Tag Archives: Children & Adolescents

Children & Adolescents

Superheroes and play therapy: The perfect imaginary combination

By Jetaun Bailey and Tonya Davis July 9, 2018

Superheroes have a profound influence on American culture. Recently, Marvel Comics’ Black Panther came to life on the movie screen. It appears the movie had a twofold impact.

First, it brought heroic life to a seemingly little-known character. Second, unlike most other big-screen superhero movies, Black Panther placed value on social consciousness, awareness, community, family and pride. It broke boundaries that went beyond simply box-office sales, introducing a male of presumably African descent as the superhero. During the movie’s opening weekend, many news outlets showed young African American children wearing their dashikis as a symbol of pride in the African ancestry depicted in the movie.

As a culture, we hold our superheroes in high esteem, even if they are fictional characters. Thanks to Black Panther, many African American boys can identify with a superhero for the first time. This experience has likely heightened the imaginations of many African American boys as they imitate characters from Black Panther in their play.

Escaping to the imaginary worlds of our superheroes seemingly has therapeutic powers. Author and blogger Remez Sasson describes imagination as the mental ability to formulate an image that is not tangible through our five senses. For young children, an even deeper escape possibly occurs when watching these types of movies. The imagination is a powerful tool for children, as reported by Patti Teel in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine. When children imagine, they can visualize their heart’s desire, thus welcoming it into their reality.

 

Reaching beyond traditional play therapy

The therapeutic power of imagination is also evident in various therapy practices, specifically play therapy. According to “Helping a Child Through Play Therapy” by Jane Framingham, adults mistakenly think that child’s play is solely for fun and games or to occupy time. Unbeknownst to these adults, through creative and imaginative play, children are developing cognitively and emotionally while improving their self-worth, positive self-image, and communication and coping skills. For those reasons, play can be therapeutic in helping children overcome challenges that might inhibit developmental growth.

To tap into children’s imaginations and gain deeper understanding of their problems, play therapists are reaching beyond traditional play therapy tools such as sand trays, crayons, paints, animals, toys and dolls. Technology appears to have revolutionized the art of play therapy, thus making it easily accessible to counselors. This can be especially important for school counselors, who work in settings in which the counseling process is often limited because of the other administrative duties assigned to them.

Technology-based programs such as Marvel’s Superhero Avatar Creator and DC Super Friends Super Hero Creator represent the infusion of electronic media into play therapy. Based on “The iPad Playroom: A Therapeutic Technique” by Marilyn Snow and colleagues, the infusion of technology increases the imagination and creativity of the child by allowing the child to create media, pictures and other artwork while the therapist is present, either in conjunction with or separate from the therapist. For example, many applications are available to aid children in fueling their imaginations to create family dynamics or events through drawing and colors that possibly hold symbolism to their presenting problems. This invites the opportunity for metaphors to help solve real-world problems.

 

An ideal therapeutic method

This method of integrating superheroes through a technology approach in play therapy potentially could be an ideal therapeutic method of working with children, especially African American males, in the school setting. It appears to offer a nonintrusive approach for getting students involved in counseling because it integrates technology and play without asking probing questions.

As former school counselors, we have been disturbed by the alarming rates of African American boys being suspended because of perceived aggressive behaviors. Through our lenses, we have seen many of these students struggling with low-self-esteem or low self-worth. Ironically, sometimes these issues are not apparent through traditional presentations such as withdrawing or isolating.

The adjustment between school and family cultures has proved problematic for African American males regarding understanding their importance and worth. This likely causes tension in the school setting, resulting in aggression. These adjustment issues, or inability to navigate from one situation to another, is better known as code-switching.

Eric Deggans, in “Learning How to Code-Switch: Humbling, But Necessary,” describes code-switching as beyond the exchange of two languages in a conversation. But in today’s diverse society, the term’s deeper meaning is shifting between different cultures to move through life’s conversations. Deggans, an African American man, implies that code-switching is an essential tool for African Americans to adjust culturally. Therefore, African American males are expected to recognize one set of rules in one setting and understand another set of rules in another setting while maintaining their identity.

 

Uses with a student

We have sought to address these adjustment issues with our African American male clients through the use of play therapy methods. Using the power of imagination in play therapy allows them to foster development and problem-solve issues that have been hindering their overall academic and emotional growth. In one case, Marvel’s Superhero Avatar Creator  was used with an African American male student who was having adjustment issues at school that produced aggressive behaviors both at school and at home. Although the nature of the school setting did not permit long-term therapy, this short-term approach showed significant positive results.

This student created a superhero avatar over the course of four sessions. During the creating phase, the student used his imagination to create a creature that had similar features and skin color to his own, thus solidifying the importance of identity and connection to the creature. Allowing the student autonomy in creating his creature aided in establishing the therapeutic relationship.

The student was able to arrange the way therapy was directed as the therapeutic relationship was established. Through the various stages of play therapy, from gaining insight to reorientation or reeducation, the therapeutic process became a playground in which the student could live out his imagination through his superhero in a way that was vivid and emotionally alive. This experience paved the way for deeper understanding of how the student perceived his school family in relation to his peers, faculty and staff, and his actual family. Through incorporation of a client-centered approach to play therapy, this student showed significant growth in his overall development and was thus able to transfer those skills (i.e., code-switching) between school and family relationships.

Once significant progress was made with the student, his parents were incorporated in one play therapy session. The student’s father decided to create a superhero avatar to bring life to his perceived role as the family protector. In retrospect, through this play therapy family activity, the father could see how his family viewed his role and their individual roles within the family.

The play therapy sessions, infused with the technology of creating superheroes, helped the student use his imagination to bring to life his own unique story and identity. In superhero stories, superheroes conquer their adversaries while overcoming their adversities. The ending of this student’s story depicted similar results.

This form of play therapy is a nonintrusive method that renders promising results by not asking direct questions, but rather allowing students to self-express through play. As such, we do not believe that the traditional mode of counseling would have achieved the same impact on this child’s growth and development. This lends support to the importance of expressive therapy for children, particularly African American boys. Expressive therapies can help children find their voices, especially through play-based techniques using superhero avatars.

 

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Jetaun Bailey, a former school counselor, is a certified school counselor, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University. Contact Jetaun at Jetaun.bailey@aamu.edu or baileyjetaun@hotmail.com.

 

Tonya Davis, a former school counselor, is a nationally certified school psychologist, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University.

 

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Related reading: See the upcoming September issue of Counseling Today magazine for an in-depth cover article on play therapy.

 

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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 lingering influence of attachment

By Laurie Meyers June 25, 2018

A few years ago, American Counseling Association member Lisa Bennett took a trip to Southeast Asia. While there, she thought it would be fun to visit an elephant sanctuary where sick and injured animals had been sent to heal. What she saw fascinated her. The elephants engaged in attachment behavior.

Among herds, young elephants are raised not just by their mothers but by an older female who has already had babies and “retired,” moving on to another tribe. These older females return to their original herd, however, to serve as nannies to the young elephants. Bennett noticed that the nanny elephants seemed to be teaching the mother elephants how to connect with their calves.

