At First Line Counseling, we understand the importance of helping children work through their issues and giving them the freedom to share their stories. Children are incredibly resilient, but they’re susceptible to the same stressors and traumas as adults. However, unlike adults, they don’t always know how to express and release their stress and frustration, and they often lack the tools or coping skills to deal with difficult situations.
Helping Kids Cope with Childhood Stress and Trauma
Today, kids have to navigate more challenges than ever before. They’re constantly exposed to stressful news stories and sources of social pressure. Even when parents limit social media, kids still find ways to get online, where they can encounter bullying and peer pressure beyond what they already face at school. Children can have a difficult time escaping what feels like a tsunami of pressure.
Another serious issue children face is trauma. Children are exposed to trauma more frequently than many parents realize. Many suffer from direct exposure to trauma as victims or witnesses to acts of violence or cruelty. Many more suffer from indirect or secondhand trauma exposure when they learn about bad things that happened to other people on the news, on social media, or from friends.
At First Line Counseling, we use trauma-informed child mental health counseling techniques that can help children adapt to everyday stressors and recover from trauma. There are three pillars of trauma-informed care for children:
- Helping them establish a sense of safety
- Helping them learn how to manage their emotions
- Helping them build meaningful connections with trusted adults
Other important goals of trauma-informed child therapy are reducing traumatic stress symptoms and helping children develop healthy coping skills. We work with children on all of these levels at First Line Counseling to promote recovery and resilience.
Treating Child Mental Health Disorders
Children don’t need to have mental health disorders to benefit from therapy. However, it’s especially important to seek therapy for a child who has a mental health condition or is at risk for one. Early intervention to address childhood anxiety, impulse control, depression, and other disorders can change the course of a child’s life.
Some of the most common children’s mental health disorders include the following:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Childhood depression and other mood disorders
- Oppositional defiant disorder and other conduct disorders
- Separation anxiety, social anxiety, and other anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress disorders
Many mental health conditions can’t be fully and accurately diagnosed until adolescence, but you don’t have to wait for your child to get a formal diagnosis. Many children who don’t meet the criteria to be diagnosed with mental health disorders exhibit psychiatric symptoms that go beyond normal childhood worries or fears and that require specialized treatment.
Children with a predisposition to anxiety may, for example, have difficulty adapting to new situations or may exhibit sensory processing issues. Their tantrums may last longer and they may be more difficult to console. Fortunately, with therapy, many children can learn how to overcome their anxieties and cope with their fears.
Similarly, with targeted therapeutic interventions, children with conduct disorders or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder can learn how to better manage their emotions so that they have fewer angry outbursts and meltdowns.
Helping Children Cope with Difficult Circumstances
Sometimes, parents choose to bring their children to a therapist because they are having a hard time accepting or adapting to changes in their lives. At First Line Counseling, we don’t just offer targeted methods to treat a range of mental health conditions, but also use general approaches that can help children understand and process feelings about life challenges like:
- Moving to a new city
- Being bullied at school
- Dealing with social difficulties
- Struggling academically in school
- Suffering from abuse or exploitation
- Being exposed to personal or collective trauma
- Living with a family member who is chronically ill
- Coming to terms with parental separation or divorce
- Losing a pet, a grandparent, or a distant family member
- Grieving a more traumatic loss, such as loss of a parent
- Being subjected to family conflict or other stress at home
- Suffering from acute illness or a chronic health condition
All of these stressors can overwhelm a child’s usual coping strategies, and they may need extra help to learn new ones. A child therapy office is a safe place for children to ask questions or express emotions that they might not feel comfortable sharing at home or school.
At home, even the most well-meaning parents or siblings may try to shut down a child who raises issues they find controversial or uncomfortable. Teachers can discipline children for what they see as defiance or disruption when children are in fact trying to understand or cope with something difficult. In the therapy office, a child can explore their thoughts and feelings in a supportive environment. We can help children learn when worries or angry thoughts are irrational and how to communicate better with family members, teachers, and peers.
We can also help children gain confidence through learning that their emotions are valid and that there are many strategies they can use to cope with them. Children don’t have as much agency as adults to address external issues or injustice they face but can be empowered simply by knowing others agree something wasn’t fair, like being bullied at school.
Offering a Range of Child Counseling Techniques
Our child therapy office in Gaithersburg, MD, is set up with the necessary tools to provide a range of innovative, evidence-based therapies. Techniques used by our child therapists and child mental health specialists include:
- Family therapy
- Gestalt therapy
- Mindfulness-based therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Child-centered play therapy
Often, children who have behavioral problems are reacting to a dynamic at home or are having difficulty communicating something important to parents or peers. Family therapy can help by having an objective party observe and analyze how family members interact. Child and family mental health counselors can help families improve their communication and adjust the way that they resolve problems to reduce stress for all family members.
Gestalt therapy also helps children and families better understand their patterns of reaction and communication. Gestalt therapy incorporates a wide range of physical and nonverbal techniques that can be particularly effective with younger children. These include role-playing, play therapy, and art therapy. Using these techniques can help children tap into their emotions as they unfold in the moment and understand them physically as well as mentally.
