May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
We are a year into the pandemic and we can really see the impact of the last year on our children. We can FEEL it too. Last year we spoke about possible changes in behavior due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now behaviors are even more concerning. We are seeing behaviors and attitudes at risk of long-term effects from the pandemic year, particularly for young children. Children experience life with their whole body as they learn to integrate their life experiences into learning and memories. It is important to know what mental health looks like in children because it is portrayed behaviorally, not verbally like in adults, because their brains develop in sequence with the cognitive thinking parts last.
The behaviors that arise may not be only concerning to you, they may also elicit anger and worry from you, which escalates your reactivity towards your child. Your desire to want to control is high, resulting in a cycle of screaming, crying, meltdown, timeouts, and blowups for everyone involved. Parents, we understand you are doing the best you can right now because YOU TOO have been under the same amount of stress as your children. Even with the hope of vaccinations and businesses opening up, we all know in the back of our minds “a shut down can happen again.”
With the ever-changing “routines'' of this pandemic, children and adults have experienced daily high stressors and small traumas. Overtime, this impacts both parent and child mental health functioning because we know in the brain this level of strain has become a big “T” trauma that will have lasting effects for this generation and the next. The awesome thing is that we know how to instill protective factors for our children to develop resiliency. We know that RELATIONSHIPS and being CONNECTED are the necessary aspects for healthy brains and development for humans.
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely [they] will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”― Dr. Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook
Therefore Grown-Ups: it is our responsibility to role model stress management, and this includes attuning to your own mental health as well. Children use their mirror neurons to establish neuronal links in their brains, which create the functional patterns of how to respond to situations based on what they have learned. This means that childrens’ brains are copying their parents’ brains to learn how to regulate and cope with stress. This is why co-regulation between a parent and child is so important. A parent cannot expect a favorable behavioral response from a child when they themselves are unable to demonstrate the very same behavioral response. It is particularly difficult when you see a mini-you looking at you. Self-care is SO important for parents for this reason. Our culture has made self-care a “wishful thought,” a “just some rest and movies will do it” kind of action. Self-care is much more than this; it is ensuring your body and your brain are functioning well together and are in a regulated state. A regulated state is necessary so that we can be PRESENT for those stressful moments we know are coming from our children. Self-care requires you to take time to be alone, to exercise, to walk in nature, to read a book, to create artwork, to dance, to laugh, to do what your body needs to bring your brain online again to function at its best.
Connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity- Dr. Bruce Perry. “What happened to you?” Converstations on trauma, resilience, and healing.
As we have stated, children express their feelings with their bodies, so when they are stressed and overwhelmed we SEE it before we understand what may be going on for them. The initial miss is not by choice, rather it is a response to parental stress. During traumatic periods, a parent’s brain is under stress too, meaning they are less responsive in healthy ways to their children. Parents, give yourself a break and take a big breath before responding to a child. You need time for your brain to calm your body and for you to be less reactive IN THE MOMENT. What do we want our children to remember about that moment?
“We make memories, but memories make us, too…" Dr. Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook
We cannot control our environments; we can control how we respond to them. We have created a list of behaviors for parents to be aware of. This list consists of indicators that a child is experiencing emotional and/or psychological challenges. Don’t panic. Recognizing comes first, responding comes second, and seeking support from a professional comes next. A PDF of resources can be found here.
Signs children are stressed and/or anxious –
Crying and difficulty managing emotions
Overly picky about foods and/or only wanting to repeat the menu every day.
Sleep Challenges: Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
Avoiding activities or events they once enjoyed
Physically lashing out, hitting, striking, and throwing things
Negativity: “Everything is wrong”
Feeling overly worried and/or repeating of statements
Anger: The perception of danger, stress or opposition triggers fight or flight, leaving your child angry and without a way to communicate.
Defiance: They are not able to communicate what is really going on. This is not a lack of discipline, rather a situation where they are out of control, feeling helpless and having challenging behavior.
Overplanning: trying to control situations and/or events to every last detail.
Refusing to listen to simple instructions
Chandeliering: suddenly flying off the handle for no reason.
Lack of Focus: So caught up in their own thoughts that they cannot pay attention to what is going on around them.
Regression of behaviors: potty training, separation anxiety, and seeking out soothing objects (blankets and/or stuffies).
Signs kids are depressed –
Depressed Mood: They just seem “down” for no apparent reason.
Loss of interest and/or caring: They are not interested in normal activity and/or they do not care about things they used to enjoy.
Feelings of guilt or worthlessness; you might hear “I can’t do anything right.”
Feel helpless, like there is no way to make things improve.
