In the United States, one in five children has a diagnosable mental health disorder.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these mental health disorders seriously impact the ways children adjust at home, in the community, and at school. But thankfully, solutions exist for these troubled youth.
With their vivid imaginations, wandering curiosities, and playful attitudes, children might not comprehend the traditional therapeutic methods of treating anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
To help these children overcome challenges and difficulties in their lives, the field of Child Counseling encourages children to bolster their existing strengths through different therapy techniques.
Helping Children Find Inner Strength
Children often deal with many of the same stressors that adults face. Meeting new people, learning new skills, facing school pressures, and trying to understand difficult situations like divorce and death are confusing and anxiety provoking for everyone.
Characteristics of Resilient Children
- An active approach toward solving problems
- An ability to gain the attention of others
- An optimistic attitude even in the face of adversity
- Maintaining a positive view of the future
- An ability to be alert and autonomous
source: Promoting Resilience in At-Risk Children
But children are often unequipped to comprehend the complexities of these situations, and might shut down, react aggressively, or become anxious at the prospect of facing them.
The article “Promoting Resilience in At-Risk Children,” published in The Journal of Counseling and Development, states that children are at high risk for mental health and behavioral problems because of family discord, poverty, abuse, and other environmental concerns.
Authors Carl F. Rak and Lewis E. Patterson write that these conditions often affect a child's self-esteem and cognitive development. But still, many children grow up in these environments only to turn into productive and effective members of society.
Understanding how children use resiliency to conquer adversity is integral in child counseling. In the article, resiliency is defined as the ability to overcome environmental conditions to avoid negative outcomes like behavioral problems, psychological maladjustment, and academic concerns. To foster this sense of resiliency, counselors work with children to examine their strengths, teaching them to draw on them to face challenges.
Using Strength-Based Counseling to Help Children
The field of Child Counseling helps children examine their strengths through different counseling methods. One form of strength-based therapy is solution-focused counseling. Solution-focused counseling helps children to self-manage and cope with their problems, allowing them to live without feeling so overwhelmed.
Solution-focused counseling is often very useful for children with conduct problems, struggling with a parental divorce, or social anxieties. According to “Solution-focused Therapy: Strength-Based Counseling for Children with Social Phobia” published in The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education, and Development, solution-focused therapy is based on the fact that for every problem, there are moments called exceptions when that problem's outcome is not as severe as usual.
Counselors using solution-focused therapy help children identify these exceptions to problems, teaching them to remember the thoughts that led to those exceptions or when outcomes did not seem so negative. Central to solution-focused therapy is the use of the “miracle question.” The miracle question, quite simply, is “What if you woke up tomorrow and all of your problems were solved? How would your life be different?”
The miracle question is important because it harnesses a child's natural sense of imagination and curiosity. In the article, author Cindy M. George relates the story of Brad - a 12-year-old boy with significant social phobia. Social phobia, which affects 3% to 4% of children in the United States each year, is marked by crying, tantrums, clinging to parents, and freezing up in social situations.
Additional Facts about Children Today
- Childhood depression affects 1 in 33 children
- 50% of children with learning disabilities have ADHD
- Children are more likely to experience mental disorders if their parents also display signs of mental illness
- Signs of mental illness in children include:
- Decline in school performance
- Earning poor grades
- Throwing temper tantrums
- A constant feeling of anxiety
- Refusal to attend class
- Bad dreams and nightmares
- Repeated sadness or irritability
- Increase aggression
Source: Mental Health America
At school, Brad felt so anxious and scared around others that he was unable to participate in class, and the teacher would often skip over him when asking students to read out loud. His anxiety was so severe that he had no friends, and believed that his peers thought he was stupid. When the counselor asked Brad how his life would be different if he woke up and his problems were solved, he said he would not be afraid to talk to others, and would easily handle social situations.
Now that Brad and the counselors had established a goal, the counselor asked Brad to think of the moments where there were exceptions to his problem. Unfortunately, Brad struggled to find a time when he wasn’t fearful of social situations. To help Brad understand when his social anxiety was at its most severe – and when it was lowest – the counselor asked Brad to record moments where he noticed exceptions to his social phobias, and what emotions led to those exceptions. For each moment, Brad rated his anxiety on a 0-10 scale, with 0 denoting “most anxious.” The counselor then ended the session, and told Brad that the next time they met, they would discuss the exceptions he noticed.
The first time Brad noticed an exception was when his teacher called on him to answer a question. Brad usually did not answer questions because he felt afraid he would get the answer wrong, and his classmates would laugh at him. This time, however, Brad answered correctly, and the teacher praised him. In his notebook, Brad recorded a “5” for anxiety.
Drawing from the confidence he gained from answering the question, Brad decided to read out loud in class later in the day. He reported that it felt good to participate, and recorded a “6” for anxiety, indicating it was slowly becoming easier.
Meeting with the counselor again, Brad reported his anxiety levels were lower, and his counselor noted that he had drawn on the previous moment to motivate himself to read. Brad said that it felt good to participate, and it made him feel less nervous around the others. The counselor recommended that Brad continue to draw on those experiences and feelings, and try to meet some of his other classmates.
Brad began to feel more and more confident as he thought on the moment when he spoke in class. Usually Brad sat alone at lunch, but now he decided it was time to sit with others.