“Nannies will literally push the mother toward the calf when the calf is in need and will model to the mother the actions to take to secure the calf’s safety and security,” Bennett says. The calves still viewed the mothers as their primary attachment figures but also displayed an attachment to the nanny elephants.

Of course, as a professor and director of clinical mental health counseling at Gonzaga University in Washington state, Bennett knows that attachment theory has even bigger ramifications for counselors and the clients they serve. All humans are born with the need for engagement with and responsiveness from other humans, says Bennett, who studies and gives presentations on attachment theory. People need to be touched, to be stimulated, to feel safe and to believe that someone — usually their primary caregiver or caregivers — will provide things for them. In other words, people need to be “attached.” If children don’t feel as if they have reliable attachment figures — a source for stability and safety — they are more likely to experience anxiety and have difficulties trusting others and forming relationships, Bennett says.

Bennett recently took a group of students from various programs, including clinical mental health, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling, to a wildlife park containing elephants. She wanted them to observe attachment in action in the animal kingdom and apply what they saw to human behavior.

Interestingly, Bennett’s group also observed that elephants can transfer their attachments to humans. In the park, there was no way for retired females to return to their old herds. As a result, there were no elephant nanny figures. However, whenever the human trainer appeared, the calves responded to him as if he were a nanny. Bennett believes that because human attachment is analogous to that of other animals, the elephants’ consistent attachment to a nanny figure showed that secondary attachment figures play an essential role in well-being.

Attachment theory is derived from the combined work of John Bowlby, a British child psychologist and psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist. The theory posits that infants have an instinctual survival-based need to form an emotional bond with a primary caregiver. This attachment provides a sense of safety and security. If children receive consistent attention and support from a caregiver, they are more likely to develop a “secure” attachment style. Children who do not receive consistent attention and support develop insecure — avoidant or anxious — attachment styles. Attachment style affects a person’s sense of self and shapes his or her ability to regulate emotions and form relationships.

Bennett notes that neurological research shows that humans are wired to make attachments, but these connections need to be reinforced, optimally between birth and age 2. However, children can become attached at an older age if they receive the right care and connection, she says. In addition, if a primary caregiver does not cultivate attachment in a child, another caregiver can provide that crucial link by responding to the child’s emotional and physical needs with “connection and delight,” Bennett says.

As children develop, they form a working model of the world and themselves, Bennett says. Children who have secure attachments tend to believe that they are lovable and likable and that other people are safe and kind and will meet their needs, she explains. Children whose needs are not being met generally develop one of two beliefs about themselves and the world. Those who have formed an avoidant style of attachment often believe that they are OK but that the world and the people in it are bad. Children who have developed an anxious style of attachment usually think that other people are generally benign but that they themselves are bad or unlovable, Bennett explains.

ACA member Joel Lane previously worked with children, adolescents and young adults and now supervises counseling trainees who work with this same population. He says that attachment issues often play a significant role in clients’ presenting concerns, either as the primary difficulty or as a complicating factor. With children and adolescents, much of Lane’s work consisted of helping these clients and their parents or caregivers understand one another’s needs better.

Attachment styles — and the interpersonal behaviors they engender — can form a lifelong emotional template. People with secure attachments know they can depend on those to whom they are attached to be available for support and vice versa, says Christina Schnyders, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at Malone University in Ohio and a frequent researcher and presenter on attachment issues. In contrast, anxious attachment creates fear that an attachment figure will not be dependable, she explains. In response to this fear, people with the anxious attachment style can become co-dependent and may also become frustrated or angry because their relational needs are not being met. People with avoidant attachment create distance from others to prevent having to depend on anyone or having anyone depend on them.

Each of these attachment behaviors affects how people function in crucial life areas such as family, peer and romantic relationships, Schnyders says. Attachment style can even influence a person’s career choice and interactions in the workplace.

Leaving the nest

Lane, an assistant professor in the counselor educator department and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Portland State University, studies attachment, particularly as it relates to the population known as “emerging adults” (those in their late teens to late 20s). Emerging adulthood is a time of tremendous interpersonal transition that usually involves an individual leaving the parental household, forming new friendship groups and getting more attachment needs met by peers — and particularly by romantic partners — rather than by family members or caregivers, he says.

Transferring attachment needs from parents or caregivers to peers is a process that typically begins in a person’s teens, says Schnyders, an ACA member and part-time college counselor at Malone. Parental attachment doesn’t become any less vital at this time; it’s just that peers are placed higher on the attachment hierarchy, she explains. In fact, having a secure attachment to parents or caregivers is critical to adolescents’ ability to make connections with their peers, says Schnyders, a licensed professional clinical counselor formerly in private practice.

“Attachment beliefs inform our sense of self and others, particularly during times of distress,” Lane says. For example, in stressful situations, people with attachment insecurity may believe they are incapable of dealing with the problem, he says. Stress may push those with anxious attachment to rely solely on other people rather than deploying their own problem-solving skills, whereas people with avoidant attachment may believe they cannot count on others to provide emotional support, causing them to withdraw from the support system and creating greater isolation, Lane explains.

In contrast, emerging adults who have formed secure attachments to peers and parents are more resilient and better able to handle changes, both good and bad, Schnyders says.

“Put simply,” Lane says, “attachment plays a major role in understanding our emotional needs and getting those needs met. And in emerging adulthood, it can be especially important since our emotional needs evolve, as do the groups of people whom we hope or expect to meet those needs.”

The question becomes, how can counselors help “fix” an attachment style that may be having a negative impact on multiple aspects of a client’s life?

Lane doesn’t believe it’s a matter of changing clients’ attachment styles. Rather, he says, counselors can help clients better understand and anticipate their attachment needs, which can lead to increased attachment security over time.

“I believe that the counseling relationship provides clients with corrective attachment experiences,” he says. “When we feel heard, seen and understood, insecure attachment beliefs are challenged, and secure attachment beliefs are reinforced. Over time, this can have a powerful impact on how we view ourselves and how we view others. We can also help our clients learn to better understand their attachment needs and communicate those needs to others.”

Schnyders uses psychoeducation to teach clients the differences between secure and insecure attachment. She then uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients understand how their insecure attachment has created core, irrational beliefs. Schnyders and the client then work together to reframe and restructure these beliefs. This allows clients to acknowledge and address the insecurities and fears that drive their behavior, better enabling them to modify their personal interactions.

Schnyders says that narrative therapy can also be useful, particularly with emerging adults. She guides clients as they create a narrative riddled with problems connected to their attachment style. Once that narrative is constructed, Schnyders and the client work to create an alternative storyline that focuses on elements of secure attachment and talk about how to work toward that story.

Attachment and romantic relationships

“Attachment drives the way we experience ourselves and our significant others,” Bennett says. “It provides a lens for how we see and interpret them.”

There is no consensus on whether attachment styles influence the selection of people’s romantic partners, says Bennett, who works with couples in her private practice. At the same time, she can’t help but noticing the number of anxious and avoidant pairings in her office.

