Building mental health
What small children need for mental health.
(Getty Images)
Children have individual habits and preferences which may differ from other children around them, even if in many other ways they are similar.
The early years can generally be divided into 3 categories. There are always exceptions – do not become anxious if your child does not quite fit all the categories:
The Infant (birth to 1 year)
The Toddler (1-3 years)
The Prescholar (3-5 years)

Each stage has its own special emotional and physical needs and these can be viewed as “building blocks” towards adulthood.
If a child has difficulty fulfilling these needs or experiences trauma (abuse, neglect, emotional trauma) during these stages, then the future steps towards adulthood may be affected. It is as if the child is putting down the foundations for its adult body to live on.

Steps to mental health
In infancy Infants are physically helpless and completely dependant on the adults around them for their survival. When an infant cries, it is not of naughtiness but because this is the only way she knows on how to ‘talk’ to others.

Infancy is known as the ‘age of innocence’- an infant cannot reason or plan, nor can it misbehave and cause trouble. Parents and other adults need to learn to ‘hear’ infants and to respond with care, gentleness and soft touches so that the infant feels it has been heard and

All infants need to be touched and stroked, for them to develop a sense of being loved by someone, preferably the same person. This person need not be the biological mother, but should be the same significant other.
Another important need during infancy is intellectual stimulation. Infants grow and develop by interacting with the environment –  they learn to crawl, creep, touch things, get dirty – they are new inhabitants on this planet and need to get to know where they have ‘landed’.

The toddler All toddlers have a need to explore the world, to test boundaries and make new discoveries. If a toddler has had a secure infancy, then he will be eager to learn more.

Having developed a sense of trust in adults, he can now learn to take risks and extend friendships beyond the primary caregiver. Toddlers learn that they have a sense of control over parts of their lives and bodies (e.g. bladder control, feeding themselves, throwing toys). They learn to choose and decide, walk and climb, open and close cupboards.

They need to be encouraged in their tasks – this will help develop a sense of achievement, autonomy and success. Toddlers who are not allowed to ‘make a mess’ or make mistakes, may develop feelings of shame and doubt, and as adults they may lack self-esteem, be too scared to use their initiative and often end up being controlled and manipulated by those perceived to be stronger than they are.

The prescholar This is the age of adventure and excitement. It is also a testing period in a parent–child relationship (until adolescences arrives). During these years, the child develops a sense of initiative gets into a great deal of mischief.

Parents need to set limits on the child’s behaviour, but these limits should be designed to protect the child from harm, not to inhibit the learning from taking place.

Prescholars not only explore the world around them, but also begin to explore their bodies. Sexual organs are also a source of great interest and this interest must not be misunderstood. It is not a sign of sexual maturity, but just curiosity Adults must explain to the child that there are places in which to explore (at home, in the bath) and places where it is not okay to do this (public places).

Children also at this stage experience their first major separation from their primary caregiver or mother – to start a play group or day school. This could be traumatic for them and parents can help make this transition easier by preparing the child for this experience.

Mental health for schoolchildren

What are the essentials of mental wellbeing for small children?

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