Walking toward the group of boys at the lunch table, Brad reported that he felt his heart race and almost turned back. But then he remembered the exceptions to his problem, and how good he felt after reading in class. This feeling spurred him to sit with the others, and he began to make friends.
Brad's experience with solution-focused therapy shows the strengths of this counseling technique. The therapy's focus on fostering a sense of accomplishment and drawing on personal strengths makes it an important learning tool for children, as well as an effective method of defeating anxieties and fears. For younger children who might not comprehend their strengths – or even weaknesses – other counseling methods have proven more effective, while still tapping into a child's imagination.
Bibliotherapy for Children
When reading books or a good story, it's easy to feel lost in a world of fantasy.
People project themselves on the characters, seeing themselves facing adversity and conquering a significant challenge. Sometimes they find the strength to change themselves for the better, learning valuable lessons that have far-reaching effects.
Bibliotherapy is a form of counseling that uses counselor-selected books to help guide discussions and instigate change in a client. For children, bibliotherapy is especially helpful because it taps into their sense of curiosity, and presents complex topics in interesting and digestible pieces. Books and stories help give children an internal reflection of their feelings, which is often especially helpful for children with aggression problems.
According to “Bibliotherapy: An Indirect Approach to Treatment of Childhood Aggression,” published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, bibliotherapy helps children understand aggressive behavior, its cause, and how it negatively affects others.
The article, written by Zipora Shechtman, examines a group of 8-year-old boys with aggression problems, and matches up their problems to stories and books. For example, one of the boys related that he felt angry because his parents hit him, and he could do nothing to hit back. The counselor worked with this boy, reading a story about what leads to parents' abusive behaviors, and how helpless a child feels.
The boy’s aggression was a way of attempting to gain power over others. The counselor helps the children to interpret each book, asking questions like “How would you change what happened to the characters?” and “Has anything in this story happened to you?” Given its efficacy of dealing with complex topics, bibliotherapy is also helpful for children trying to comprehend death or grief.
In “Helping Bereaved Children and Adolescents: Strategies and Implementations for Counselors,” published in The Journal of Mental Health Counseling, the researchers explain that counselors must choose books based on their ability to provide comfort, explanation, and reassurance - while still being realistic.
Authors James P. Morgan and Jesse E. Roberts wrote that children might not understand that a loved one won't come back, or they might feel guilty and responsible somehow for the death. Some younger children might believe death is reversible, and won't know how to deal with the resulting feelings of loss.
To help the children through this difficult experience, the counselor must guide the child through the story, instigating discussion questions like, “Are you like any of this story's characters?” and “What do you think will happen to the characters in this story tomorrow? In two weeks?”
The effectiveness of bibliotherapy largely lies with how a child reacts to stories. For some children, a more interactive method of counseling is more useful. For these children, play therapy harnesses their imagination and allows them to accurately express their frustrations or grief. For more information see how child counselors employ play therapy while working with children.
A Field Based on Helping Children
If you are interested in helping children solve their mental health issues and concerns, helping them become productive and healthy adolescents, consider the field of Child Counseling. Child counseling requires a master's degree in counseling or psychology. Request information from schools offering these programs to learn more about the process of entering the field of child counseling.
Integrating technology with traditional therapies
Games and technology give us insight into how we think, make decisions, and react to situations that require split-second judgments.
Today, more and more kids are playing with video games and computer systems to pass the time. Not only are games fun and interesting distractions in life, but some researchers believe they have serious potential as educational and therapeutic techniques for children with mental and behavioral disabilities.
In “The Therapeutic Use of Video games in Childhood and Adolescence,” published in The Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researcher Mark Griffiths writes that video games can be integral for therapists to make behavioral observations about a child.
For example, a counselor meeting with a child for the first time must gain a better understanding of that child's behavioral skills and abilities. Offering a video game to a child provides a good deal of insight into how the child reacts to certain situations, and could speed the counseling process.
According to Griffiths, using video games gives the counselor a first look at:
- A child's problem-solving skills
- A child's ability to perceive and recall subtle clues
- A child's ability to foresee consequences of past behavior
- A child's hand-eye coordination
- How the child reacts to aggression
- A child's ability to recall bits of basic information
Griffith states that children who display hesitance at following the traditional therapy methods, like play therapy or art therapy, tend to embrace technology readily.
He states that using technology in therapy is also extremely useful for children on the autistic spectrum, including those with Asperger's syndrome. However, he warns that certain games like shooters and other overly stimulating games might have the opposite effect on those children, increasing their inabilities to concentrate or communicate effectively with others
In the 2011 article “Playing on a Tablet as Therapy,” published in The Wall Street Journal, author Shalini Ramachandran reported on a number of therapists using multitouch technologies, like iPads and other tablet computers, to help autistic children learn more effective social skills.
Autism is marked by an inability to accurately understand social cues and communicate with others. For more information on autism, see Autism in Teenagers.
Children often find software and games more fun to participate in than traditional therapies, Ramachandran writes. One mother speaking to Ramachandran said that her autistic child attends four hours of different therapy sessions a week, but the software session was by far his favorite.
For example, to help learn facial expressions, a picture of a man's face is put on the tablet screen. As stated in the article, the instructor tells the child to make the man appear sad, so the boy manipulates the touch screen, pulling down the corners of the man's face to create a frown.
Given that this technology is so new, few studies have thoroughly examined all of its benefits. In the future, scientists and therapists will likely devote more research to adapting these emerging technologies to traditional counseling methods.