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The importance of recognizing mental health disorders during early childhood development

Dr. Joan Luby and Stephen Zwolak discussed how to help a child dealing with mental health issues.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Joan Luby and Stephen Zwolak discussed how to help a child dealing with mental health issues.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the mental health issues facing young children and how to address them. Joining the program were Joan Luby, a doctor and professor of child psychiatry with the Washington University School of Medicine and Stephen Zwolak, the executive director the University City Children’s Center.

“It is an increasingly recognized issue that over the last 20 years, the scientific database has told us that young children can get mental disorders and it is important to recognize early in development because it is more treatable during the period of more rapid and changing brain development,” Luby said.

Luby said to keep a lookout for kids who are having trouble playing with their peers and enjoying family life as well as having difficulty regulating emotions, calming down or coping with intense emotions like sadness, guilt and anger.

Research in recent years shows that early nurturing from a primary caregiver is important in the development of a child’s brain and in emotional development.

Zwolak sees these issues every day at the University City Children’s Center and through his work at the LUME Institute.

“We need to help teachers understand the emotional development of children differently, with more intensity,” Zwolak said. “So they can practice helping babies form relationships and bonds. All of these dots connect. When the teachers get it, they can support families differently.”

Luby said that nurturing and physical contact, which important, is not the only thing necessary to help children with mental health issues.

“What we try to do to enhance supportive caregiving focuses more on the ability of the parent to validate the child’s feelings and to support the child in their quest to process these feelings,” Luby said.

Because the brain is more malleable earlier in a child’s development, it is important to catch and begin to help children suffering with mental health disorders early, so that they aren’t impacted later in life.

Listen as Zwolak and Luby discuss the mental health issues children face and what is being done to help kids facing such issues:

Right now, Luby is conducting a study specifically about the emotional development of preschool children between the ages of three and six who are experiencing symptoms of sadness, irritability, guilt or inability to enjoy activities and play. The study provides free parent-child psychotherapy. More information is available here

Related Event

What: St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund and St. Louis Mental Health Board Present "Early Childhood and Mental Health: Knowledge for a Healthy Start"
When: Wednesday, Aug. 3 from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters Auditorium, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.