Ah, youth. Full of energy and fun, but rife with growing pains, hard lessons and challenges of its own. Though difficulties are a natural part of life, sometimes things get to be too much — even for kids.
How can parents and caregivers tell the difference between teenage hormones and something more serious? When is “bad behavior” actually pointing to something else? How can caregivers approach children in a way that will build trust and connection?
Theresa Arriola, director of Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, says that this a pressing issue after two years of pandemic induced isolation and interruption.
“There’s a great increase on issues that the children of Guam are going through — adjustment issues, depression, socialization issues. And so the pandemic really took a toll on everyone, but especially our kids, who are just learning how to cope with everyday stresses,” Arriola said.
According to Arriola there are a wide variety of elements that impact a child’s mental health, from genetic predisposition, to traumatic experiences, to a lack of sleep or routine. The presence of a stable, trusted adult in their life is key to helping them learn to manage whatever feelings arise from their experiences.
“The child needs to have consistency and know what to expect from a caring adult in their family so that they can easily navigate and manage the emotions and reactions to their everyday stresses in life.
Everything that we have to deal with as an adult, a child has to as well, but they are not equipped with the coping mechanisms that, in general, adults have,” Arriola said.
What to look for
So, how can you tell if your child is struggling and needs some support? Arriola says depression and anxiety in children and teens may look different than you expect, and don’t necessarily manifest the same way they do in adults.
“There’s the overt signs, those that you see obviously, like arguing, yelling, bullying, fighting, things like that nature.
“And then there’s the covert signs, the not so obvious signs, such as the change in eating habits, the change in sleep habits, something they enjoyed before all of a sudden they no longer enjoy, not spending time with certain friends that they used to spend all the time with,” Arriola said.
Start the conversation
Arriola says that whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or another adult in a child’s life, it’s important that you open the conversation in a non-judgmental manner when you notice any changes.
“Say to the child that you care for, ‘Is everything okay? It seems like you’re going through something.’ If the child doesn’t want to talk, just say, ‘Okay, but know I’m here when you’re ready to talk,’” she said.
The tone of this approach is very important, according to Arriola. Aggressively asking kids to fess up about what’s bothering them might have the opposite effect.
“If you tend to use the very aggressive approach of, ‘What’s wrong with you, you’re different, just tell me,’ — kids don’t respond to things like that. They crawl into their shell even more.
“And so it shows that kids who are talked to very calmly and letting them know that you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk goes a long way. Much further than a more aggressive and bullying type of thing,” Arriola said.
Once that conversation is open, a new set of questions present themselves. What action should caregivers take if a child is open about their struggles? Arriola says that depending on the severity of their feelings, there are a few different paths.
According to Arriola, if a child expresses feeling depressed or anxious, continuing the conversation and maintaining that non-judgmental space is a great first step, as is making sure the child has a clear routine and expectations to guide their days.
Though Arriola says that not every situation requires counseling and for children it very rarely requires medication, Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center does have a Children and Adolescents Service Division available for additional support.
“If a child is forthcoming, that’s wonderful, and shares with a caring adult in their life that they have thoughts of committing harm to themselves or others, that’s a point where you definitely want to seek professional help.
“I would recommend that you immediately bring them to Guam Behavioral Health, have an intake done, have an assessment done, and they’ll be immediately referred to our children and adolescents program. And then our fine folks there, our counselors, will definitely start the process of making sure proper professional services are offered,” Arriola said.
In the case that a child isn’t so forthcoming but a caregiver seriously suspects they may be experiencing suicidal ideation, Arriola says it’s important that they ask about it directly.
“There is a myth out there that if I think somebody is going to harm themselves, and I ask them the question, ‘Are you going to harm yourself?’ The myth is that they’re going to be pushed over the edge.
It’s okay to ask somebody, ‘I care about you, you seem to be in trouble. Are you thinking of harming yourself?’ Because that might actually open up a discussion of a child saying, ‘Yeah, come to think of it, I am.’ And then that will lead you to bring them to the proper professional help they need,” she said.
For caregivers feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect of opening such a conversation, Arriola enthusiastically offered safeTALK.
“My dream is for every single resident on Guam to have at least the basic training of safeTALK, which is the suicide prevention training that we offer.
“It really is only a four hour training that dispels a lot of the myths about approaching somebody, and how to safely approach and how to safely talk to them. It’s really the key,” she said.
Arriola cautions caregivers to steer clear of mindsets like, “Adults didn’t talk to me about this kind of stuff and I turned out fine,” or to view this approach as coddling. Doing so could mean missing out on an opportunity to protect children from long term harm.
“Adults with behavioral or mental health issues, or substance abuse issues, do not just wake up and say, ‘I have a mental health issue as an adult.’ It’s led through their childhood or their youth, and they probably did not get the proper services that they should have gotten.
“So there’s no such thing as over protecting, or over trying to reach out and help a child,” Arriola said.