Mental Health First Responders: Parents and Schools

Long before a child or teen enters care with a mental health professional (and for many who never do) a situation starts brewing at home or school. Moods change. Behaviors escalate. Signs of trouble surface. 

Day to day, adults serve a number of roles that support the mental wellness of children and teens:
Scaffolding: Adults provide the structure, rules, and unspoken standards of interaction that form the backbone of healthy behavior and mood regulation.
Supporting developmental stages: Adults facilitate growth through the various stages of emotional maturity by providing stage-appropriate education and responsibilities. 
Filling their toolboxes with skills: Through each stage, adults are equipping kids and teens with skills for healthy coping, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and self-care.

Recognizing normal stages of development that affect emotion regulation helps involved adults provide support.
    Early teen
    Big transitions (leaving home)
    Young adulthood

Preteen Stage
Preteens begin experiencing hormone and mood changes. Their bodies are changing. They may experience heightened intensity of moods and feelings, and need adults to help them understand more about their changing bodies, emotions, and relationships.
Early Teen Stage
Young teens, 13 and 14 pass through pubertal milestones. They begin to participate more in peer culture. They may start using social media and focusing their energies on time with friends. Moods may take wider swings. This may create distractions from responsibilities and result in turmoil for some young teens. Adults act as advisors for these emotions and relationships.
Big Transitions
As teens progress through development, they gain experience and become competent (and confident) in most of what they face day-to-day. Then, it’s only the occasional red herring that throws them for a loop. Big transitions, like high school graduation and moving away from home are predictably stressful. Adults support experienced teens by guiding them through these rare life events for which they have no blueprint. 
Young Adulthood
As kids develop through stages into young adulthood, they take on grown-up responsibilities one at a time or en masse. They learn to earn a living, pay rent, get the stuff they need and keep their stuff maintained. They learn to solve their own problems and cope with relationships and emotions. Adults continue to provide emotional support and mentoring while young adults learn skills for adult independence.

    Basic first aid
Emotional first aid involves talking and listening, naming feelings, giving emotional support, validating feelings, mirroring back emotions, providing advice for emotional and interpersonal problems, and guiding kids through difficult communication. For a younger child, an adult might ask, “Why are you sad?” whereas for an 18-year-old, we might get much more specific and ask, “Have you talked to Jordan about all the misunderstandings you have been having lately?” In both cases, the goal is to hold the child together for the moment, and teach him a few lessons for the future.
    When do you need a counselor or a mental health consultation?
Families and schools handle most emotional first aid without much trouble. Emotional scrapes and bruises are soothed with a little comfort, lessons are learned, and kids move on. But sometimes kids seem to be struggling all the time, and not returning to a healthy baseline. In those moments, it’s time seek the help of a professional. Most often, a school counselor or a community counselor is the right first step. Those professionals can request more intensive assessments if they deem them necessary. 
    What is a crisis?
A mental health crisis is the moment emotions or behaviors threaten immediate safety, or loss of control creates an eminent threat of harm to a life or limb. In that case, it’s important to get help right away. Mental health crisis services are available to assess these situations at general and specialty hospitals 24 hours a day.

Posted on April 25, 2016 .