Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day 2010

National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day is May 6, 2010.

May 6, 2010, has been designated as National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, and informational activities have been scheduled in many places. I myself will spend the day "womanning" a table in Love Park, Philadelphia, distributing information about mental health in infants and young children.

It hasn't been very long since the concept of children's mental health has been brought to the public, and there are still many points on which confusion is common. Here are a few myths about children's mental health, and their opposing realities.

1. Myth: Children cannot have mental illnesses; you have to be grown up to be "crazy".
Reality: Emotional disturbances are unfortunately already detectable in some children and adolescents, and even in a small number of infants.
2. Myth: Infants and young children cannot have emotional problems that are common among adults, like depression.
Reality: On the contrary, infants and young children can be depressed, although their mood shows in somewhat different ways than we see in adults or even in adolescents.
3. Myth: As is usually the case for adults, children with mental health problems are physically healthy and intellectually competent.
Reality: the concept of mental health in young children focuses on all aspects of development. Poor growth or developmental delays in walking and other movements may be aspects of children's mental health problems. Problems or unusual events in language development can indicate early mental health difficulties.
4. Myth: If children have disturbed mental health, their parents should be blamed for the problems.
Reality: Early mental health problems can be genetic, or caused by biological factors such as prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs. They may also result from abusive or neglectful treatment by a child's caregivers or by other adults. In most cases, emotional problems result from a combination of the two kinds of factors. However, whatever the cause of a particular child's problems may be, there is little reason for pointing the finger of blame at the parents. Poor caregiving usually goes back for generations or is related to social problems like poverty. Parents themselves may have poor mental health and contribute a "double whammy" to their children, who may receive both poor care and a genetic make-up related to emotional problems.
Incidentally, blaming parents is not the same thing as providing treatment for them. Depressed mothers, for example, can benefit greatly from treatment that helps them behave appropriately toward their children, although their depressed behavior is involuntary and should not be the subject of blame.
5. Myth: We should be very concerned about children who display symptoms like those of mentally ill adults.
Reality: Actually, many normal behaviors of young children would be matters of concern if we saw them in adults. Getting angry easily, failing to pay attention to what's going on, pestering other people, repeating what's said to them, taking off their clothes in public, asking embarrassing questions in loud voices-- these are all things that might cause concern about an adult's mental health, but they are ordinary, developmentally normal events in the lives of toddlers and preschoolers.
6. Myth: Psychiatric treatment for children involves the same drugs used for adults but in smaller doses.

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Reality: Rules about appropriate use of drugs for children's mental illnesses are not well established. Few psychiatric drugs, if any, have been tested for their safety and effectiveness in children. Use of such drugs for preschoolers is "off label" and at the discretion of the prescribing physician, who should be watching carefully for unwanted effects.

7. Myth: Psychotherapy is not a possibility for young children with mental health problems.

Reality: There are a number of mental health interventions designed for use with children, but of course they do not involve the couch and note-taking therapist beloved of cartoonists. Some methods use play situations in which children are helped to express through pretend play the concerns that they are unable to talk about. Although some therapies focus on a child working alone with a therapist, many effective techniques deal with parent and child together; some of these use videotaping as a way to give parents insight into problems they experience with their children.

8. Myth: A child who shows mental health problems at an early age will never really recover or become an adult living independently.

Reality: It would be a mistake to suggest that excellent adult functioning is the outcome for every child with early symptoms of mental health problems. However, many children can be helped to move toward better functioning. Appropriate treatment and help in school can certainly prevent them from developing the intensified problems that accompany institutionalization, and adults who understand a child's cognitive abilities can help him or her develop toward independence.


For further information about childhood mental illness, see www.nami.org, www.waimh.org, or www.zerotothree.org.

 

 

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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