them skills and habits which can protect and prepare them for the challenges of this world.
Most of all, we can be encouraged that we carry a message which is stronger even than those of the media, or peer groups, or the internet. ‘The Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world,’ 1 John 4:4 says. Perhaps the greatest antidote to the pressures of the modern world is to grow with the knowledge that you are loved unconditionally by the father of all creation; that you are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14) and that your dad in heaven rejoices over you (Zephaniah 3 :17). If we can’t each our children to build their lives on the solid rock that is God rather than the flimsy promises of their culture, we can help them grow to be mature and resilient ‘in both body and spirit’ whatever storms they face.
WHAT MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS CAN AFFECT YOUNGER CHILDREN?
DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Although it is hard to get accurate figures for the rates of these disorders in younger children, many experts fear they are becoming more common. Depression with or without anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems children and young people struggle with.
Previously a problem which typically affected older adolescents, evidence suggests that the average age of onset of self-harm is falling, and the rate of primary age children treated for self-harm in 2015 rose by ten per cent.
The impact of our body perfect ideals is clear in alarmingly young children, with one study finding nearly half of six-year-old girls already wanted to be thinner. The causes of eating disorders are much more complex, but here too the age of sufferers is falling. It is not unusual to treat children of eight and Great Ormond Street has treated children as young as six.
Dr Kate Middleton is a church leader, psychologist, author and a director of Premier Mind and Soul