“Put simply, one keeps pushing or nagging at the other to be present, and the other is a great escape artist,” Bennett says. “Both [are] driven by their styles and both [are] really chasing the other off, even though that is not what either one wants.” The doubts and fears that drive such behavior are barriers to real intimacy, she adds.

To help couples identify and break the patterns that are sowing discord, Bennett teaches them about attachment theory and how their individual styles can affect the relationship. She then helps couples develop secure attachment behavior by teaching them how to be more available, accessible and responsive to each other.

Bennett says she often finds that couples don’t know what a nonsexual warm connection looks like, so she teaches them how to greet, touch and talk in nonsexualized ways that express love and care. Vulnerability is also a big issue. Couples need to be willing to be vulnerable with their partners and, conversely, to react gently, she says.

Bennett also frequently works with couples on how to change their “demands” to “requests” and how to respond to each other’s requests with warmth. In addition, relationship partners often need to learn how to apologize to each other, how to talk about their fears and anxieties with each other, how to listen to each other and how to turn to each other for support, Bennett says. Finally, she advises couples to get in the habit of immediately repairing any relationship “ruptures” rather than allowing them to fester and build.

People with attachment issues often have difficulty expressing themselves, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. Partly for that reason, Schnyders does a good deal of assertiveness training with couples to improve their communication. Learning to be assertive allows clients to communicate their needs without discounting the feelings of their partners.

When teaching assertive communication, Schnyders instructs clients to use “I” statements such as I want this. I believe this. I need this. In the process, she strives to change the way clients see themselves.

Schnyders tells the story of a 60-something female client with a pattern of insecure attachment. Schnyders had been focusing on self-esteem with the client, encouraging her to believe that she was a person of value and worth. The client was also having problems communicating with her husband, who had a habit of speaking at her rather than to her and treating her dismissively.

One day, the client came in and told Schnyders about a breakthrough. A recent encounter with her husband had devolved, as it usually did, to him speaking disrespectfully to her. All of the sudden, the woman found herself exclaiming to her husband, “You can’t speak to me like that. I am a person with value and worth!”

Her declaration stopped the husband in his tracks and, soon thereafter, their relationship dynamic began to change. With the client standing up for herself and beginning to believe that she was worthy of respect, Schnyders asked her to consider what she needed from her husband. The woman said she wanted to be able to hear and understand his needs without diminishing her own. Schnyders and the client then talked about how she and her husband could work together rather than following their previous pattern, which involved the woman placating him rather than standing up for herself.

Sometimes, just slowing down an interaction can improve communication. In couples and family therapy, rather than letting clients have rapid back-and-forth exchanges, Schnyders will slow the conversation and have participants tell their partners or family members what they need from them. Schnyders will then ask the partners or family members to repeat what they have heard because sometimes conflict arises from an inability to listen to what someone else is saying.

Attaching to a career

Like all areas of life that involve interacting with others, work can sometimes be tricky for those with insecure attachments. As Schnyders explains, if a person doesn’t trust their co-workers and can’t communicate and interact with them effectively, that person’s performance is going to be hampered, perhaps even putting them at risk of losing their job.

But attachment style can also play a role in the job search itself, says Stephen Wright, a professor of applied psychology and counselor education at the University of Northern Colorado. Wright, an ACA member, studies how attachment style affects career choice and decision-making in college students.

When it comes to considering careers, people who are securely attached have an advantage because they are less likely to perceive career barriers, according to Wright. In other words, they have more confidence in their innate strengths and their ability to cope with challenges. Those with secure attachment also are more likely to have a stable support system of people who bolster their confidence and may even have contacts that will assist in the career search, Schnyders says.

In contrast, those with insecure attachment are more likely to perceive many reasons that they will not succeed in a particular career field or in the career search itself, Wright says. These individuals are also less likely to have a support system in place.

That’s one area where professional counselors can come in. Counselors not only serve as a secure base for clients but can also boost their feelings of self-efficacy in various areas, which can diminish the effects of insecure attachment, Wright says.

By providing a strong sense of support, counselors may help insecurely attached clients perceive fewer barriers. Setting and completing specific goals — even small ones, such as researching a new profession — can help strengthen these clients’ sense of accomplishment and confidence, Wright says. If clients have shown interest in a particular career area, helping them learn more about it and explore the various jobs available in the profession can increase their sense of self-efficacy in that area, he says. If clients lack the required skills for a specific job, counselors can assist them in developing a plan to acquire those skills rather than let them perceive their current situation as an insurmountable barrier, Wright says. He also suggests that counselors use career models to assist these clients with decision-making and identifying their job-related strengths and weaknesses.

Recovering from child sexual abuse

Research indicates that people with secure attachment style find it easier to recover from child sexual abuse, says Kristina Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who studies and works with survivors of child sexual abuse. Having secure attachment provides these individuals with a safe base from which to explore and process their experiences, leaving them better able to regulate their emotions, she says. The feeling of security from healthy attachment serves as a form of support in and of itself, adds Nelson, who was previously a private practitioner in Florida.

Survivors with insecure attachment styles have typically received inconsistent or limited support throughout their lives, and this leaves them feeling unsure of whom to trust, Nelson says. In addition, they often don’t know how to regulate their emotions or how to begin the process of recovery.

Counselors can offer the support that those with insecure attachment styles have lacked throughout their lives, Nelson says. “Counselors can actually serve as a secure base for a client. [They can] be that consistent presence by providing that constant positive regard, allowing them to explore and make sense of their experiences.”

Counselors can also help these clients learn how to regulate their emotions. Nelson often recommends deep breathing techniques to her clients and adds that some people find meditation helpful. She cautions, however, that because meditation involves closing one’s eyes in a dark room, it may be a trigger for sexual abuse survivors, so counselors should proceed carefully.

Psychoeducation about attachment styles can also help clients gain awareness about why they react the way they do and how they developed their coping mechanisms, Nelson says.

Permanently attached?

So, is everyone stuck with their childhood attachment styles for life? Not necessarily, say Bennett and Lane. Although attachment style is usually pretty stable, there are cases in which it can change.

“The idea here is that we have core perspectives that tend to drive core styles,” Bennett says. “I’d venture that friendships and workplace relationships can have an impact, but our primary home styles are more likely to set the tone.”

“If impacted by social and work settings, we can repair by going home, by changing up friendships, by moving jobs,” she continues. “If stuck in an unhealthy work environment or social setting without recourse or the capacity to go home and mend, it makes sense that we’d alter to a less secure base, sadly.”

This is also true in relationships, Bennett says. For example, if a spouse repeatedly behaves in ways that erode the person’s trust in the spouse or in themselves, then that person’s attachment style can warp into a less secure one, she says.

Lane says there is some evidence that insecure attachments can become more secure throughout adulthood. He believes this may happen as people shift their attachment needs to people of their own choosing rather than the families they were born into or the caretakers they were placed with.

“I think that important interpersonal experiences influence and are influenced by one another,” he says. “When we regularly experience our needs being met as infants, we are more likely to be able to form healthy interpersonal relationships throughout life. However, adverse life and interpersonal experiences can still disrupt our attachment system, especially after multiple significant adverse experiences. The reverse also seems to be true — insecure attachments in childhood decrease the likelihood of healthy attachment relationships later in life. However, when those healthy relationships occur, they can influence our attachment orientations toward being more secure.”

