Play Therapy Outside of the Playroom

Written by: Julia Vulic, CRC, PLPC, CPT
For Embark Counseling Services

Often, when people hear the term “play therapy,” they envision a therapist coloring or playing games with child clients. Though coloring and games may be part of a session, play therapy is a specialized field that involves specialized clinical skills, observations, and interventions. Play therapy also provides each child a safe and stable place to process any emotions that they may be facing. Aggression, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues, are a small number of the issues with which play therapy can be helpful.

If your child starts working with a play therapist, you’ll be informed of major developments, successes, etc. via parent sessions. Ideally, when a child reaches and maintains the goals outlined in their treatment plan, their sessions will become less frequent. Although this is a sign of growth, it can be scary to consider losing the support of your provider. Fortunately, just like you help your child practice for a spelling test, you can support them in the development of social, emotional, and life skills at home.

Play Therapy At  Home

  • Choose an area of your home to act as the designated playroom. Keep the location and meeting time(s) consistent. Depending on your child’s age, 45 to 60 minutes is the recommended amount of time to carry out a session.
  • Carve out time to truly be with your child,  alerting others in the home that you are not to be disturbed until your session is over. Attempt to clear your mind and follow their lead.  Do not put words into their mouths as directing their play may prohibit them from getting the most out of their play.
  • Set limits on inappropriate/unsafe behavior. Although your child will be leading the session by choosing what toys they want to use and how, they still need limits. Let them know that some things, such as attempting to shoot you in the face, are not okay. When setting the limit, try your best to stay calm and provide them with alternatives to the unwanted behavior. For example, you see your child becoming agitated and loading up a nerf gun before pointing it at your face. A beneficial response would involve you saying something along the lines of, “you’re angry and want to shoot me in the face but, it’s not okay to shoot me in the face. You can choose to shoot that pillow or stuffed animal.” By responding in such a way, you’re validating your child’s feelings, allowing them to still maintain a sense of control, and helping them with decision making skills/impulse control.
  • Let them know when time is almost up. When really engaged in a session, it can be hard for children to collect their thoughts and sort out what they are feeling. Cutting the session off without warning does not give them a chance to decompress. 5-minute and 1-minute warnings are recommended.

Don’t hesitate to ask your child’s therapist for advice. We’re here to help you help them!

 

Julia Vulic sees clients in our Northland Office. To schedule an appointment with Julia, please call (913) 257-3161.

Motivating Children to Help with Chores

Written by: Stephanie Fox, MSW, LCSW
For Embark Counseling Services

A new year often brings on new resolutions for yourself, your family, and your child. One of your resolutions may be that your child is to do more chores around the house. So you bought the chore chart, got the stickers, agreed upon the earned reward with your child, but they are still having a difficult time completing the chores. Maybe they start great, but lose motivation after a few days? It could be because our society tends to use an earned reward system instead of your child’s own intrinsic motivation.

Psychologists have determined that using extrinsic (external) rewards to motivate children can, in fact, undermine a child’s intrinsic (internal) motivation (Doucleff, 2018).  A recent study showed that children were less likely to help a second time when they were given a toy afterwards (Doucleff, 2018). By first changing our mindset from external to internal motivational, we set the tone that children are part of a greater, common goal.

A few ways to involve children in chores:

  1. Invite kids to participate in chores as early as possible. Often times, parents prompt children to go play while they do the chores quickly. Instead, invite your children to participate in the chores. This may also mean children making a mess while they learn or you having to slow to assist them. If so, take a breath and see it as an investment. Remember a messy toddler who spills water while doing dishes becomes a 7-year-old dish-washing pro! If you remain calm and consistent, your children will rise to your expectations.
  2. Be sure the tasks are developmentally appropriate for your kid. Further, if your child is bored by the chore being asked, it may be beneficial to provide a more challenging chore. If your teenager is being bored by pulling weeds, offer them the ability to plant the flowers or haul dirt.
  3. Do your chore together as a family. Having a child hold a measuring cup while you bake may appear small, but it’s something they can do to help!
  4. Use choice language. Forcing a child to complete a chore actually has the opposite effect. In fact, many adults don’t like to comply when they are being bossed around. Try saying, “Would you like to wash the dishes, or dry and put them away?” 

