In honor of National Mental Health Awareness Week, a UC Berkeley Psychology student presents an analogy of what mental health is for children.
Written by Raymond Firmalino.
Building mental health is like building a house. You need a good foundation, good building materials, the right tools, and a plan of action if disasters strike. When we consider the first few years of life and its impact on the rest of the lifespan, building a foundation early takes on a powerful role. Laying the foundation for later mental health can start as early as our time in the womb. During this time, nature’s version of a blueprint – our genes – execute their functions. Our organs develop, cells generate and degenerate, and our brains grow in size by the millisecond. Even before we’ve entered the world, our existence seems to be designed by natural forces, a magnificent process.
Following birth, infancy takes place and the real construction begins. When you build a house, you need the right wood, nails,ladders, and the like. In infancy, the right materials include but are not limited to ample nutrition, healthy attachment with caregivers, and language development. As a result, the infant learns who it can rely on for survival, how to regulate his/her emotions, and how to function in the social world. While infants are helpless for the most part during this time, with the help of caregivers, they start to become stewards of their own destiny. Yes, the building blocks of mental health start working as early as infancy!
Both early and late childhood involve the construction of even more self-agency. Having the right materials is one thing, but using them is another. Where you decide to build a particular wall, the effect of plumbing in one room on the entire house’s plumbing system, and installing the house’s roofing are practical ways of ensuring its inhabitants can function and are sheltered from outside elements. In childhood, children experience exponential growth in cognitive, language, and social domains. These growing abilities translate into academic success, more explicit communication of their needs and wants to caregivers, and having insight into the mental and emotional states of peers. In their short amount alive, they’ve learned to navigate the challenges that come with being away from caregivers for longer periods of time. But these abilities don’t suddenly appear. Rather, they are the product of years of the teaching, reinforcement, and modeling of adaptive behaviors by caregivers from infancy up to this point, which all serve as tools in a child’s tool box. The child then utilizes these tools in designing and constructing his/her own life. A major part of this is knowing which tool to use for which task. This is most salient that ring unfortunate times of crisis that may befall an individual at any point in the lifespan, an reality hat endures well into adulthood.
Unfortunately, many life events and tragedies exert an unavoidable force upon a child’s well-being. Whether it’s an excessive period away from caregivers, divorce, or bullying, a child’s physical and psychological integrity can be compromised in the wake of such events. What happens during an earthquake? A home’s residents immediately take cover. They wait for the earthquake to phase out. Aftershocks might hit. Finally, it ends, and the aftermath begins. Depending on the magnitude of the earthquake, it may or may not be safe to continue living in a particular structure. Building inspectors would need to ensure that it’s safe to re-enter and that it’s still livable. The questions arise: How strong is the home’s foundation? To what extent was it damaged, if at all? How resilient is it? Using the original foundation, how do we rebuild?
The same questions arise for a child who was undergone a significant life-altering event. The responses to such events and the trajectory of a child’s life into adolescence, the teen years and beyond, are in many ways predicated by the integrity of the original foundation set many years earlier by caregivers, family members, teachers, coaches, and therapists. These are the architects, construction workers, and inspectors of the child’s life. Inevitably, a child may need to assume all of these roles at one time for him/herself. Our role as adults, is to be that ladder – that scaffold – and create as many opportunities for a child to realize this potential.
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