Social-Emotional Development and Mental Health

Research has shown that social-emotional development can be a predictor of success in school, relationships and beyond – so it is important for you, as a parent, to be tuned in to this important aspect of your child’s growth.

Parenting is a journey and there is no one route or “perfect” path to follow. As a parent, you spend a lot of time and energy ensuring your child’s physical health and safety, from watching what they eat to childproofing your home. Your baby’s social and emotional development will shape their future too.

From birth, children are learning who they are and how to interact with the world and the people in their lives. This process of social-emotional growth will help your child develop a capacity for self-confidence, trust, and empathy, the building blocks for healthy relationships. (Ready4K, 2005) Another important aspect of social-emotional development is your child’s interest in – and use of – language to express themselves and learn more about the world.

As you watch your child grow and interact with others, you may see some behaviors that fill you with pride and hope for the future – and others that cause you concern or anxiety about your child’s direction.  With all the ups and downs of parenting, it can be difficult to tell if these concerns are normal aspects of growing up – “just a phase” – or a sign of a real problem.

It is important to remember that even very young children have intense feelings and emotions and children express their intense feelings in a variety of ways – especially when they do not have the ability to express themselves in words. Paying attention and tuning into your child’s moods and behaviors is key. Be open to noticing your child’s behavior and actions in a variety of situations; try not to focus only on situations that worry you. Look at the big picture.

Common problems include temper tantrums, conflicts with other children, and occasional anxiety. Sometimes this can create mild household drama or situations that parents may find challenging or embarrassing – but these are not necessarily long-term problems.

However, if you notice a behavior that is persistent, it may be time to have an open and honest conversation with our child’s health care provider. They can help you sort out the “phases” from the concerns that could benefit from additional support. Here are some of the questions they will likely ask you:

Language Development and Communication
  • How does your child communicate? This will change over time, from babbling to eye contact, to pointing and eventually words and language.
  • Is your child eager to communicate?
  • What relationships is your child forming? Parents, siblings, relatives or other children?
  • How does your child cope his emotions in routine situations like being left at daycare or with a babysitter?
  • How do they handle new situations?
  • Has their anxiety forced you to change your routines?
  • What are your child’s moods?
  • Does he or she show a wide range of emotions?
  • What makes your child joyful?
  • Is he or she often sad, withdrawn, passive, angry, anxious, or fearful?

If your child’s health care provider feels that your child is experiencing something “more than a phase,” he or she may offer suggestions on handling the concern on your own – or refer you to a health professional specifically trained to deal with things like social and emotional development, mood, attachment, and challenging behaviors.

Your child’s social and emotional health will change over time as they grow and have new experiences.  Sometimes, life events can affect your child’s ability to cope and respond in expected ways.

Some experiences that could affect emotional health include:

  • Family stresses such as job changes or moving
  • Family events such as marriages, divorces, births or deaths
  • Separation from a loved one: job-related, military, or jail
  • Witnessing traumatic or scary events like a car accident, fire, or injury
  • Witnessing or experiencing chronic health problems
  • Physical or sexual abuse

All of these life events, even happy ones like a new baby, can be very difficult for a young child to process. If your child has experienced any of these stressful life experiences, you will want to pay especially close attention to your child’s behavior and talk to your physician or health care provider. He or she may recommend a child mental health professional who can help your child work through some of these difficult times.

Remember that emotional health – just like physical health – can change over time. New concerns can appear and old issues can resolve. Just because your child experiences an emotional health issue at a young age does not mean he or she will spend a lifetime struggling with mental health issues or labels. For example, children who are experiencing anxiety can learn methods of coping that will help them throughout their entire lives as they grow into resilient adults.

It can be difficult to hear that your child has an emotional health concern. Many parents blame themselves. Human beings are complicated and our stories and histories are complicated. Your child’s experiences, relationships and even their genes will affect how they relate to the world. The most important thing you can do as a parent is to make sure your child gets the care he or she needs. There is no shame in working with professionals who can help you to ensure a brighter future for your child.

If you have concerns or questions about your child’s mental health, do not hesitate to have that conversation with your child’s physician. You’ll be glad you did.

For more information visit Ready 4K.