 

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Related reading

To learn more about issues related to attachment, read the following articles previously published in Counseling Today and available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org:

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

Rate of youth suicide-related hospitalizations has nearly doubled

By Bethany Bray May 31, 2018

Recent research has revealed an alarming development: The number of youth admitted to the hospital for a suicide attempt or suicidal ideation nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015.

The findings, published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Pediatrics, analyzed seven years of billing data for emergency room and inpatient visits at children’s hospitals in the United States.

In 2008, the number of hospital visits for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts in children and adolescents younger than 18 was 0.66 percent of total hospital visits. In 2015, that percentage nearly doubled to 1.82 percent.

The co-authors of the journal article note that “significant increases” were seen across all age groups, but the highest rise was seen in adolescents, specifically the 15 to 17 and 12 to 14 years-old groupings. The data also pointed to a seasonal curve, with the fewest suicide-related visits in the summer and the most in the spring and fall.

“These findings are deeply troubling and also not surprising,” says Catherine Tucker, president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Tucker points to several factors that were in play during the time of the Pediatrics study (2008 to 2015), including an economic collapse that contributed to stress in families — even forcing some in younger generations to change career or college plans.

Also, “during this same time period, many states drastically cut funding to schools and youth-serving programs,” adds Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor and research director at The Theraplay Institute in Evanston, Illinois. “It is highly likely that the positive resources that were keeping some youth from hitting bottom were removed, making it harder for adults to intervene in a timely manner.”

Changing these statistics will take effort on the part of parents, schools, medical and mental health practitioners alike, says Tucker. Universal screening for anxiety, depression and trauma should be done in schools and doctor’s offices to identify youth who are struggling.

“In order to reverse this trend, schools need to bolster school counseling programs and free school counselors from spending the majority of their time on administrative tasks like testing and scheduling. School counselors see a majority of American children and are in a prime position to do preventive education and identify kids who are struggling before they become so distraught that hospitalization is required,” Tucker says.

“Additionally, parents and caregivers should be encouraged to monitor children’s and teens screen time and limit it to be sure that youth are getting adequate sleep, exercise and in-person interaction,” she continues. “Social media should be carefully monitored in younger children. Parents can reduce late-night use of phones by turning off WiFi after bedtime or not allowing phones or other screens in bedrooms. Counselors in agencies and private practice settings can help by encouraging parents to be alert to behavioral changes, monitoring screen time and helping kids manage their symptoms.”

 

 

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Find out more

 

Read the full article at the journal Pediatrics

 

From NPR: “Hospitals See Growing Numbers Of Kids And Teens At Risk For Suicide

 

The Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling‘s next national conference (July 25/26, 2019 in Austin, Texas) will have a theme of technology use and adolescent mental health

 

This news comes as overall rates of suicide — across all ages — have been on the rise in the United States. In 2016, the country’s rate of suicide reached its highest point since 1986.

 

American Counseling Association members: Log in to access practice briefs on suicide prevention with children, youth and in school settings

 

From the Counseling Today archives:
Raising awareness of suicide risk

’13 Reasons Why’: Strengths, challenges and recommendations

Aspiring to make suicide a relic of the past

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Understanding and treating survivors of incest

By David M. Lawson March 6, 2018

Adults with histories of being abused as children present unique challenges for counselors. For instance, these clients often struggle with establishing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance. They may rapidly shift their notion of the counselor from very favorable to very unfavorable in line with concomitant shifts in their emotional states. Furthermore, they may anxiously expect the counselor to abandon them and thus increase pressure on the counselor to prove otherwise. Ironically, attempts at reassurance by the counselor may actually serve to validate these clients’ fears of abandonment.

The motivating factor for many of these clients is mistrust of people in general — and often for good reason. This article explores the psychological and interpersonal aspect of child sexual abuse by a parent and its treatment, with a particular focus on its relationship to betrayal trauma, dissociation and complex trauma.

Incest and its effects

Child abuse of any kind by a parent is a particularly negative experience that often affects survivors to varying degrees throughout their lives. However, child sexual abuse committed by a parent or other relative — that is, incest — is associated with particularly severe psychological symptoms and physical injuries for many survivors. For example, survivors of father-daughter incest are more likely to report feeling depressed, damaged and psychologically injured than are survivors of other types of child abuse. They are also more likely to report being estranged from one or both parents and having been shamed by others when they tried to share their experience. Additional symptoms include low self-esteem, self-loathing, somatization, low self-efficacy, pervasive interpersonal difficulties and feelings of contamination, worthlessness, shame and helplessness.

One particularly damaging result of incest is trauma bonding, in which survivors incorporate the aberrant views of their abusers about the incestuous relationship. As a result, victims frequently associate the abuse with a distorted form of caring and affection that later negatively influences their choice of romantic relationships. This can often lead to entering a series of abusive relationships.

According to Christine Courtois (Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy) and Richard Kluft (“Ramifications of incest” in Psychiatric Times), greater symptom severity for incest survivors is associated with:

  • Longer duration of abuse
  • Frequent abuse episodes
  • Penetration
  • High degree of force, coercion and intimidation
  • Transgenerational incest
  • A male perpetrator
  • Closeness of the relationship
  • Passive or willing participation
  • Having an erotic response
  • Self-blame and shame
  • Observed or reported incest that continues
  • Parental blame and negative judgment
  • Failed institutional responses: shaming, blaming, ineffectual effort
  • Early childhood onset

Incest that begins at a young age and continues for protracted periods — the average length of incest abuse is four years — often results in avoidance-based coping skills (for example, avoidance of relationships and various dissociative phenomena). These trauma-forged coping skills form the foundation for present and future interpersonal interactions and often become first-line responses to all or most levels of distress-producing circumstances.

More than any other type of child abuse, incest is associated with secrecy, betrayal, powerlessness, guilt, conflicted loyalty, fear of reprisal and self-blame/shame. It is of little surprise then that only 30 percent of incest cases are reported by survivors. The most reliable research suggests that 1 in 20 families with a female child have histories of father-daughter child sexual abuse, whereas 1 in 7 blended families with a female child have experienced stepfather-stepdaughter child sexual abuse (see the revised edition of The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women by Diana E. H. Russell, published in 1999).

In 1986, David Finkelhor, known for his work on child sexual abuse, indicated that among males who reported being sexually abused as children, 3 percent reported mother-son incest. However, most incest-related research has focused on father-daughter or stepfather-stepdaughter incest, which is the focus of this article.

Subsequent studies of incest survivors indicated that being eroticized early in life disrupted these individuals’ adult sexuality. In comparison with nonincest controls, survivors experienced sexual intercourse earlier, had more sex partners, were more likely to have casual sex with those outside of their primary relationships and were more likely to engage in sex for money. Thus, survivors of incest are at an increased risk for revictimization, often without a conscious realization that they are being abused. This issue often creates confusion for survivors because the line between involuntary and voluntary participation in sexual behavior is blurred.

