Isn’t It Our Responsibility to Support Parents of Young Children?

A Facebook post entitled “Screening Mental Health In Kindergarten Is Way Too Late, Experts Say” caught my eye this week.

A rather startling message about mental health and young children

The focus of the message is on the importance for pediatricians to tune into the mental health of their youngest patients because of all that occurs during the earliest weeks, months and years of life which become the foundation of a child’s future. The article describes how in a South Bronx pediatric practice, when a pediatrician senses there might be issues, there are resources available immediately to provide care to parents who might need encouragement and guidance as they raise their young children.

The research about the importance of these early years is irrefutable. It has also been the focus of decades of experts’ work in the field of early childhood. Pediatrician and well-respected author T. Berry Brazelton who founded the Brazelton Touchpoints Center as part of Boston Children’s Hospital, has been encouraging parents to appreciate the importance of the early years throughout his whole career. Further, in the article The Newborn.-Where Hope and Happiness Meet , Dr. J. Kevin Nugent captures the essence of this information:

The newborn period makes up a very short phase compared with the whole life span, or even with the stage of infancy, but this short period involves a pivotal, life-changing transition in the life of the child, in the development of the parent-child relationship and in the life of the family itself (Brazelton, 2009; Bruschweiler-Stern, 2009; Klaus et al. 1995; Stern, 1985, 1995; Trevarthen, 2003, 2004; Tronick, 2003, 2007).  

There is now general agreement that the period from birth to the beginning of the third month of life, involves not only a major transformation in many neural functions (Als et al. 2004) and is a major stage in the infant’s behavioral adaptation to his/her new environment but also constitutes a major transition stage in the development of the parent -infant relationship (Emde and Robinson, 1979; Sander et al. 1979).” 

What does all this mean to those of us who are not parents of young children and maybe are not parents at all? Do we have any responsibility here?

I think the answer is a resounding yes! Any time we have an opportunity to care for, nurture, educate, or otherwise support parents of very young children, we need to make that effort.

Parents often feel isolated and alone.

Many do not know just how vital their roles are in the lives of their young children and how much they are actually helping to build the brains of their children. We need to do more than just evaluate the mental health of our youngest citizens on this planet; we need to find ways to actively care for the parents so they are in a better place to care for their young children.

I wonder how few parents of young children appreciate the monumental significance of their parenting during these highly sensitive times in their infants’ brain growth and development.

It’s hard to imagine all that is taking place within those amazing brains! Moreover, it is difficult to assess in this most critical time in an infant’s life when a child is not receiving the brain nurturance and nourishment needed that will determine mental health later in life.

We can visually see if the child is being starved to death nutritionally but can’t really see outward evidence when a child is being somehow starved emotionally and mentally during critical windows of growth. And how much nurturance, encouragement and guidance as well as education do parents receive?

What can we do to help bring a deeper understanding and respect for the power parents have to lay lifelong foundations? How can we nurture parents so they are better prepared for this awesome responsibility? I think these are critical questions!

The quote “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world” from a poem by William Ross Wallace  captures the importance of this message. I suggest that we need to care for all those hands that are rocking cradles to nurture, inspire, educate and support them.

 Invitation to Reflect

  1. Are there parents of young children you know who might benefit from receiving messages of support and nurturance from you? Have you taken the time and perhaps the risk of reaching out to offer your encouragement, support and guidance?
  2. Consider even the small ways you might be supportive: projecting warm appreciation for some of the struggles of parenting very young children, thanking parents of young children, even pregnant moms, for helping influence the next generation of people who will who will hold in the hand the future of our world and the world of their children as well, lending a listening ear to some of their struggles of parenting as well as their moments of success and joy–there are many ways we can all contribute to supporting, encouraging and nurturing parents of young children. Look for opportunities and offer that support. Be a part of promoting that all-important mental health in our youngest children.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Source: September 9, 20166:35 AM ET, by Kavitha Cardoza and heard on All Things Considered,