Social-Emotional Development in Children Zero to Five: Part 1

My 7 month old son Kaiden
My 7 month old son Kaiden

Over the next few weeks, I will be covering some information on social-emotional development and mental health for children 0 to 5 years of age. The reason for this is not only because I have my own seven month old son, but because of my new position as a children therapist.

In the last month or so in my new position, I have come across a handful of patients aged 2 to 4 and have had some difficulty trying to figure out the best way to treat them. It’s one thing to work with children, it’s another thing to work with the smallest of children who generally have no idea what they are doing and why they are doing it and their parents have already given up on them.

I’ve seen parents with 2 year old children, reporting signs of hyperactivity, inattention, defiance, aggression, you name it. They insisted that their child was different then all other children, out of control and demanded medication. And I’ve seen these kids, 2 to 5 year old kids who definitely were expressing signs and symptoms not typical of the average child.

In many of these cases, it ends up being the parent that needs the most help, either counseling themselves or parent skill training to learn how to deal with their children and curve unwanted behaviors. Still, in a few of these cases, it was obvious that there had been some type of trauma in the very early years of these kids lives. Trauma that remained unprocessed and so the child was dealing with the trauma in the best way they knew how, acting out.

Most of the time, finding out this information is not easy because the parents either don’t tell you the information or they didn’t even recognize that the traumatic event was actually traumatic for the child. Many parents believe that children 0 to 5 aren’t affected by certain events, especially younger children 0 to 2. In reality, even in utero, children can be affected by stressors their mom goes through.

For instance, when I talk to the moms of many of the children I work with who are 0 to 5, I find out that many of them were in abusive relationships during their pregnancy and afterwards. Many of them got abused regularly in front of their infants and young children, not thinking this would have an affect on them. Many of them yelled and screamed with their partners or other family members regularly with their child in their arms.

These things can have a really big affect on their child which is why I suspect, at least in part, is why their children now are “out of control”. They have experienced a lot of stuff, emotions, things that may not seem like trauma to us adults, but can be traumatic experiences to the child, and they don’t know what to do with it. They lack the ability to communicate like adults so they internalize it and express it the best way they know how which can look like disruptive behavior.

Another two year old I saw, his mom had no idea why he was so “wired” and screamed all the time. She pretty much said he was born that way, but I knew that wasn’t likely the case. After much probing and counseling, I eventually found out that this mom too had been in an abusive relationship throughout her whole pregnancy and afterwards. As a matter of fact, her baby was in a car seat when the father was driving and beating on her at the same time. They ended up getting into a bad car accident where the baby somehow ended up flying unto the floor and stuck under the passenger seat of the car for nearly half an hour until he was freed by firefighters. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, he ended up spending 3 months in the hospital recovering from his broken bones and internal injuries. Yet, this mother didn’t think that this had any affect on her 2 year old childs’ current behavior until I brought this to her attention.

Without going into the neuroscience behind it (at least not at the moment), the brain is always changing and young brains are changing and developing the most. Experiences are the one of the  things that change the brain the most, causing the actual brain structure to change.

Everything we experience from sights, to sounds, the people we love, the emotions we feel, event the music we listen to and the books we read, affect the way our brain develops and this is especially true in children 0 to 5.In the next part of this series we will continue to explore behavior, parenting and early social and emotional development  and ways parents can nurture social and emotional skills in children 0 to 5.

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