An article by Sandra Stroebel and colleagues, published in 2013 in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, indicates that risk factors for father-daughter incest include the following:

  • Exposure to parent verbal or physical violence
  • Families that accept father-daughter nudity
  • Families in which the mother never kisses or hugs her daughter (overt maternal affection was identified as a protective factor against father-daughter incest)
  • Families with an adult male other than the biological father in the home (i.e., a stepfather or substitute father figure)

Finally, some qualitative research notes that in limited cases, mothers with histories of being sexually abused as a child wittingly or unwittingly contribute to the causal chain of events leading to father-daughter incest. Furthermore, in cases in which a mother chooses the abuser over her daughter, the abandonment by the mother may have a greater negative impact on her daughter than did the abuse itself. This rejection not only reinforces the victim’s sense of worthlessness and shame but also suggests to her that she somehow “deserved” the abuse. As a result, revictimization often becomes the rule rather than the exception, a self-fulfilling prophecy that validates the victim’s sense of core unworthiness.

Beyond the physical and psychological harm caused by father-daughter incest, Courtois notes that the resulting family dynamics are characterized by:

  • Parent conflict
  • Contradicting messages
  • Triangulation (for example, parents aligned against the child or perpetrator parent-child alignment against the other parent)
  • Improper parent-child alliances within an atmosphere of denial and secrecy

Furthermore, victims are less likely to receive support and protection due to family denial and loyalty than if the abuser were outside the family or a stranger. Together, these circumstances often create for survivors a distorted sense of self and distorted relationships with self and others. If the incest begins at an early age, survivors often develop an inherent sense of mistrust and danger that pervades and mediates their perceptions of relationships and the world as a whole.

Betrayal trauma theory

Betrayal trauma theory is often associated with incest. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd introduced the concept to explain the effects of trauma perpetrated by someone on whom a child depends. Freyd holds that betrayal trauma is more psychologically harmful than trauma committed or caused by a noncaregiver. “Betrayal trauma theory posits that under certain conditions, betrayals necessitate a ‘betrayal blindness’ in which the betrayed person does not have conscious awareness or memory of the betrayal,” Freyd wrote in her book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse.

Betrayal trauma theory is based on attachment theory and is consistent with the view that it is adaptive to block from awareness most or all information about abuse (particularly incest) committed by a caregiver. Otherwise, total awareness of the abuse would acknowledge betrayal information that could endanger the attachment relationship. This “betrayal blindness” can be viewed as an evolutionary and nonpathological adaptive reaction to a threat to the attachment relationship with the abuser that thus explains the underlying dissociative amnesia in survivors of incest. Under these circumstances, survivors often are unaware that they are being abused, or they will justify or even blame themselves for the abuse. In severe cases, victims often have little or no memory of the abuse or complete betrayal blindness. Under such conditions, dissociation is functional for the victim, at least for a time.

Consider the case of “Ann,” who had been repeatedly and severely physically and sexually abused by her father from ages 4 to 16. As an adult, Ann had little to no memory of the abuse. As a result of the abuse, she had developed nine alternate identities, two of which contained vivid memories of the sexual and physical abuse. Through counseling, she was able to gain awareness of and access to all nine alternate identities and their functions.

Although Ann expressed revulsion and anger toward her father, she also expressed her love for him. At times, she would lapse into moments of regret for disclosing the abuse, saying that “it wasn’t so bad” and that the worst thing that had happened was that she had lost her “daddy.” During these moments, Ann minimized the severity of the abuse, wishing that she had kept the incest secret so that she could still have a relationship with her father. This was an intermittent longing for Ann that occurred throughout counseling and beyond.

Thus, understanding attachment concepts is critical for understanding betrayal traumas such as incest. Otherwise, counselors might be inclined to blame survivors or might feel confused and even repulsed by survivors’ behaviors and intentions. For many survivors, the caregiver-abuser represents the best and the worst of her life at various times. She needs empathy and support, not blame.

Dissociation

As defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, dissociation is “a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, perception, body representation, motor control and behavior.” Depending on the severity of the abuse, dissociative experiences can interfere with psychological functioning across the board. Survivors of incest often experience some of the most severe types of dissociation, such as dissociative identity disorder and dissociative amnesia (the inability to recall autobiographical information). Dissociative experiences often are triggered by perceived threat at a conscious or unconscious level.

As previously noted, betrayal trauma theory holds that for incest survivors, dissociative amnesia serves to maintain connection with an attachment figure by excluding knowledge of the abuse (betrayal blindness). This in turn reduces or eliminates anxiety about the abuse, at least in the short run. Conversely, many survivors of childhood incest report continuous memories of the abuse, as well as the anxiety and felt terror related to the abuse. Often, these individuals will find a way to leave their homes and abusers. This is less frequently the case for survivors who experience dissociative amnesia or dissociative identity disorder.

Depersonalization and derealization distort the individual’s sense of self and her sensory input of the environment through the five senses. For example, clients who have experienced incest often report that their external world, including people, shapes, sizes, colors and intensities of these perceptions, can change quickly and dramatically at times. Furthermore, they may report that they do not recognize themselves in a mirror, causing them to mistrust their own perceptions.

As one 31-year-old incest survivor stated, “For so many years, everything within me and around me felt and looked unreal, dull, dreary, fragmented, distant.” This is an example of depersonalization/derealization. She continued, “This, along with the memory gaps, forgetfulness and inability to recall simple everyday how-tos, like how to drive a car or remember the step-by-step process of getting ready for the day, made me feel crazy. But as I improved in counseling, my perceptions of my inside and outside worlds became clearer, more stable, and brighter and more distinct than before counseling. It all came to make more sense and feel right. It took me years to see the world as I think other people see it. From time to time I still experience that disconnection and confusion, but so much less frequently now than before.”

Initially, some real or perceived threat triggers these distorted perceptions of self and outer reality, but eventually they become a preset manner of perceiving the world. Reports such as this one are not uncommon for survivors of incest and often are exacerbated as these individuals work through the process of remembering and integrating trauma experiences into a coherent life narrative. For many survivors, a sense of coherence and stability is largely a new experience; for some, it can be threatening and trigger additional dissociative experiences. The saying “better a familiar devil than an unfamiliar angel” seems to apply here.

The severity of dissociation for survivors of incest is related to age onset of trauma exposure and a dose-response association, with earlier onset, more types of abuse and greater frequency of abuse associated with more severe impairment across the life span. Incest is associated with the most severe forms of dissociative symptoms such as dissociative identity disorder. Approximately 95 to 97 percent of individuals with dissociative identity disorder report experiencing severe childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Fragmentation in one’s sense of self, accompanied by amnesia of abuse memories, is particularly functional when children cannot escape the abuse circumstances. These children are not “present” during the abuse, so they often are not aware of the physical and emotional pain associated with the abuse. Yet this fragmented sense of self contributes to a sense of emptiness and absence, memory problems and dissociative self-states. Many survivors of incest are able to “forget” about the abuse until sometime later in adulthood when memories are triggered by certain events or when the body and mind are no longer able to conceal the memories. The latter results from the cumulative effect of lifelong struggles related to the incest (for example, interpersonal problems and emotional dysregulation). It takes a great deal of psychological and physical resources to “forget” trauma memories.