While rewards seem to work in the short-term, they tend to have a negative effect on kids’ motivation long-term. Focusing on collaborative goals as a family, changing our mindset from a messy child to a child who is learning, introducing chores early, and providing choice and positive language may reduce those eye rolls and increase helpfulness! 

 

Sources:

Doucleff, M. (2018). How to get your kids to do chores (without resenting it). Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoad/2018/06/09/616928895/how-to-get-your-kids-to-do-chores-without-resenting-it

 

Stephanie Fox, MSW, LCSW sees clients in our St. Louis office. To schedule an appointment with Stephanie, please call (913) 257-3161.

Meaningful Ways to Give Back this Season

written by: Ashley Cross, PLPC

December is often recognized as a time for giving back to your community. Whether a person celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or they choose not to celebrate holidays, the spirit and season of giving surrounds all of us. As the weather gets colder, people start cuddling up with blankets by the fireplace sipping hot cocoa. One thing that is easy to forget when we are nice and warm is that there are people living on the streets who don’t get to have those luxuries.

When thinking about how to give back this season, try thinking of ways you can give to the homeless community as the weather becomes colder and more bitter. There are many easy ways to help someone out.

Care Kits:

One thing that you can do is have care kits available in your car. These can include cheap items such as:

  • Socks
  • Hand warmers
  • Gloves
  • Ear Muffs/Ear warmers
  • Hats

Care kits can have other items in them that aren’t specific to winter. If someone is living on the streets, they often lack necessities that someone else might take for granted, such as hygiene items. Check out this list from Portland Rescue Mission for other items you can include in a care kit to give to the homeless.

Donations:

If you’re wanting to help out with bigger items, you can always donate items such as:

  • Blankets
  • Coats
  • Scarves
  • Any type of warm weather clothing, such as long sleeved shirts, pants, long underwear, leggings, etc.

There are many places in Kansas City that accept donations. Thrift stores are great places to donate to, but there are also local churches and other services that will take donations. Some places are able to provide free items for the homeless population. Look here for a list of where you can donate items in Kansas City.

Make it fun!

If you are a crafty person, and know other crafty people, a fun way to get involved is to have crochet/knitting parties. If you have spare yarn floating around, you can get friends together to make scarves, hats, etc. It not only brings you closer to people with shared interests, but it is also an inexpensive way to create warm gear to donate.

Getting your kids involved can also help to teach them about giving back to the community. It is an easy way to teach them that this season isn’t just about receiving gifts, but it’s also about giving. Take them to the dollar store to pick out items to include in care kits, and have them help you put the kits together! Your child will likely feel proud that they were able to help someone in need and empower them to continue giving back to the community.

Volunteer Opportunities:

A way to give back this season is to volunteer in activities that benefit the homeless. One such way is called Free Hot Soup. Ashton Kleekamp, a recent graduate from UMKC, is an active volunteer for Free Hot Soup in Kansas City. She says they “provide our friends with food, love, and items to help them survive the elements.” If someone would like to join to provide free hot soup to Kansas City’s homeless population, they can look up the group Free Hot Soup KC on Facebook, answer a series of questions to be accepted into the group, and then choose the park at which they would like to volunteer. Ashton states that each park goes out on different days and a person can choose which options suits them best.

 

Whether or not you participate in the holiday season, it is important to remember the cold season. Helping the homeless population through the cold months is a meaningful way to give back and feel the spirit of the giving season.

Ashley Cross, PLPC is a recent graduate of UMKC. She works with children, couples, families, and individual adults to help them build a strong support system, feel encouraged and become their best selves. Ashley has several years of experience working with children and adolescents on the Autism spectrum as an ABA therapist. She take a person-centered approach to therapy and believes that helping a person to utilize their strengths can lead to effective problem-solving and healing. 

