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Mental, emotional health concerns just as real for children

Published: Saturday, Feb. 19 2011 10:22 p.m. MST

Ross Thompson is a professor of psychology and director of the social and emotional development lab at UC-Davis.__Ross A. Thompson speaks at the seventh annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture at BYU.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — The baby girl sits in a highchair, cooing and chirping at her mother, who playfully touches the baby's feet and hands and mirrors the baby's excited smile. After a few minutes, researchers instruct the mother to look at her child, but no longer smile or respond.

The baby begins to smile and gesture as before, yet when mom sits there blankly, the child puts both hands in the air as if to say, "What's going on?" A few seconds later, the baby screeches at the mother and begins to fuss and cry, arching her back in the chair.

The mother is allowed to respond again and the baby is instantly soothed as the mother talks, touches and smiles at her.

"It's a vivid illustration of how the emotions are the language of early human connection," explained Ross A. Thompson, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis and an expert on parent-child relationships, early moral development and emotional attachment.

Thompson is within a group of scholars who are finding more and more evidence that children have far greater emotional breadth and depth than once believed.

"We're now understanding how emotions are the constructive foundations for achievements we care about, including morality, self-understanding and compassion for others," Thompson said, adding that young children's first links to other people are through emotions.

Without proper guidance to help children understand and process emotions, they begin to flounder and can suffer impaired development — what mental health professionals are calling a rapidly growing problem.

"The conclusion that young children can have serious emotional problems is new news to most of us … (except) those who work with children in these settings," Thompson said. "The good news … is that we know there are promising forms of assistance. For supportive strategies, intervention and treatment that begins in early childhood, the brain is still plastic and can respond with some resilience."

The emotional child

Decades ago, it was thought that children's emotional responses were like a duck's — stress and anger simply rolled off their backs, like water.

"We used to think that children were untouched through trouble," Thompson said recently at BYU. "Although they can express their rage, sadness, their fear, and sometimes their joy, with great intensity, they recover quickly and within minutes it seems are ready to go back to play."

Yet, data show children are not so carefree. Roughly 10 percent of children in kindergarten exhibit disruptive emotional or behavioral problems, Thompson said. For low-income children, that number doubles or even triples.

In fact, a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics, by Dr. Jane Meschan Foy for the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Mental Health, showed that in the United States, between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children from birth to age 5 experience social-emotional problems that cause suffering and affect functioning.

"Children are not born with Teflon coating," said Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children's Center in Salt Lake City, which provides mental health care for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. "The resilience actually comes from having a secure relationship. So if something happens and they lose that, we're going to lose the resilience."

Each year, the center sees nearly 1,800 families, many whose children are struggling through severe trauma, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, instability and violence in their homes and neighborhoods and even economic stress in the family.

"As a result, the children respond to these things with anxiety, much the same way adults do," he said. "It's a very serious problem."

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