Mental, emotional health concerns just as real for children

Published: Saturday, Feb. 19 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

The team of therapists at the center teaches parents about the importance of relationships rather than focusing on good or bad parenting techniques. And when parents express worries that they alone caused the problem, Goldsmith assures them it's not that simple.

While parents are instructed, children at the center learn how to identify and gain control of their emotions, how to play effectively with other children, and how to prepare for school.

The center aggressively pursues therapy before turning to medication, though Goldsmith said many parents find medicine can be a life-changing solution.

Some in the field believe that medicating young children with high doses of "toxic chemicals" is not the best answer. Elizabeth E. Root, a retired licensed clinical social worker has written a book, "Kids Caught in the Psychiatric Maelstrom," about what she says are the dangerous effects of "therapeutic" drugs.

Many of the drugs, she argues, causes bigger problems that really do require medication, whereas the first concern could have been solved another, non-medicated way. She also emphasizes the important bonds between parent and child, which can help stave off emotional distress.

Yet those bonds are being threatened by the "drastic change in family structure in the last 25 years," she said. "With technology and the economy as it is, families have been grossly disrupted, and the kids are like the canaries in the mine, telling us how confused and upset and sad they are, and their out-of-control behavior is their way of telling us. And drugging them is certainly not the solution."

Root encouraged parents to show their children lots of love, establish specific rules and then enforce them with consistency and clarity. She also emphasized the importance of a good diet, limited screen time, more exercise and plenty of unstructured playtime for children.

"The best prevention strategy," Thompson said, "is to build in young children the sources of emotional health and well-being that will help them stand resilient and strong when adversity comes."

The emotionate child

Those sources of emotional health comprise the "emotionate" side of a child, or a child's ability to perceive and understand emotions and show sensitivity toward others — going beyond the emotional responses of crying or laughing.

Children who have been through severe trauma may have difficulty responding "emotionately" and may need assistance in learning or relearning such sensitivity. In the absence of trauma, "emotionate" learning can begin very early, as seen in one of Thompson's studies of 18-month-old children.

In one video segment, the research assistant puts a blanket in a box, then puts the lid on, then tries to put another blanket in. Acting concerned, she keeps pushing at the lid with the blanket and the little boy, sensing her concern, removes the lid.

The next scene shows the assistant drawing a picture, and then accidentally knocking the marker onto the floor. She leans over, reaches her hand out and looks sad, and the child picks up the marker and hands it to her.

In each case, Thompson pointed out that the 18-month-old had behaved altruistically without any reward or even thanks. Yet, when the same situations were repeated without the adult's emotional indications of needing assistance, the toddlers didn't help.

"These kids are tuning into multiple cues of an adult's need," Thompson said. "Does this reflect compassion? Probably not in an 18-month-old, but we're seeing in here the foundation of compassion that we're seeing in a parallel study with 4-year-olds."

Influence of parents

Despite the prevalence of parenting books on the market, there's no magic system that if followed will ensure a perfect child, Goldsmith said.

Parents should do their best to be physically and emotionally available to their children and reassure them that they will protect them from harm inside and outside the home, he said.

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