Thursday, May 9, 2013

National Childrens Mental Health Awareness Day

Today is National Childrens Mental Health Awareness Day which is intended to raise awareness about the importance of children's mental health and that positive mental health is essential to a child's healthy development from birth. I am not going to inundate you with raw facts and figures that may not apply to you or your children. Instead sit back and be ready to hear the realities that I have seen in my practice and what you can do to avoid harming your child's mental health.

I am going to be blunt in my assessments and suggestions for best practices. If you live in the safety of denial and don't care to provide a least harmful environment for your children then you go back to that and do what you do best – being concerned about only what you want. For the rest of you who are the same but not in denial or who are wanting to improve your child's outcome, thanks for continuing. In this article I will speak in broad terms of population groups [parents, adolescents, etc] which neither acknowledges or discounts individual aberrations.

A significant component of the adversity affecting children's mental health is substance abuse which will relate to much of what I say. Hence today's initiative is part of the effort by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

To get an instant perspective on substance abuse head to the bathroom. Before opening the door on the wall cabinet over the sink as you already know I want for you to do just take a moment to look in the mirror. What you are seeing is the number one provider and pusher of drugs for children – parents. To understand this look at the world through a child's perspective which at it's root is based in concrete thinking.

When parents try to discuss issues during a parenting time exchange and get in an argument there but don't argue throughout the stage play at the child's school there is only one conclusion to be drawn. That is, from the child's perspective, mom and dad always argue when only around me but not around groups of children or adults. Therefore, I must be the cause of their problems and their divorce. Toss the idea of social graces out the window. Lesson to be learned is don't argue in the perceptive range of the children. I use 'perceptive range' because that is what allows children to key in on the self-fault assessment. The perceptive range is what children can sense. Calling the other parent, walking outside when it starts to get heated, then coming in and slamming down the phone while letting out a big sigh before collapsing in a chair is in the child's perceptive range. It would have been better to let the child hear the argument rather than imagine what was being said “about him” and thus what he did to cause the conflict.

So then how do you become the drug pusher? Have you sat your child down and said, “When you feel pained by our divorce look through our medicine cabinet or go ask a friend for some pain pills or have some alcohol which will numb it for awhile”? Of course you didn't because that is horrible parenting. Do you unwind from a stressful day by consuming alcohol? You see where I am going with that – children learn by example. You are their primary teacher. How about the less obvious? Do you take pain pills while complaining of a stress induced headache instead of eliminating the stressor? In short do you use drugs to treat symptoms rather than eliminate or mediate causes? By doing this you teach children that the method to relieve the pain they experience, the symptom of your interpersonal relationship problems – which they cannot control – is to use drugs.

The hard reality to hear is this – DIVORCE HARMS CHILDREN and is done for the BENEFIT OF THE PARENTS' SELF INTEREST. In only the most extreme cases of mutual marital stress induced abuse of the child is separation of the parents a benefit to the child. In every case I have been involved in the parents expressed self interest as a motivator for separation. In every case I have seen or through forensic examination have observed adverse effects to the children. Overwhelmingly the children express favourable behaviours because “they don't want to see me upset.”

Not just in parental relations but in all aspects of life children need a voice. The concept of 'children should be seen and not heard' is abuse. Giving children a voice does NOT mean letting them decide. It means hearing them. Giving children a voice is asking not telling. Their 'voice' comes in many forms including sitting in silence – that is saying something. It may be through athletic interest, artistic expression [drawing especially for the youngest] clothing selections or the way in which their bedroom is kept or decorated. Ask what the expression means to them or represents. Asking why is the boy in the drawing blue is stifling the child's expression. Instead stay 'tell me about this figure'. You may find out that the 'monster' is blue cause he is sad that no one plays with him. That boy representing a monster says loads, don't ignore it.

I cannot let you escape yet without some acknowledgment of gender differences. Girls may be encouraged to discuss feelings more than are boys, which can help them avoid the sensation that stress is overwhelming. There is no reality to “tough boys don't cry”. Tough boys feel pain. People cry when they are in pain. All children should be encouraged to and provided with healthy outlets for their pain. When Therin's mother left and then tried to reenter his life by engaging in a protracted and hostile litigation process he, at age 3-4 years, took a hammer and pounded on his bed everyday. It's only a bed.

Children process and cope differently than adults. They are NOT miniature adults, they are children. They need time and opportunity to deal with their losses and stressors.

Finally, the most important is that they need acknowledgment of their feelings and that ALL feelings are fine to have while some actions are inappropriate.

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©2008, 2013 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

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