Sources:

Kleekamp, A. (2018, December 9). Free Hot Soup KC [Online interview].

McNamara, J. (n.d.). Kansas City free clothing closets and thrift stores. Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.needhelppayingbills.com/html/kansas_city_clothing_closets_a.html

Pack A Care Kit. (2017, June 14). Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.portlandrescuemission.org/get-involved/learn/pack-a-care-kit/

How to Make (and stick with) Your New Year’s Resolutions!

It’s that special time of year where things are wrapping up and we’re getting excited for the new year and fresh start it brings. Turning over the last page of the calendar tends to get us thinking about all the ways we would like to change or improve upon our lives. Oftentimes, as much as we want to make change, we find that just a few weeks into the new year we have abandoned our resolutions and quickly sink back into our old comfortable routines. Here’s a guide to creating New Year’s resolutions that you have a better chance of actually sticking to.

Step 1: Identify your goal – start general

Perhaps you’re resolving to keep a tidier house in the new year.  Perhaps you hope to spend more quality time with family. Countless people set a weight loss and fitness goals for themselves at the start of a new year. Maybe you’re resolving to run a 10K or half-marathon this year. In this step you’re going to decide what it is you would like to alter in your life. This is usually where people stop when determining New Year’s Resolutions, but don’t stop here!

Step 2: Get specific

Now that you have a general idea of an area you would like to improve upon, you can start to look into some actionable steps you can take towards hitting your goal. Goals require habit changes to be achieved. If your goal is to run a 10K, how are you going to get there? Will you run 3 days a week? If so, what distance will you go each time? Where will you do your running? Plan out specific steps you can take to get to your goal. Maybe you will run at a local park, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 3 miles each time.

Step 3: Determine if this plan is realistic

This is the step where you really start fine tuning your plan. If you know that you have never enjoyed eating vegetables in your entire life and your plan to fulfill your resolution to lose weight is to buy more vegetables, then the likelihood is that you will be throwing out a lot of rotting vegetables in January and February. Questions you might consider if your goal is about fitness/health/weight loss are:

  • Have you been struggling to eat a healthy balanced diet? If so, what can you add to your diet to alter your habits towards healthier choices?
  • Could you work to reduce your daily sugar intake instead?
  • If you hope to run a 10K this year, but your plan outlined in Step 2 is to run three days a week for a total of 9 miles a week you might need to ask yourself: What fitness level are you at right now? If you haven’t been exercising regularly for 3 years, you might need to start by walking several miles a week until you can build up to running and eventually get in shape for your 10K.

Step 4: Etch it in stone!

Once you’ve worked out an actionable plan that is feasible for you and your lifestyle, take the time to write it down. Talk about it to your friends and family. Speak it into existence! Post it on your fridge or your computer monitor. Mark your calendars, planners, and to-do lists with the action plan.

Taking these steps toward setting your New Year’s resolutions is a great way to identify goals and outline a plan toward achieving them. As much as we want to focus on the end result when setting goals, we need things to get excited about along the way to keep us motivated. Do what you need to do to feel the joy of progress as much as end results! Happy planning!

Cassie Kroush, LPC  has experience working with children, individuals, and couples and families. She uses a trauma-informed approach and seeks to help clients find their balance and happiness. She utilizes CBT and helps her clients outline specific goals to help them achieve their happiness. 

 

Is The Elf on the Shelf Shaming Kids?

Elf on the Shelf

Written by: Stephanie Fox, LCSW, LSCSW, MSW

The Elf

Every December, I see parents online proudly boasting about their elves cutely displayed in mischief. If you are not familiar with the book, The Elf on the Shelf is a representative for Santa. He is there to remind children that Santa is always watching and to make sure they are being “good.” Ideally, families who participate in this Christmas tradition are encouraging good behaviors from their children so they can be on the nice list and earn Christmas presents. 

