We know that most children experience good mental health. We also know that early childhood is a period of rapid development that brings numerous variations in behaviour, most of which are very normal. However, there is a common misconception that infants and young children don’t have mental health problems.  

“Early childhood mental health is almost surprisingly important in the early years, because it’s a foundation for so much of what constitutes emotional health and social wellbeing thereafter,” says Dr Nick Kowalenko, Consultant Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. 

“It’s a really critical developmental period when young people have the first serious bite at social relationships and they learn about how to interact in groups and get on with their fellows.”

Dr Sophie Havighurst, Clinical Child Psychologist, says there is enormous brain growth in the early years, and the quality of this growth depends on the kind of experiences a child receives.

“When a child’s environment is supportive and accepting, and they’re given lots of experience helping manage strong emotions, the brain starts to make connections between thinking and feeling and grows in that way,” she says.

“And there’s a lot of research showing that those same parts of the brain do not develop as well when a child goes without this support. The first three years are really critical.”

Unfortunately, mental health difficulties in early childhood do occur. Children can develop the same mental health difficulties as adults, although the actual expression may differ. The types of difficulties most commonly seen in early childhood are:

  • Anxiety

  • Trauma and stress-related disorders

  • Depression

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders:

    • Autism Spectrum Disorder

    • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

  • Serious behaviour problems

  • Regulatory difficulties

“It’s a new understanding to think that a lot of later mental health problems could have been treated at a much younger age than we usually think about when we talk mental health issues,” Dr Kowalenko says.

“But we see things like anxiety (often expressed as marked clinginess, extreme shyness or specific phobias), for example, emerging often in early childhood before kids get to school. If we identify kids with extreme shyness, and we can offer their parents programs to diminish the shyness, we reduce the onset of anxiety disorders in childhood and even rates of adolescent depression.”

Even children with diagnosed life-long mental health conditions can experience good mental health when their unique needs are supported. KidsMatter works to influence the outcome of children’s mental health and wellbeing as early in life as possible. We do this by supporting early childhood services and primary schools to promote good mental health in their communities, as well as to identify and respond to any emotional and behavioural issues that may emerge among the children in their care.

The KidsMatter eBook, Early Childhood Mental Health: An Introduction, is a great overview for the early childhood education and care sector, and also describes the mental health difficulties above in simple terms.