Tag Archives: Children & Adolescents

Children & Adolescents

Supporting families on their autism journeys

By Lindsey Phillips May 1, 2020

Maria Davis-Pierre, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Lake Worth, Florida, first suspected her daughter might be on the autism spectrum when she was 6 months old and showed signs of sensory issues. Then at 10 months, her daughter, who had been saying simple words such as “mama,” “dada” and “ball,” suddenly stopped speaking. When Davis-Pierre and her husband tried to get their daughter to mimic them saying the words, she acted as if she had forgotten them. As a therapist, Davis-Pierre understood the importance of early intervention, so she was proactive about getting her daughter a diagnosis. But it wasn’t easy.

Her pediatrician referred her to health professionals who specialized in developmental delays in infants and toddlers. They tested her daughter and thought she had autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but because she was still so young (around 18 months), they didn’t feel comfortable officially diagnosing her. They recommended she see a pediatric neurologist.

After more tests (which cost the family thousands of dollars out of pocket), the pediatric neurologist agreed about the presence of ASD but was also uncomfortable officially diagnosing the child at such a young age. Davis-Pierre told the doctor she was going to sit in his office every day until her daughter got a diagnosis. One week later, that finally happened.

Davis-Pierre thought the next steps would be easy, especially given that both she and her husband are in the health care field. But what she experienced was more frustration.

“At no point — even with the neurologist — was there a check-in with the parent: ‘OK, this is the diagnosis. This is what happens next,’” Davis-Pierre recalls. “It was, ‘OK, here’s your paperwork. This is the diagnosis. Now, go figure it out.’” According to Davis-Pierre, the health care professionals didn’t provide her family with resources or give any consideration to how the family’s culture would factor into their daughter’s treatment.

When Davis-Pierre spoke with other parents of children on the autism spectrum, she found out that this treatment was the norm. And it left her — and the other parents — feeling overwhelmed.

This experience prompted Davis-Pierre, an American Counseling Association member, to start Autism in Black, a private practice that specializes in helping black parents of children with autism get the help they need.

In a blog post on the website GoodTherapy, Janeen Herskovitz, an LMHC in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, points out four areas in which counseling can help parents of children with ASD: adjusting to the diagnosis (which is often traumatic for parents), learning parenting skills, staying connected to their partners, and managing stress. Professional counselors can also help families prepare for developmental transitions, learn to effectively communicate with one another and extended family, and navigate cultural barriers.

Working through developmental transitions

ASD “is a neurodevelopmental disability, which means at different developmental stages, our clients are going to run into different developmental barriers, and they’re going to need us as counselors,” says Chris Abildgaard, a licensed professional counselor and director of the Social Learning Center in Cheshire, Connecticut. So, it’s important for counselors to understand where families are on their journeys, he points out. Is the family adjusting to the diagnosis? Are they struggling to communicate with their child? Are they helping a child through puberty? Counselors should also prepare to help families with life milestones such as going to prom, getting a driver’s license or grieving a death, Abildgaard adds.

Some families experience grief when they first learn about the ASD diagnosis, says Michael Hannon, an assistant professor of counseling at Montclair State University in New Jersey. These families will be reconciling a new reality and having to let go of certain elements of the relationship they expected to have with their child. “It’s really about [the family] learning to adjust to the needs, strengths, capacity, and some challenges of the people they love living with autism,” he adds.

Another challenging transition for parents and caregivers is when the child enters adulthood. Parents have likely been involved in every aspect of the child’s life, especially in the school system, so it is a significant adjustment when the child takes over this responsibility, Davis-Pierre says. She helps ease this transition by having parents teach their children to advocate for themselves before they reach adulthood. The more parents involve children with ASD in the day-to-day decisions about their lives and school, the more they realize that their children are capable of advocating for themselves, she says.

Abildgaard, an ACA member who specializes in ASD (and author of the 2013 Counseling Today article “Processing the ‘whole’ with clients on the autism spectrum”), has noticed that families sometimes push their child to do something that the child isn’t ready for or doesn’t want. For example, parents often ask him how they can make their child have a friend. Counselors need to educate parents that relationships take time and that individuals on the spectrum may not fully understand the intricacies of relationships and friendships. They will need support and coaching in this area well into their late teens, early 20s or beyond, he says.

Counselors can also help parents make plans and prepare for certain life events and developmental transitions, Abildgaard says. He finds visuals useful in helping families with a child on the spectrum to process events. Recently, he had a family who was going on a trip to a large city. He brought out his whiteboard and on one side wrote down all the thoughts and feelings the parents were having about the upcoming trip, such as feeling anxious that their child would have a tantrum and run from them. Then, Abildgaard asked the parents to consider their child’s perspective and why he might have a tantrum. On the other side of the whiteboard, he wrote down the child’s thoughts and feelings, such as being overwhelmed by all the lights and sounds.

This activity helped the parents realize the link between their own thoughts, emotions and behaviors and those of their child. It also started a discussion about proactive strategies the parents could take to decrease the likelihood of their child experiencing sensory overload. This, in turn, lowered their anxiety about the trip, Abildgaard says.

Helping families stay connected

Having a child with autism affects the entire family system, Abildgaard says. It affects how parents interact with each other, how parents interact with each of their children, how siblings interact with each other, and how the family interacts with extended family members.

Couples don’t typically preemptively discuss the possibility of a having a child with a disability, Davis-Pierre notes. So, when a child is first diagnosed with autism, parents often have to reassess the roles, expectations, responsibilities and core values of the family, she says.

Counselors may also have to coach families through complicated life events such as divorce. Abildgaard, an adjunct professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Saint Joseph, reminds counselors that regardless of the situations that families bring to them, it is important to break these situations down into manageable parts for the clients.

When the parents of a client with ASD were going through a divorce, Abildgaard, a nationally certified school psychologist, brainstormed with the parents how best to explain the situation to their son. Abildgaard also learned from the client’s school that the child had been making comments about the divorce there. Abildgaard says his role as a counselor was to help the client process and express his feelings about the divorce. To do this, he said, “Tell me some things your eyes are noticing that are different at home.” He made his language concrete and specific, which allowed the child with ASD to talk about what he had been noticing, such as his parents arguing more. The boy also said he was scared to talk about these things with his parents, so he and Abildgaard worked through his anxiety together.

Then, Abildgaard brought the entire family into his office to discuss these issues. He chose to have them come in during the morning hours when his office would be quiet so the family would be more comfortable and not feel rushed or distracted.

Balancing the parenting of both neurotypical and neurodiverse siblings is another common challenge that Hannon and Davis-Pierre hear about from their clients. They try to help parents learn how to better communicate with their children and to maximize and be intentional about the time they spend with each child.

Hannon, a licensed associate counselor in New Jersey, uses empathizing strategies to help parents understand what their neurotypical child is feeling. For instance, he asks, “What would your neurotypical child say about this experience right now?” and “What would the child say about how you attend to the sibling with autism compared to how you attend to his or her needs?” This exercise allows parent to empathize and reconcile some outstanding issues with their neurotypical children, he explains.

Davis-Pierre’s clients also report struggling to know how to engage with their neurodiverse children. “We’re so used to looking for [the child to verbalize] … the actual feeling that we’re not looking at the behavior of what the child is showing,” she says.