The Problem

Children desire so deeply to be “good”. Despite this desire, children who struggle with mental health needs (such as anxiety, trauma, attachment, depression, etc.) often present with impulsive and disruptive behaviors as a way to self-regulate. These behaviors make it difficult for children to comply, which is what most adults really mean when they are wanting children to be “good.”  It is not that these children won’t comply, it is often that they can’t comply. When children are presented with an expectation of “good behavior,” and routinely cannot meet these expectations, they feel shamed. If this is happening daily, we are reinforcing that sense of shame. Even if your child does not struggle with mental health challenges, throwing tantrums, making messes, testing boundaries, and crying are developmentally appropriate behaviors for young children. Using the Elf to enforce “good” behaviors can be unrealistic and often developmentally inappropriate for children.  

Gift or Reward

Ask yourself, “Are the holidays a reward for good behaviors or are they a gift?” Most of us would answer that Holiday Celebrations are a gift, part of a larger traditions passed down through generations. A gift is given from unconditional love, while a reward is given after certain conditions are met. The Elf presents a condition: “Do good, and you’ll get presents.” Rewarding reinforces a cycle of doing what others ask of us, even when we don’t want to, in order to get a reward and feel better about ourselves. Loving children with no conditions teaches them to place their worth in themselves and not with others. It reinforces that their behavior does not make them worthy or unworthy of love.

Some Alternatives:

If you are still itching to partake in some holiday fun, here a few options.

  • The Kindness Elves present with a message of gratitude, compassion, service to others, empathy, and kindness. You can find more out about them here.
  • The North Pole Ninjas who encourage daily, small acts of kindness for others. You can find these available through many online retail shops.
  • Finally, if you still feel a desire to use those cute little elves, I would encourage you make the experience an opportunity to play and enjoy time together – no strings attached.

This holiday season, I would encourage you to let go of the “nice list.” Make the holidays about giving gifts of unconditional love and connecting with each other.

Prioritizing Caregiver Mental Health

Stressed Out Caregiver

Written by: Julia Vulic CRC, PLPC, CPT

Chances are, we’ve all felt like the woman in the picture above. Worried about when the groceries are going to get bought, or the laundry done. Maybe you’re worried about how you’re going to get everyone to their doctor’s appointments without using up all of your PTO. OR, maybe you’re worried about what you’re going to cook for the next week because the last dental bill was a doozy and payday isn’t exactly around the corner. The worry list goes on and on. The real question is, how (and when) do you, as a caregiver, take time to care for your mental health?

The Stressed Out Caregiver

While your children’s and even greater household’s needs may take precedence over your own at times, the answer to this question is a serious one to consider. Hurley (2017) identified that “one-third, or 33 percent, of adults report changes in sleeping habits, 32 percent report headaches and 27 percent report an inability to concentrate due to stress. Not only that, 47 percent of adults report losing patience with or yelling at their partner, and 46 percent report similar behavior with their children because of stress.” Caregiver mental health affects everyone!

Taking these findings into consideration, how can you make time to care for yourself? 

Some Ideas

  • Let your family know when you’re struggling and how they could help. Don’t feel ashamed, we all need help at some point in our lives.
  • Utilize those natural supports. Enlisting the help of another family member, friend, or neighbor for even 15 minutes per day gives you 15 minutes you didn’t have before to focus on yourself.
  • Use free time on yourself! It can be tempting to use any free time to clean, prepare lunches, or other caregiving activities. Resist this temptation! This might mean lying down and listening to a quiet house, checking in with a friend you’ve been wanting to talk to, or jamming out to some of your favorite songs. Use this to focus on you and only you.
  • Consider taking up a hobby or getting back into a hobby you once enjoyed. Hobbies might seem frivolous when you have a lot on your plate, but can bring back a sense of purpose and fun! 

These are just a few suggestions. You can find other ideas here, and here.

If you are struggling with managing stress, please reach out to us. Our counselors are here to provide support to you and your family!

