• Angela Joyce

Childhood Mental Health Disorders

“If it’s not growing, it’s going to die.” This quote by Michael Eisner might make you contemplate the life of a sunflower or a daffodil but accurately portrays childhood development too. If you don’t provide a plant with the correct climate, fertilizer and water supply it will cease to grow. If you don’t provide a child with nutrient dense food, moderate exercise and other forms of human connection, the child will fail to thrive. If a plant grows in an area that is overcrowded, its environment will hinder its growth. If you place a child, like a daisy, in an open field with no boundaries, it will grow like a weed and sprout off in any given direction. A daisy seed will always sprout a daisy. A bouncing baby boy will always grow up to be a strong and handsome man. Environmental toxins will disrupt the natural growth of plants and children alike. Sulfur dioxide destroys plant life. Childhood abuse or neglect, negative peer influences, media culture and low socioeconomic status have all proven to be detrimental to the mental health of a developing child.

Common childhood mental health concerns include depression, anxiety disorders and conduct disorders. Genetic traits increase the likelihood of a child developing these mental disorders. Depression is linked to short alle 5-HTTLPR genes, reduced serotonin production, reduced norepinephrine production and reduced dopamine production. HPA reactivity and excess cortisol also play a role in the development of childhood depression. As do shrinkage of the hippocampus and circadian rhythm disturbances (Sue, 2017). Anxiety disorders are correlated with overactive fear neurocircuitry in the brain, 5-HTTLPR genotype variations, abnormalities in neurotransmitters and reduced serotonin activity. (Sue, 2017) Adolescent conduct disorders are linked to abnormal neural circuitry, low MAOA genotype and reduced autonomic nervous system reactivity. (Sue, 2017)

Nature certainly plays a role in the development of childhood mental health disorders—but what about nurture? Is it possible that your child’s serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine production have been reduced because they lack environmental stimuli? Are HPA reactivity and increased cortisol production induced because your child is being bullied at school? Could childhood abuse contribute to the shrinkage of the hippocampus and circadian rhythm disturbance linked to childhood depression? Neuroscience says, yes. Environmental factors also play a role in childhood mental health. Furthermore, epigenetics support that early life events can alter the outer cover of our DNA, producing lifelong changes in health and behavior. (Belsky, 2019) So while it may be true that your child was born with 5-HTTLPR genotype variations, low MAOA genotype and reduced autonomic nervous system reactivity, these gene variations can only be expressed through environmental influences including low socioeconomic status, malnutrition, childhood bullying, sociocultural stereotypes or other forms of childhood abuse and neglect.

Environmental causal factors for childhood depression include lack of social support or resources, early life neglect, maltreatment, parental loss, gender roles, cultural views of depression, gender diversity and exposure to discrimination or childhood bullying. (Sue, 2017) Short allele 5-HTTLPR gene expression could be a result of your child feeling rejected after being picked last for competitive sports. HPA reactivity and excess cortisol production could result from exposure to hostility and aggression in the home or exposure to conflict with other relatives and friends. Psychological abuse has been proven to destroy brain cells, shrinking parts of the brain including the hippocampus which is linked to childhood depression. Circadian rhythm disturbances could be the brain’s natural adaption to 3 environmental stressors including food insecurity, media influences, unpredictable childcare patterns or frequent sleep schedule disturbances.

Childhood anxiety disorders are influenced by gender differences, cultural factors, acculturation conflicts, daily environmental stress, lack of social support, stressful relationships and childhood maltreatment (Sue, 2017). Overactive fear neurocircuitry in the brain could be a result of classical conditioning in which the child learns to expect negative consequences from everyday situations like expressing their opinion, going to school or being separated from their parents. 5-HTTLPR genotype variations are expressed through traumatic or stressful experiences and abnormalities in neurotransmitters including limited serotonin activity may result from lack of social support, low self-esteem and childhood abuse or neglect.

Adolescent conduct disorder could be caused by large family size, crowding, male gender, low socioeconomic status, early maternal rejection, childhood maltreatment, harsh or inconsistent discipline, behavior inducing social isolation and parental marital discord (Sue, 2022). Abnormal neural circuitry could be the result of a chaotic home life including domestic violence, divorce, paternal imprisonment, maternal abandonment, childhood physical abuse or nutrition deficiencies and dehydration. Low MAOA genotype may be expressed by childhood neglect due to poverty and large family size. Reduced autonomic nervous system activity may be the body’s natural pain inhibiting response to protect itself from continuous childhood maltreatment including ongoing neglect and abuse.

Genetic underpinnings play a role in the reaction range of childhood mental disorders maturation but environmental conditions are responsible for the potential variability of their expression (Martorell, 2013). A young girl may have the genetic underpinnings for childhood depression, but her likelihood of developing depression depends on her environment. If she is introduced to a variety of proprioceptively enriching activities like dance lessons, piano lessons, yoga practice, competitive sports, swim lessons and art camp she is far less likely to develop depression than a girl who is not introduced to any of the activities mentioned above. If a young boy has the genetic predisposition for conduct disorder and he is overlooked in a large family, has not been provided with adequate clothing or nutrition, lives in a community with high violent crime rates and lacks parental guidance, he is far more likely to develop adolescent conduct disorder than a young boy who lives in a nurturing environment, is encouraged to take up canvas art, lives in a community with a low crime rate and take his vitamins every day.

Nature and nurture both play a role in the development of childhood mental illness. A zygote with two X chromosomes will grow into a beautiful baby girl. A zygote with one X and one Y chromosomes will turn into a bouncing baby boy. A sunflower seed will grow into a sunflower and a chicken egg will hatch a chicken. How these organisms change and develop over time will depend on their both genetic blueprint and their environmental variables. Female children who are bullied at school are likely to become depressed. Male children who are neglected at home often become defiant. There is no such thing as a bad egg but all eggs will rot if they are left out in the sun all day. Raising a child is like growing a garden. The success of their growth depends on a variety of biological and environmental factors: the seed, the gardener, the soil, hydration and the gardening tools.

Work Cited

Belsky, J. (2019) Experiencing the Lifespan. Fifth Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Martorell, G. (2013) Child. Third Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sue, D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. Sue, S. (2017) Essentials of Understanding Abnormal Behavior. ………USA: Cengage Learning.

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