She has parents role-play to gain perspective on what the child might be thinking or feeling and to increase awareness of behavioral patterns. (For example, Davis-Pierre has noticed that her daughter expresses happiness by flapping her arms and spinning in circles.) If appropriate, she has the child role-play with the parent, but if that is not possible, Davis-Pierre does it herself. To increase understanding, parents can also keep a behavioral journal or use the picture exchange communication system, which allows individuals with little or no verbal communication to present a feeling card to communicate their feelings, Davis-Pierre adds.

Children on the spectrum pick up on their parents’ and caregivers’ emotions more often than people think, Abildgaard points out. However, if they do sense these emotions, they often don’t know what to do with them. Children on the spectrum may appear to be ignoring the person or emotion, but in many cases, they just don’t have the language or perspective-taking ability to process the emotion and the “right” response to it, he explains.

So, Abildgaard works with parents to help them process their own emotions and then explain those emotions to their children so they aren’t left to interpret them on their own. In fact, parents can overtly model how to handle certain emotions such as anger or frustration. Abildgaard often suggests that parents (especially those with younger children on the spectrum) put themselves in “time out” to show their children that even adults need breaks.

Cultural implications

According to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 children in the United States have been identified with ASD. But this number doesn’t take into consideration cultural and racial implications such as delayed diagnosis. According to a 2019 news report on Spectrum, which bills itself as “the leading source of news and opinion on autism research,” black children with autism are often diagnosed later than white children, misdiagnosed more frequently with other conditions such as behavioral problems or intellectual disability, and underrepresented in studies of autism.

Hannon attributes the disparities in diagnosis rates to 1) inequalities in access to health care, 2) mistrust of health care systems among people of color and 3) greater misdiagnosis of symptoms in minority children as behavioral rather than developmental.

Davis-Pierre says the history of racism and discrimination in U.S. health care may persuade some black families not to be completely honest with health care professionals when discussing their children because they fear their children will be taken away. For example, frustration and exhaustion are normal responses for families caring for a child on the autism spectrum, perhaps leading someone to say or think to themselves in a particular moment, “I just can’t do this another day.” But many black families fear serious repercussions should they admit to such passing thoughts with a counselor, Davis-Pierre explains.

Even the treatments families choose for their children are often informed by one’s culture. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) aims to help individuals on the spectrum increase behaviors that are helpful and reduce behaviors that may be harmful to them by positively reinforcing desired behaviors. Debate has swirled, however, over whether ABA is helpful or harmful. According to a 2016 article on Spectrum, some have criticized the therapy for being too harsh in how it corrects maladaptive behaviors and for attempting to make people on the spectrum “normal” instead of advocating for neurodiversity.

But for some families, Davis-Pierre says, ABA makes sense. For example, a black child spinning in circles and banging his head against something in public will often be viewed differently than would a white child who exhibits the same behavior. In this instance, ABA can help protect the black child by helping him learn to replace the maladaptive behavior — one that could put him in danger — with a more socially accepted behavior, Davis-Pierre explains.

The harsh reality is that black people often have to operate differently in public settings because of prejudice and racism, she continues. So, she advises families to consider their child’s behavior and safety when choosing the best treatment for their child’s autism.

Davis-Pierre, author of Self-Care Affirmation Journal and Autism in Black, also finds that clinicians often don’t respect the culture of the home when treating children who are on the spectrum. A client once told Davis-Pierre that she had a therapist come into her home and not remove their shoes despite seeing a place for them by the front door. This act made the parent feel disrespected, and she no longer wanted the therapist in her house working with her child.

Another of Davis-Pierre’s clients was upset by a therapist who had made a decision involving her child without consulting the mother first. While the therapist and child were working together in the family’s home, the child wet himself. The therapist wanted to help the parents by changing the child herself. When the mother discovered that the therapist had gone through her child’s clothes drawers to find clean underwear, she felt as if the therapist had been snooping.

Abildgaard says his role as a counselor is to help clients on the autism spectrum adapt to different social situations and understand social context and social norms for particular settings and cultures. Counselors need to be aware of clients’ cultural and religious norms before instilling certain perceived social skills such as maintaining eye contact, he says. For example, as Abildgaard points out, some Asian cultures make eye contact only with certain people or in certain situations. So, counselors should understand the whole child before prioritizing what social skills or competences are most relevant to focus on in session, he asserts.

Religious beliefs can sometimes pose another barrier to seeking treatment. For instance, Davis-Pierre says, people in the black community are often taught to pray about their problems and not to discuss problems with anyone outside of the family. Counselors may assume that families who aren’t willing or enthusiastic participants in therapy are resistant, but as she points out, they may actually be having an internal struggle between seeking counseling and feeling that they are still maintaining their faith in God.

Davis-Pierre often uses genograms to help clients identify family patterns, such as other family members with a developmental disorder, or cultural values that have been passed along that no longer work for the family. Through genograms, she has noticed that her clients’ families often inherit a pattern of keeping secrets that hurts, rather than helps, the family dynamic. Davis-Pierre acknowledges that even she had a difficult time explaining to her extended family why she and her husband are so vocal about their daughter being on the autism spectrum.

Hannon and Davis-Pierre say that counselors have to be brave and willing to talk about clients’ and families’ cultures and about inequalities based on race and ability status. Starting this conversation can be as simple as including a question such as “What cultural traditions should I take into consideration?” on the intake form, Davis-Pierre says. This question shows that the clinician is already thinking about how culture affects treatment, she explains.

Supporting dads

Abildgaard argues that fathers are often overlooked when thinking about an autistic individual’s support network, so mental health professionals must do a better job of incorporating dads into the therapeutic process. He has noticed that mothers with children on the spectrum are often more proactive about independently finding and supporting each other, whereas fathers, even though they are involved in their children’s care, don’t tend to form support groups on their own. Abildgaard suggests that counselors could offer focused support services such as fathers’ groups or “dad’s night out” events to help these men learn from and bond with other fathers in similar situations.

Such support groups matter when it comes to providing care to individuals on the spectrum. Hannon, an ACA member who specializes in the psychosocial aspects of autism on fathers and families, often co-leads a group for fathers who have children with ASD. These men have reported that just being connected with other fathers who share similar experiences can be life-changing. In these groups, dads find others who speak their language and understand their journeys, which makes them feel heard, Hannon says. Groups also help fathers become more aware of their own needs and challenges and discover effective coping and adjustment strategies, he adds.

Fathers also spend a significant amount of time thinking about their children’s prognoses, their children’s futures, and the ways they can prepare their children to live full lives, Hannon says. In his dissertation, he studied the experiences of black American fathers of individuals with autism. At the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo, Hannon presented his findings from a grounded theory study on how diverse fathers orient themselves to their children’s diagnoses. Fathers often want to help their children who are on the spectrum, he continues, but if they have been raised with certain gendered expectations, counselors may need to take a few extra steps to help these dads increase their efficacy with day-to-day activities such as helping with temper tantrums.

Counselors may also need to help fathers retain focus on their emotional journeys because men are often task-oriented in how they solve problems, Hannon points out. Also, because men have often been socialized to engage only with specific emotions such as lust and anger, counselors may have to dig deeper with them to reveal the other underlying emotions. For example, counselors could suggest, “You’re angry, but it sounds like the source of your anger is fear for your child’s safety.”

