RESPONDING TO THE MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS OF OUR CHILDREN
By Dr. Nate Balfanz
Dr. Nate Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center (AMC), a comprehensive mental and medical health service clinic for expat children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Nate at: Nate.Balfanz@amc-shanghai.cn.
AS THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR PROGRESSES, HOW DO WE REMAIN RESPONSIVE TO THE MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS OF OUR CHILDREN?
After serving the Shanghai community for over four years now, I’ve witnessed an ongoing trend in mental health for many local and international children with therapeutic needs. Typically, these children are referred to therapy by a parent or school provider in the early months of the academic year when learning and/or behavioral problems begin to surface. After meeting for an initial 1-2 intake consultations, some parents will elect to discontinue the treatment for a variety of reasons—most often because one of the many school holidays is on the horizon and the timing of the treatment does not feel ideal. The holiday passes, at which point the parents question whether resuming treatment will be necessary or not. By the time they have made their decision, perhaps another school holiday is upon us and again it no longer feels like an opportune time to resume. Meanwhile, the child’s symptoms have intensified to the point where ongoing treatment is no longer an option but rather a medical necessity. By now it’s springtime, and with all the holidays finally behind them, the parents decide to commit to continuing with their child’s treatment. After trying therapy again for a couple sessions, the summer holiday arrives, the family leaves for two months, and the cycle starts all over again the following year. Does this situation sound familiar to you?
For the purposes of the current article, I’d like to step away from my traditional writing format to instead provide a guide for parents and other caregiving adults on how to earlier identify warning signs and symptoms of mental health-related concerns in your child, how to discuss these concerns with your child, as well as to underscore how ongoing, consistent adherence to mental health treatment can make all the difference in a child’s ability to effectively manage his/her symptoms.
FOUR DOMAINS OF SYMPTOMS TO ASSESS FOR MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS IN YOUR CHILD
Listed below are four separate but related domains of mental health signs and symptoms in children. While all children will experience symptoms in each of these categories from time to time, if you start to witness an elevation of symptoms across multiple domains then it’s likely the right time to schedule a visit with a mental health professional.
Feeling “on edge”
Reduced academic performance
Fluctuations in mood
Low frustration tolerance
Frequent disagreements with adults/peers
Changes in daily routine
Changes in eating/sleeping habits
Increased school absences
Withdrawing/isolating from others
TIPS FOR RESPONDING PROACTIVELY TO A CHILD’S MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS
1) Give the therapy process time. Not unlike going to the gym to work out your body, going to the therapist to work out your mind takes consistency and time. And while each case will differ, I often encourage my patients and their families to allow for 8-10 consistent, weekly sessions to start to see positive changes in mood and daily functioning really take shape.
2) Help your child to differentiate between “stress” and “distress.” Each of us operate along a continuum of stress; in fact it’s those mild to moderate doses of life stress that will help get us out of bed and motivate us to accomplish tasks throughout the day. With that said, the amount of stress we endure has its own point of diminishing returns, where once healthy, motivating stress can progress to the point of overwhelming and debilitating distress. Have a conversation with your children about what stress means, how it can be healthy, as well as how to recognize their own stress limits and when it’s time to reach out for support.
3) If you see something, say something. Often times children refrain from disclosing their mental health concerns for fear their parents won’t understand or they will be disappointed in them. As a result, the responsibility will fall on you as the concerned adult to bring up these sensitive topics with your child, particularly if you’ve noticed them exhibiting some of the signs and symptoms listed above.