Psychoeducation is the component of therapy that focuses on giving children and their families information about their mental health conditions or emotional challenges. Knowledge is power, and understanding what a child is facing can help families respond more skillfully to symptoms and advocate more effectively for a child at school and elsewhere.
Like gestalt therapy, mindfulness-based therapy uses body-focused practices and techniques to help children learn how to identify and respond to their emotions as they arise in the moment. A child mental health counselor who uses mindfulness techniques may teach simple meditation techniques, such as learning how to focus on or count breaths, or how to do a body scan.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective evidence-based therapy techniques for a wide range of conditions and patient groups. Children who are anxious, struggling with chronic or elevated stress at home or school, or experiencing the effects of direct or indirect traumatization may particularly benefit from CBT techniques. In general, CBT helps children learn how to identify thoughts that make them feel worse, challenge them, and replace them with thoughts that are more realistic, positive, and empowering.
Child-centered play therapy, also known as nondirective play therapy, can be particularly useful for children who have difficulty putting their emotions or experiences into words. In this style of therapy, a child therapist lets a child choose which toys in the office they’d like to play with and play with them without instruction. The therapist then uses the language of play to help children identify and talk about feelings and behavior. In some cases, a child play therapist may use more directive play therapy techniques in which a child is asked to play with particular toys or to play out a certain scenario to target specific symptoms, issues, or questions.
The Goals of Child Therapy
One of the most common reasons people look for child counseling services is that their child is having an emotional, behavioral, or psychological problem that they want to resolve or address. A parent with an anxious child might bring them to therapy with a goal of helping them feel less anxious, for example. A a parent whose child is acting out at school might have an initial goal of finding out what triggers the problem behavior and a secondary goal of helping their child learn how to respond to that trigger differently.
At First Line Counseling, we can help families who need targeted interventions like these, but we can also help children make general improvements in their mental health and functioning regardless of any specific issues they may or may not have. Some of the child therapy goals we help clients achieve include:
- Managing anger
- Developing empathy
- Discovering strengths
- Recovering from trauma
- Strengthening social skills
- Improving problem-solving skills
- Building confidence and self-esteem
- Learning impulse control techniques
- Enhancing emotional self-regulation skills
Children naturally develop these skills and capacities through experiential learning at home and school. Sometimes, however, natural learning processes can be interrupted by stress or trauma or derailed by untreated emotional or behavioral issues. Early intervention and counseling can help children get back on the right track when something has emotionally held them back.
An important goal of child therapy is helping clients improve their communication skills. We especially focus on helping children learn how to talk about their emotions. Even children who have no trouble speaking about their interests or expressing their needs can have a hard time identifying and talking about their feelings. Helping children identify and describe feelings empowers them and gives them alternatives to acting out those feelings in destructive ways.
At First Line Counseling, we help your child discover their voice through play and other means and learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We want every child to overcome the difficulties they face so they can find peace and lead happy, fulfilling lives.
When Does a Child Need Therapy?
While getting mental health treatment doesn’t have the stigma it once did, it can still seem controversial to seek therapy for a child. Well-meaning friends and family members might steer you away from children’s mental health services, insisting “It’s just a phase,” that kids aren’t old enough to benefit from therapy, or that your child in particular doesn’t need it. Sometimes, all you need is to trust your parental instincts when you sense that your child needs more help, but at other times you might have your own doubts and wonder if you’re overreacting to a normal childhood issue. When do you wait it out and when do you take your child to a therapist?
A child mental health crisis necessitates immediate intervention. In cases where children are at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, therapy usually isn’t even enough. Parents of children in acute crisis should take their child to a local emergency room or call a local child or general mental health crisis line for more help. In cases where a crisis is unfolding but a child is not at an immediate risk, a child mental health therapist near you may be able to help.
A child’s mental health can quickly change. Signs that a child is in crisis include sudden changes in school performance, behavior, or health.
Of course, children don’t need to be in crisis to need or be able to benefit from therapy. If your child has been struggling with a particular issue for a long time, and none of the school-based supports you’ve used have helped, it may be time to get a child mental health assessment or consult from a pediatrician or to bring your child to therapy.
Signs your child needs therapy can include:
- Social withdrawal
- Problems at school
- Hopeless thoughts
- Compulsive behavior
- Intense worries or fears
- Obsessions or compulsions
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits
In general, a sudden, worrisome change in your child’s mental health or emotional well-being warrants further examination and treatment. If your child just needs help adjusting to a short-term challenge, they may not need long-term therapy but might still benefit from brief therapy.
At First Line Counseling, we teach children skills that they’ll carry with them through the rest of their lives. There’s no reason for an anxious child to suffer just because they don’t have a severe anxiety disorder. Coping skills and therapy techniques can help children overcome obstacles more easily than they would have otherwise.
Children are naturally resilient, and they do even better when they get the right help at the right time. If you know your child needs help, or need more information to be sure, please contact our office at (301) 500-0253. We’d be happy to talk to you about our services and set up an initial appointment. You don’t have to go through this alone.