Generational pushback

Parents sometimes face generational challenges in caring for their children. Hannon describes a common scenario that fathers often share with him: They leave their children in their grandparents’ care, providing suggestions for ways to best communicate with the children and guidance on particular eating preferences. To which the grandparents might respond, “We’re not doing any of that. We’ll do what we want with our grandchildren. They just need a good talking to.”

Such scenarios often leave parents of children on the spectrum feeling frustrated. If the parents and grandparents have a good, healthy relationship, then counselors can help parents learn to communicate openly and honestly with the grandparents. Hannon advises parents to lead with love and acceptance before critiquing the grandparents’ interaction with the children. Parents can first emphasize how the grandparents love their grandchildren before saying that they just want to show them additional, special ways to show love to a grandchild on the spectrum. 

When Abildgaard works with grandparents who need help accepting their grandchild’s diagnosis of ASD, he starts by saying that he could use the grandparents’ help to allow him to better understand their grandchild. Once this barrier is broken down, he finds that grandparents tend to ask more questions and start honest dialogues about grandchildren who are on the spectrum. 

Counselors can also help clients realize that while it is OK to establish boundaries with extended family, they should aim to set realistic boundaries that honor both the child on the spectrum and the family, Davis-Pierre says. For example, if a family depends on grandparents to provide child care, then the family must be particularly careful in setting boundaries. At the same time, the family can still have a respectful conversation with the grandparents about the needs of the child and family.

Adjusting language

Abildgaard’s clients with ASD sometimes complain that their parents always ask the same question after school: “How was your day?” Because, from their perspective, their days are always the same, the children wonder why their parents ask something they already know the answer to. 

Abildgaard advises parents to instead use concrete language such as “Tell me two good things about your day and one thing you would have changed.” This phrasing gets to the heart of what parents actually want to know from their child and makes the conversation more productive, he says. 

Abildgaard is also careful about the language he uses with clients with ASD and their families. Recently, the mother of one of his clients (a boy in sixth grade) told him that her son ran out of his classroom at school. When the boy walked into his office, Abildgaard said, “Tell me two good things about your day and one thing you would have changed.” This prompted the client to tell Abildgaard he had run out of his classroom.

After admitting this, the boy looked at Abildgaard, seemingly waiting to be chastised. Instead, Abildgaard asked the boy, “What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

The boy responded, “You’re thinking you are mad at me.”

Abildgaard drew a thought bubble on a whiteboard and wrote the client’s thought inside the bubble. Then he drew another thought bubble and wrote what he was actually thinking: “I’m wondering what made him run out of the room.”

The boy’s body language instantly relaxed. This exchange took Abildgaard out of the authoritarian role and shifted the conversation from focusing on the problem to focusing on how to solve the problem.

Similarly, Hannon recommends that counselors focus on strengths, and not just deficits and challenges, when working with families who have a child on the spectrum. He makes a point of asking parents about the victories they have had that week or month.

This question prompted one of Hannon’s clients to share how his son had used appropriate language and displayed empathy — a skill the child had previously struggled to demonstrate — that week.

The child’s mother had said, “I’m going to run through the shower.”

The child on the spectrum responded, “No, you can’t do that because you’re going to fall.”

Even though the child hadn’t grasped the true meaning of his mother’s words, he had shown concern for his mother and responded appropriately, which was a huge victory for this family, Hannon says.

Support often makes all the difference. Davis-Pierre and her family’s autism journey may have had a challenging start, but they eventually found health care providers who worked with them as a team. With this support, Davis-Pierre and her husband were able to stop focusing so much on the challenges and instead start enjoying their child for who she is.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: How to talk to children about the coronavirus

By Cheryl Fisher March 17, 2020

The novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has made headlines for several weeks and has drastically impacted life as we know it. The outbreak, which the World Health Organization recently labeled a pandemic, has disrupted global commerce, shaken the United States stock market and led to travel restrictions and international border closures. Here in the United States, in an attempt to slow the coronavirus spread, major events have been canceled, educational systems are resorting to online forums, and organizations are recommending that employees telecommute. Medical providers are offering telehealth services, and places of worship are examining alternatives to in-person worship services. As of March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency, which may bring additional restrictions.

The coronavirus and children’s mental health

Global anxiety is high, and our clients are negatively impacted as they stockpile supplies and prepare for the unknown. Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, children struggle to make sense of all that they are seeing and hearing. Overwhelmed with information, children are responding in a variety of ways. Professionals who work with children report an increase in insomnia, rumination, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and acting out behaviors.

“After twenty years of successful classroom management, I am finding it hard to command the attention of kids whose energy is so amped up,” says Steff Linden, an educator and children’s mindfulness yoga instructor in Annapolis, Maryland. “They are running around, tripping over themselves, and bumping into each other. These behaviors are examples of children who are overstimulated. They know something is going on, but they don’t know how to react, and they feel helpless and stuck.”

Children can’t escape the tension created by the viral crisis, so they begin creating an understanding which is often complicated by misinformation. “I had a kid poke his finger in my arm and yell, ‘You’ve got the coronavirus! I touched you!’” Linden reports.

Children are acting out their fears through behavior and play. Therefore, it is vital to address their concerns in a way that is reassuring and honest. Here are some tips for talking to children about the coronavirus: The acronym CAPES.

C: Create a calm setting. Children pick up on the emotions of the adults around them. Adults need to manage their anxiety before attempting to address the concerns of children. It is essential to provide a calm setting before talking with children about COVID-19.

A: Ask what they already know. Children are already talking about the virus. They may have misinformation that needs to be corrected. Ask children what they have heard about the virus? Ask them about their concerns and fears. Children tend to worry about their own safety and those in their immediate world such as friends, family members, and even pets.

P: Provide age-appropriate answers. Answer children’s questions with honest, factual and age appropriate answers. Provide answers that are bias-free. Explain that COVID-19 is caused by a new virus and makes people feel sick with a cough and fever. Help battle stigmatizing any particular population by emphasizing that the coronavirus is no one person or country’s fault.

E: Empower them with tools. Children feel powerless over this big virus that has people buying out toilet paper and Clorox wipes. Provide them with actual tools to use that will be empowering by teaching them to wash their hands using soap and water while singing a happy tune for twenty seconds, cough or sneeze into their elbows—not their hands—or a tissue that they immediately toss in the trash and use no contact greetings such as jazz hands or Namaste.

S: Safety. Children turn to adults for a sense of safety and well-being. Assure children that it is not their job to worry about the virus and that you have a plan in place to care for them. Explain ways that you are keeping them safe by making sure they get enough sleep and providing them with nutritious meals. Tell them that their regular visits to the pediatrician and daily vitamin (if they take one) help keep them healthy. Even with school closings, provide daily structure that includes time for non-directed play to help children act out and process feelings. Help them make a list of ways they are healthy and safe. There are a lot of unknowns with COVID 19, so focus your conversation on what is known.

 

As counselors, we can help parents and our child clients better manage the plethora of information that is available. We can assure children that the adults in their lives are up for the task of taking care of them. The acronym CAPES can remind us how to be superheroes in an effective way to the young members of society who are powerless.

And, as always, we must remember our own self-care during this challenging time. Take a peek at my thoughts around a counselor’s guide to surviving flu season my column from February 2018, “The Counseling Connoisseur: Compassion and self-care during flu season.”

