Protective Factors Promoting Mental Health One way to understand mental health in early childhood is to look at risk and protective factors. Some things put people at risk of mental illness. Some of these things we can control and some of these things we can’t as parents.
Risk factors for children’s mental health can increase the chance of mental health difficulties developing. these might be things such as poor physical health, family conflict or separation, being affected by a natural disaster, experiencing trauma or abuse, or lacking friends or supportive relationships with adults.
Protective factors for children’s mental health decrease the likelihood of experiencing mental health difficulties. Protective factors are things such as good physical health, a stable and warm home environment, a supportive family and early childhood service, good social and emotional skills, and having support from a wide scale of family, friends, and community members.
Some of the most important factors for good mental health and good social and emotional well-being are relationships. There is an enormous amount of evidence now that looks at attachment relationships, particularly in the early years, but also how those attachment relationships then build into other sorts of secure relationships further on in life.
Children’s mental health is supported by stability. Stability is really important for small children in particular because if you think about a toddler who’s just starting to walk around and explore the world, there are so many new things that a toddler will see that day. So, if you can create some stability and predictability for the child then they don’t have to use their emotional energy wondering about what the newness is.
Kids need a very strong sense of security and in the context of that, they can usually manage a surprising array of stresses and they can get that security at the basic level in their intimate relationships with their mother or their father or other significant adults who are a critical part of their lives. That can include extended family members, it can include early childhood educators. that’s the source, a kind of spring well from which kids can manage to negotiate much of the risks and difficulties that they face.
Given that attachment relationships are so important, then clearly what disturbs attachment relationships is also part of the risk factor. So, things like abuse, separation, grief, and loss, any of those adverse sorts of experiences that kids can have, can cause significant problems in mental health development and development in general. Other things that can also cause problems are when there’s also physical health problems, and other things that interfere with the child’s general development.
Children who have several risk factors, particularly if those are either severe or sustained over time, are much more at risk of poor developmental outcomes than those children who might have exposure to one or two risks. These risks can be short or intermittent, but there’s not that sense of cumulative risk. So, all children have some risk factors, because that’s just what happens in life, but what you’re hoping is that there are enough protective factors to balance out the impact of that risk and to give children another kind of experience to draw on as they’re growing up.
If we then consider the interplay between risk and protective factors, it’s not just one thing that’s happened, it’s the accumulation or cumulative stress that children experience, which leads to major problems for the child. On the flip side, if you only have one of those things, then sometimes the protective factors are enough to safeguard the child. There’s plenty of evidence now that something like a safe secure attachment relationship will ameliorate the effects of poverty on a child. So, disadvantage per se is not necessarily going to cause you a mental health problem.
Risk and protective factors are interesting things because you can never predict what an outcome is going to be for the child. A child might have a very reactive personality style and have a family environment that is not seeming to be nurturing or helping them to learn the right sort of skills there. But you can have at the same time some really important protective factors that are going on which might be an early childhood setting that’s able to hold and support a child.
If parents are really working, and careers work in with their early childhood careers and workers, then a partnership there can foster the child’s needs. A solid and supportive relationship with several adults helps a child manage the world by giving them a sense that there is help when they need it. Therefore, they will be able to trust that their needs will be met and that their problems can be managed.