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Childhood Mental Health

An overview video of Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience, a working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and among family and friends.

Considerable mental health problems do occur in young children. Among the more common mental disorders that can be diagnosed in childhood are anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, at a very early age. Young children respond to and process emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from adults and older children. Consequently, diagnosis in early childhood can be much more difficult than it is in adults.

Mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. Children who don’t have a mental disorder might differ in how well they are doing, and children who have the same diagnosed mental disorder might differ in their strengths and weaknesses in how they are developing and coping, and in their quality of life. 

Circumstances associated with family stress will usually increase the risk of serious mental health problems. Young children who experience recurrent abuse or chronic neglect, spousal abuse, domestic violence, or parental mental health and substance abuse problems are particularly vulnerable.

Toxic stress can damage brain development and increase the likelihood that significant mental health problems will emerge either quickly or years later. Because of its enduring effects on brain development and other organ systems, toxic stress can impair school readiness, academic achievement, and both physical and mental health throughout the lifespan.


The mental health of young children is directly tied to enduring and responsive nurturing interactions with their caregivers and the families in which they live. When these relationships are abusive, threatening, chronically neglectful, or otherwise psychologically harmful, they are a potent risk factor for the development of early mental health problems which will worsen without intervention.

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