Dissociation, especially if it involves ongoing changes in perceptions of self and others, different presentations of self and memory problems, may result in difficulty forming and maintaining a therapeutic alliance. Dissociation disrupts the connection between the client and the counselor. It also disrupts clients’ connections with their inner experience. If these clients do not perceive themselves and their surroundings as stable, they will mistrust not only their counselors but also their own perceptions, which create ongoing confusion.

Thus, counselors must remain alert to subtle or dramatic fluctuations in survivors’ presentation styles, such as changes in eye contact or shifts in facial features from more engaged and animated to flat facial features. Changes in voice tone quality and cadence (from verbally engaged to silent) or in body posture (open versus closed) are other signs of possible dissociative phenomena. Of course, all or none of these changes may be indicators of dissociative phenomena.

Complex trauma

Incest, betrayal trauma and dissociative disorders are often features of a larger diagnostic categorization — complex trauma. Incest survivors rarely experience a single incident of sexual abuse or only sexual abuse. It is more likely that they experience chronic, multiple types of abuse, including sexual, physical, emotional and psychological, within the caregiving system by adults who are expected to provide security and nurturance.

Currently, an official diagnostic category for complex trauma does not exist, but one is expected to be added to the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) that is currently in development. Marylene Cloitre, a member of the World Health Organization ICD-11 stress and trauma disorders working group, notes that the new complex trauma diagnosis focuses on problems in self-organization resulting from repeated/chronic exposure to traumatic stressors from which one cannot escape, including childhood abuse and domestic violence. Among the criteria she highlighted for complex trauma are:

  • Disturbances in emotions: Affect dysregulation, heightened emotional reactivity, violent outbursts, impulsive and reckless behavior, and dissociation.
  • Disturbances in self: Defeated/diminished self, marked by feeling diminished, defeated and worthless and having feelings of shame, guilt or despair (extends despair).
  • Disturbances in relationships: Interpersonal problems marked by difficulties in feeling close to others and having little interest in relationships or social engagement more generally.
    There may be occasional relationships, but the person has great difficulty maintaining them.

Early onset of incest along with chronic exposure to complex trauma contexts interrupts typical neurological development, often leading to a shift from learning brain (prefrontal cortex) to survival brain (brainstem) functioning. As explained by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford, survivors experience greater activation of the primitive brain, resulting in a survival mode rather than activation of brain structures that function to make complex adjustments to the current environment. As a result, survivors often exhibit an inclination toward threat avoidance rather than being curious and open to experiences. Complex trauma undermines survivors’ ability to fully integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive data into an organized, coherent whole. This lack of a consistent and coherent sense of self and one’s surroundings can create a near ever-present sense of confusion and disconnection from self and others.

Regular or intermittent complex trauma exposure creates an almost continual state of anxiety and hypervigilance and the intrinsic expectation of danger. Incest survivors are at an increased risk for multiple impairments, revictimization and loss of support.

Treatment issues

Although a comprehensive description of treatment is well beyond the scope of this article, I will close with a general overview of treatment concepts. Treatment for incest parallels the treatment approaches for complex trauma, which emphasizes symptom reduction, development of self-capacities (emotional regulation, interpersonal relatedness and identity), trauma processing and the addressing of dissociative experiences.

Compromised self-capacities intensify symptom severity and chronicity. Among these self-capacities, emotional dysregulation is a major symptom cluster that affects other self-capacity components. For example, if a survivor consistently struggles with low frustration tolerance for people and copes by avoiding people, responding defensively, responding in a placating manner or dissociating, she likely will not have the opportunity to develop fulfilling relationships. The following core concepts, published in the May 2005 Psychiatric Annals, were suggested by Alexandra Cook and colleagues for consideration when implementing a treatment regimen for complex trauma, including with incest survivors and with adaptations for clients with dissociative identity disorder.

1) Safety: Develop internal and environmental safety procedures.

2) Self-regulation: Enhance the capacity to moderate and rebalance arousal across the areas of affective state, behavior, physiology, cognition, interpersonal relatedness and self-attribution.

3) Self-reflective information processing: Develop the ability to focus attentional processes and executive functioning on the construction of coherent self-narratives, reflecting on past and present experience, anticipation and planning, and decision-making.

4) Traumatic experiences integration: Engage in resolution and integration of traumatic memories and associated symptoms through meaning making, traumatic memory processing, remembrance and mourning of traumatic loss, development of coping skills, and fostering present-oriented thinking and behavior.

5) Relational engagement: Repair, restore or create effective working models of attachment and application of these models to current interpersonal relationships, including the therapeutic alliance. Emphasis should be placed on development of interpersonal skills such as assertiveness, cooperation, perspective taking, boundary and limit setting, reciprocity, social empathy and the capacity for physical and emotional intimacy.

6) Positive affect enhancement: Work on the enhancement of self-worth, self-esteem and positive self-appraisal through the cultivation of personal creativity, imagination, future orientation, achievement, competence, mastery seeking, community building and the capacity to experience pleasure.

Typically, these components are delivered within a three-phase model of counseling that is relationship-based, cognitive behavioral in nature and trauma focused:

  • Safety, self-regulation skill development and alliance formation
  • Trauma processing
  • Consolidation

The relational engagement component is particularly critical because for many survivors, to be attached often has meant to be abused. Furthermore, accompanying feelings of shame, self-loathing and fear of abandonment create a “failure identity” that results in low expectations for change. Additionally, it is important for counselors to attend to client transference issues and counselor countertransference issues. Courtois suggests that ignoring or assuming that such processes are irrelevant to the treatment of survivors can undermine the treatment process and outcome.

In addition, strength-based interventions are critical in each phase to help survivors develop a sense of self-efficacy and self-appreciation for the resources they already possess. A strength-based focus also contributes to client resilience.

For some clients, dissociated self-states or parts will emerge. Counselors should assume that whatever is said to one part will also be heard by the other parts. Therefore, addressing issues in a manner that encourages conversation between parts, including the core self-structure, is critical. It is also important to help parts problem-solve together and support each other. This is not always an easy proposition. A long-term goal would be some form of integration/fusion or accord among alternate identities. Some survivors eventually experience full unification of parts, whereas others achieve a workable form of integration without ever fully unifying all of their alternate identities (for more, see Treating Trauma-Related Dissociation: A Practical, Integrative Approach by Kathy Steele, Suzette Boon and Onno van der Hart).

Finally, it must be mentioned that repeated exposure to horrific stories of incest can overwhelm counselors’ capacity to maintain a balanced relationship with clear boundaries. A client’s transference can push the boundaries of an ethical and therapeutic client-counselor relationship. Furthermore, the frequent push-pull dynamics between counselor and client can be exhausting, both physically and mentally for counselors. Therefore, it is important for counselors to frequently seek supervision and consultation and to engage in self-care physically, psychologically and spiritually.

