When most people think of childhood, they usually remember the long afternoons spent building forts with friends, or maybe they think back to the days spent playing with Nerf toys and Lego blocks.
Unfortunately, many children also experience hardships and stressful events that impact their development, affecting their ability to interact with others and to grow successfully into adolescence. For these children, complications like divorce, natural disasters, behavior disorders, and other concerns play a large role in how they develop cognitively and emotionally.
But child counselors exist to analyze and determine the best course of action to introduce new skills and abilities to help this group of troubled youth look at life in a new light.
Mental Health Concerns of Children
Mental health issues extend to all areas of a troubled child's life, negatively affecting the development of important learning, social, and problem-solving skills. For a child attempting to understand the negative events in his or her life, doing homework or paying attention in class sometimes seems like an impossible task.
Distressed children often exhibit symptoms such as long periods of sadness, withdrawn behavior, difficulties concentrating, throwing temper tantrums, feeling anxious and worried, and expressing feelings of responsibility and guilt over situations they can't control.
In order to treat this group of children, counselors introduce different therapy techniques to assist the children with issues such as traumatic experiences, concentration troubles, and behavioral concerns.
Mental Health Stats for Children
According to “Responding to the Crisis in Children's Mental Health: Potential Roles for the Counseling Profession,” published in The Journal of Counseling and Development, statistics show that many children suffer mental health problems in youth that sometimes extend to adulthood.
- One in five children has a diagnosable mental health or addictive disorder.
- One in 10 children has a serious emotional disturbance that significantly impairs functioning at school and home.
- Of these mental health disorders, 31% are disruptive behavior disorders, 21% are mood disorders, and 16% are adjustment disorders.
- One in 10 males between the ages of 3 and 17 is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.
- Estimates show that 70% of those individuals with mental health concerns will not receive mental health care.
Helping with Traumatic Experiences
Children in the United States are often involved in traumatic situations and natural disasters, experiences that the child is unable to make sense of or adequately process. Tornadoes, oil spills, earthquakes, and all forms of abuse are all situations where children feel out of control, and are unable to accurately express their feelings.
According to “Childhood Trauma and Play Therapy: Intervention for Traumatized Children,” published in The Journal of Professional Counseling: Practice, Theory, and Research, trauma is defined as “the mental result of one sudden, external blow, or a series of blows, rendering the young person helpless and breaking past ordinary coping and defensive operations.”
In the article, author Yumiko Ogawa writes that childhood trauma typically occurs in two instances: A child either undergoes a single, sudden, unexpected timely event, such as a death or natural disaster, or a child feels stress from a long-standing ordeal, such as abuse.
Unless a counselor works with a child to understand and cope with these events, the child risks developing anxiety disorders, panic disorders, or social phobias.
Ogawa states that children sometimes feel uncomfortable turning to parents for support during this time because parents might mistakenly believe that talking about a traumatic event with their child will worsen the child's anxiety. This teaches children that they shouldn't express themselves, having the opposite effect that the parents expected.
In addition, when a child experiences a traumatic event, the child loses his or her sense of security, becoming fearful of the world.
Because children are more likely to exhibit reactions to trauma through play, drawings, and stories, play therapy is an effective way of examining how children feel. The goal of this type of therapy is to give children a sense of mastery over the event, allowing them to feel in control, and helping them develop a more positive outlook on their lives
Play therapy also allows a counselor to observe how a child is reacting to a traumatic event, while also encouraging the expression of these feelings.
During play therapy, the counselor usually provides a set of toys that the child uses to relate to the specific traumatic experience.
For example, Ogawa writes about visiting a young girl in New York City one month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Using Lego blocks, the girl built two buildings representing the World Trade Center towers. Then, expressing a sense of empowerment, the girl made a pair of feet and placed them at the bottom of the towers so that they could run away if they were attacked.
While play therapy is useful for treating those who experience trauma, it's also an efficient way to treat the significant number of children with behavioral disorders.
Play Therapy and Children with ADHD
Counselors treating children with concentration problems face a tough task. Often, talk therapy is unsuccessful because children might find it confusing and not understand the point. In order to reach these children, counselors often use play therapy.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that children with ADHD represent nearly 5% of the entire U.S. population. In fact, ADHD is the most frequently diagnosed childhood behavioral disorder.
In “Strength-based Mental Health Counseling for Children with ADHD: An Integrative Model of Adventure-based Counseling and Adlerian Play Therapy,” published in The Journal of Mental Health Counseling, the authors analyze the efficacy of using play therapy to treat children with behavioral disorders.
According to researchers Torey L. Portrie-Bethke and others, adventure-based counseling combines group counseling, outdoor education, and experimental learning that typically function as metaphors for everyday stressors.
Adlerian Play Therapy is Split into Four Phases:
- Building a relationship with the children
- Exploring the lifestyles of the children
- Helping children gain insight into their lifestyles
- Learning methods to enhance attitudes, behavior, and cognition
By integrating an interactive and stimulating environment in each of these phases, counselors teach children with ADHD important skills and techniques to manage their symptoms.
For more information on play therapy techniques, see Adlerian Play Therapy.
Counseling Children with Behavioral Problems
In addition to children with ADHD, those with behavioral problems often face challenges in the classroom. Many children outwardly express frustration and anger toward their peers, prompting counselors to teach them proper interpersonal skills.Sometimes to young children, not getting their own way feels like the most unfair thing in the world. They might not want to share, or maybe they say they “don't feel like” doing a task.
But when these children throw tantrums, start fights, and become so angry that it affects their abilities to learn, counselors must work with them to develop anger management abilities. In the classroom, troubled children have difficulty interacting with the other kids, sometimes manifesting as aggressive behavior, while also engaging in a power struggle with teachers by misbehaving in class or not listening.
Children who act out in anger and frustration over interpersonal matters must learn to effectively manage their anger, and develop strong social skills to reduce their aggressive tendencies. In “Group Counseling Elementary School Children Who Use Aggressive Behavior,” published in Guidance and Counseling, researchers say that children must accept their feelings of anger, but also must learn ways to constructively express and deal with them.
In the article, researcher John Stewart and others describe that a group counseling method gives children exhibiting bad behavior insight into the source of their anger, as well as opportunities to express themselves differently.During the first session, the counselor asks the children questions about what led to their aggression. The counselor might first ask the children to answer, “Who am I, and how do I feel when I get into a fight?” or “What do others think about me when I fight?”
The children would then brainstorm the feelings they experience when they fight, and describe them in front of the rest of the group. This shows the children that different people react in different ways to certain feelings. This might lead the counselor to make the observation that personal feelings and behaviors are controllable, but other people's feelings, decisions, and choices are not. This shows the children that while the choices and decisions of others can't be changed, they can change the way they personally react to a situation.
To gain a better insight into their behaviors, the children perform role-playing exercises to see how they could react differently in a situation. For example, children might role-play a situation where one child refuses to share a ball.
The children would act out the situation, receiving comments and reactions from the rest of the group. In this way, many of the children in the group view the situation from a new perspective, and give suggestions for what the misbehaving child should have done. The counselor then gives the children “homework” where they try new behaviors like giving compliments, introducing themselves to new friends, and sharing with others. The group then reports the results to the counselor in a follow-up session.
Helping Children Grow
Children are often said to be our greatest resource, so more counselors will be needed to ensure this group successfully reaches adolescence, and eventually, adulthood.