Sources:

Hurley, K. (2017, April 21). How Parental Stress Negatively Affects Kids. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from https://health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/2017-04-21/how-parental-stress-negatively-affects-kids

The Parents’ Role in Play Therapy

Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP

Most often, when a child begins counseling, the focus is on how to help the child. Parents want them to behave, and ultimately feel, better. I have found that involving all of the important people in the child or teen’s life provides a comprehensive approach to helping the child find wellness with both emotions and behaviors. Bringing together all a child’s systems: primary caregivers, extended family, and community partners, bridges needs to create a successful outcome.

The Process of Play Therapy

Parents are typically given a referral for counseling from their pediatrician or school counselor, based on reported and observed symptoms. The primary caregiver’s attitude about therapy highly influences how the child will accept the therapy process. Although all children are unique and have individual needs, Play Therapy provides a consistent, safe place for children to be authentic and playful, while working through the most challenging and emotionally-charged situations in their lives.

I believe a child’s play is incredibly important, not only in providing an avenue for a child’s social-emotional development, but as a language. You read that right, the toys in the playroom can serve as the language a child needs to learn, communicate, and describe events. The language of play also helps children make sense of their world.  When parents give the process the space and time to work, children will benefit and grow.

Trusting the Process

Through my extensive work with children and families, I now know that children and teens make more progress toward their treatment goals when they are supported by the people who care for them most…their parents/caregivers. This support comes in many forms: guidance, empathic responses, modeling new skills, even making sure a child makes it to their appointments consistently is support!

Often, parents will either slow down or stop sessions as soon as challenging behaviors decrease, or when their child or teen reports feeling better. However, this is actually when the work BEGINS. Because they are better able to manage their emotions and behaviors, the child or teen can start to integrate their therapy experience as part of their new way of viewing the world around them. Slowing down or stopping the therapy process at this point can damage, or even reverse, progress.

4 Ways Parents can Support the Therapeutic Process 

 

  1. Provide consistency in the counseling process.  Your child’s counselor will provide recommendations for treatment frequency, and duration of treatment.  Your commitment to trusting the therapeutic relationship and process desiring communicates to your child that you are on board with what is best for them.
  2. Actively provide updates prior to sessions. These valuable updates help your counselor know how your child is engaging with their systems (i.e. peers, school, clubs, family members, etc).  The goal for updates to provide information, not for tattling or “proving” how challenging the child is. 
  3. Actively pursue parent sessions.  These sessions are designed to help you understand the neuro-biology behind your child’s struggles. They also serve as a place to learn positive parenting techniques. These techniques can help you and your child navigate the behavioral changes they are exploring in session. These approaches can impact how a child responds to interventions throughout the therapy process.
  4. Allow yourself and your child to make mistakes.  Every mistake is a teachable moment! This is the perfect time to put new skills to work, to guide your child through calming strategies, and to accept and encourage your child to make good choices with a calm mind and body.

 

To sum it up, therapy for your child or teen works when all systems are engaged! This means that everyone influencing the child or teen is committed to the process and the desired outcomes. By working together with a qualified counselor, you are on a path to finding the wellness your family deserves. Counseling and Play Therapy is hard work, and when balanced with supportive families and systems, it has lasting change!

Click here to read more on how Play Therapy works, and click here to learn more on how to prepare your child for their Play Therapy or counseling sessions.  

Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP is a child development expert and a trauma competent clinical professional who works with children and teens who experience anxiety and depression. She also provides attachment focused treatment for children with neurodevelopmental challenges, including Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD and Social Communication Deficits. She is the founder of Embark Counseling Services, LLC, a family-centered mental wellness practice.  

 

Celebrating Halloween (without scaring the pants off your kids!)

Brittany Talley, MA, LPC, RPT

 

Halloween is here! For families who celebrate this holiday, this can be such a fun time of year. Creating rituals for your family is a great way to connect and build excitement! Some kids, however, can feel overwhelmed by the frightening imagery and focus on ghosts, witches, and vampires. This is especially true if your child is sensitive to external sensory stimuli (like loud noises), or if they have experienced any adverse childhood experiences, or trauma. Being mindful of how your child experiences and reacts to fear can help you have a safe and fun Halloween!

A few tips on celebrating Halloween while avoiding meltdowns.

 

Movie Madness

  • Screen any scary movies before you let little one’s watch them! I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had a kid tell me how scared they felt while watching a Halloween movie with their family and about the nightmares that followed.
  • Change the tone after watching something spooky. Find a 10 minute, kid-safe cartoon, or sing their favorite song. This helps them switch their focus to friendlier imagery. It also reminds them that you are there to keep them safe.
  • Make sure you have enough time after the movie is over to sit and talk with them about it. This can help them figure out what is real and what is not. Remember, even though the movie may not be real, the feeling of fear that is experienced is VERY real to children.
  • Be prepared for nightmares. Even movies that seem safe can produce nightmares in children. Be there to comfort them and provide them with a sense of safety. Stick to their regular bedtime routine to provide structure, and reassure them that you will be there if they need you.

 

The Main Event

  • Do your research regarding Halloween events. While most family-friendly fall events are more focused on pumpkins and cider, some may have Haunted Houses or Hayrides that can be scary for younger children (or sensitive older kids).
  • Dressing up in costumes and getting lots of candy can be so much fun! However, if your kid struggles to manage anxiety or fear, knocking on strangers’ doors can be stressful. Check in with them frequently during trick-or-treating to see if they need a break.
  • You can also try an alternative to traditional trick-or-treating. Many churches or community centers provide trunk-or-treat events, which typically occur during daytime hours. Some kids also have just as much fun answering their own door and handing out candy!

 

Feeling Afraid

  • Do not shame them for feeling afraid. You may be able to experience that feeling of fear as “thrilling,” or “exciting.” Most children do not yet have the emotional maturity to be able to experience or process their fear as fun.
  • If your family likes tricks more than treats, remember that our natural survival instincts are: Fight, Flight, or Freeze. Don’t be surprised if a frightened child reacts in one of these three ways. They are simply doing what nature intended for them to do.
  • Validate their fear. Help them manage it. Tell them “I can see that you are scared. I can tell because your eyes just got really round and you moved closer to me. These kinds of movies/events scare me too sometimes. Would it help if I put my arm around you/held your hand?” This shows them that not only are you paying attention, but that you know what it feels like and can help them through it.

 

Hopefully this list helps you have a spooky, and meltdown free, Halloween.

P.S. If you are looking for Halloween movies to watch with your kids that won’t be too scary, Common Sense Media has created this list.

If your child is struggling with fear, trauma, or anxiety (and not just around Halloween), please reach out to us. Our counselors are here to provide support to you and your child!

 

Brittany Talley, LPC, RPT is a Play Therapist who specializes in working with youth of color in their journey to find their place in this world. She also works with children experiencing anxiety and fear, including those who have survived traumatic events. She believes that the relationship is what heals, and seeks to use play to create meaningful relationships with all her clients in order to facilitate their growth. 

 

Getting Kids to Ditch the Cell Phone

by Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP

Why would having your kid ditch their cell phone be an important topic to explore? There’s the obvious benefit of getting to spend more quality time with your kiddo. However, what if having limits surrounding their cell phone use could actually improve brain development, communication patterns, and their overall quality of life?

This topic has been on my heart and mind for quite some time.  As a mental health professional, I have seen the impact of the increase in electronic device use over the years, where It is true, our cell phones are a BIG part of our culture. And, if you are like me, it is sometimes difficult to make it through the day without being connected to the digital world, whether it is email, social media, text messaging or even surfing the internet. It is convenient to be able to have the world at one’s fingertips to research, gather information, shop and stay in touch. However, what is the cost of being so connected?  ALL. THE. TIME.

