The first years of parenting
How to lay the foundation of your child’s mental health
The first years of parenting are an exciting time, when your child develops fast and there are many new things to learn as a parent. But did you know that the things you do with your child every day are of great importance to your child’s future mental health?
Research has revealed a few things that parents can do that will strengthen their relation with the child while laying the foundation of the child’s mental health later in life. It is about being attentive to the child’s signals and respond to them, and it is called “serve and return”.
The more you can make serve and return work for your child, the more you help him or her to understand themselves, create good relationships with friends, succeed at school and feel good mentally later in life. Most parents already do this, but without knowing how important it is. There are four things that are important to bear in mind in connection with serve and return: sharing attention, encouragement, naming and turn-taking at the child’s pace. This video explains how this is done.
Here you can look at clips from the video and learn more about the four things that are important to bear in mind in connection with serve and return:
Sharing attention is to be there with your child when they are interested in something. When you share attention, you encourage your child to discover things, and this also strengthens the relation between you and your child. The greatest interest of children is their parents, so whatever you focus your attention on, your child will find important!
In a stressful day-to-day life, it is easy as a parent to focus on other things than those your child shows an interest in. It may feel difficult to put aside all obligations and everyday demands for a while to share attention with your child. But even a short while such as 10 minutes with shared attention can mean a lot to a small child.
You can share attention by looking at the thing your child is looking at, holding, pointing at, or when they are showing you something. This is also a golden opportunity to name the thing you are sharing attention on!
When the child serves, you can return by encouraging. You can encourage with words, but also by nodding, looking happy or giving a hug.
When you encourage the child, their curiosity and joy of discovery increase. The child senses that the things they feel or are interested in are valuable. In turn, this builds self-confidence and security. It is good to make encouragement a habit already at an early age. When the child starts moving around and discovers things on their own, encouragement can be a positive way of creating safe boundaries and showing the child the way. Parents can use encouragement instead of ending up often saying stop and no.
What do you think are good things to share attention on together with your child? When do you usually do it? Observe your own behaviour on an ordinary day and how often you share your child’s attention. When is it difficult? Is it something you want to do more of?
Observe how you usually encourage your child. Do you use words, facial expressions and/or gestures? Can you encourage a positive behaviour to show the child the way? E.g. if the child tries to put a pen in their mouth, instead of saying no, you can give the child a toy that is okay to put in the mouth, and encourage them by saying “That’s it!”
When you name the things that the child points at or shows an interest in, you help the child to understand the world around them. Language development is one of the most important building blocks during the first few years. A strong vocabulary is an important protective factor for mental health. It strengthens the child’s ability to communicate their needs, plan their actions, and learn at school.
You can name anything, an object (such as the lamp, or a dog), what someone is doing (running, cooking) or an emotion (sad, curious). Having words for emotions makes the child feel safer and is of great importance for the child’s mental health later in life. The child learns to recognize their own and other’s emotions, which are important building blocks for the ability to seek comfort and develop empathy with others later in life.
Turn-taking at the child’s pace
When you return the child’s serve, you also give the child an opportunity to continue the interaction by replying one more time. Interacting this way, back and forth, lays building blocks for the child’s social development, where empathy and ability to cooperate are important. Eventually, the child will learn to wait and not let their impulses take control when interacting with others.
Taking turns at the child’s pace is also important. Having enough time to make another serve while you are taking turns will give the child the chance to develop their own ideas, which builds self-confidence. If it goes too fast or too slow, the child may get frustrated. Children are different and it helps the child if the parents can adjust to the pace of their particular child.
Do you usually name things that capture the interest of your child? Do you also usually name your child’s emotions?
Pick a time during the day, e.g. when you are eating, dressing or putting the child to bed, and focus on naming things in the environment that capture the child’s attention. E.g. “You are pointing at the yellow sweater!” “You want your teddy!”
You can e.g. name emotions by saying “Now you got sad”, “Oh, you’re so happy today”, “I can see that you’re tired/hungry/thirsty”, “You got angry when you weren’t allowed to crawl there”.
What is the pace of your child? Do they need a lot of time to process an experience, or do they get impatient when things move too slowly?
How does it work for you to match your own and your child’s pace?
At Vårdguiden 1177, there is a lot of information and advice about the first years of parenting. We also encourage parents to read good material on how to strengthen the bond between you and your child.
Do you have a child who does not serve? Or a child who serves all the time? All children are different. Some do not send a lot of signals, or give signals that are not that easy to catch. Other children send a whole lot of signals, and parents can feel that their child demands a great amount of stimulation and has a hard time relaxing.
Maybe you identify with the video and already do many of the things discussed in it. But you think it seems difficult to know what you can do to make serve and return work for your particular child, or you feel that you do not have the time or the energy, do not hesitate to contact your local child health centre (BVC). They can give you advice and support!