Children's Mental Health Month
Go-To Strategies to Support Your Child’s Mental Health
Before I work with children in the playroom, their parents complete a host of developmental history paperwork and a parent intake session so I can better understand what the family is experiencing in the present, what they’ve experienced in the past, and what type of future they want to build. In these sessions, I have seen so many parents at the crossroads of vulnerability and fear. In each detail that they share, there’s a plethora of unspoken fears, “What if the therapist blames me? What if I’ve been doing it all wrong? What if my child is struggling because of me?” Those are really big feelings and incredibly weighty burdens. And, as a therapist, I can (and want to) tell you that all humans–but especially children–have the gift of neuroplasticity (i.e. the ability–on a neurological level–to grow and change your brain, no matter your age, or developmental stage, or life experiences). The fact that you are here, reading this newsletter, shows you’re taking steps towards helping your child.
Parents can be children’s greatest allies and we here at WBMA seek to support parents at the same time that we help children. So, in honor of Children’s Mental Health Month, here are three take-aways to help your child’s mental health.
Connect and Redirect
Children thrive with structure and boundaries. That doesn’t always mean they enjoy them, but the predictability associated with boundaries helps their worlds feel secure. Creating structure and boundaries is one of the many ways we can send cues of safety to children. This, in turn, promotes regulation (i.e. the state of being in which our “thinking brain” and “feeling brain” parts can communicate optimally). When your kiddo pushes back on the boundaries and begins to get dysregulated, remember Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s language of “connect and redirect”. First, connect with their experience by naming the feeling, empathizing, and offering cues of safety through your proximity, body language, tone of voice, rate of speech, and even how deep or shallow you are breathing! (Note: the more you can engage in slow, deep breaths, the better). This might sound like, “Oh, wow–you are really upset! This is not what you wanted to happen! You want to keep playing, but the timer went off and it’s time to clean up. That can be really hard.” Next, offer some comfort: “Would you like a hug?” (if they say no, respect their no and stay quietly in the same room as them). As they become more regulated from these cues of safety, redirect them: engage them in something that is within the boundaries. Sometimes, elements of humor and some degree of choice can be useful: “As we walk to the car, should we walk like elephants or monkeys?” Offering co-regulation (i.e. “connecting”) and holding boundaries can be consuming and repetitive work. The payoff, however, is rich. Every time you offer your child co-regulation, you are getting them one step closer to internalized co-regulation (i.e. self-regulation). You're also meeting the need they have in the moment (for co-regulation) and reinforcing that their needs are met almost all the time, so there's less of a need for mountain-sized reactions going forward. Lastly, you're reinforcing for them that all their feelings are welcome/you can handle them; this is ESSENTIAL groundwork for the teen years when they’re going to have big feelings and questions about adult things (like sex and drugs and relationships and peer pressure). By allowing all feelings (but not all behaviors), you're setting the stage for open communication rather than hiding what they’re really experiencing.
10 Minutes a Day
Part of why I take a play-based approach to therapy with children is because, in the words of the renowned play therapist Garry Landreth, “Toys are children’s words and play is their language”. Play gives children–even our kiddos who have been speaking for years– the vehicles they need to process their thoughts, feelings, and life events. Play is a developmentally appropriate way to try on different personas and behaviors. Play is how children practice problem solving and sharing their emerging identities and interests. Join your child in that process by engaging in at least 10 minutes of high-quality play time each day. This means screens and other distractions put away–for all parties!--and following your child’s lead.
Many of us have heard about and invested time and resources in optimizing our circadian rhythms–our sleep cycle, but did you know that equally important are our ultradian rhythms? Our ultradian rhythms are our wake cycles. Just like our sleep cycles ebb and flow in quality, when engaged in ultradian rhythm, we can only be engaged/operate at peak performance for so long (typically an hour and a half). At this point, you need to take a break and do something restful or playful for 5 minutes. When we consistently ignore this need for rest and/or play (e.g., plow through with stress hormones or caffeine), we are more prone to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and stress-related illnesses.
Parenting is hard work–it’s important to take care of yourself! Invest in your own self-care so that you can show up for your kids when it gets tough. Below are some go-to strategies:
○ “Self-care in the background”; set up your environment to periodically come across things that elicit happiness (from different senses is great, like a wind chime or an essential oil; bring mindfulness/awareness to it)
○ Use the time you wash your hands to take a pause and feel the water and soap. Take a breath.
○ Put in your ear buds, or don’t, and dance to a favorite song.
○ Set an alarm for the same time each hour. When it goes off, take 10 slow deep breaths.
○ Visualize a calm, safe place and spend five minutes there.
○ Give yourself permission to tell someone that this is really hard.
○ Set an alarm for the same time each hour. When it goes off, repeat the mantra “I am enough. I am doing the best I can, and my best is good enough.”
Janelle McCarthy, LGPC
Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor