By: Peter Pizzolongo and Dorinda Williams
Early childhood educators address the mental health of young children and their families every day—whether we label our activities as ‘addressing mental health issues’ or ‘strategies for effective teaching and supporting families.’ Mental health—as well as physical health and other aspects of development—affect the ways that children and their parents think, feel, and act. Mental health affects our abilities to succeed at school, at work, and in society.
National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a program of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) seeks to raise awareness about the importance of children's mental health. Positive mental health is essential to a child's healthy development from birth. This year, Awareness Day focuses on the unique needs of young adults, ages 16–25, with mental health challenges, and the value of peer support in helping young adults build resilience in their lives. Early childhood educators can play an important role by focusing on the mental health needs of young parents and their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Young children develop in the context of relationships. In this respect, young children’s emotional health is inextricably linked to the emotional health of their parents.
What is the connection between parents’ and children’s mental health?
Many young adults are raising very young children. In a recent report the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that the live birth rate for women aged 15-19 years is 31.3 per 1,000 women. This means that even though the number of teen births has dropped in recent years, there are over 300,000 babies born to young parents each year. We do know that better parent mental health is key to better parenting. Mothers’ mental health affects children’s language , social and emotional development. While less research focuses on young fathers’ mental health, we do know that fathers’ psychological health may be equally important, and that psychological distress may inhibit their involvement in their children’s lives. We also know that a parent’s mental illness can put stress on a marriage and affect the couple’s parenting capacity, which in turn can harm the child. Moreover, mental health issues are exacerbated for families living in poverty.
What is the role of early childhood educators in addressing young parents’ mental health?
In our field many roads lead to developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). Establishing reciprocal relationships with families is one of the five DAP Guidelines. Understanding the social and cultural context within each child lives is one of the DAP Core Considerations that teachers use when making decisions about what and how to teach each child. Teachers should be very aware of family situations for the children in their groups, as well as the strengths of each child’s family and the challenges they face—including the mental health needs of parents.
Through informal daily conversations as well as periodic parent-teacher conferences, early childhood educators can become familiar with the challenges faced by families as well as provide support to young parents. Early childhood programs often serve as an extended support system for families, particularly when young parents are not receiving ongoing support from other family members due to geography or other factors. Therefore, it is important for early childhood professionals to establish and maintain strong partnerships with parents. Other ways in which early childhood professionals can support young parents include:
- Be alert to signs of stress, both in young children and their parents; use your center or school’s e systems for family support and link families to support services and community resources.
- Provide opportunities for parents to become involved with the early childhood program, which is especially important for young parents who feel isolated and have not established relationships with other adults due to mental health issues or other challenges.
- Communicate regularly with parents about their children’s progress, taking opportunities to address young parents’ concerns about their children’s ‘challenging behaviors,’ which might add to young parents’ feelings of stress.
- Recognize and acknowledge parents’ everyday efforts to care for and support their young children.
How can early childhood educators support National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day?
Communities around the country participate in Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day by holding events, focusing on the national theme and adapting the theme to the populations they serve. The early childhood education community’s focus on the mental health needs of young parents will do much to add to the national focus on young adults’ mental health needs. Suggestions for planning and participating events can be found on the SAMHSA Website, including general information, suggestions for activities and tip sheets to aid in planning, and resources to aid in planning.
For additional information regarding mental health issues and parenting, resources include:
American Psychological Association—Children’s mental health
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry—information regarding children of parents with mental illness
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services / Administration for Children & Families / Child Welfare Information Gateway—information regarding strategies for supporting parents
The authors, Peter Pizzolongo and Dorinda Williams represent NAEYC and Zero to Three, respectively, on the Executive Planning Committee for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, which is a program of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).