 

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Important links:

COVID-19 update and resources from Counseling Today

COVID-19 related resources from the American Counseling Association

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

One in three American kids affected by adverse childhood experiences

By Bethany Bray November 5, 2019

One-third of American children have gone through a negative experience that can have lasting implications for their physical and mental health, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Data from the agency’s most recent National Survey of Children’s Health indicates that 33% of children ages 17 and younger have gone through an adverse childhood experience (ACE) such as domestic violence or parental incarceration. Approximately 14% of children have gone through two or more ACEs, with a higher prevalence among black youths and those who live in households that are below the federal poverty level.

Among the children who took the 2018 survey, the most prevalent ACE was the divorce or separation of a parent/guardian (23.4%), followed by living in a household with someone with a drug or alcohol problem (8%), and the incarceration of a parent/guardian (7.4%).

“The new HRSA data is important because it helps us remember that all children are vulnerable to adverse experiences,” says Evette Horton, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association. “Our job as counselors is to assess for these adverse experiences and enhance the resilience factors that we know support children and adolescents. These include evidence-based mental health treatments, strengthening family support systems, and connecting to other resources in the community. Professional child and adolescent counselors are well-versed in promoting protective factors and stand ready to support children with any adverse experience.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ACEs as “all types of abuse, neglect and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18.” These experiences can range from the death of a parent to emotional or physical neglect and witnessing violence in a home or neighborhood.

Research has connected ACEs to health problems later in life such as mental illness, heart disease, addictive disorders, cancers and diabetes, and risky behaviors such as illegal drug use, unintended pregnancy and suicide attempts.

HRSA collects information on a range of children’s health-related topics from households across the U.S. for its annual survey; the most recent survey includes data from more than 30,500 children.

HRSA cannot directly compare the 2018 rate of ACEs to data from previous surveys because the language in a question asking about ACEs was changed last year. However, when excluding data for the question that was altered (regarding financial hardship), there was not a significant change in the number of ACEs between the 2016, 2017 and 2018 surveys.

 

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More from HRSA on the National Survey of Children’s Health: hrsa.gov/about/news/press-releases/hrsa-data-national-survey-children-health

 

Fact sheet on the 2018 survey: mchb.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/mchb/Data/NSCH/NSCH-2018-factsheet.pdf

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Coming to grips with childhood adversity

The toll of childhood trauma

Informed by trauma

Counseling babies

Standing in the shadow of addiction

What’s left unsaid” (on child sexual abuse)

Interventions for attachment and traumatic stress issues in young children

Touched by trauma

 

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Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Using reality therapy to help military families

By Nicole M. Arcuri Sanders June 14, 2019

Military children are the “Children of the world, blown to all corners of the world. [They] bloom anywhere.” Just like dandelions, military children never know where they will go and where they will grow.

Diane Townsend Davis is credited with creating the dandelion motto for military children. Understanding this motto is imperative for any counselor who wishes to work with military children, but especially for school counselors. The Department of Defense Dependents Education (DoDDE) estimates that 80% of military children (approximately 1.2 million) attend public schools.

Counselors who work with military children must understand the unique stressors that these children face, but counselors also must be prepared to help meet these children’s needs in a short amount of time because their families move often. To avoid having these children slip through the cracks, school counselors must be knowledgeable about rapport-building strategies with this population and meet their needs in a realistic time frame.

 

Reality therapy

Working with clients from their worldview is not a new concept for counselors. This is particularly important when working with a population connected to the military because these clients’ perspectives differ drastically from those of the civilian population. Being knowledgeable about the unique needs of the military culture is a necessity for effective counseling work. For instance, often as military children begin to find their niche in a school, their families will receive orders for relocation. Military families relocate 2.4 times more often than do civilian families (on average, military families relocate every two to three years).

Reality therapy offers this population an honest evaluation of their current choices and behaviors to determine if change is needed to obtain their desired outcomes. This modality offers something that is very important to consider for this population —an emphasis on what aspects of life the client has control over.

As noted, military children move often and therefore tend to be the new kid in school quite frequently. But these children are not like most other new children in school. These children:

  • Have parents who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the nation and to safeguard its people
  • Have parents who often leave for extended periods of time to either train for combat-related situations or as part of combat-related missions
  • Know that a great deal of risk is associated with their parents’ jobs
  • Don’t always know whether their mom or dad made it back safely from work
  • Can go for months without being able to see their parent(s)

In an age of social media, these children may at times be able to connect with their parents, but they also might see or hear reports of attacks on the news. When a member of a military unit is killed in action, all communication is cut off at their deployment station to ensure that the family of the service member is notified prior to receiving any other communication. When military children are unable to connect with their parent, the fear of the death being their father or mother is very real. All of the above noted aspects are the reality for military children, and all of these aspects are out of their realm of control.

Reality therapy offers these clients the opportunity to form a relationship with their counselor based on understanding and nonjudgment. Clients have a voice when working with counselors who use reality therapy. The clients become empowered by being afforded the idea of having control over their behaviors and actions.

A basic tenant of reality therapy is aiding clients in having their basic needs met. Creating a safe place in which clients do not feel judged but do feel empowered is therapeutic in itself.

Reality therapy is founded on the idea that everyone is seeking to fulfill five basic needs:

1) Love and belonging

2) Power or sense of worth

3) Freedom or independence

4) Fun or a sense of pleasure

5) Survival (which is based on knowing that one’s basic needs are being met)

When one of these needs is not being met, mental health issues can arise.

For clients connected to the military, feeling loved and belonging might look different than it does for other clients. Because these clients are frequently separated from loved ones and move often, meeting their need to feel loved and belong can be challenging. Reality therapy provides these clients with the understanding that they cannot change or control others. So, the practical approach will be to solve problems through their ability to control themselves and their own behaviors and thus make choices that support their needs and desired goals.

Within the military, very little power is offered to the family or the service member. Ultimately, the family and service member follow orders from a multitude of levels within the Department of Defense (DOD). Yet each military-connected member can feel a sense of accomplishment through actions they choose to control. For instance, helping clients make a list of goals that they want to accomplish while living somewhere (i.e., making the best out of each duty station) can be empowering to them.

Gaining knowledge of a new area through exploration can also be empowering. Helping clients identify their interests (and what makes them unique) can further support their independence and wellness. Fun can also be part of that experience.

Of course, with each transition that military-connected clients face, their survival needs will be tested. For instance, they may need to realign their thoughts regarding shelter (housing). Yet helping these clients differentiate what is out of their control and what is in their control can aide them in pursuing actions that support the desired outcomes that are within their control. Clients may still be angry, confused or saddened by aspects that are outside of their control. But counselors can help clients see that rather than blaming others or relying on these aspects as an excuse, they can focus on and take ownership of their present time and actions.

Reality therapy sessions are structured around the WDEP system — the client’s wants, doing, evaluation and planning. The counselor meets the client in the here and now and explores what the client wants. This realistic exploration of attainment notes what is in the client’s control and what is not. Clients then share what they are doing to help themselves achieve their wants. Next, the counselor helps clients evaluate whether what they are doing is supportive of or detrimental to their goals. Then, together, the counselor and client plan ways to change detrimental behaviors and fine-tune supportive behaviors to allow for the client to obtain his or her wants.

As the client is faced with new areas of need, the same WDEP system can be applied. Military-connected clients are faced with many hardships fostered by their culture. But reality therapy offers this population a real chance to be resilient by adapting to change and overcoming challenges.

