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The field of early childhood mental health is exciting and holds much hope for those of us blessed with Highly Sensitive Children (whether we know they are sensitive or not). Through my work in this field, I’ve helped many parents overcome challenging situations and find joy in parenting again by uncovering sensitive behaviors in their children and addressing their needs, early on. In this article, I’ll share three key secrets from early childhood mental health for Highly Sensitive Parents.
Key Secret #1 – Early Childhood Mental Health Matters
People often ask me why very young children need mental health services. One of the reasons I am so passionate about early childhood mental health is that it takes a holistic and individualized view of each child.
In contrast to the western medical model of problems, symptoms, and diagnoses, early childhood mental health looks at all aspects of the infant’s development at once, seeing each as interrelated and important.
Relationships, physical health, temperament, sensory processing, personality, and environmental circumstances all influence the overall well-being of the child, and the child’s experience of the world. Early childhood mental health takes into context the individual needs of the child, their environment, and their family, and approaches any concerns or problems from a developmental, relational, and strengths-based perspective.
As any highly sensitive parent knows, from the first moments of life, an infant begins to show you who they are. Their personality becomes evident as they respond to faces and voices, grasp your finger, move towards food, and display varying rates of activity.
An early childhood mental health specialist observes these elements and expands evaluation to include additional elements of their development. We assess their overall muscle tone, their auditory and visual tracking, and their ability to regulate themselves in order to understand their strengths and developmental challenges.
A child mental health specialist also looks at the child’s response to stress, observing an infant’s tremors, tendency to startle, change of skin color (flushing, mottling of the skin), and crying. All of these assessment points taken together give us a picture of the child’s strengths and sensitivities, as well as the ways they communicate their needs.
People are often surprised to see how much their newborn can already do, and how much babies are able to tell us about their experience of themselves and the world around them, even when they are just a few hours old.
In my work with highly sensitive babies and toddlers, I have found that this type of careful and thorough assessment is key in identifying their strengths and challenges. This is undertaken through direct observation and evaluation, along with a detailed discussion with the parent/caregiver.
Since the child is most comfortable with their parent, I will generally walk the parent through my various assessment points as I watch, explaining my reasoning and observations along the way. Even when a parent is brand new to the job, I consider them the “expert” on their own child.
The highly sensitive parent’s natural intuition is often correct and something that can work together with an early childhood mental health assessment. We all need a number of people to turn to when we have questions or concerns, and having an early childhood mental health specialist in your corner supports your entire family in feeling connected, emotionally regulated, and wise when it comes to caring for your child.
Key Secret #2 – Early Childhood Mental Health Specialists Can Identify Highly Sensitive Babies and Toddlers
In a very general sense, the traits of high sensitivity in infants and toddlers look similar to those we experience as adults. If you consider the DOES criteria Elaine Aron describes, Overstimulation is often the easiest to spot when it comes to identifying the highly sensitive little one.
For example, when an infant is overstimulated, it is very difficult for them to settle even when they are tired—if this happens frequently it is a sign that your infant may be highly sensitive. The second most obvious DOES criteria in young children is typically emotional sensitivity/empathy.
For example, a highly sensitive infant or toddler may cry when other children cry, or cry intensely and be difficult to soothe. Some other more detailed signs that your infant/toddler may be highly sensitive include:
- Difficulty protecting their sleep in response to visual or auditory stimuli
- Difficulty regulating their temperature when clothing is removed, evidenced by skin dramatically changing color
- Displaying excessively jerky movements in response to stimulation
- Having weak or overly rigid muscle tone
- Frequently withdrawing or seeming reluctant to engage with others through gaze and vocalization
- Frequently showing high physical activity levels that are difficult to quiet or soothe (sometimes resulting in difficulty falling asleep or sustaining sleep)
The points above are by no means a complete list, but they give you an idea of some of the things parents and caregivers may look for to understand whether your little one is highly sensitive. If you are a parent who is also an HSP, it may be easier for you to notice high sensitivity in your child. You may have similar or different sensitivities compared to your child, and find that some are easier for you to work with than others.
Key Secret #3 – How Highly Sensitive 0-3 Year-Olds May Benefit from Early Intervention
Many parents initially see high sensitivity as “just the way my child is.” Certainly, many of us who learned about the trait of high sensitivity as adults feel validated when we hear about it, because we have felt this way our entire lives. Unfortunately for many HSP adults who grew up in environments that were not supportive of our sensitivity, we suffered because of not understanding our HSP trait and endured people putting us down because of our sensitivities.
As children, we may not have learned that our sensitivity was something that could be honored, worked with, and appreciated. It is a paradigm shift to learn that our own highly sensitive children can have a different experience from the beginning.
When sensitive children are given a supportive environment that nurtures and respects their sensitivity, we begin to truly understand and see the inherent gifts of being highly sensitive.
Due to the fact that the brain is developing at such a rapid rate between the ages of 0-3, much of what some may mistake for “hard-wiring” or “personality” is actually something we can support the child in changing, if that is desired.
In early childhood mental health, there is a focus on the fact that a child’s behavior is telling us something about whether a child is overstimulated or dysregulated. As any HSP knows, we tend to get overstimulated and dysregulated more often than someone who is not highly sensitive, and this can be physically and emotionally painful.
If interventions are started when they are very young, the highly sensitive child will gain skills in self-regulation, frustration tolerance, and social interaction, as they learn to reduce overwhelm and cope with the intensity they experience.
Coping skills thus get “wired” into their brains alongside their sensitivities, and recovery from overwhelm is quicker as they get older. This leads our sensitive children to grow into teens and adults who are able to take care of themselves in a variety of situations and speak up for what they need while feeling confident in their own perceptions. Self-esteem grows and their gifts have room to shine.
Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Outcomes
The ripple effect of early childhood mental health is exciting, to say the least. Every sensitive child who is seen and understood has the potential to impact so many others. Applying early childhood mental health principles to understanding your little one doesn’t just help you and your family, it truly changes the world.
With assessment and early interventions, you can and will experience exciting outcomes from working with a practitioner who can help your child. These outcomes can be expected:
- You will share and receive new insight into the strengths of your child.
- You will come away with clarity regarding the ways your child communicates with you, especially the cues they give regarding what state they are in and what they need to regulate in a given moment.
- You will receive concrete strategies to support you and your child in achieving a state of emotional and physical regulation.
- Your child will develop resilience and the family overall will feel capable of meeting any challenges presented by the trait of high sensitivity.
By paying attention to sensitivity, you can meet your children’s needs and help them become well-adjusted, happy adults. Building the foundation of good mental health in the early years can make all the difference.
Be sensitive, be free
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