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Rethinking Child Development

May 6, 2015

Ask any new parent and they will likely express that raising a child is indescribably more complicated and rewarding than they imagined.

The development of a child’s brain, and subsequently their mental, emotional and behavioral characteristics, is a result of countless intrinsic and external qualities, ranging from genetics to how much time a young child spends reading.

Rethinking Child Development

The Frameworks Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., released a report in 2013 that reviewed the findings of over 60 reports describing child development, often as it relates to mental health in children, with a specific focus on the Northeast Florida and Jacksonville Metropolitan areas.

The goal of the study was to “broaden the public understanding about children’s issues in Jacksonville,” and in recognition of National Children’s Mental Health Week, we wanted to share a few of our favorite recommendations and summarize key findings from the report to help you in your advocacy for and discussion about mental health resources.

“Children Are Little Adults” vs. “Children Are Underdeveloped”

Frameworks identified these as two ways that the public and media tend to approach child development. People assume children either have fully developed brains and self-regulation, or as completely incapable of experiencing and understanding complex emotions.

Research proves something different: children are not at either end of the spectrum of understanding, and for most of their early years, their brains are in a constant state of development.

There are no set rules to what a child can and cannot understand, but it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that children demonstrating signs of mental illness, no matter how severe, are given the opportunity to receive support that most often leads to recovery.

“Adolescents are Aliens” and “Young Children are Hard to Think”

It turns out that we’re not so great at giving credibility to certain age groups of children when it comes to development, which spills over into our perception and treatment of mental illness among youth.

On one end, since none of us remembers what it was like at two, three and even four years of age, we have a hard time conceptualizing what an infant is capable of understanding and the surprisingly sophisticated emotional processes that occur in a baby’s brain. This leads us to resort to assuming children below a certain age “are too young to understand.”

On the other end, we have the adolescent age group. Adults and those capable of providing assistance have a tendency to characterize adolescents as “disconnected from the values of the past,” and therefore immutable in their behavior.

Both of these perceptions can lead to passivity when it comes to contributing positively to child development, leaving adolescents feeling alienated and unsure of where to go when facing mental health issues.

The Takeaway

In reality, a child’s brain is a product of “developmental contingencies” — the product of a series of biological, social and environmental events that may or may not occur. Frameworks suggests thinking of developing the brain as building a house. From the foundation to the framing to the wiring systems and walls, a house is a complex structure where one thing builds upon the next. In the same way, the brain builds upon what it knows and has experienced.

It’s not just genetics.
It’s not just parenting.
It’s not just aptitude, attitude or any other single characteristic.

Child development, particularly as it relates to laying the foundation for good mental health, is a complicated and at times frustrating to understand and support. No discrete factor can determine the outcomes of the development of our young people, but we can make a significant, positive impact by providing opportunities for early cognitive development, early literacy, academic support and access to health and social services over the course of a child’s life.