 

Resilience

Military child resiliency largely resembles how well the stay-behind parent is doing. If the parent is unable to cope or transition with the needs of the family when the service member is not available to assist them, then a domino effect will occur. Children will have to fulfill adult responsibilities in the absence of the service member. The parental stressors will then be placed on the children’s shoulders.

For some parents, missing a spouse may be too much for them to handle. Other parents who are left behind may not be married or may not currently be together with the service member, but they may still rely on the service member for support with the children.

When there is a lack of available support, the additional stressors put these families at risk. A 2008 report from the Military Family Research Institute found studies to support that since 9/11, when the number of deployments for service members increased, military families experienced increased rates of marital conflict, domestic violence, child neglect or maltreatment, parenting stress, anxiety and depression.

On the opposite side, when the parent left behind is able to successfully juggle the transition and continue meeting both personal and family needs, children experience less turmoil. These children are better able to continue on as normal with minimal changes to other aspects of life. However, having resources available to these parents to support them in filling roles for which the service member parent was typically responsible is imperative.

Civilian school counselors and community mental health counselors should consider that the resources that military families rely on may not be readily available. For instance, counselors should note whether additional family support is local versus distant and how long the family has called its current community home. Again, reality therapy can provide these clients with a realistic perspective of addressing their needs. Therefore, it is important for counselors to know what additional supports are available to these families.

 

School counselors

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children across the United States spend an average of 6.64 hours a day and a 180 days per year attending public schools. As noted previously, 80% of military children attend public schools.

Public schools have a duty to be aware of the needs of military children. In its 2012 national model, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) asserts the necessity for school counselors to understand their students’ culture in order to provide effective support for students’ academic, career and personal/social development. ASCA further proclaims in its 2012 executive summary that school counseling programs can be effective only when a collaborative effort exists between the school counselor, parents and other educators, thus creating an environment that promotes student achievement.

School counselors who use reality therapy can support students’ academic, career and personal/social development. For each of these areas of development, the school counselor can address the student client’s wants and doing while also aiding the student in evaluating such efforts and making plans that support success. Yet without understanding the unique needs of the military lifestyle, school counselors will be unable to support these children in the schools or locate appropriate community resources to provide support outside of school. Therefore, when assessing the student client’s wants, a realistic perspective of the stakeholders involved will aid in developing goals that the student client has control over.

 

Community counselors

The same notion of understanding the unique needs of military children and military families is true for civilian community counselors. According to the ACA Code of Ethics, the primary responsibility of a counselor is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of clients (Standard A.1.a.). This notion alone requires counselors to take the specific needs of their clients into consideration.

To best do this, counselors should not impose their own values on clients (A.4.b.) but instead should honor the diversity of clients and their uniqueness within their social and cultural contexts. Reality therapy promotes this understanding by developing a therapeutic relationship that embraces the client’s worldview and operates from that perspective in developing realistic goals.

 

Realistic intervention

As military children, family members and service members are blown to all corners of the world, professional counselors should be asking themselves a question: “How can we best serve these clients so that they can bloom?”

All counselors should have the same mission when working with this population — namely, devising goals that are realistic and attainable for these clients. Counselors must make themselves knowledgeable of the specific resources that are available to this population to promote therapeutic growth rather than presenting yet another barrier that these clients must face. There are many resources available exclusively to service members, veterans and their families of which civilian counselors may not be aware. When working with military families, it is imperative that counselors do their homework regarding these resources before leading clients blindly with an analysis of client control in establishing wants or goals.

Toward the end of this article, I will share a number of resources that are available to assist military families living off base. But let’s next consider what civilian counselors can do.

For starters, civilian counselors will want to build rapport with the military-connected client while being mindful of their cultural worldview (just as they would with any other client). This will require the counselor to be knowledgeable about the military population and the client’s role within the military family. As noted earlier, this is a unique culture, and being able to understand this lens of perception will be helpful when clients are processing and trying to navigate scenarios for realistic solutions or coming to terms with aspects that may be troublesome (again, following the tenets of reality therapy).

Second, whether working with the service member, the child or the stay-behind parent, consider infusing into the treatment plan the power of resiliency. Due to their lifestyle, military-connected clients are typically used to a great deal of adjustment in various aspects of their lives on a regular basis. Helping clients build off of their past successes to navigate new challenges can be empowering. Reality therapy supports counselors in evaluating with clients what is working and what is not.

In 2008, the Military Family Research Institute found that the following stressors were considered normative for military children but not for civilian children:

1) Regular, and at times lengthy, separations from parents

2) Lengthy parental work hours

3) Permanent changes of station

4) Deployments for multiple and various purposes

5) Exposure to combat-related activities and equipment, including training

Just because the stressors are considered normal for the population, the events and circumstances experienced are not to be inferred as easy for military children to manage. Just like with any stressor for any client, the more sudden, serious, ambiguous or traumatic the loss, the more difficult the stress will be to manage. Many of these same stressors are applicable both to the parent who is left behind and to the service member.

It is common for military couples to experience marital distress due to a multitude of these stressors. Commonly seen mental health issues in the military population for the service member and veteran include mood disorders, trauma/posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, suicide, addiction, adjustment issues and relationship concerns. Commonly seen mental health issues among military spouses and children include mood disorders, trauma, adjustment issues and relationship concerns.

To explore an issue that may plague any member of a military family, we will focus on working with a military-connected client who is experiencing relationship issues. Guiding these clients in exploring how to communicate with their families despite the physical distance between them and how to involve family members in their life even from afar can help with feelings of detachment. Reality therapy offers clients the ability to come to terms with aspects of their lives that are in their control as well as outside of their control.

Finding ways to help clients embrace the family dynamic even when changes occur can help sustain the idea of their family system. Highlighting previous resiliency efforts to help clients explore this new change, come to accept it, and adapt how they now fit into their family system can reinforce the idea of maintaining relationships. WDEP analysis for each consideration posed by clients offers not only a realistic evaluation of their current circumstance, but also celebrates their small victories and offers opportunities to modify aspects that are not supporting their desired wants.

Navigating the change within the family while assessing client strengths and processing their feelings regarding the change (as well as the realistic desires of the client, while still being mindful of the military lifestyle) can aid the client in managing more healthy relationships. This can be extended to other relationships outside of the family as well.

The idea of resiliency and understanding military culture is at the core of helping these clients. Reality therapy offers counselors the ability to seamlessly integrate into each session regardless of how much time they ultimately have with these clients.

 

Resources for all

To provide additional effective supports when working with children and families connected to the military, it is necessary to know where to turn. These additional supports are very important because these clients move frequently and are often far from family and friends who might normally offer assistance. And counselors cannot do it all by themselves.

The resources mentioned below are only a few of the many available to military families. However, they are a great place to start, whether you counsel military-connected children and their families in the school setting or in the community.

American Red Cross: Offers support with emergency communications with service member while deployed, financial assistance, information and referral services, deployment services, and Reunification Workshops.

Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP): Program is intended to support service member dependents who have ongoing medical, mental health or special education needs (on both spectrums — gifted as well as challenges). To enroll, service members should complete and submit 1) DD Form 2792, the Family Member Medical Summary or 2) DD Form 2792-1, the Family Member Special Education/Early Intervention Summary to their installation EFMP office.

