December 1, 2023

‘Children don’t have skills or tools’ to cope with mental health issues alone

(Editor’s note: This is the third in an occasional series of articles addressing mental health, including the role of faith in seeking wholeness. Future topics will include marriage and family, addictions and the role of spiritual direction. See the first part here, and the second part here.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Mental Health and Wholeness: mind - body - spiritWhen I was quite young, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, there was a time when I visited a woman named Mrs. Shaw at my pediatrician’s office.

She wasn’t a typical doctor. Instead, her office was warm and cozy. We’d sit on the floor and play games or sit at a table and color.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Mrs. Shaw was a children’s counselor. I was having trouble sleeping because of nightmares. My parents couldn’t figure out why, and I didn’t have the ability at that age to verbalize my emotions.

My mom tells me Mrs. Shaw used the playtime to ask me questions to help me talk about my feelings. She must have been good—all I remember was having fun, and later the nightmares stopped.

Not every child who has nightmares needs to see a counselor. But children can struggle with real mental health issues.

Their stage of mental development, however, provides different challenges, since their minds have not developed the skills to process and verbalize emotions.

On the other hand, they take faith at face value, says licensed mental health counselor associate Dana Padilla, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

“So, you can tell them God understands them and loves them, and they don’t question it,” she says. “They feel comforted.”

This article addresses some of the causes of childhood mental health issues, the importance of addressing them and the benefit of using faith in the healing process.

Weighing in with Padilla are licensed clinical social worker Michelle Frossard, director of school counseling for St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities (SECC) in New Albany, and Antonia Seman, a licensed mental health counselor at Emmaus Catholic Counseling in Clarksville.

‘They pick up on more than we think’

One of the greatest contributing factors to children’s mental health issues that Seman sees are problems within the family.

“If there are broken families, parent issues or marital issues, children are just so sensitive to those things,” she says. “They pick up on more than we think.”

Padilla agrees.

“I think so much of it starts with the family,” she says. “You see more and more the breakdown of the family, whether it be through divorce, separation, poor sibling relationships or lack of siblings at all, or even in cases where a parent works far away.”

Education-related stress is another source of mental health issues for the young students Padilla sees.

“So many of the kids I see, the amount of stress I see from their classes, it’s grown exponentially,” she says.

She recalls reading an article comparing the expectations of first-graders in 1979 versus 2019.

“The 1979 expectations were telling left from right and counting to 10,” she says. “In 2019, the expectations were so much higher: counting to 100 by two, five and 10, reading simple books.”

More recently, Padilla and Seman have seen issues arise from the effects of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there’s an uptick because of doing everything virtually,” says Padilla. “It’s not normal for anyone, and the younger the person, the more it impacts them. We’re seeing the effects of it now, that lack of face-to-face interaction.”

Seman agrees, noting, “We were made for relationship. So, when relationships are struggling around us it impacts our mental health—especially children, because they’re finding out what feelings are and what relationships mean to them. So, [isolation was] a struggle for them.”

‘A sign something could be going on’

If a child is experiencing a mental health issue, don’t look for them to verbally ask for help. Rather, look instead for emotional or physiological symptoms, says Frossard.

“We see symptoms like tummy aches or school avoidance” in the five Catholic schools in southern Indiana SECC contracts with to provide school counselors, she says. “Most schools have a nurse, so that log can be checked for regular visits to see if there’s a symptom, or to see if they’re missing a lot to determine if there’s something that might need to be addressed.

“Sometimes it comes out as anger, which is often an emotional bodyguard,” Frossard adds.

Padilla also sees certain child behavior as a red flag to an underlying mental health issue.

“Often when a parent comes to me for issues with a child, it’s almost always a behavior issue first,” she says. “They’re acting out with tantrums, talking back, showing disrespect for teachers.”

Seman adds isolation and withdrawal to the list of symptoms pointing to a bigger issue in a child.

“If they’re avoiding activities or people or places that they used to enjoy, that’s a sign that something could be going on,” she says.

‘Unaddressed issues grow over time’

All three specialists agree: Whether it’s physiological issues, behavior issues, negative self-talk or withdrawal, abnormal patterns should be addressed as soon as possible.

“Children don’t have the skills or tools to help themselves,” says Seman. “Unaddressed issues grow over time and can turn into negative feelings toward the self. They will come out as an adult—and bigger than when the issue started. That will have a ripple effect on their family, their children, their work.”

She advises parents to talk with their children when negative behaviors or patterns arise.

“Try to come from a place of curiosity,” Seman says. “Word [your concern] along the lines of, ‘I’ve seen this [behavior or issue] lately. I’m curious. Can you tell me more?’ Or ‘This doesn’t seem like your normal self. Can we talk about this?’

“Normalize their feelings. Say, ‘I’ve had feelings like that before, too. That’s normal. If you’re open to talking to me, I’d love to talk with you, or maybe we can find someone you’re comfortable talking to.’ ”

Having parents involved in addressing a child’s mental health issue is essential, says Frossard.

“I can’t say enough about supportive caregiving,” the social worker notes. “If I’m working with a kid, I’m working with their parents, partnering with them and talking with them. Telling them, ‘You’re the expert here. You know your child.’ ”

Parents talking with their children about issues helps children develop emotional skills later in life, Padilla adds.

“Children often don’t even know what questions to ask,” she says. “So, the parent can express their own feeling: ‘I feel really sad that grandma died.’ And [the child] can say, ‘Oh! That’s what I feel!’ Or ‘Oh! It’s OK that I feel this way.’ They learn from the parent about how to cope.”

Even if counseling is sought, parents play a crucial role in resolving a child’s mental health issue, says Padilla.

“While I do see children for therapy, I like to refer to it as family counseling,” she explains. “Because when my client is a child, truly the whole family is involved.”

‘The simple tenets of our faith can help’

Family is where the foundations of well-being are laid. When that foundation includes the Catholic faith, seeking a Catholic counselor for a child can have added benefits.

“If the family is Catholic, you can trust that a Catholic counselor will give feedback and help in line with what you teach at home, as opposed to lines of thinking that might be against what the Church teaches,” says Seman, the owner and founder of Emmaus Catholic Counseling.

She sees this truth to be especially relevant with gender dysphoria.

“Before opening my practice, I worked in a community mental health center,” she recalls. “A third to half of the children I saw were struggling with gender identity—that’s not including the high schoolers.”

Being required to “write letters” in support of gender-transitioning processes and procedures—which the Catholic Church oppose—proved a moral dilemma for Seman. She founded her practice to avoid such moral conflicts.

“Secular therapy is not all bad,” she says. “Some secular therapists may have far more training with a particular issue.

“But if the issue is related to identity or things not as severe, I would recommend a Catholic therapist.”

For Padilla, she sees the basic teachings of Catholicism being particularly helpful to young children.

“The simple tenets of our faith can help them get through so much,” says Padilla, an independent counselor in Greenwood.

Children more readily embrace truths like, “You are not alone” and “God is with us,” she says.

“I think kids can understand the soldiers were mean to Jesus, so he understands your pain when someone is mean to you. Faith can help them understand the moment and make more sense later on.”

Talking with kids about hardships Jesus, Mary and the saints endured “can make them feel like they have companions,” says Padilla.

But the most important truth to share with children—“especially if there’s bullying, if they’re feeling lonely or with divorce”—is that God loves them, she says.

“Children believe it more truly and simply. They don’t feel the need to question it.

“That can be such a comfort, that God is there even if we can’t see him, that he loves you and is going through this with you.” †

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