The term youth is generally defined as ages 0 – 20, completely encompassing the unborn up into young adulthood. More so than any other age category, youth vary greatly regarding what they need to be healthy depending on where they are developmentally.
A child’s health truly begins even before conception. If a woman is considering having children, it is recommended that she begin making the lifestyle changes needed to ensure she is healthy before conception. This includes eating healthy, exercising on a regular basis, quitting alcohol, being in a healthy weight range, and even taking a prenatal vitamin during the time she is actively attempting to conceive. Continuing into the very early stages of pregnancy, it is important to make sure the mother is taking the utmost care of herself so that her child has the best possible development in the critical stages of formation.
Expectant mothers should also take the time to receive prenatal care from a doctor or OB/GYN. Studies show that women who receive prenatal care overall tend to have healthier pregnancies, healthier labor and deliveries, and healthier babies.
Additionally, many mental health problems have a genetic component to them. This means if Mom or Dad has a history with a problem such a depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or addiction, this heightens the baby’s chance of also dealing with these problems later in life. By understanding the family and genetic history, parents can prepare well in advance to tackle these problems head-on and prevent crisis in the future.
Biophysical: Mother is eating healthy, cutting out junk food, abstaining from drug and alcohol use, abstaining from smoking any substances, abstaining from eating unapproved foods (such as seafood high in mercury or raw meats), drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly (as approved by doctor), receiving prenatal care, taking prenatal vitamins.
Psychological: Mother is taking steps to de-stress, is speaking with a professional if struggling with mental health problems, is excited about the future for baby.
Social: Mother has a support system to help during pregnancy and also with raising a child (such as a close knit family or supportive friends), Mother has an understanding job or is comfortable being a stay-at-home mom, child’s Father is actively involved in a positive way throughout the pregnancy.
Spiritual: Mother is excited (albeit with occasional nerves) about the prospect of having a child.
Infancy (ages 0 – 3)
The first three years of a child’s life are filled with extraordinarily rapid growth and developmental milestones such as smiling, crawling, babbling, and walking.
“Essentially, infant mental health focuses on the optimal social and emotional development of infants and toddlers within the context of secure, stable relationships with caregivers (Zeanah & Zeanah,2001)”
Biophysical: Generally speaking, breastfeeding for the first year of life is considered best nutrition wise, although baby formula is a healthy alternative. Infants should also be kept clean, attend well-baby doctor visits and receive necessary vaccines.
Psychological: Infants need a secure attachment to their parents. By age 2, toddlers can experience a full range of emotions, but may lack the cognitive skills to make sense of their feelings and to control them.
Social: Infants will learn their value and worth within the family unit. Children will “push the boundaries”, so consistent management of rules and healthy discipline is important for children to know what is expected of them both in the home and in social situations.
Spiritual: Infants are incredibly intrigued by the world around them. 2 – 3 year olds are known for asking over 300 questions a day.
Early Childhood (ages 3 – 6)
Early childhood is when a child’s world truly begins to open up before them. Children become more independent and begin to take notice of others – such as adults and children outside of the family. Interactions with others begin to nurture their personality and shape their own ways of thinking and moving.
Biophysical: Healthy age-appropriate diet, active play – especially that which mimics life, such as pretend play (“house”, “doctor”)
Psychological: Especially around ages 5 and 6, children should be preparing for kindergarten, should be potty trained towards the end of this stage, begin some independent actions such as dressing self and feeding self, and be assigned age appropriate chores to provide functionality and input in family dynamics.
Social: Children still need clear and consistent discipline to understand social boundaries. Children are also paying close attention to the relationships around them, and are watching their parents and family members for social cues. For example, if you want your child to practice self-control, be sure you are exhibiting self-control yourself.
Spiritual: Children may have very rough ideas of what they would like to be when they grow up, usually modeled after mom and dad.
Middle Childhood (ages 6 – 8)
By this time, children continue to grow more independent – being able to dress themselves, tie their shoes, etc. Having independence from family starts to become more important in this stage. Going to school opens children up to more constant contact with others, and friendships become more important.
Biophysical: A healthy diet never goes out of style, regardless of age. Children should also be getting plenty of exercise. This is a great age to enroll children into athletics to foster team building, confidence, and physical fitness/
Psychological: Friendships are starting to become more important at this stage. There is an intense desire to be liked by peers, and children will start to think about their futures and where their place is in the world.