 

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

David M. Lawson is a professor of counselor education and director of the Center for Research and Clinical Training in Trauma at Sam Houston State University. His research focuses on childhood sexual and physical abuse, complex trauma and dissociation related to trauma. He also maintains an independent practice focusing on survivors of posttraumatic stress disorder and complex trauma. Contact him at dml3466@aol.com.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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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.

 

Understanding the connection between nutrition and mental health

By Robika Modak Mylroie and Rachael Ammons Whitaker January 17, 2018

In recent years, obesity has seized the attention of the medical field and the media. Now our schools are starting to recognize the impact of obesity on mental health. The United States is known internationally for its larger plate sizes, big portions and supersized meals in restaurants. However, we are also witnessing the beginnings of a cultural shift that encourages body acceptance and pushing back from an ideal body type.

At the same time, it may also seem that our society has become obsessed with healthier food options. But do we really understand nutrition? When we see terms and phrases in grocery stores such as organic, humane, low carb, high protein, non-GMO, no artificial coloring/preservatives and natural, it can be overwhelming. Some of these terms can be misleading or confusing. Our society is overmarketed with food slang and undereducated on what food labels mean to nutrition.

School and mental health counselors should be asking themselves how physical health and body acceptance intersect with weight, body mass index (BMI) and mental health. What if a person is deemed to be at an unhealthy body weight but is genuinely OK with his or her body? Conversely, what if this person is not happy with his or her body yet is considered healthy? When it comes to these body issues in children, at what point do school counselors intervene? How do we begin to support childhood social and emotional concerns surrounding nutrition without shining a light on those children who might be in a fragile stage related to their body awareness and image? How do we teach families and school employees to use language that promotes positive body image?

Although most medical journals openly discuss pediatric obesity as a major public health concern, they continually fail to address how to effectively combat such issues. The same statement applies with counselors. We know that childhood weight is a concern, but are we doing enough within our schools? Brain studies show that nutrition plays a role in learning, concentration and mental health in general, so why is it so hard for us to connect the dots?

Let’s explore the disconnect between childhood obesity, nutrition and mental health, and how we, as counselors, can support child nutrition in school settings. Can making the connection between nutrition and social-emotional needs move counselors to collaborate more effectively with other professionals? Counselors should care about what we are feeding our youth during school hours because it impacts our profession directly.

There also needs to be an awareness among parents and caregivers that nutrition is important not only in the school but at home. One of the issues that school counselors face is that not all parents and caregivers are supportive. Even if they are supportive, they may not possess the means to buy healthier food for the home or to prepare meals consistently. Preparation takes time, and not all families have that time to devote. Socioeconomic status, family makeup and genetic issues can also contribute to childhood weight and nutrition levels. For instance, there may be a lack of food in the house because the family cannot afford it, or there may be foods that are high in unhealthy fats and sugar.

Education is key to awareness, but this is difficult when we as counselors are not advocating for changes in school nutrition. We need to educate ourselves and make a connection in our profession between nutrition and mental health.

What we know

Childhood obesity is not a new concern in the United States. Many articles have been published on the health concerns of children who are overweight or obese. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign brought national attention to the issue. During an open discussion this past spring, the former first lady said, “You have to stop and think, why don’t you want our kids to have good food at school?” During her time as first lady, Obama also hosted the School Counselor of the Year national recognition ceremony at the White House. This begs the question: Why have counselors, and, specifically, professional school counselors, not taken action on this issue?

Unfortunately, if the first lady struggled to implement this agenda, it stands to reason that it might be equally difficult for school counselors to get a foot in the door. Because of the disconnect between counseling and nutrition, it might even seem odd to some people that school counselors should get involved at all. As mentioned earlier, however, there is actually a deep connection between the two. Researchers have shown that poor diet not only leads to physical health problems but also affects brain functioning. Brain studies have shown that what people eat affects not only the social-emotional realm but also academic performance.

In March 2017, Laurie Meyers wrote a cover story for Counseling Today titled “When brain meets body” that discussed the connection between physical and mental health. More specifically, it delved into how thoughts can cause changes in the regulation of cortisol, which can then affect our clients’ physical health. This physical heath-mental health connection is emphasized in the mental health community but not as often in the school community and hardly at all in the medical community.

Why this research matters to us

The World Health Organization’s obesity map shows that as a whole, more than 30 percent of the U.S. population is obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 35 percent or more of adults in Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas were obese. The CDC also noted that there was no state in the country with an obesity percentage of less than 20 percent among adults.

Mississippi tends consistently to be near the top of the charts for adult and childhood obesity, which is what sparked our interest in pursuing research in this area (both authors are from Mississippi). One question we asked is why a state such as Mississippi, which is rich in farmland and has an abundance of crops and fresh produce, has a prevalence of obese children. Our state should have abundant nutritional food available for families, including for those of low socioeconomic status. Lack of education and what people can afford likely have some connection to obesity rates in Mississippi. Statistics show that education and salary levels are highest in those states with lower obesity percentages. Mississippi ranks last in education statistics among the 50 states.

Healthy food consumption should not be dependent on social status. It should be affordable to all. However, many foods that are healthy and easy to prepare are also the most expensive. According to the website TalkPoverty.org, 20.8 percent of people in Mississippi live below the poverty line. Schools in this state, and in many of the other states identified as “obese and overweight,” may not be able to afford these healthier options in bulk.

This raises other questions. What can we do differently to secure healthier food access in our schools for reasonable prices? How do we partner with local farmers to provide more nutritious foods or to demand that our schools contract with better food providers? Healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks during educational hours should not be contingent on whether a child has a homemade lunch or went through the cafeteria line.

The connection for Robika

Working as a school counselor in rural Mississippi, I noticed that a disconnect existed between the medical field’s information on physical health and the knowledge of mental health within the schools. I saw many children who would likely be classified as overweight or obese, and I saw a lot of students who were unhappy about their weight. I often consulted with the school nutritionist and nurse in these instances. With these particular students, I also noticed the prevalence of several issues that extended beyond academics to socioemotional problems, including bullying, self-esteem issues and anxiety. This observation sparked my curiosity about the possible connection among these different variables.

I wrote my dissertation about the connection between childhood obesity and personal, social and academic issues. Although I didn’t find a statistically significant connection (probably because of limitations in research), I did identify individual connections in my sample between self-esteem and interpersonal relationship satisfaction. This led my wanting to know more and wanting to continue this research and advocacy within the schools.

The problem was — and continues to be — that obesity is a difficult topic for schools to address. Obesity is a buzzword that is sometimes considered offensive. It was difficult getting parents and caregivers to agree to let me weigh their children.

As Rachael and I began collaborating on this topic, questions started forming: Why are school counselors not more involved? BMI doesn’t provide a fair reading of weight for different ethnicities, so why are we using it to define weight? What other way can we measure weight to incorporate multicultural, nutritional and genetic considerations? How can we fill in this gap among the medical, school nutrition and mental health worlds? Would school counselors be comfortable talking about this topic?

These questions continue to drive us as we move into more detailed research and advocate for school counselors and for our students.

