Saturday, December 2, 2017

Healthy Habits: When to Get Help for Kids’ Fears, Anxiety

If your child falls and may have a broken arm, you get her or him medical attention. Kids who struggle with schoolwork? You get them academic help such as tutors.

So when your child or a youngster in your care shows signs of mental health issues, please get help right away.

“I’m so relieved.”
Thanks to efforts by health care providers, schools, churches, community organizations and individuals, we are making progress in reducing the stigma of mental health. Yet there are still some perceptions of seeking mental health help for kids we must overcome.

Nearly all parents who seek out mental health services for their children tell me “I’m so relieved. I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner.”

Why ask for help
Here is some guidance on kids’ mental health:

Even if your child is very young, it’s okay to ask for help. The “he will grow out of it” or “she won’t remember this” approach can cause kids to develop adverse effects and unhealthy ways to cope. Consider the broken arm or academic struggle example. Left without attention, any health issue will likely become worse and more complicated to treat. 

Mental health professionals can use play therapy, even for kids as young as 2 years old, to assess and address issues. Other health professionals use combinations of talking and play therapy to help kids.

How help helps
What if a relative has died or a good friend has moved away and now your child can’t sleep? Or what if your child has a physical medical condition and has many health care appointments for tests and treatments? Now they have a hard time trusting others and become easily agitated and upset. What if children no longer see one of their parents and cry all of the time because they think it’s their fault?

Issues of abandonment and trust are very common in kids, and different children react to each level of trauma in very different ways.

When a child receives services from a trained mental health professional, she or he learns to express and cope with feelings, feel valued and process experiences. This then allows kids to more smoothly move on to other developmental milestones.

Warning signs your child may need professional help
While one of these items may be a phase or a change in development, when there are multiple changes over several weeks or months, it might be time to seek professional help. 

Interactions with others 
Your child has become withdrawn or hyper aware/sensitive for the past three months. Teachers or caregivers also notice distinct behavior changes.

Your child no longer has an appetite when they were eating well before (not just due to being picky) or she or he eats as a way to emotionally console themselves.

Your child now struggles to fall or stay asleep for more than a week (when they have been able to sleep regularly before).

Another sign is when these behavior changes cross over to various situations, such as not just lack of energy at daycare or school but also at home and in other situations.

Who to talk to
1. Be sure to honestly answer all questions during well child checkups. Most healthy kid visits and physicals guide you to talk with your little ones’ doctors about mental health as well. 

2. If you have concerns, talk with your child’s main health care provider. Or, find someone in your community who is professionally trained to work with children’s mental and emotional health. You can ask kids’ teachers, day care providers and fellow parents for who to call.
Value of play therapy
This approach is good for kids who are ages 2-10, done with a trained mental health professional. Children don’t communicate the same ways as adults, yet even kids who are too young to talk (or those reluctant to talk) can choose certain toys and play in ways that convey thoughts and feelings. Play allows children to make sense of complicated emotions and gain mastery and understanding about difficult experiences. Play is the language of children and toys are their words. Play is a safe and familiar place to have those experiences. 

There are also many trained professionals who are able to work with adolescents through a combination of talk and play.  

Above all, consider kids’ mental health as important as other aspects of their wellness, and get care if needed.

About the Author: Monica Handlos is a Clinical Social Worker at Pediatric Home Service (PHS), based in Roseville, Minn. She has a Masters degree in Social Work, is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and is trained in individual therapy, sibling support and experiential play therapy. An independent children’s home health care agency, PHS is dedicated to serving its mission: taking care of the child. This work is done by providing comprehensive pediatric home care services to help kids with medical complexities live as fully as possible – at home, with their families, rather than in the hospital.

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