When is the Earliest Time Therapy Can Benefit a Child? How Young is Too Young?
I guess I want to tackle these questions, as they came up a few months ago when someone in a supervisory capacity made the comment that kids under five years of age don’t need therapy or don’t benefit from it. I guess I would have to disagree in a loud and resounding voice, simply because of seeing the effects of intervention at an early age, knowing what we know about attachment, brain development and the impact on a child’s attitudes and behaviors, and participating with families where successes have been documented and functionality has improved for the entire family.
The youngest I’ve worked with was 2 weeks old. I worked with the mother on how to have eye contact with “soft loving eyes”, how to interact with the baby appropriately-stroking, cooing, touching, singing, and how to begin all of the “tummy time” activities which are so important to the development of the mid-brain functions. I have seen too many babies who spent hours in a car seat, a wind-up swing, or other entrapment furniture and this is very detrimental to their neurological development. A child who doesn’t move through this stage will have difficult trusting, difficulty with cause/effect, and usually exhibit a strong need to be in control, setting up later battles, especially in adolescence. It is so important that the parent establish the safe-base concept for the child, ensuring security and love.
I worked with a six month old who had been removed from his biological parents. Therapy was with him and his father and later his father’s girlfriend. The father learned with the child how to do the “tummy time” activities, how to soothe the child, how to begin to build back the trust through rocking, feeding, and how to meet the needs of the child. The father had to be directed to the cues of the child and the child learned patience while waiting for his father to meet his needs. He began to trust Dad as the safe-base for him. The father also began to implement boundaries and limits with the child, and during this time, I could actually see that the child appreciated the fact that dad did set limits. The child was returned to the father as both grew to have a healthier bond.
I have worked with quite a few toddlers who seem to have benefited from family therapy in which moms became more in tune with them, where limits are modeled and then set within that particular family, and where nurturing activities are implemented to allow for the re-building of the all-important attachment between mother and child. Parents can be shown how to help the modulation of the child, to watch for certain behaviors that signal distress or anxiety, and how to adjust behaviors/reactions to present more sensitivity to the child. All too often, in our hurried lives, parents forget how important the nurturing activities are for children, especially the one nurturing component of food.
While the nurturing with food can be seen as provision and the mandatory parenting responsibility, the simple act of mother feeding child sends the underlying message, “Mom will take care of me” which can also serve as a trust-building tool. For this reason, parents working with young children are guided in ways to set up this activity so that children can see and then begin to feel this trust in parents. It is important that food go from mom’s hand into the child’s mouth, re-enforcing the strength of the parent as the nurturer.
Brain development has a great affect on how secure a child is attached to the parents and the abuse and neglect suffered early on, even in utero, can severely affect a child’s behaviors later on. Dr. Bruce Perry claims that the early brain development (ages 3-4) is when the brain is more reactive to environmental factors, more so than in later development. “Positive influences such as responsive caregiving, appropriate stimulation, and learning experiences support optimal brain development. But the plasticity of the young brain also makes it vulnerable to negative factors such as neglectful caregiving, abuse, trauma, and malnutrition.” (Davies, p. 43)
Working with children early enough helps to prevent “fixed” interactions that may be unhealthy, thus preventing later behaviors that may turn rebellious and defiant. Working with children early allows the parent to learn better parenting tools and to develop recognition of their child’s responses and regulations. All children have reactions to their environments, and the earlier the interventions can happen, the greater the chances of success, thereby making the lives of all healthier. If children can develop coping skills at a younger age, if parents can learn to recognize and adapt their strategies, then all have a better chance of getting along better within the family.
Davies, Douglas. (2004). Child development: a practitioner’s guide. New York/London. The Guilford Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
Licensed Professional Counselor
Advanced Clinical HypnoTherapist
- Deb England began working part-time for Wholeness Healing Center in September 2004 and began full-time in May 2005. Deb practices primarily in the Broken Bow office and one day a week in the Grand Island office. Previously she had completed her practicum and internship at Morning Star Alliance, working in the Broken Bow and Grand Island offices.
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