The connection for Rachael

During my doctoral research classes, a professor said to me, “Rachael, bring in any research that sparks curiosity.” This simple statement opened a wormhole of personal curiosity, followed by fear and then drastic dietary changes. Becoming a good consumer of research resulted in me experiencing emotional ups and downs, especially when I decided to read more about Food and Drug Administration food protocol, particularly around animal products.

This launched my personal pursuit of knowledge surrounding nutrition. However, the real lightbulb moment took place when a direct correlation was drawn between some of my food intake and my autoimmune disease that I had been medicating for years. It was also around this time that Robika asked me to help collect data for her dissertation. Her research lit a fire in me to implore my friends, family members and students to care more about what they were putting into their bodies. Now, as the research advances, Robika and I hope that we can support counselors in K-12 settings in getting involved in school food purchases and menu planning.

What we can do about the knowledge gap

A lack of information exists concerning how school counselors can promote wellness and nutrition in terms of social and emotional health. Researchers for HealthCorps, an advocacy group that incorporates wellness education into schools, based their study on three domains: nutrition, physical activity and mental health. However, the term mental health was a misnomer because it did not encompass all aspects of mental health. Instead, it was essentially defined as mental resilience. In addition, no counselor was included on the study’s development team, which consisted of dietitians, nutritionists, integrative human physiologists and other health care professionals.

Through our own research, we believe that we are on the path to helping school counselors promote wellness, healthy weight and mental health through prevention and intervention methods with students and their families and within the school itself. Our long-term goal is to make connections between the brain, childhood weight and mental health, and then to use this information to help school counselors collaborate with school nutritionists and communities to create better lifestyle choices and, in turn, promote socioemotional wellness. We decided that we needed to start with school counselors themselves to get a better understanding of how comfortable they are talking about these issues, and especially childhood obesity. Again, the word obesity brings up a number of issues for many people.

We have received really wonderful feedback when presenting on this topic. Not a lot of counseling research has been done in this area. As a result, we have found that many counseling professionals are very interested and agree that it needs to be researched more thoroughly. Unfortunately, presenting this line of research to the schools has been difficult. Parents tend to keep their children from participating in research related to obesity and nutrition, and school boards, faculty members and school staff often have a difficult time with it too. Realizing that school counselors may not feel comfortable using the term childhood obesity, we have since changed this term to childhood weight. In this case, we can also talk about the opposite spectrum of obesity, which includes disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Another aspect of what we are attempting to do is to place these terms within the context of ethnicity, age and gender. In our initial research, we measured BMI because this was the only option for calculating obesity. However, we know that some ethnicities may be more susceptible to qualifying as overweight or obese even though they are of normal or healthy weight. Another example is that athletes who are larger and more muscular are not necessarily overweight or obese, but their muscle mass may tip the scales toward them being classified as overweight.

As counselors, we have to be aware of the demographics of our communities. This is not a new concept of course, but we can start making little ripples to address a larger problem, especially in the schools. In some towns, nutritious foods are not available or affordable. High-calorie, high-fat foods are more readily available and come at lower prices. Once the cycle of eating high-calorie foods begins, it can be difficult to change it. Children who are taught about nutritious foods may mention this to their parents, but the parents may ignore the request because they cannot afford these foods or because the foods do not sound appetizing. Other parents may work multiple jobs and not have time to make meals for their families. Some families have to rely on their older children to make dinners.

Home life aside, however, schools need to work to have healthy options. Some schools will present the choice between a baked meal and a fried meal. Many students will opt for the fried meal. Although choices are important, we propose that children be presented with more healthy options. Countries around the world have lunches made from scratch that include vegetables, seafood, whole wheat breads, fruits (rather than sugary syrup) and nonprocessed meats and cheeses.

Children should also be educated about their food. This empowers them to make healthy choices based on their own knowledge. They can even be involved in planting vegetable gardens at school or preparing meals at home.

However, there seems to be no connection or collaboration between the different fields of research, even though there are several areas of knowledge that intersect.

We believe there are ways that these three knowledge bases can work together and help each other. The image on page 52 [of the print version of this article, ] shows our proposed Integrative Collaboration Childhood Weight Model, which is where our research will go next. We want to bridge the gap and highlight what the features of each area are, as well as bring them together to create a richer research model.

Our hope is to first understand school counselors’ comfort level when discussing the issue of childhood weight. We also want an idea of their understanding of the connection between childhood weight and socioemotional and academic issues. We need to know what kinds of community, caregiver and school support school counselors receive. Do they already collaborate with the other faculty and staff in the school? If so, is this on a regular basis?

Future goals include creating prevention and intervention methods and materials that will address nutrition and socioemotional wellness in conjunction with other staff in the school district. Working as a team is more likely to result in better overall outcomes. Healthier children can mean healthier adults. So, let’s be willing to talk about the connection between food and mental health.

Potential interventions, prevention methods

Given that not a lot of research has been conducted in this area, school counselors are somewhat at a loss for potential interventions for childhood obesity. Children who are overweight or obese may come to the school counselor for issues such as self-esteem, a lack of confidence or bullying (either being the target of bullying or engaging in bullying themselves). However, we cannot assume that their weight is the reason for these issues unless the child mentions it as a cause. School counselors cannot target children who are overweight or obese for individual counseling.

Although interventions can be put into place by the school counselor for the specific issues mentioned (self-esteem, confidence, bullying), we believe that prevention methods may have the most impact for all children when it comes to childhood weight. Classroom guidance lessons focused on nutrition, wellness and self-care can be part of the comprehensive school counseling program. We also want to again emphasize the potential impact of collaborating with other school staff such as school nurses, school nutritionists and physical education teachers. Providing wellness interventions for both physical wellness and mental wellness is also likely to have a greater impact on students. Teaching these methods of self-care not only helps the whole child but also gives students the tools to continue healthy living and wellness practices across the life span.

An activity that might serve a dual purpose is horticulture therapy, in which children create sustainable gardens while also working with the earth as a form of healing. Children can learn how to grow vegetables and fruits and better understand their nutritional value even as they also grow their personal and social skills. Some children may even want to grow their own gardens at home.

Parent/caregiver involvement has been shown time and time again to be related to the success of the child. School counselors and nutritionists could present workshops for parents and caregivers focused on how they can make nutritious meals for their kids and even with their kids. Information on meals and snacks that are inexpensive but also better for the family can also be shared. Teaching parents about the value of nutrition and mental health should also be emphasized. Another area of emphasis might be teaching parents and caregivers how to engage in positive body language. Parents and caregivers are models for their children, and if they speak negatively about their bodies, then their children are likely to copy that negative self-talk.

 

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

Robika Modak Mylroie is a distance clinical professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Populations at Lamar University. Her experience consists of working in the clinical setting before becoming a school counselor. Her current research includes childhood weight, trauma and animal-assisted therapy. Contact her at rmylroie@lamar.edu.

Rachael Ammons Whitaker is the program director for the clinical mental health and school counseling programs at the University of Houston. She worked as a behavioral therapist, behavioral interventionist supervisor and school counselor before pursuing counselor education at the university level. Her current research includes understanding and advocating for intersex children and the impact of childhood weight. Contact her at rachaelammons@yahoo.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.