Former Surgeon General David Satcher once said, “There is no health without mental health.”
With National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day being May 7, there is no better time than now to discuss the importance of our children’s mental health.
Additionally, with the Brevard community trying to manage COVID-19, we need to be especially sensitive to nurturing the mental health of our children and caregivers.
The research is clear that mental health influences a child’s development, future relationships and even physical health.
The mental health of our children also impacts the community, starting with their families, friends, school environment and services needed to accommodate the children’s needs.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 1 in 6 children in the U.S. ages 2 through 8 have some form of mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.
According to the CDC:
• More than 9 percent of children ages 2 through 17 years (approximately 6.1 million) have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
• More than 7 percent of children ages 3 though 17 (4.5 million) have been diagnosed with a behavioral problem.
• Seven percent of children ages 3 through 17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
• More than three million children from 3 through 17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have been diagnosed with depression.
If these statistics are not troubling enough, the CDC has collected evidence indicating these rates are increasing.
Beyond diagnoses of behavioral developmental disorders, schools are dealing with a rising number of homeless students and children living in poverty; thus, parents and teachers alike are required to regularly address aggressiveness, sensory sensitivities, learning disorders, tantrums, sibling rivalry, fears and sleep disturbances.
COVID-19 has obviously added additional anxiety provoking issues; among those being fear of catching the illness, missing school friends and teachers, schedule changes, distancing from friends, missing birthday parties, team sports participation and social events.
High School students are dealing with sports competitions, proms and graduation events being cancelled. Parents are facing the additional stress of becoming home schoolteachers.
Now, more than ever we need to appreciate our children’s stressors while finding ways to support children’s resilience while also finding treatment when necessary. (Resilience, meaning the ability for children to bounce back from stress, adversity and failure.)
Facilitating and strengthening resilience in our children is critical to help them deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
Building resilience in children starts with parents and caregivers being present.
Playing with them is one of the best ways to be present. Play not only allows children to explore and understand their world, but to recognize their limits, listen to their internal signals and communicate.
Parents engaging with children in fun activities like dancing, playing board games, reading books, having movie nights and playing outdoors help build trust and attachment.
Children need challenges to strengthen their coping abilities, knowing adults will support them when and if they fall.
Humor is a terrific gift to bestow on children. Humor, more than anything, can shift emotions and provide time to reassess situations. Nothing brings children to join with their parents like hearing laughter.
Events likes this pandemic undermine everyone’s sense of control, which can lead to confusion and a rush to judgement.
Anxiety can produce fear and panic attacks, lack of concentration and difficulties learning.
At the same time children are often more resilient than we expect.
Children are capable of learning to cope and problem solve; to investigate challenges and respond with positive options rather than just reacting with impulse.
Confidence comes from children taking risks and seeing they can be successful.
Children naturally look to their parents to solve their problems, but continually rescuing them from every problem gives them the opposite message, thus, they do not learn to manage challenges.
Additionally, parents modeling calm behavior and demonstrating coping skills during difficult times help children learn coping skills, even when parents are worried and anxious.
Finally, physical exercise is one of the best stress relievers for a child or adult. Walking, running, biking or simple unstructured outdoor play reduces the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol, increases endorphins and oxygen flow to the brain.
It is important to note, children’s mental health is linked to the parents and caregivers’ mental health.
In order to improve the mental function of children you must work with parents; often, the best predictor of a child’s mental health will be the relationship with their parents and or caregivers.
Recognizing the mental health needs of caregivers and addressing them is always the best practice. Research shows when a child is anxious or depressed, more likely one or both parents are also suffering from anxiety or depression.
The fact of the matter is families of special needs children experience higher levels of divorce than families of typically developing children.
Research indicates parents of special needs children experience more stress, depression and a sense of isolation.
Recognizing parent stresses and mental health needs should always be identified and addressed in order to improve the child’s mental health.
Resources to learn more about children’s mental health can be found at https://www.adolescenthealth.org/Resources/Clinical-Care-Resources/Mental-Health/Mental-Health-Resources-For-Parents-of-Adolescents.aspx, or on the CDC’s Children’s Mental Health page, or at https://www.healthychildren.org
Joseph A. Werner, OTD, OT/L is a Doctor of Clinical Occupational Therapy at Child and Family Consultants in Melbourne, and director of the Brevard Autism Coalition.
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