The Family is the Patient: Promoting Early Childhood Mental Health in Pediatric Care

Stephen L. Buka, Lee S. Beers, Matthew G. Biel, Nathaniel Z. Counts, James Hudziak, Stephanie H. Parade, Ruth Paris, Ronald Seifer, Stacy S. Drury

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Advances in developmental psychology, child psychiatry, and allied disciplines have pointed to events and experiences in the early years as the origin of many adult mental health challenges. Yet, children's mental health services still largely lack a developmental or prevention-focused orientation, with most referrals to mental health professionals occurring late, once problems are well established. An early childhood mental health system rooted in the principles of life-course health development would take a very different approach to designing, testing, and implementing prevention and intervention strategies directed toward early child mental health. Priorities for such a system include supporting healthy family environments, parent-child and family relationships, parents' emotional/behavioral health, and family routines as a means of providing the best possible neurobiological foundation for mental health across the life span. The system would include proactive, trauma-informed, multidisciplinary care, with integrated mental health and social services support embedded in pediatric primary care settings. Novel intervention approaches in need of further research include 2-generational dyadic interventions designed to improve the mental health of parents and children, mental health-oriented telemedicine, and contingency management (CM) strategies. Integral to this Life Course Health Development reformulation is a commitment by all organizations supporting children to primordial and primary prevention strategies to reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities in all settings. We contend that it is the family, not the individual child, that ought to be the identified target of these redesigned approaches, delivered through a transformed pediatric system with anticipated benefits for multiple health outcomes across the life course.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - May 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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