The Canadian Bar Association
Family

Recognizing, valuing infant mental health

By Susan Sack


What is infant mental health? And aren’t infants going to simply forget everything that happens to them from zero to three (or maybe four, five and six) years?

Infant mental health (IMH) refers to the social, emotional and cognitive well-being of infants and children. The field of IMH has exploded in recent years. We now know so much more about the developing brains, both prenatally and post-natally, of infants and children. In the first three years, babies make 700 new connections every second.

We now understand that there are three important features of IMH:

1. An infant’s mental health is inextricably linked to their development. Emotional problems manifest in cognitive delays, andimpairment to executive functioning.

2. Infants are profoundly impacted by stress and stress impedes brain development. The negative impacts of stress can be buffered by caregivers who play a pivotal role in stress regulation.

3. Stressors (known as risk factors) that impede normal social and emotional development have a cumulative and ever-escalating impact.

What this means is that how we care for our babies today will impact their IQs, their social skills, their emotional well-being and their ability to develop into productive, happy members of society.

We cannot simply ignore or dismiss what happens in our children’s lives between zero to six hoping that they will not remember. They may not cognitively but all of their traumatic experience will imprint on their brains.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, after conducting extensive research, has concluded  that an ongoing disruption or significant absence of caregiver responsiveness can cause more harm to a young child’s development than overt physical abuse.

What does that mean for a parent going through a separation and divorce?

The breakdown of a marriage is usually a traumatic process. Parents think that they are “hiding” what is going on from their children, especially their infants. They are usually not. Infants are highly tuned to the “signs” of marriage breakdown and parental discord.

 

One of the most essential experiences in shaping our children’s brains is something called “serve and return.” This refers to the output of a child, i.e. smiling and babbling, and the parent’s response, i.e. a smile, laugh or cuddle in response. A parent suffering through a marriage breakdown may not be responsive to their child. Unfortunately, when there is no “return,” that experience negatively shapes or wires the brains of the child.

 

In addition, infants are finely attuned to what is going on around them. They pick up on the nonverbal cues of their parents – the scowls, the crossed arms, and the changes in intonation. Parents need to buffer these experiences for the children but often are not even aware of the need to do so. Paradoxically at the time when parents are least able to respond to and meet their child’s needs because of their own experience of trauma, their child’s need is the greatest.


Why should you pick a lawyer who recognizes the infant mental health connection?

You want your lawyer to help you recognize what has lasting importance in this difficult process – the best interests and needs of your children. A financial victory at the cost of your child’s mental health is no victory at all.

What should you ask of your lawyer?

You need to first feel confident that your lawyer understands the mental health connection and will recognize that other professionals may be needed to help facilitate your journey.

You need to ask your lawyer about his/her willingness to engage in a process that is not adversarial and confirm that they understand the importance of working with the other side. This means not writing inflammatory letters or making unfounded accusations against the other parent to gain a tactical advantage.

Instead, you want to find a lawyer who is willing to establish a good working relationship with opposing counsel so that the issues in dispute can be framed with the interests of the children, guided by professionals if necessary, front and centre.

 

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