Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Written by Elretha Bartlett on July 16, 2022.

[WATCH] Understanding and decrypting infant mental health and early childhood mental development.

Please note that I’ve cut out the first minute because of an echo.

I caught up with Maryam Mkwanda from Salaamedia about infant mental health and the importance of secure attachments in developing robust mental and emotional health.

Below is the transcript of the interview. Note that some answers have been shortened for reading purposes.

M: Can you break down what early childhood development means?

E: Early childhood development focuses on young children’s needs and psychological tasks that they must complete at a young age. Children need to feel that they can trust the world, that they can trust their primary caregivers and that the world is a safe place. And often, when that psychological need is not met, many children develop psychological symptoms.

This development often happens in a relationship with a mother or the caregiver. So it’s essential that a child can form a secure attachment with a primary caregiver. It usually occurs while the mother mirrors the baby. So they mirror the facial expressions and body language, which helps the child to feel that they are being heard and seen. But we start seeing mental health issues when that relationship has been damaged, when a child has experienced abandonment, or even if the mother experiences depression or anxiety. So a child can also perceive this and take on some of those symptoms.

M: Can postpartum depression affect children?

E: Definitely. So postpartum depression has an impact on the bonding between mother and child. And postpartum depression is very, very common.

I think a lot of people have this expectation that having a new child is going to be bliss. They believe it will be a fairy tale and that having a child will be good and wonderful. But the reality is that parenting is hard. It is it’s hard; it’s stressful. It’s time-consuming.

M: You’re not just looking after yourself, but you’re looking after another human who is much smaller, so much more active. And sometimes you’ll have mental health issues that you must look after.

M: What are the common mental disorders that affect children?

E: I would say common mental disorders that affect children are depression and anxiety. It’s not as common in the baby years. Often, it only comes up later in a child’s development. But things that we start to see at a young age are attachment difficulties. So a child that either attaches too quickly to strangers, forms too close of an attachment to people they don’t even know, is wholly withdrawn, or struggles to connect with a mother or a father and is much more socially withdrawn.

M: How can you tell your child suffers from depression or anxiety?

E: Early signs to look out for is if your child’s behaviour changes. So if the child is not interested in activities they used to be interested in, if the child is more withdrawn, doesn’t make eye contact as much. If the child is quieter, more reserved, more irritable, has anger, outbursts, or has more frequent nightmares, these are all tell-tale signs of depression. If the child’s sleeping patterns and appetite change, I would also seek help.

M: How does infant and child mental health affect the family at large?

E: Everyone’s mental health in a family impacts all the other family members. I think children can absorb a lot of what’s happening in the family, and if the child is suffering from depression or anxiety, they will have many more needs and ask more of the parents. So I think for the parents, it might be very exhausting. And some might feel overburdened and overwhelmed, not knowing how to deal with a child acting out.

M: It is said that the golden years of a child’s development happen from when they are born up until the age of two or three because that’s when the child’s brain is developing. So, how important are trusted relationships during this time?

E: Very important. The first psychological task to develop is trust. And this task is going to have an impact on the child’s relationships later in life as well. So the relationship with a primary caregiver will shape the child’s future relationships. And the first task is not just to trust the mother but to trust that the world is safe, that their needs will be met in this world, and that it’s not scary or frightening.

M: We get told not to carry a child too much because they could become too attached. As a parent, you also don’t want your child to be too attached to strangers because who knows what could happen to them. Is there anything wrong with being attached too much to a child or holding them for long periods?

E: I’ve heard people say, “but I don’t want to spoil my baby”. My opinion is I don’t think one can spoil a baby. A baby needs to depend on the primary caregiver. I believe it is essential to hold the baby and for the baby to experience that comfort, especially during the first year. From a psychological perspective, a child is only ready to separate from the primary caregiver when they’re 18 months old. So before that age, one cannot expect the child to be too independent or do things by themself. It’s okay to have that attached bond, and it’s very important.

M: What is the impact of mental disorders on children, and how does it affect them as they grow older?

E: Often, children don’t always outgrow mental health issues. So in adulthood, it can become worse. Children who have been depressed or anxious as babies tend to grow up into adults who experienced depression and anxiety and also may have more severe mental health issues. So it has a lasting impact on people’s development.

M: How do we help?

E: For me, the most important thing is when you work with a small child or baby, it’s essential to work with the primary caregiver and the child and to focus mainly on the attachment between the mother and the child or the primary caregiver and the child. It’s not so much focusing on the child individually because most of the child’s needs are met through that relationship. So it’s about strengthening that attachment, that bond. Suppose the mother or primary caregiver can learn to be attuned to the child, tune to all their emotional needs and try to understand what’s going on in the child’s mind. In that case, this will already benefit the mental health difficulties.

M: What if the child has another mental disorder like ADHD?

E: ADHD often gets diagnosed when children are five or six. It can be diagnosed at a younger age, but usually, that’s when some of the symptoms start to show. So ADHD has a genetic basis. But definitely, what is important is also to provide containment for that child. I do believe that each child can develop an inherent capacity to cope. Still, the primary responsibility of parents is to contain, make the child feel safe and fulfil their emotional needs.

M: How do you help a primary caregiver when they’re not the parent?

E: I would help the caregiver the same way I would help the child. So I would also focus on their attachment and relationship. For instance, if they’re an adopted child, I would focus on them also putting in more effort to build that attachment. Adoptive parents face more challenges because their child has also experienced early trauma; they’ve been, in many cases, abandoned by their biological parents. So as the adoptive parents, there is a considerable responsibility to contain that for the child.

If you have concerns about your child’s mental development or want to chat, please reach out here.

Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Elretha Bartlett


Home Page  |  About Me  |  Services  |  Resources  |  FAQ  |  Contact Me  |  Terms and Conditions

© 2023 Elretha Bartlett

link to