What is Paediatric Psychiatry?

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Paediatric psychiatry focuses on the mental health and well-being of children, adolescents and their families. Paediatric psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health disorders in young individuals. These professionals work with a wide range of conditions.

 

What is Normal Brain Development?

The human brain is made up of different regions that are each responsible for specific functions such as involuntary behaviours like breathing and digesting food, processing sensory input, learning and memory, responding to external stimuli, and more. Each of these specialised regions is composed of millions of neurons, which are messenger cells that communicate with synapses. A synapse receives the message and helps translate it into an action. Together, these neurons and synapses form the wiring of the brain and enable connections to be made.

 

Understanding Brain Function

Each function in our brain is associated with a particular connection. The organisation and number of these connections affect our ability to perform certain tasks. When we are born, we have all the neurons we will ever have in our lifetime. Learning occurs when the brain creates new connections between existing neurons. Sometimes, this process involves breaking older connections that are no longer needed. As a result, the saying "If you don't use it, you lose it" holds true.

 

How Does Brain Development Affect Children’s Mental Health?

Most of your brain's development happens before you even realise its impact on your life. The majority of brain development occurs during the first five years of life. These first five years are known as the sensitive or critical period, during which experiences can have a lifelong impact on the brain.

 

Life Experiences and How They Affect Brain Development

Certain experiences can impact the development of different parts of the brain at different rates. Maternal support can contribute to higher growth rates in the hippocampus, which is linked to emotional development. Children who experienced adversity in their early years of life tend to have decreased growth rates in the neocortex and increased growth rates in certain subcortical brain regions.

This lack of growth in the neocortex can lead to antisocial behaviour, while increased growth in subcortical regions can lead to impulsive behaviour. It is important to note that the way the brain develops can predispose children to developing mental health conditions.

 

Effects of Positive Early Life Experiences

Positive early experiences can create a foundation for stable mental health, while negative experiences can disrupt this foundation. If a child's ability to learn or interact with others is hindered, it can significantly affect their life. Brain development during the first five years of life is crucial and plays a significant role in shaping children's mental health

 

What Conditions Can a Paediatric Psychiatrist Treat?

Paediatric psychiatrists address a variety of mental health conditions affecting children and adolescents. Some common conditions they may diagnose and treat include:

 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) 

Neurodevelopmental disorder commonly begins in childhood and may persist into adulthood. It is characterised by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that may interfere with an individual’s daily activities.

 

Anxiety Disorders

A group of disorders that are characterised by excessive worry, fear or anxiety that significantly interferes with an individual’s life. This includes generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and specific phobias.

 

Depressive Disorders

These disorder in children involves persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in daily activities. Common types of depressive disorders include major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder.

 

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Neurodevelopmental disorders affecting social interaction, communication, and behaviour. It is referred to as a spectrum because individuals with ASD can vary widely in their symptoms and abilities.

 

Eating Disorders

These disorders are of great concern and are characterised by disturbances in eating behaviours. These disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

 

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder

A mental health condition characterised by persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviour.

 

Psychotic Disorders

These mental health conditions are very rare in children but can include conditions like childhood-onset schizophrenia. Psychotic disorders are characterised by disruption in thinking, perception and behaviour. The most prominent feature is the loss of contact with reality.

 

Paediatric psychiatrists play a crucial role in the early identification, diagnosis, and treatment of these conditions, and often involve a multi-disciplinary approach to provide comprehensive care tailored to the specific needs of each child or adolescent.

 

How Can I Promote Positive Brain Development For my Child?

If you're concerned about your little one’s stress and how it might affect their development, there are several steps you can take to ensure their proper brain and mental health development. First, make sure to interact with your child as much as possible by talking, reading, singing, playing games, and otherwise engaging with them. Also, be mindful of preventing abuse and neglect, seeking professional help if necessary.

Addressing your own mental health issues is also important, as it can affect your relationship with your child. Finally, make sure your child is getting proper nutrition to support healthy brain development during the prenatal period, infancy, and early childhood.



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