Social: Friendships become more important during this stage as children have an intense need to be liked. Children may fall into peer pressure more easily during this stage, so it is important to talk to children about how to handle peer pressure. Bullying may also become a problem during this stage.
Spiritual: If being raised in a faith-based home, children in this stage may start having questions about the beliefs of the family. Children may begin to wonder what their purpose is, or have questions such as what happens after you die.
Late Childhood (ages 8 – 11)
The child’s independence from family and focus on friendships definitely becomes more obvious during this stage. Healthy friendships are extremely important during this time, so parents should be paying attention to the crowd that their children hang out with. For girls, puberty may begin around this time – which is prime time for mental health problems to begin cropping up. If there is a history of mental health problems in the family, now is the time to discuss those problems.
BioPhysical: Healthy diet and exercise, physical changes during puberty (especially for girls), increased awareness of body.
Psychological: If there is a history of mental health problems in the family, now is when they may begin popping up.
Social: Friendships are becoming more complex, and it is becoming more important for strong peer relationships. Parental relationships are still important though – children need to know that as life becomes more complex, they still have the support and love of their parents to fall back on.
Spiritual: A lot of questioning and doubts occur during this stage, which is healthy and normal. Children should be encouraged to think through their doubts and form their own opinions with healthy guidance from parents.
Symptoms look different in children than in adults!
Children who are struggling look like:
Young Teens (ages 11 – 14)
Puberty is definitely in full swing for both boys and girls during this stage. 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, so if conversations surrounding mental illness have not yet been addressed, now is the time to do it. Peer pressure continues to mount during this stage as teens want to fit in yet struggle with finding their own identity. Teens may make their own choices about friends, sports, and school. They become much more independent with their hobbies and interests, although the family unit continues to be very important.
BioPhysical: Keep on keeping on with the good diet and exercise. This may become more difficult as teens naturally need to eat and sleep more, thus it may be harder to fit in healthy choices and enough physical activity. Stress from school and homework may also contribute to less-than-desired sleep.
Psychological: The need to fit in with peers and be accepted causes friction with the need to be unique and find their own identity. Young teens may start to develop that classic teenage attitude. Strict discipline is not as effective as it was as a child anymore; teens need to understand the whys behind actions and decisions.
Social: Young teens continue to develop complex relationships, perhaps finding interest in romantic partners and dating. Increased peer pressure to experiment with drugs or sex are additional conversations that should be had with parents.
Spiritual: Young teens are much more aware of their futures. Schools may offer aptitude tests, which may stress young teens out more than they help. Mounting pressure to decide on a career begins to really take shape as teens enter into high school and are expected to select classes to cater to their career interest. The push for good grades to get into college also increases during high school. This can be the source of a lot of stress. Young teens should be reminded that they do not need to have their careers mapped out by graduation.
Teenagers (ages 15 – 20)
Ah, teenagers. The dreaded teen years are some of the roughest years of life, although many adults tend to forget how tough their teen years really were. With emotions off the charts due to raging hormones, the stress of academic perfection, the battle of fitting in versus being one’s own self, and an ever-looming imposter syndrome, teens have it pretty rough. What compounds the problem is hearing from adults that the teen years are the “best years of your life” – while the intent is to provide hope, often times such statements make teens feel anxious that they are not enjoying their best years, and fear that their best years are almost over. Teens that are 18+ have a conflicting sense of adulthood. They are adults by law, but oftentimes won’t find themselves living away from their parents until closer to their mid-twenties.
BioPhysical: Teenagers need more sleep and more food during this important stage of their lives. Continue to promote healthy choices and regular exercise.
Psychological: Pressure to be the best explodes during this time. Stress from school, extracurriculars, and work push students to their limits.
Social: Dating relationships definitely start to take hold during this time. Heartbreak, cheating, and other social traumas may begin to take their toll. 1 in 3 teenagers will be in an unhealthy relationship6. If you haven’t already, have conversations now surrounding dating violence.
Spiritual: Teens may feel distress regarding their futures. Most teens only have rough ideas of what they want to do with their lives by graduation; and even then about 80% of college students end up changing their major at least once7. Beliefs about faith and spirituality begin to solidify around this time, but are certainly still malleable.