Handle with Care Program Promotes Strong Mental Health in Young Children

Developing community capacity is about building on existing community strengths and resources, and the Handle with Care mental health promotion program is a perfect example of that.

Handle with Care, a program that has recently been introduced in Southern Health-Santé Sud, gives parents and caregivers of preschool children tools and training to help them prepare for and address mental health issues.

“The program helps parents to build on their own strengths and develop new skills to help them promote positive mental health,” says Dianna Meseyton-Neufeld, Healthy Living Facilitator with Public Health-Healthy Living. “It’s applicable to any parent or person working with a young child.”

More Young Children with Anxiety

Research shows that increasing numbers of children report feelings of anxiety, which is why it is important to help very young children develop the skills they need to build confidence, trust and strong, safe relationships.

Public Health-Healthy Living and the Parent Child Coalitions of Southern Health Santé-Sud have partnered to offer four training sessions in Carman, Winkler, Steinbach and Gladstone to parents and those working with preschool children, so that they can deliver the Handle with Care program within their communities.

“We heard from communities and our Flourishing Communities Advisory Group that there was a lack of mental health resources, training and skill development for this ‘younger age’ group,” says Meseyton-Neufeld. “The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority was offering this program which was showing good results, so we decided to organize training in our region.”

The program builds on community and parents’ strengths, she adds, by focusing on four core areas that are important to building and promoting mental health in young children:  building trust and attachment, building and enhancing self-esteem, expressing emotions and relationships with others.

“The program is designed to build resiliency that will reduce risk factors and help strengthen mental health,” says Meseyton-Neufeld. “As an example, if you can improve somebody’s self-esteem when they are young, that’s protecting them for later when they’re going to be faced with situations where their self-esteem is challenged.”

Helping Parents Establish Healthy Patterns

Cathy Vanstone is the Director of the Portage la Prairie Family Resource Centre.  Since she and other staff from the centre took the training, they have offered two program sessions to local parents and caregivers.

“The program stresses the importance of those things you do in everyday life that have long lasting outcomes,” says Vanstone.  That includes things such as establishing routines in families, which help build security with young children, and acknowledging the importance of family traditions.  “These are things that families often do already, but the program validates them and gets people thinking about different ways they can interact with their children.”

Many parents found the topic of social media use particularly sobering, especially when they tracked the time they spend on social media and cell phones. Many resolved to reduce that time and focus more on face-to-face time interacting with their children, which is vital to building attachment and relationships.

“We know that identification of mental health issues is happening earlier and earlier,” says Vanstone. “This program encourages parents and gives them the tools to be the ones that start healthy patterns of relating to other people and build a feeling of security with their children because, when there’s that grounding, it decreases the likelihood for issues later on.”