Mental Health for Under-fives
Expert advice to help you nurture your little one’s mental wellbeing when they go to childcare.
BY HEJIRA CONVERY, KINDICARE
Mental health matters at every stage of a person’s life, and one of your very important skills as a parent is to support your child to feel safe, secure, loved and generally happy.
Obviously, there will be bumps along the way.
It’s natural for little people to grapple with big emotions, and seismic shifts in their life (like starting childcare) can take a mental toll.
However, it’s good to know that three simple things support good mental health in under-fives: Strong relationships, a feeling of safety, and plenty of play.
When you make a conscious effort to foster these things in your child’s early years, their mental health will be better for it, and although a good headspace is positive for your child’s everyday enjoyment of life, it also lays the foundations for their future wellbeing.
We all know how formative the first five years are, and to help you care for your little learner’s mental health after they begin childcare, we’ve spoken with Derek McCormack, Director of the Raising Children Network.
Derek explains that although you may be seeing a lot less of your under-five once they start childcare, fostering a strong relationship in the time you do have together is key.
Derek says, “Time together is how you and your child get to know about each other’s experiences, thoughts, feelings and changing interests. When you give your child attention, it shows them that you value and appreciate them, which is great for the relationship you have and for your child’s mental wellbeing.”
You build a positive parent-child relationship by spending quality time together, and this is good news, because it means that even if you’re away from each other for a big chunk of each day, you can plan regular one-on-one time with your child to make those early evenings and all-day weekends really count.
Derek says, “You can make the most of time with your child by minimising disruptions and distractions. This can be as easy as putting away your phone or work, and it helps your child know that you are keen to spend uninterrupted time with them.”
The relationships your child builds at their early learning service also contribute in a great way to their mental wellbeing.
Although your under-five might be slightly hesitant or extremely upset when they first see you walking out the door of their new early learning service, going to childcare is actually a great opportunity for your little one to learn how to build strong relationships with people who aren’t you.
These relationships also bolster their mental wellbeing, and although great educators will know how to form a solid connection with your child, with attention to their needs, wants, disposition and interests, you are an important role model when it comes to relationship-building.
Derek explains that, “Your child is more likely to feel secure at childcare if they see that you have a good relationship with their carers. If your child sees that you trust their carers, they are more likely to trust the carers, too.”
For this reason, it helps to talk positively about different educators with your child, greet your child’s educators with a smile, and build a great relationship with them yourself, so you feel comfortable seeing them and working together to help your child thrive.
Building a positive relationship and connection with your child is key to helping them feel safe and secure, and this feeling fosters mental wellbeing too.
Knowing that you are there for them, and will always be there for them, boosts your little one’s mental health; and although you build this feeling of safety and security in different ways at different ages, your love and dedication matters, whether your child is a babe in arms or a big kid going off to kindy.
Derek says, “When your child is a baby, you make them feel safe and secure by responding to their needs and tuning into their emotions, as well as mirroring their responses and talking to them.
“Then, as your child gets older, helping to build a positive relationship to encourage a feeling of security involves spending quality time together and building trust through sticking to promises and being available when your child needs support, care or help.”
Play is also crucial when it comes to under-fives’ mental health.
We know that young children learn best through play, and it’s also a great way for you to connect with your child and show that you’re interested in what they enjoy – whether that’s mashing three colours of play dough together, dancing to Emma Memma or building a dino den out of cushions.
Derek explains that, “Playing together builds the parent-child relationship and sends a simple but powerful message – you are important to me.”
He says, “A good way to connect through play is to give your child opportunities to take the lead. This can be letting your child lead the play and watching and responding to what they say or do,” and Derek explains that, “This supports your child’s mental health by helping them feel loved, happy and safe.”
If you’re a bit stuck for play ideas, then raisingchildren.net.au has lots of suggestions for babies, toddlers and preschoolers; and this article is a great starting point if you’d like to learn why play is so important for your child’s development.
Your under-five will also benefit from plenty of play while at childcare.
At a quality centre, there will be a great mix of structured and unstructured play experiences, and your child will get lots of opportunities to build their social, emotional, physical and communication skills as they play in different ways.
By preschool age, your child’s play can get quite involved, and Derek explains that many benefits come with this.
He explains that, “Imaginative play, such as pretend games and puppet play, fosters creativity. Role play and messy play can help preschoolers learn about emotions and concepts such as sharing. While board games, puzzles and building games help to develop children’s cognitive development.”
All of the above experiences and emotional investments help to bolster your early learner’s mental wellbeing, and there’s lots more advice available if you need it.
Your early childhood educators are there for you, as well as for your child, so if you have any questions or concerns about your little one’s headspace (or anything else), you can raise things with them.
And speaking of raising, the Raising Healthy Minds app is another great place to find answers to parenting questions or concerns.
This free, personalised app was designed by mums, dads and mental health experts, and it contains lots of family-friendly info and ideas to help you nurture your child’s social and emotional wellbeing.
With all of this in mind, we hope the new childcare year brings lots of happy days!
Early learning life definitely promises to be fun and enriching for your under-five, and if the going gets tough, it’s good to know that the relationships, feelings and experiences you’ve fostered with your under-five will help them navigate the downs and ups of childcare life.