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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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Building Strong Minds

Fredericksburg Parent Magazine knows how much the challenges of the last two years have impacted its readers. As fall begins, holiday family gatherings and extended school vacations can create additional stress in children. How do we address these issues and how do we get our children focused on good mental health? Dr. Larissa Ruuskanen, a licensed clinical psychologist and vice president of the board for Mental Health America of Fredericksburg (MHAfred), discusses when it’s the right time to talk to our children about mental health.

She says mental health development starts early, “from birth” and is comprised of factors such as how we think and feel, respond to our emotions and ultimately ourselves.

“Parents and caregivers communicate safety and stability by responding to their baby’s needs with food, comfort, sleep, activities etcetera, which in turn facilitates attachment between caregivers and infants,” Ruuskanen says.

As children continue to grow not just physically, but mentally, their observations from their parents’ responses in difficult situations such as how they handle life demands and how they communicate emotions and concerns or share happy and sad times, all contribute to a child’s emotional growth and management of their own responses. Their observations of adults lay the framework for their responses as they encounter similar situations as they grow. Dr. Ruuskanen pointed out the impact these nuances have early in children’s lives.

“We all get upset and angry, and at times, it is directly related to the situation at hand with our children, like when my then 3-year-old found a permanent marker and drew extensively on a freshly painted wall during naptime. Taking some time to calm ourselves down first is essential in helping our kids get to a calmer space.  An upset mind has a really hard time thinking rationally. So, the parent may need to take a few deep breaths to calm down first, then address the child,” Ruuskanen says.

In the example above, it’s normal for adults to react with initial frustration or anger. If your young child senses that frustration or displeasure, they will often react by getting upset themselves, spiking their emotions and creating anxiety for having done “something wrong,” even though they didn’t intuitively know it was wrong. So, what do we do now? Dr. Ruuskanen suggests first calming yourself, and then working to calm your child.

“Connecting with the child at that moment can be holding and comforting the child, or even shifting the focus away from the drawings,” Ruuskanen says.

As they calm into the safety you are providing, explain what boundaries they’ve crossed and, if you are able, even embrace their creativity while still explaining why it was a not such a great idea. “All of this is mental health, and skill building,” Ruuskanen says.

“Being present and attending/listening, showing interest in what our kids teens enjoy/like is remarkably important,” adds Ruuskanen.

Ask any parent of grown children, balancing these tween and teen conversations is like walking a tightrope at times. It’s important to remember that even though your child may stomp and rant and rave, they still need you and the insights you offer. It’s important, however, to seek first to understand and then to be understood.

Talking, attending and being with your children to see and hear how they’re feeling, and processing their lives emotionally, is critical during the tween and teen years. Children in these years are becoming more independent, exploring social connections and looking to find their own groups and relationships for connection. They’re building their own lives, but still need the boundaries and whole heart listening parents provide. Unfortunately, however, our best efforts may not be enough.

Need a Mental Health Provider? 

There may come a time when you worry that something is beyond the blues, or teen upset, and you start to need assistance from professionals on how to support your growing child. That help is where the folks at Mental Health America of Fredericksburg (MHAfred) can be of great assistance. MHAfred supports Caroline, Fredericksburg, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties.  The professionals at MHAfred provide support in several real ways.

First and foremost, the MHAfred HELPLINE can help you find a registered mental health provider even in these times when one-half of the mental health professionals are not taking new clients. It can be very difficult to schedule your first appointment. Further, many who are accepting new clients have waitlists.  The MHAfred website provides a drop-down menu that guides you to a professional who takes your insurance, specializes in your needs and most importantly, a provider who is accepting new patients. If using online searches is not something you’re comfortable with, you can call the HELPLINE directly at -540-371-2704 and they will personally work with you to guide the way.

“MHAfred is constantly updating their database of local behavioral health providers to give you your best chance at finding support. For those waiting for their appointment and consent to the outreach, MHAfred staff remains in weekly contact throughout their journey to see how they are doing, remind them that they are not alone, determine if there is anything else we can help with, including rerunning their search to see if a different appointment is available sooner,” says Barbara Barlow, executive director of Mental Health America of Fredericksburg.

Hard to Hear

Youth suicides have been growing in numbers since 2007. Barlow says that the CDC has declared suicide a mental health crisis. In November 2021, the CDC noted more than 6,600 deaths in children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. The youngest of the group, ages 10-14, saw an increase in suicides of 8% in that same year. One of the best thing parents can do is to start deliberate conversations, even as early as 9 or 10, to educate youths about the importance of mental health, and the importance of getting help. MHAfred also has a Suicide Prevention Education program that is free to middle and high schools. Trained speakers visit schools and present a research-based program to get children talking about their mental health and makes them aware of the signs of depression and crisis in themselves and others.

The Sandwich Generation

Perhaps you’re one of the many adults known as “the sandwich generation.” You have children of your own but are also the child of a parent aged 65 or older.  Your own mental health is affected by trying to be all things to all the people in your life. MHAfred can help there as well. The Senior Visitor’s Program is one of our communities most valuable resources for our local aging population.  If you have a parent who is still young enough and physically capable enough to engage, they, or you, can become a volunteer and provide valuable support to seniors in our community with weekly visits. MHAfred provides all the training to allow its volunteers and seniors to connect and begin enjoying a happy, healthy, safe and mutually beneficial relationship. Conversely, if you have a parent or grandparent who might find it beneficial to their mental health to have a visitor, visit the MHAfred website and locate Laurie Black, the senior visitors program coordinator.

Personal health is mental health and MHAfred is here to help. It’s a small but mighty group interested in supporting the community. In January, its next iteration of its Teen Support Groups begins. The National Mental Health America organization has several online screening questionnaires from postpartum pregnancy to PTSD to eating disorders. You can start an initial assessment of your personal situation by accessing the tools at mhanational.org and scrolling down and clicking on “Take a Screen.”

To learn more or get help and access to resources:

  • Mental Health America-Fredericksburg: mhafred.org
  • National Headquarters Mental Health America: mhanational.org
  • MHAfred HELPLINE Provider Directory: mhafred.org/helpline
  • HELPLINE available from 9 am to 2 pm: 540-371-2704
  • Facebook: Facebook.com/MHAfred
  • Instagram: @mha_fred

 

 

 

 

 

 

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