MIC3 (mic3.net/): This is the official website of the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission. The goal of the interstate compact is to replace the widely varying policies affecting transitioning military students with a consistent policy in every school district and in every state that chooses to join.

Military Child Education Coalition: The coalitions three goals are the following:

1) Military-connected children’s academic, social and emotional needs are recognized, supported and appropriate responses provided.

2) Parents, and other supporting adults, are empowered with the knowledge to ensure military-connected children are college, workforce and life ready.

3) A strong community of partners is committed to support an environment where military-connected children thrive.

Military family life counselors: Intention is to support service members, their families and survivors with nonmedical counseling worldwide. Counselors provide face-to-face counseling services, briefings and presentations to the military community both on and off the installation.

Military and Government Counseling Association (MGCA): MGCA is a division of the American Counseling Association with the mission of servicing those who serve. Its website says, “The purpose of MGCA is to encourage and deliver meaningful guidance, counseling, and educational programs to all members of the Armed Services, their family members, and civilian employees of Local, State and Federal Governmental Agencies. … Develop and promote the highest standards of professional conduct among counselors and educators working with Armed Services personnel and veterans. Establish, promote, and maintain improved communication with the nonmilitary community; and conduct and foster programs to enhance individual human development and increase recognition of humanistic values and goals within State and Federal Agencies.” MGCA publishes the peer-reviewed Journal of Military and Government Counseling. The journal publishes articles on all aspects of practice, theory, research and professionalism related to counseling and education in military and government settings.

Military Kids Connect: Military Kids Connect is an online community for military children (ages 6-17) that provides access to age-appropriate resources to support children dealing with the unique psychological challenges of military life.

Military OneSource: Military OneSource offers a range of individualized consultations, coaching and counseling services for many aspects of military life. Services include confidential nonmedical counseling, spouse education and career opportunities, document translation, financial and tax consultation, special needs, spouse relocation and transition, and education.

U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity school liaison officers: The purpose of this position is to serve as the primary point of contact for school-related matters; represent, inform and assist commands; assist military families with school issues (to include providing parents with the tools they need to overcome obstacles to education that stem from the military lifestyle); coordinate with local school systems; and forge partnerships between the military and schools.

Many of the resources available to military service members and their dependents (spouse and children) are free of charge. Noting this may be the difference in whether military families seek these resources out.

 

Summary

I hope this article has provided some insights regarding the needs of military children and their families. In order to provide effective school and community resources for this population, it is important to be aware that these children are not located only on military installations; they are also on public school campuses and in civilian communities. To safeguard the well-being of these children and their families, it is also imperative to understand the uniqueness of military culture.

Currently, there is a gap in services for military families living in the civilian realm. The purpose of this article is to build confidence among civilian school counselors and community counselors by suggesting realistic resources that will help them to better support this population. You never know if a dandelion will blow into your community and need assistance to bloom.

 

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Nicole M. Arcuri Sanders is a licensed professional counselor and core faculty at Capella University within the School of Counseling and Human Services. Clinically, she engages in practice with the military-connected population. Within this specific area of focus, she has also completed research, published, and presented at local, regional and national conferences to advocate for effective clinical services to meet this population’s needs. She has previously worked as a DoDEA district military liaison counselor, substance awareness counselor, school counselor, psychiatric assessment counselor, anti-bullying specialist and teacher. Contact her at Nicole.ArcuriSanders@capella.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Interventions for attachment and traumatic stress issues in young children

By Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, Jeff D. Wolfgang and Kimberly N. Frazier April 2, 2019

Although mental health professionals acknowledge that clinical issues often look different in young children, treatment practices continue to rely heavily on adult literature. These mostly miniaturized forms of adult treatment are often scaled down using more basic language and vocabulary, but they still depend on discovering ways to encourage the verbal communication of children. Furthermore, major deficiencies exist in the mental health care delivery system for children. General neglect and fragmentation of services create obstacles to effective service provision for this population.

Over the past decade, scholars have begun exploring early childhood development and effective counseling interventions, the role of traumatic stress in the presentation of emotional and behavioral symptoms, and the prevalence of attachment issues for young children. In this article, we aim to provide a brief overview of these key advances in what we have named “pediatric counseling.” We also offer 10 evidence-based counseling interventions that stem from our work with young children over several decades.

Early childhood development and counseling

Children are not miniature adults, meaning a paradigm shift and specialized skills approach are required to help them most effectively. Children also go through rapid developmental stages, strengthening the argument that therapy with children should be vastly different from therapy with adults. Thus, professional counselors and other mental health professionals must consider various concepts, issues, techniques and interventions that are cognitively, emotionally, psychologically and developmentally appropriate for children.

During early childhood, defined as birth to age 5, rapid development of gross motor skills (running, climbing, throwing) occurs. Fine motor skills (drawing, writing, manipulating small objects) are slower to develop at this stage, but children should be able to copy letters and small words sometime during the latter half of early childhood. Cognitive development at this stage is based primarily on preoperational thinking. Hence, children in this stage rely heavily on what they see. They can now recall past events and anticipate future experiences that may be similar. At this stage of development, children are very egocentric, commonly overestimate their abilities (e.g., thinking they can carry things that are too heavy for them), and gain increased control of their impulses.

Play is extremely important to social development during early childhood. At about 3 or 4 years old, children engage in associative play in which they learn how to share and interact with one another. During associative play, there are no clear goals for the play and the roles of those engaging in play are not assigned. At about age 5, children begin to create games, form groups and take turns. Children are expanding their vocabularies at this stage, but the words and phrases used to express feelings and emotions remain limited. Because of their limited emotional vocabulary at this stage, children are more prone to act out their emotions behaviorally.

Deficiencies in service delivery:
Some of the major deficiencies in the mental health care delivery system for children include:

  • How children are categorized (i.e., poor conceptualization of children within their ecological context, including culturally marginalized children being overrepresented in the most severe clinical categories)
  • Environmental factors (such as racism and poverty)
  • Lack of empirical data
  • Fragmentation of services

First, children are typically placed in categories of clinical, subclinical and at risk, and they are often in need of services such as remediation and prevention. However, they are largely neglected within the system. This is partly due to clinicians’ lack of training to provide developmentally appropriate clinical care for this age group. Lack of adequate funding and poor communication between providers (such as pediatricians, child care workers, parents/caregivers, social services personnel and professional counselors) are also factors.

Second, some environmental factors associated with higher rates of mental health problems include poverty, racism, abuse and familial problems. Systemic oppression is also linked to both behavioral and affective problems. However, insufficient research has been conducted with young children to provide adequate information about how these environmental factors affect them. 

Third, there is a lack of empirical data on effective treatment for young children. Although the literature is replete with community agency programs and hospital-affiliated programs designed for young children and their families, there is insufficient support for the effectiveness of the treatments and interventions provided.

Finally, there is fragmentation of the services that exist for this population. Mental health services for young children should be initialized by a social service agency or primary care physician. However, this rarely happens. Even when it does, it is unlikely that these professionals have included or interacted with counselors. Thus, many children slip through the cracks and remain unidentified until a crisis arises, meaning they are most likely to receive psychological first aid via psychiatric services.

