Adults looking to help children struggling with mental health challenges can be more effective by focusing on their own feelings first and learning to better manage and express them.
That's one of the many interesting things Ann Silverberg and Jenelle Hickey from Child & Family Services' CBAT program told me in a recent interview for the Wellness Wednesdays show on Dartmouth Community Media.
Silverberg, Hickey, and their team work with children who are in a Community-Based Acute Treatment program, otherwise known as CBAT, in New Bedford. Both women, Silverberg as CBAT director and Hickey as assistant director, have extensive experience with supporting children in crisis and came on the show to talk about what they've seen during the pandemic, ways they've since adjusted their program, and how parents and other adults can best support children who are struggling during this disruptive time.
Asked about how parents can best help their children, both Silverberg and Hickey stressed that parents should keep talking to their children, no matter how difficult those conversations are.
“I really think a big thing with parents is talk to your kids. Just ask them," Hickey said. "So many people are so afraid to say, 'Are you feeling safe? Are you thinking of hurting yourself?' because they think that they’re going to put that in their heads. If someone's thinking about that, they’re thinking about it. You’re not going to just put it in their head."
Both Hickey and Silverberg stressed that if you have concerns that your child is thinking of hurting themselves, you should ask them about it. Hickey said kids are always telling the adults in their lives how they feel, either through their words or actions. It's up to us to listen.
"Even if what they’re saying is terrifying to you at that moment, just being able to be the ear that they need, to take that information and figure out what the next step is," she said.
Adults don't need to know the solutions before they begin the conversation. The Mobile Crisis Intervention Program is always available to help parents figure out what the next step is.
"Don’t be afraid to utilize Crisis," said Hickey. "They’re always available. Even if you just need to talk to them and figure out like, 'Hey, this is what’s going on and I’m really lost and I don’t know what to do.' Let them guide you. There’s no shame in asking for help."
Part of the difficulty for adults is that many of us aren't skilled at communicating our own difficult emotions, yet we want to be able to model healthy emotional responses for the children in our lives.
Silverberg encourages people to work on that. Better emotional communication, especially expressing one's vulnerability, is important for being able to teach children how to express their feelings.
"I would say communicating feelings -- parents engaging in their own therapy and being able to role model talking about their feelings and expressing their feelings and doing that in a healthy way. (We need) to make that acceptable so that the kids can talk about it and engage with that and share those feelings," she said. "I think sometimes there’s such taboo (around it) …and kids learn that the only safe feeling to express is anger. (They learn) that to be vulnerable isn't very safe. I think that can be very detrimental to kids."