Hopelessness and/or Discouraged, a lack of interest in trying, statements like “what does it matter” or “who cares,” and no plans for the future.
Difficulty concentrating: This could like trouble working on homework, listening to a conversation, or paying attention to anything for too long.
Agitated, irritable, and/or over-reacting to the smallest events or comments.
Sad; if you took their picture throughout the day, would they smile?
Lack of Emotion: They might not express their feelings at all, a kind of emotional deadness.
Suicidal thoughts: You might hear them comment with empathy about a suicide in a movie, perhaps with a comment like, “yeah, that’s a way out.”
Disconnected: Are they disconnecting from family, friends, and other people?
Decreased energy: Everything they do takes more of an effort.
Sleep Challenges: Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping all day.
Change in appetite: Are they eating more or less than usual?
Screen-seeking. Loss of interest in anything that requires focus and/or work (art, writing, reading) and seeking more screen time. Hard time to get them off of screens.
This list includes the most common behavioral and emotional responses, and there may be others. In general, if a child is behaving oddly or different from their norm, there is likely some mental health challenges occurring for them. Here are some ways you can approach your child to encourage emotional well-being and decrease stress between you and them.
Identify the emotion you see them experience (go beyond happy, mad, sad, scared); think about what they are experiencing and work to name it. If you get it wrong, that is ok, they will correct you. It is the fact that you are trying to help them figure out their feelings that they will appreciate. They will feel you have SEEN them and have responded to their NEED. This feeling heard will enhance your connection with them and decrease stress in the relationship. When a human feels heard they are able to regulate and relate to them, creating a moment of connection and a sense of BELONGING. All humans strive to belong somewhere and to someone, we are a relational species.
Be present. This seems simple however sitting with and being close to an upset child is a challenge! To be present you are demonstrating with your body that you are with them in their experience and are not afraid of their strong emotions. If you are working to “be with” them, you have to not be on your phone, not be distracted, and not be engaging in conversations.
STOP TALKING! Yes, this is important, they cannot hear our words, or make meaning of them, when in distress. This is not the time to explain, teach, lecture or question- this is the opposite of being present. Being present is being ok with strong emotions and being in connection. Through this simple gesture of being present, you are providing what they NEED. Talking is a top-down communication approach, your child’s brain is functioning at a lower level. Your presence, your calm, your smell, and/or your hugs will be necessary for the calm to return to your child. We must connect with the body and the senses to reach our children when they are in distress. Talking comes later, much later.
Engage in PLAY! Taking time to play with your child gives both of you “Joy Juice” (happy chemicals in your brain). Play means entering your child's world and following their lead. You will be surprised at what 15 min a day of child-led play could do for your relationship. As much as a child's emotional and mental health comes out in negative behaviors, it comes out in positive and relational ones too! In play, a child can tell you about their day's experience, what was fun, and what sucked for them. This knowledge gives you the insight to accurately identify emotions, both positive and negative. Make time to play with your child, to be curious about them, to be connected with them, and to be with them in their emotions. All of this will strengthen the child-parent bond and encourage healthy emotional and mental health at the same time. We encourage you to schedule this time with them, so a child has some predictability and consistency for when they will get to be connected to you again.
At Olympia Therapy we use the work of Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model when providing therapy to children and educating parents on improving their connectedness with their children. Here is a quote to tell you why we do this:
“The most traumatic aspects of all disasters involve the shattering of human connections. And this is especially true for children. Being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane—these are profoundly destructive experiences. Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us inevitably involve relational loss. As a result, recovery from trauma and neglect is also all about relationships—rebuilding trust, regaining confidence, returning to a sense of security, and reconnecting to love. Of course, medications can help relieve symptoms, and talking to a therapist can be incredibly useful. But healing and recovery are impossible—even with the best medications and therapy in the world—without lasting, caring connections to others.” Dr. Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook
Remember, if a child feels connected they will be protected from the hardships in life. The strategies above will encourage and strengthen your child-parent bond. If you are feeling you or your child need more support, reach out to a local Registered Play Therapist in your community.
If you are interested in learning more about this way of parenting. Look into our sister site Playful Wisdom where you can join with other like-minded parents, seeking to parent the whole child in an integrative parenting style founded in Child-Parent Relationship Training, Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, and Dr. Brene Brown’s Shame Resilience teachings. This program was created by Registered Play Therapists and neuroscience believers that have been parenting their own children using the Foundations of Playful Wisdom as a guidepost.
by Cary Hamilton LMHC, RPT-S, NCC, CMHS, CDWF
& Sarah Moran LMFT, RPT