Counselor training: Experts stress the need for counselor trainees to acquire foundational skills that serve as underpinnings for effective counseling of this population. The major challenge within the discipline of counseling is how to transform these base-level skills into effective techniques and interventions for young clients. Many beginning counselors feel ill-prepared and are often frustrated when they encounter child clients — and preschool-age children in particular. Most counselors begin their training by practicing their counseling skills on classmates and never encounter younger client populations until they are out in
the field. 

Traumatic stress issues

Researchers have suggested that symptoms of traumatic stress in early childhood include interrupted attachment displays of distress such as inconsolable crying, disorientation, diminished interest, aggression, withdrawing from peers, and thoughts or feelings that disrupt normal activities. Traumatic stress, a condition caused by pervasive, systemic external forces, can result in physiological, psychological and behavioral symptoms that negatively affect everyday functioning.

Symptoms of traumatic stress can include hyperarousal or hypoarousal, avoidance and re-experiencing. Hyperarousal in early childhood is often observed through displays of inconsolable crying, flailing about, arching the back and biting. Hypoarousal involves emotional numbing that may be observed as a child who sleeps excessively, displays a dazed expression or averts his or her eyes. Avoidance is characterized by withdrawal, which is often demonstrated as displaying less affection, consistently looking away or avoiding facial contact. Other observable features of avoidance include a fear of being separated from caregivers, refusal to follow directions, disorientation and extreme sadness.

Re-experiencing is often the most subtle of the three symptoms, but it can be observed through the presence of rigid and repetitive patterns. These patterns can include common play leading to outbursts or withdrawal if the pattern is changed or interrupted. The play or reenactments have a noticeable anxious quality to them, or the child appears to space out when engaged in these patterns. One of the most consistent observations of re-experiencing is the presence of nightmares.

Neurological responses to traumatic stress include:

  • Increased levels of adrenaline (activation of the sympathetic nervous system)
  • Decreased levels of cortisol and serotonin (a reduced ability to moderate the sympathetic nervous system or emotional reactivity)
  • Increased levels of endogenous opioids (which result in pain reduction, emotional blunting and memory impairment)

In addition, chronic stress can interrupt cognitive functions such as planning, working memory and mental flexibility. Hence, it is important to systematically assess how children use relationships, interact with others and interact with their environment. Furthermore, when traumatic stressors deplete the coping resources of caregivers, they can become neglectful or show signs of chronic danger, leading to the potential disruption of the attachment system for young children.

Attachment issues

Attachment research describes children’s behaviors along a wellness spectrum from secure attachment (most well) to insecure attachment (where children are at highest risk). With secure attachments, caregivers display relaxed, warm and positive interactions involving some form of direct expression of feelings or desires and the ability to negotiate conflict or disagreement. In this manner, caregivers are encouraging, sensitive, consistent and responsive. With insecure attachments, the child loses confidence to varying degrees in the caregiving system, believing that the caregiver lacks responsiveness and availability during times of distress or trauma.

Securely attached children typically display the following healthy behaviors during the different phases of growth:

  • Phase I (0 to 3 months): Newborns often seek out connection (eye contact and touch) and respond to familiar smells, sights and sounds.
  • Phase II (3 to 6 months): Infants begin to orient to familiar people (preferring those who are familiar to them while avoiding those who are not familiar) and are emotionally expressive, responding to others’ emotional signals.
  • Phase III (6 months on): Infants become wary of strangers and actively seek out familiar caregivers. Additionally, they begin practicing verbal and nonverbal displays of happiness, sadness, anger and fear.
  • Phase IV (from the second to third year on): These young children notably gain increased abilities to negotiate with caregivers (sometimes resulting in short-lived tantrums), are better able to coordinate goals with others (showing adaptable and responsive goals), display increasingly empathic responses to others, and progressively develop greater walking and complex verbal communication skills.

Insecure attachments styles are divided into three categories: avoidant, resistant and disorganized-disoriented. Avoidant attachment styles often can be associated with caregivers who minimize the perceptions of young children, are emotionally unavailable, and assign care of the child to others. This results in young children becoming indifferent to the presence of the caregiver, displaying detached/neutral responses to others, and minimizing opportunities for interaction with others.

Resistant attachment styles are associated with caregivers who resist distress (showing avoidance verbally or physically) and often wait for the child to get highly upset before attempting to sooth. This conditions young children to maximize distress, to resist or display difficultly in being soothed, and to under-regulate their emotions (e.g., responding dramatically to change and acting out dramatically when expectations are not met). Additionally, these children readily perceive experiences as threatening, get frustrated easily, and often approach life anxiously or as if helpless. These children initiate their interactions with others through their distress.

The third and most unhealthy attachment style is disorganized-disoriented. It is associated with caregivers who are often confrontational, helpless, frightened or disengaged (avoidant). These caregivers often passively place children at risk due to the caregivers’ lack of involvement or preventive parenting skills. Their children respond by attempting to adapt to the caregivers’ emotional needs — either caretaking or avoiding. These adaptive behaviors are often observed as consistent displays of confusion, hostility, freezing responses or caregiving responses (e.g., reassuring, pleasing, cheering up).

Counselors’ role: As counselors, we are uniquely trained to meet the needs of young children because of our emphasis on human development, prevention, ecosystems and wellness. Counselors can use three main restorative skills to intervene with young children experiencing attachment issues related to traumatic stress. We can:

  • Set up a safe and warm environment in our clinical settings
  • Display trust through culturally sensitive gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions
  • Nurture a nonjudgmental understanding of young clients while focusing on exploration, empowerment and acceptance

By engaging in these three practices, professional counselors should be able to aid young children in working through a variety of social, emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. Counselors can foster warmth and vitality by employing mutuality and relational socio-dramatic play experiences. Additionally, counselors can create mediated learning so that young children can develop the ability to self-define, contextualize and transform their reality into healthy developmental journeys. This gentle, nonthreatening rebalancing of the energy can create restorative opportunities.

Ten evidence-based interventions

In 2000, Cirecie A. West-Olatunji (one of the co-authors of this article) and a colleague created a program called the Children’s Crisis Unit, in partnership with a local YWCA rape crisis unit, to provide clinical services to young children in a five-county area when referred for allegations of child sexual abuse. Over a four-year period, the Children’s Crisis Unit provided assessment and intervention for children and provided consultation to clinicians, law enforcement, medical professionals and legal professionals, both locally and nationally. During this time, training was provided for counseling, psychology and social work graduate students who learned how to work specifically with clients from birth to age 5.

The following techniques were used systematically with hundreds of clients. Although these interventions may be similar to those used with nonsymptomatic children, in working with young children, there are several unique features, including:

  • Assessment for degree of severity
  • Remediation
  • Involvement of the caregiver
  • Bookmarking for interventions at later developmental periods

1) Popsicle sticks: This intervention can be introduced in the first session with the primary caregiver and the child. One of the appealing things about the use of Popsicle sticks is that they are very inexpensive, meaning nearly any family can afford them. Counselors can use nontoxic crayons or markers and other craft tools such as glitter, buttons, yarn and nontoxic glue. Counselors direct the caregiver-child dyad to use the Popsicle sticks to create individual members of their family as dolls. This activity can be continued at home between sessions. This intervention facilitates bonding and trust, decreases anxiety, is client-centered and culturally appropriate, and allows children to tell their story.

