Blonde female toddler against a background with two halves of the brain showing logic and creativity

How Brain Development Affects Children’s Mental Health

The human brain is responsible for just about everything we do and everything we will ever become. For starters, it acts as the body’s central control panel and is responsible for regulating a number of essential functions such as breathing, digestion, blinking, hormone levels, and many others. 

Not only that, but the brain is basically an intelligent sponge, soaking up experiences and translating them into behaviors. The things that make you who you are, like your personality, strengths, and flaws, are all a result of your brain’s reaction to certain experiences. Yes, your brain truly controls everything you do from breathing to finding a specific joke funny. 

What’s more, the majority of your brain’s development occurs before you are even aware of the impact your brain has on the rest of your life. In fact, the majority of brain development occurs during the first five years of life. These first five years are considered to be a sensitive or critical period, meaning that things experienced during this time will affect the brain for the rest of your life. 

This is because certain experiences can cause certain parts of the brain to develop at different rates. For example, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the hippocampus grows more as a result of maternal support. Individuals who experienced maternal support and higher rates of hippocampal growth were generally associated with higher levels of emotional development. 

Conversely, another study in Biological Psychiatry found that children who experienced adversity in the first few years of their life generally had decreased growth rates in the neocortex and increased growth rates in certain subcortical brain regions. The lack of growth in the neocortex resulted in antisocial behaviors, while the increased growth in the subcortical regions promoted impulsive behaviors. 

Not only do certain experiences shape the way the brain develops, but the way the brain develops can predispose children to developing mental health conditions. Positive early experiences create a foundation for stable mental health, while negative experiences can cause disruptions in developing this foundation. For example, if a child’s ability to learn or interact with others is interrupted, it will likely affect them for the rest of their life. 

As science has slowly started to understand more about how the brain works, there have been many more recent studies that suggest the first five years are crucial for brain development. While this area of study is still being currently explored, here is what we know so far about how brain development affects children and their mental health. 

“Normal” Brain Development

The word normal has been placed in quotations because there is not always normal when working with the brain. For the sake of this article, normal is being defined as the general trend seen in most individuals. However, in reality, some individuals can deviate from this norm while still being considered “normal”. 

Before diving in too deep into how the brain develops, let’s briefly review how the brain is composed and how it works. The brain is composed of different regions that are all responsible for specific functions such as involuntary behaviors (breathing or digesting food), processing sensory input, learning and memory, how we respond to external stimuli, and many others. Each of these specialized regions is further composed of millions of neurons. A neuron is a messenger cell that works by communicating with synapses. A synapse receives the message and helps translates it to an action. Together the neurons and synapses form the wiring of the brain, and allow for connections to be made. 

Purple neurons

Each connection is associated with a function or series of functions. The way these connections are organized and the number of connections directly affects one’s ability to perform certain functions. At birth, our brains contain all the neurons we will ever have. Everything we learn is simply the result of the brain making new connections between existing neurons. Sometimes this means breaking older connections that are no longer needed. Hence the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”. 

However, while the amount of neurons is finite at birth, the number of synapses will continue to rise during the first few years of brain development. During the first few years, as many as 1,000 trillion synapses can be present in the human brain. This number is considered to be excessive, however, and as the brain develops, the number of synapses will decrease as the ones that are not needed cease to exist. 

How Toxic Stress Alters Brain Development

Now that we have a brief understanding of how the brain is composed and how it functions, let’s take a look at how certain experiences can shape its development. Currently, child psychologists and psychiatrists have identified experiences resulting in toxic stress as those that can alter proper brain development. 

Bonnie D. Kerker, PhD. et al. defines toxic stress as the “exposure to chronic, severe, and prolonged stress, occurring in the absence of protective factors”. While stress is simply a part of life, it can quickly become toxic when it is coupled with a lack of support. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child notes three types of stress responses associated with developing brains: positive, tolerable, and toxic. 

Positive stress response is associated with healthy, normal stress and can occur during “scary” situations such as getting an injection. It is characterized by brief periods of increased heart rate and hormone elevations. With proper support, this type of stress is short-lived and does not have any long-term effects on brain development. 

Tolerable stress is a deeper sense of stress that causes the stress response to last for a longer period of time. It generally lasts over a series of days and can occur during prolonged sickness or injury. Again, support can help the child deal with stress and adjust accordingly, however there is a possibility of long-term effects with tolerable stress. 

Distressed toddler screaming and crying while standing inside his crib

Toxic stress, as mentioned before, refers to stress that is extreme, chronic, and/or prolonged without proper support. Toxic stress is often associated with what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). These can include abuse, neglect, violence towards others in the household, mental illness in the household, divorce, and incarcerated family member, or any other situation that causes extreme, chronic, or prolonged stress.

In cases of toxic stress, the body is almost in a constant state of stress, which interrupts regular development by causing a decrease in connections between neurons and synapses. As mentioned before, some deterioration of synapses is completely normal and to be expected during development, however, problems can occur when too many of the brain’s synapses are lost. Without these synapses, essentially there is no connection within the brain to promote specific behaviors. Thus, things that should come naturally no longer do. In addition to a lack of connections, some cases, also show a permanent increase in stress hormone levels. 

How to Promote Positive Brain Development

With everything that’s been said, you may be wondering how to help your infant deal with stress so that it does not alter their development. Chances are, if you’ve read this far you are committed to helping your child live their best life. The good news is that there are several things you can do to make sure your child undergoes healthy and proper brain development, which will set them up for better mental health practices. Listed below are a few steps you can take to help promote your child’s brain and mental health development: 

  • Interact with your child: although this may seem obvious, there is an old saying that goes “children must be seen and not heard”. The danger of this is that it promotes a lack of interaction. To promote proper brain development, you should be talking, reading, singing, playing games, and otherwise interacting with your child as much as possible. 
  • Prevent abuse and neglect: raising a child is stressful and it can bring up a lot of emotions or unresolved issues in parents that can lead to unintentional abuse or neglect. Sometimes, seeking professional help from a licensed family psychologist can help ease the transition into parenthood and ensure that unhealthy patterns are promptly discontinued and replaced with healthier ones. 
  • Address Mental Health Issues: parents who have unresolved mental health issues themselves are more likely to unintentionally provide less support to their children. Some mental health issues can also affect the way parents relate to and with their children. 
  • Promote Proper Nutrition: it is essential to feed a balanced diet with the proper nutrients to support proper brain development. During the prenatal period, infancy, and early childhood, a lack of nutrients can hinder brain development. 
Infographic on 7 ways to boost baby brain development

Overall, to provide your child with an environment that fosters proper brain development, you need to provide them with intellectual stimulation, emotional support, and proper nutrition. While this may sound easy in theory, it can be difficult in execution. However, there are resources available to help you. If you are a new parent, or are simply concerned about you or your child’s mental health, schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists today. NJ Family Psychiatry and Therapy of Paramus, NJ offers family therapy, as well as child therapy to address your specific needs and make sure that you and your child are off to a good start. 

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Helene A. Miller / And Other Providers
Family Psychiatry and Therapy brings compassion, understanding, and skilled care to patients throughout New Jersey. Our team of mental health professionals focuses on providing a positive and uplifting experience that aids our patients in facing life’s toughest challenges.