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What's “Mattering” In Young Children and Why Does It Matter?

How babies and toddlers can feel valued.

Key points

  • Consider the term “mattering” as another way to talk about promoting well-being for our youngest community members.
  • Working with the parents and caregivers of young children brings an opportunity to share practical ways to promote mattering.
  • Caregivers can foster mattering by being responsive, reliable, and telling the child that he or she is important.
Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Source: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

This post was co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rahil Briggs, Psy.D.

There are many ways to think about baby, toddler, and child well-being. Perhaps you relate to the phrase “early relational health” or maybe you read the recent journal article in Pediatrics that called out the importance of ensuring that young children have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships (SSNRs). There are conversations happening about buffering toxic stress, increasing resilience, and promoting infant and early childhood mental health.

Having many terms can be confusing, but since babies and toddlers are often left out of the mental health conversation (despite this time period being disproportionately more important than later years in terms of brain development and foundational aspects of mental health), maybe more language is a positive—one way of talking about it may stick for some and not others. In that spirit, consider the term “mattering” as another way to talk about promoting well-being for our youngest community members.

What is mattering?

According to recent research, mattering consists of two psychological experiences that complement each other: feeling valued and adding value (Prilleltensky, 2020). While it is easy to imagine an older child (or teenager or adult) feeling like they matter, it might not be immediately obvious how babies and toddlers can feel valued or add value.

However, children who grow up feeling like they don’t matter are surely less likely to thrive. Imagine a baby growing up in a home where they are held, cuddled, and spoken to often—or a toddler whose caregivers read them books, make eye contact, and rub their back as they sing a goodnight song. Now imagine a child who is not, and whose caregivers don’t. Consistent nurturing has a positive impact on mattering because both nature and nurture influence a child’s trajectory.

Are ACEs a factor?

Most health care and mental health providers are aware of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the negative impact they have on growing children. Feeling like you don’t matter is certainly not an ACE but having ACEs may increase a sense of not mattering. While negative experiences in childhood bring adversity, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child notes that positive experiences counterbalance adversity and help improve resilience.

Whether a child’s struggles are ACEs from the seminal study—abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction (such as mental health and substance misuse struggles)—or general poverty, the stresses of war, racism, or a combination of factors, the most common denominator for supporting a child’s well-being is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or another adult (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015).

How to foster mattering in babies and toddlers

Working with the parents and caregivers of young children brings a great opportunity to share practical ways to promote mattering from day one of a child’s life and help them build a strong, steady foundation for lifelong well-being.

There are three foundational ways to foster a sense of mattering that can be applied to young children:

  1. Notice them. Children need to know that we, as adults, see them and know they exist and this has to be communicated well and often through witnessing and listening (Charles and Alexander, 2014). Make eye contact and respond with actions and words when they gesture at, or babble and talk to you.
  2. Show and tell them they are important. One of the best ways to convey importance is by spending time with them (Charles and Alexander, 2014). Consider the famous quote from Zig Ziglar, “To a child, love is spelled T-I-M-E.”
  3. Show up. Children need to be able to rely on the adults who care for them. This means consistently following through on commitments (Charles and Alexander, 2014).

In addition to these three foundational ways to help young children feel like they matter, there are other ways practitioners can encourage the adults in a child’s life to foster mattering:

  1. Support parent well-being. Parent mental health promotes infant and early childhood mental health. Parents who do and feel well can best support children through their challenges.
  2. Promote positive parenting practices. Offer families a friendly reminder that you cannot spoil a baby. Share positive parenting approaches and reasons why punitive parenting is less effective.
  3. Encourage serve and return interactions. From the first day of a child’s life, back and forth interactions matter. Help parents practice these everyday connections with their little ones.

Mattering may be the cornerstone of resilience for babies, toddlers, and growing children. Consider that positive childhood experiences can be an ameliorating factor to childhood adversity and support lifelong mental health and well-being—and help families practice them.

References

Bethell, C.D., Newacheck, P., Hawes, E., and Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse Childhood Experiences: Assessing the Impact on Health and School Engagement and The Mitigating Role of Resilience. Health Affairs, 33(12). https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0914

Charles, G. and Alexander, C. (2014). Beyond Attachment: Mattering and the Development of Meaningful Moments. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 27(3), 26-30. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273694012_Beyond_attachment_Ma…

Garner, A., Yogman, M. and Committee On Psychosocial Aspects Of Child And Family Health, Section On Developmental And Behavioral Pediatrics, Council On Early Childhood. (2021). Preventing Childhood Toxic Stress: Partnering With Families and Communities to Promote Relational Health. Pediatrics 148(2). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2021-052582

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. Retrieved from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/supportive-relationships-…

Prilleltensky, I. (2020). Mattering at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and politics. American Journal of Community Psychology, 65(1-2), 16-34. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12368

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