Since the evolution of our data driven world, I have heard multiple concerns from the families I work with related to the lack of social skills development with their kids, reduction of communication skills within the family, and even signs and symptoms of technology addition – not only from the kids, but also from the adults.  And yes, even including the parents who want the change to improve the quality of their relationships. Conversely, there are some positives of the online world, such as support groups, information groups and the ability to keep in touch with loved ones from a distance. So, clearly, having these online connections, and the devices to access them, does have benefits, as well.  I would argue moderation and monitoring helps provide the balance needed to manage optimal development, as well as staying informed and in touch with our digital world.

What the Research is Telling Us

According some valuable research through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), electronic device use may actually affect kids mental health.  The latest statistics, which were released in 2016, indicate that the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leaped by 60%, which also includes a rapid increase in suicide deaths.  Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, and the author of iGen, says that adolescents who spent more time on their electronic devices were more likely to report mental health symptoms than those who spent time on non-screen activities.  

If you are like me, you may actually feel out of the loop with how many social media apps keep our kids engaged. And, as a parent or primary caregiver, how many of these apps have you actually researched and learned the ins and outs of the program, including the safety features? Based on the information I have gathered in my work with our community’s teens, there are creative and innovate ways that these apps consistently keep our kids connected, and perhaps “addicted” to their electronic devices.  What this generation is going through right now is a huge experiment with technology, and we clearly do not know what is going to happen with these apps, and certainly do not have enough information to know exactly what is happening within the person, considering brain function and development.

It seems that although devices can improve our productivity and quality of life, per se, it can also have adverse effects on the quality of life for our families, and most importantly, the mental health of our kids and teens, who do actually lack the overall development to navigate the complexity and maturity of the internet world.  

To understand how this may affect a tween/teen’s mental health, it is important to recognize that our brains are constantly changing and developing, especially during this stage or life. It’s also important to point out that cell phone use is not the only contributor to depression in tweens/teens. Others may include, over-scheduling with activities, high expectations with overachievement, conflictual family dynamics, lack of social connections, among many others are also of consideration.

You may be asking yourself why are we just now talking about brain development in this context? This has likely not been any discussion about cell phones and cell phone usage with well child checks, like the screen time discussion has occurred at these appointments. The Academy of Pediatrics previously provided guidance to parents to not permit screen time (including television) for the first two years of life, and limit screen time up to the age of 5.  With an increase of tablet usage at home, as well as the requirement of device usage in the classroom, it has significantly changed the climate of how parents not only view electronic device usage, but it has also undermined how we can monitor children’s neurobiological development.

What we do know through the amazing neurobiology research that currently exists, is that the brain is incredibly plastic, which makes it easily adaptable (or change) in response to activities, environmental cues, interactions, etc.  Some research has already linked lower gray matter volume in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to media multitasking, such as with texting, using social media and rapidly switching between the apps. This is critical research, as it shows the lower ACC volumes are directly connected to depression and addiction disorders within kiddos.  

The prefrontal cortex is another area of the brain that is important to consider.  This area’s development is critical for focus and interpreting emotions, among other important functions.  However, it does not fully develop until approximately 25-26 years of age. During the tween/teen years, it is important to train the prefrontal cortex to not be easily distracted, so that it can develop optimally.  Now think about how quickly your kiddo may be on their device, multi -asking between the different apps, taking selfies, texting.

Research has also linked the connection of electronic device usage, which includes social media and other phone based activities, with an uptick in feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which could drive compulsive device use and promote feelings of distraction, fatigue or irritability when kids are separated from their phones.  

Consider these statistics from HHS:

  • There has been a 60% Increase in teenage depression over the last 6 years  
  • 10 is the average age kids get cellphones.  Correction: when they get smartphones.
  • There is a 48% prevalence of suicide related thoughts or actions among kids who use their electronic device 5+ hours a day

Looking at these statistics, I have to wonder if there is a link to the increase in the symptoms I see daily, as well as the increase in tween/teen depression and anxiety.  Of course, if the norm is overuse of electronic devices, it may be hard to tell until there is a crisis with behaviors or increased isolation and depression with our kids. Setting appropriate limits and expectations around healthy electronic device use, including social media and gaming, can actually help keep your child out of danger of experiencing any of the issues discussed here.  

