Crawling and walking are natural for most babies and toddlers, but not the complex ability to build and maintain positive relationships. These are a series of skills that children learn through consistent and loving interactions with parents or other caregivers.
The first three years of a child’s life are crucial for their development. During this time, their brains form the architecture and neural pathways of essential skills such as self-control, problem solving, relationship building, learning, and communication.
The infant’s budding brain is very vulnerable to environmental and parental influences. Increasingly, research shows that parenting challenges and stressors in the home can disrupt this formation process and lead to mental and physical health issues.
Helping these families as early as possible is vital. “The sooner you intervene, the less difficult it is for a child to get back on his or her developmental and emotional wheels,” says Dennis Woody, pediatric neuropsychologist at Boise and senior clinical program consultant for Optum. “If you wait five or six years, this child has difficulties that are ingrained and are more difficult to change. “
ZERO TO THREE is a national organization that works to help all infants and toddlers reach their full potential. The organization supports adults who care for infants and young children, and their mission is to ensure that all babies and toddlers get a good start in life.
Optum Idaho, the managed care partner for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan through the Medicaid Division of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, worked with ZERO TO THREE to provide a Free two-year infant and toddler mental health training program for teachers. level, behavioral health care providers in the Optum Idaho network.
In the first year, providers discover the impact of positive relationships between parents and children, even during pregnancy, on their brain development. The course also covers the effects of trauma, how to support parents of children with developmental disabilities, and a new early childhood mental health diagnostic system.
In Year 2, participants consult online with their peers and infant mental health specialists about case-based issues and interventions.
Idaho needs providers trained in infant and toddler mental health, says Woody, “We don’t have any more mental health issues than the rest of the country. But we have fewer trained clinicians, ”he says. Fortunately, Idaho also has a keen interest in developing a clinical workforce, skilled to treat our youngest and most vulnerable residents. “
In Idaho, families likely to benefit from this new intervention are referred by pediatricians, social workers, therapists and other children’s service agencies. Usually these are infants and toddlers who have been previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder that prevents them from relating to others or their environment at an age appropriate level.
The purpose of this new approach is to help parents and young children learn the steps to form healthy and strong relationships, which will help prevent or reduce mental health issues among them.
“Before, people would bring their three-year-old and say, ‘Fix my three-year-old,’ recalls Penney A. Rockhill, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Idaho Falls. “Now with Optum training the parent steps in and we are working on relationship-based therapy. “
For parents, this relational approach to therapy involves learning to examine how their own emotions affect their child.
Parents also may not realize the impact of family dynamics, even on infants. “Babies get hold of conflict,” says Jamie Larsen, clinician in the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Central District Health in Boise. Part of her job is to teach parents how to resolve conflicts between them.
If parents feel like they have nowhere to turn, they increase their risk of developing their own mental health problems – anxiety, depression, or the use of stress-reducing substances.
The new approach encourages parents to let go of their shame and sadness about their parenting role. Parents then learn to identify their own feelings and those of their child and to explore how to become better in tune with each other. Learn more about Optum Idaho’s ZERO TO THREE pilot training project here.