Is Your Young Child Emotionally Healthy?

All parents want their babies to grow up happy and healthy.

From the moment of birth, humans are social and emotional beings. This means infants, toddlers and young children have mental health needs. Although thinking of infants and mental health in the same sentence may seem strange, healthy social and emotional development in early childhood is important.

“During the very early years of life, children learn a lot about the world and their place in it. Young children are beginning to determine if the world is a safe place and if there are people who will meet their needs,” said Melissa Stalets, director of the Children’s MOSAIC Project, a program of The Children’s Center.

Stalets add, “Children do a lot of ‘emotional work’ even before the age of 5. They develop attachments, learn how to handle emotions and start to decide if they are competent. All of this occurs in the context of the young child’s relationships with parents and caregivers and is an important foundation for healthy social and emotional development.”

Security in relationships is important to social and emotional health during the early years. A child’s sense of security begins to develop in infancy. The best way to support your baby’s sense of security is to consistently respond.

  • Ways to build your infant’s emotional security:
  • When your baby cries, comfort her.
  • Give your baby plenty of time to watch your face and listen to your voice.
  • Hold, sing and talk to your baby often.
  • Don’t worry about spoiling her.

During the toddler and preschool years, validating your child’s real, and often very strong, emotions is important to emotional health, Stalets said. Adults often discount a young child’s emotions by trying to shut them down (“Stop crying!”), invalidating their feelings (“You’re being silly. There’s no reason to be angry.”) or punishing (“I’m going to spank you if you don’t stop crying.”).

“Parents can be afraid of reinforcing strong emotional expressions by paying attention to them,” Stalets said. “But children rely on their parents to help them learn to appropriately manage strong feelings.”

When your child is upset, it is helpful to get down to his level, label the emotion for him (“You are feeling so angry because you wanted candy and I said no.”), and help him calm down. What is soothing to you may not be comforting to your child.

“The key is to find out what helps your child settle down and then help your child engage in that behavior when he is upset,” Stalets said. “Praise your child for his efforts at handling strong emotions.”