5 Tips to get your tween/teen to ditch their phone

Here are some quick tips to help you organize your thoughts and family, and help your tween/teen on a trajectory for developing not only social skills and communication skills, but also to help their brain stay on the development path necessary to develop all of the critical areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the ACC.  

  • Keep electronic devices out of your kids’ bedrooms 

Help your child help their brains rest – and get an appropriate amount of sleep.  There is a directly link, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, between excessive before bed screen use and insomnia.  Kids feel better, interact better and perform better in school with rested brains. This also provides the brain optimal time to develop the healthy pathways necessary in the prefrontal cortex without disruption or distraction.

  • Set online firewalls and data cutoffs

Online safety is important.  And, so is limiting the amount of time your child has access to data.  A young person’s brain is wired for exploration, not restraint. Adults need to know the limits to set for their kids to keep their kids away from risk – both development and safety.

  • Create a device contract

This helps to establish expectations, consequences and also the benefits of the privilege of having an electronic device.  This could include no devices at the dinner table (and promote connection), and limit the amount of exposure after school and before bed (optimal brain development).  Then, if there is a violation of the expectation, the contract becomes the rule enforcer and consequence implementer – not the parent. For more information on creating a contract, see this earlier Parenting On Purpose article

  • Parents model healthy electronic device habits

Parents, children mirror you and will do what you do.  If you want your child to exhibit healthy cellphone habits, you need to lead the way.  Also, teach your child social media skills – and help put a stop to online bullying.

  • Consider providing a device that is NOT a smart phone (or a smartphone without a data plan)

Most kids will be able to follow expectations modeled and explained to them.  However, consider a different phone or limiting access to data if your child has difficulty complying with your expectations.  Consider putting the family computer in an open space. They can still explore social media (Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, etc) and you can monitor! 

 

If you think your child or your family would benefit from a trained professional to guide, balance, and increase positive interactions within your family, please reach out. Our talented and skilled professionals are eager to help you and your family on your journey to wellness.  

Defining Art Therapy

by Ashley Lawrence, CIT

When I am asked about art therapy, I usually start by talking about what art therapy is not. As an art therapist, I am not going to review your art like an art teacher. Some people approach art therapy with a lot of anxiety about their artistic abilities or the revelations in their art. However, in art therapy, art serves as a communication tool very similar, and sometimes better, than words. Art therapists believe the creative process is a therapeutic and healing experience that can be used to explore memories, feelings, and new ideas. The product does not have to be aesthetically pretty to have value and meaning to the artist.

People may also be anxious about the topics that their artwork may reveal. While it is true that art making can communicate messages from the subconscious, this may be the only way painful experiences can be expressed and processed. Before we are verbal communicators, we begin as visual communicators, expressing ourselves through gestures, identifying, and memorizing by sight. When we experience trauma, it has been scientifically proven that there is a disconnect between these traumatic memories and our verbal processors. However, the best way to overcome these experiences is through expression and processing those emotions so we can move forward.

Art making often involves body movement that can relax the artist, releasing the tension from the problem being discussed in therapy and allows the artist to depict the memory. After crossing this mental roadblock, often it is easier to discuss. At this point, art therapists may make observations about the piece, noting specific details, but similar to talk therapy, therapists will rely on the artist to give the piece meaning and not interpret the piece for themselves.

Art therapy is an effective treatment for people experiencing a variety of difficulties, whether they be developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological. Artwork can be made from a variety of mediums, from pencils and paint to bubble blowing and clay. Art therapists can be found in a variety of locations including hospitals and clinics, schools and shelters, community centers and private practices. Together, an art therapist and a client can explore treatment goals to address the difficulties of life.

Sources:

About Art Therapy. (2017). Retrieved from https://arttherapy.org/about-art-therapy/

Ribowo, M. (n.d.) What art therapy is. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/mutchkie/.