Spend time with children this summer

Published 9:51 am Friday, June 3, 2011

Column: Dawn Berg, Guest Column

I recently attended the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health Conference held in Duluth. This conference is open to parents and professionals who are working and living with children with mental health issues. This conference offers a wealth of information and resources for all who attend.

Dawn Berg

Each year’s conference has themes of workshops, and this year I chose workshops centered around trauma and resilience.

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One of the best speakers was Dr. L. Reid Sulik, a child adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and pediatrician. He spoke about the need to “soothe the unrest” — or how do we help children who live in a world of unrest? Dr. Sulik used the example of his own child, who is graduating, and looked at major world news event that have happened every year. Children in the last 18 years have been bombarded with news of terrorism, school shootings, major tragedies such as earthquakes and floods and hurricanes. Today’s children are living in a state of anxiety like we have not seen. So how do we help our children and families promote good mental health?

Dr. Sulik gave some very good ideas for all children and families that anyone can work on. He emphasized the high importance of common sense strategies, such as, children receiving enough sleep, balanced nutrition, exercise, especially getting outside and running off energy, and feeling safe and secure.

Many times, children become angry and irritable because they have not had enough sleep. Children and teens need nine to 10 hours of sleep every night. Another point he made was the importance of not only enough sleep, but good sleep. Too many children are going to sleep with televisions, computers and videos and cell phones on and available in their bedrooms. This does not help children with getting good sleep!

Good nutrition and exercise go together in helping children handle their physical and mental health. And the importance of providing children with security and safety is so important. If a child hears only a lot of arguing or does not feel safe at home or school, this child will not be able to study or function well in life.

The feeling of security even goes beyond safety. It means that a child knows he or she is loved, wanted and respected. Two very simple ways to convey this is to tell our children we love them and to give them hugs — many hugs — every day. Another way is to spend time with them.

This summer, get out some board games, a deck of cards or invest in the simple card game of Uno and play games with children. It’s amazing how well children start to talk about their lives over a simple game, learn how to take turns, experience winning and losing, and enjoy time with us as parents.

Several other workshops gave great resources and treatment strategies in working with children who have gone through some developmental trauma in their young lives. Instead of looking at children as problem behaviors, we can now look at children who have had trauma happen, as children who need to learn some new skills to cope in life.

Parents are the most important people in a child’s life, so when parents are absent, separated by divorce or death, or for many other reasons, are not in a child’s life physically or emotionally, children can suffer from trauma, especially in their earlier childhood — birth through 5 years of age. Too often, we have thought that the children were too young to understand or know things, but in fact, the opposite is true.

Children in those early years pick up feelings and tones and feel the anxiety of the situations. We will see children exhibit their anxiety in acting out behaviors, as young children have difficulty putting their feelings into words.

If you are looking for resources, you can contact a school social worker at your local schools who can connect you with services in the community. We are fortunate to have great mental health services throughout our community.

Dawn Berg is a licensed graduate social worker at Sibley Elementary School. She has a master’s degree in social work.