2) Feeling faces: This activity provides easy access for the counselor because various versions can be downloaded from the internet. Use of the feeling faces allows children to identify with other children and their facial expressions. In the exercise, the counselor directs the child to select those faces to which he or she is drawn to determine thematic links between the selected faces. The counselor then hypothesizes and contextualizes the presenting problem. This activity is useful in remediating flattened affect, with the counselor directing the child to mimic faces that match a range of emotions.

3) Storytelling: Narrative activities allow children to tell stories of their own choosing or give a particular recounting as directed by the counselor. Storytelling also allows the caregiver to recount or read the child a story that represents some resolution to the problem. Additionally, this activity permits the counselor to a) read the child a story representing some resolution to the problem and then engage in dialogue about feelings or b) collect pre- and post-observational data regarding the child’s responses.

4) Puppets: This intervention is helpful in allowing children to use dramatic play to express their feelings, recount a story or “restory” prior negative events. It can be particularly useful when the caregiver is actively involved in the puppet intervention. Puppets can be of the caregivers’ own making or ones that are available in the clinical room. Smaller and isomorphic puppets work better with infants and toddlers, whereas 3- and 4-year-old children are more likely to respond to animal-shaped and larger puppets.

5) Anatomically and culturally correct figurines: These figurines can be useful in cases of physical and sexual abuse because children are more likely to provide an accurate accounting when directed to engage in dramatic play. This intervention allows children to reenact situations that they have experienced. Additionally, it offers opportunities for children to point to parts of the body on the figurines as well as on themselves. This activity can provide the counselor with an assessment of the child’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexuality.

6) Dollhouse: This intervention offers a physical example of the home that can be used to explain what happens in the home from the child’s perspective. Use of a dollhouse can aid in accessing the child’s memories more easily based on familiarity with household items rather than starting from scratch. This activity allows counselors to be either:

  • Directive with the child, using prompts such as, “Tell me what happens in this room” (while pointing to a specific room in the dollhouse)
  • Nondirective with the child, permitting the child to have free-flowing play with the items in the dollhouse (while making observational notes)

7) Play dough (modeling clay): Modeling clay provides a kinesthetic, moldable medium that children can use to contextualize and express feelings involving sensory experiences. This intervention permits children to create representations of their family members by providing definition to body parts and facial expressions, and thus connecting emotions, experiences and people to the critical event. Play dough activities allow counselors to direct children to mold important people (both family members and nonfamily members) in their lives.

8) Freehand drawing: This activity offers children the opportunity to creatively express what is happening for them in the moment. Tools for this activity are based on the child’s developmental level and might include crayons, markers, pens, pencils or chalk, depending on the child’s age and motor skills. Counselors can use this activity to promote comfort, connection, nurturance and fun for children.

9) Kinetic family/human figure drawing: Kinetic family drawing is a more directive technique that allows children to articulate how they see themselves in relation to other family members. This activity allows for dialogue between the parent and child in terms of perspectives of the family. The counselor offers paper and drawing instruments and directs the child to draw a picture of her or his family. (Note: Try to avoid stick figures, depending on the age of the child.)

10) In vivo parent-child observation and feedback: This intervention permits the counselor to assume an observer role as the parent and child interact. It can be either directive or nondirective. This activity allows for a real-time view of the interaction quality between the parent and child, providing insight into parenting style and skills as well as attachment issues. In vivo observations afford counselors the opportunity to prepare the clinical room with play materials and direct the parent to engage with the child (or, in a nondirective way, allow the parent and child to interact without instructions). Thus, the counselor can step back to observe (either in the clinical room or in an adjoining room with a one-way mirror). If the counselor is in the room, she or he can provide instant feedback and redirection, if necessary.

It should be noted that when working with preverbal children, counselors should rely on nonverbals such as body language, facial expressions, physiological responses and the child’s attention and focus. Also, be aware that children’s comprehension develops earlier than their language abilities. It is important to remember that children understand more than they can communicate.

Extending our reach

The counseling profession is poised to serve as a leading provider of much-needed services to young children. Our focus on prevention, environmental context, development and wellness makes us uniquely trained to assess, intervene with and investigate clinical issues in early childhood. The benefits for us as a profession are numerous and extensive.

First, by incorporating a focus on young children, we can increase our role definition by providing psychological consultation to children, parents, and child care providers in day care centers (such as Head Start) and preschools. Second, we move from the implicit to the explicit. Many practicing counselors are already working with young children in their agencies, schools and private practices. However, without counselor educators and policymakers explicating guidelines for practice, the profession lacks a systematic response to ensure application of evidence-based interventions. Third, we can expand our involvement in addressing the needs of this clinical population by securing grants from federal agencies and private foundations; attending think tanks and conventions where other health professionals are gathering to discuss the needs of young children; and advocating for increased coordination of service providers across all service delivery platforms and agencies. Finally, we can advocate for ourselves by becoming more visible within the larger health care community.

Recommendations: Existing courses in counselor education need to incorporate a paradigm that includes training specifically geared toward clinical populations from birth to age 5. The major challenge within this discipline is how to transform base-level skills into effective techniques and interventions for young clients.

School counselors especially need to have specialized skills and training so they are equipped with tools that acknowledge characteristics and cultural nuances that are specific to child populations. Allowing graduate students to become familiar with the pediatric population early in their training begins the process of conceptualizing young children in the context of a holistic, strength-based and culture-centered approach.

Some professionals have offered a solution to this dilemma by suggesting a framework that incorporates exposure to a variety of populations or the use of various subspecialties. In such a framework, counselor educators systematically incorporate broad content knowledge of specialized populations that is applied throughout the curriculum. Family courses could focus on the specific issues that pediatric members of the family system face and how these issues affect the entire family’s functioning. In addition, family courses could focus on interventions geared toward young children that incorporate the entire family, hence aiding the family to function more effectively. Counseling courses on theory and technique might add discussions on how to incorporate young child development and issues into concepts and interventions that are specific to various counseling theories.

Finally, to further develop our understanding of what practicing counselors actually do when working with young children, it is important to perform additional counseling research. One way of advancing our knowledge in this area might be the use of a Delphi study. This systematic approach, which would gather a panel of experts through a nominations process, could be used to generate ideas, gain consensus and identify opinions of a wide range of counseling professionals without face-to-face interaction. This method could provide a means of bridging research and practice to reach a common understanding of what steps can be taken to explore our conceptualization and assessment of and intervention with young children.

In sum, counselors have the ideal training to work closely with young clients and to provide culturally appropriate interventions to address the unique needs of this client population. Use of developmentally informed and ecosystemic frameworks will allow counselors to be accurate in their conceptualization and treatment of young children.

 

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Cirecie A. West-Olatunji serves as associate professor in counseling at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) and as director of the XULA Center for Traumatic Stress Research. She is a past president of the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD). Internationally, she has provided consultation and training in southern Africa, the Pacific Rim and Europe. Contact her at colatunj@xula.edu.

Jeff D. Wolfgang is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling in the College of Education at North Carolina A&T State University. His research focuses on multigenerational effects of trauma on young children and their families. Contact him at jdwolfgang@ncat.edu.

Kimberly N. Frazier is an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans. Her research focuses on counseling pediatric populations, cultured-centered counseling interventions and training, systemic oppression and trauma. She is a past president of AMCD and has served as an ACA Governing Council representative. Contact her at kfraz1@lsuhsc.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.