Crawling and walking come naturally to most babies and toddlers, but the complex ability to build and sustain positive relationships does not. It is a series of skills that children acquire through consistent, loving interactions with parents or other close caregivers.
The first three years of a child’s life are critical developmentally. During this period, their brains form the architecture and neural pathways for such essential skills as self-control, problem-solving, relationship-building, learning and communication.
Infant's budding brains are very vulnerable to environmental and parental influences. Increasingly, research shows that parenting challenges and stressors at home can disrupt this formative process and lead to mental health and physical health problems.
Helping these families as soon as possible is vital. “The earlier you intervene, the less difficult it is for a child to get back up on their developmental and emotional wheels,” says Dennis Woody, a pediatric neuropsychologist in Boise and senior clinical program consultant for Optum. “If you wait five or six years, that child has difficulties that are entrenched and are more difficult to change.”
ZERO TO THREE is a national organization, working 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 have a strong start in life.
Optum Idaho, the managed care partner for the Idaho Behavioral Health Plan through the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Medicaid, has collaborated with ZERO TO THREE to provide a free, two-year training program in infant and toddler mental health for masters’ level, behavioral health care providers in the Optum Idaho network.
In the first year, providers learn about the impact of positive relationships between parents and children — even during pregnancy — on their developing brains. The course also covers the effects of trauma, how to support parents of children with developmental disabilities and a new system of mental health diagnosis for early childhood.
In the second year, participants consult online with their peers and infant mental health specialists about case-based issues and interventions.
Idaho’s need for providers trained in infant and toddler mental health is substantial, says Woody, “We don’t have more mental health problems than the rest of the country. But we do have fewer trained clinicians,” he says. “Fortunately, Idaho also has a strong interest in developing a clinician workforce, skilled in treating our youngest and most vulnerable residents.”
In Idaho, families likely to benefit from this new intervention are referred by pediatricians, caseworkers, therapists and other child-serving agencies. Typically, they are infants and toddlers that have already been diagnosed with a mental health disorder that prevents them from relating to others or with their environment at an age-appropriate level.
The goal 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 lessen mental health issues amongst them.
“Before people would bring in 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 the Optum training, the parent comes in and we work on relation-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 how family dynamics impact even infants. “Babies pick up on strife,” says Jamie Larsen, a clinician for the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health program at Central District Health in Boise. Part of her work involves teaching parents how to resolve conflicts with each other.
If parents feel they have nowhere to turn, they increase their risk for developing their own mental health problems — anxiousness, depression, or substance use to lessen the stress.
The new approach encourages parents to let go of their shame and sadness about their parenting. Parents then learn how to identify their own feelings and their child’s and to explore how to become better attuned to one another. Learn more about Optum Idaho’s ZERO TO THREE pilot training project here.