Mental health difficulties

Kids under five are exploring the world around them and learning new skills every day. And because they’re constantly figuring out how manage their feelings in different situations, kids in this age group often show challenging behaviours, strong emotions and worried thoughts.

Warm, supportive and trusting adults can help young children to work through their feelings and deal with situations in more positive ways. However, some children find this more difficult than others and this may affect their ability to learn new things and to interact with others. These kids can need some extra support from caring adults and may even benefit from professional support.

What to look for

There are a range of reasons why young children behave the way they do, and many of them are not due to experiencing mental health difficulties. However, if children are showing signs of emotional and/or behavioural difficulties, knowing what to look out for can help you intervene early and better support their needs. 

Behaviours

These are often the first and easiest sign of a mental health concern to observe. Behaviours can be broken down into two broad categories: externalising and internalising.

  • Externalising behaviours can include one or more of angry, impulsive, hyperactive (restlessness, difficulty paying attention) and challenging behaviours. These behaviours are relatively easy to recognise as they are quite disruptive and are likely to demand attention from parents and other family members.
  • Internalising behaviours can include inhibited and over-controlled behaviours such as withdrawal, worry, fearfulness and becoming easily upset. These behaviours are a lot more difficult to notice as they are mostly experienced internally by the child and don’t necessarily draw attention from others.

Younger children may also have problems regulating their behaviour. This means that they find it hard to manage their feelings and responses to particular experiences. As an example, a younger child may have difficulties in settling into a predictable routine (for example, sleeping, feeding) and managing reactions to changes in the environment (for example, loud noise, bright lights). An older child may find it difficult to wait their turn or calm down after becoming upset.

Many children find it difficult to regulate their behaviour from time to time, as they are still developing this skill. If you’re seeing this regularly in your child, and they don’t seem to be learning over a period of time, they may need some extra support. 

Emotions
This refers to how a child is feeling. Children with emotional difficulties may have trouble expressing or managing their feelings. For example, some children may find it hard to calm down after being upset.

Thoughts

This refers to how and what a child is thinking. A child may experience negative thoughts about themselves or what is happening around them (for example, they may think that nobody likes them, or that their parent or carer will not come back to pick them up), which stops them from interacting with others or getting involved in experiences.

It can be hard to notice such thoughts in younger children who have not yet developed the ability to talk. Sometimes we can guess what a younger child may be thinking based on the behaviours and feelings they show.

Learning

This refers to how well a child is able to take in, understand and remember information. It also relates to how well they can communicate and interact with others, and use their physical skills such as crawling, walking or drawing. Children with difficulties in learning may also have problems with attention and concentration.

This can make it harder for them to understand what they have to do, or complete a particular task, movement or action. They may not be able to make friends because they are unsure of, or have forgotten what to do or say.

Social relationships
This refers to a child’s ability to form relationships with others. A child with difficulties in this area may find it hard to play with other children, make friends or interact with their parents or other family members. They may also have difficulty understanding social cues and behaving appropriately in social situations – for example they may struggle with taking turns in group play.
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