Can just anyone support a child’s mental health? This is a common question that comes up around Heart House, an afterschool program serving the mental health needs of refugee children in Dallas. As a licensed counselor, these interactions with volunteer staff are not unexpected in my world, but as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to remember that the key to supporting a child’s mental health is not simply a professional license – it’s a safe, healthy relationship. That’s something every one of us can provide to a child and, in turn, support their mental health and wellbeing.
Relationships are key. We don’t need to know all the answers or the exact right things to say. We simply need to be present, trustworthy, calm and patient. Author and activist L.R Knost often says, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” This is difficult to remember when we are with a child having a meltdown, but remaining calm tells that child, “I am here, and I care for you, even when you are out of control.” If we think about the people in our lives who have seen us at our worst, often them just being near us during those times lets us know things will turn out okay. This is the same thing we provide to a hurting child, when we are willing to calmly enter their chaos
without shaming them.
It’s also important to remember that all healthy relationships have boundaries. As we support children dealing with intense emotions, the goal is to honor that child’s feelings without allowing them to be unsafe or unkind to themselves or others. The parent, teacher, coach, mentor or afterschool worker who nurtures, but also sets boundaries and expectations, has found the sweet spot.
As in all healthy relationships both parties have something to teach one another. Children are constantly learning new social skills such as sharing, asking for help, regulating their emotions and dealing with conflict. Part of cultivating a child’s mental health is teaching them the skills they need to cope with the challenging things that life will throw their way and celebrating when that child demonstrates what they’ve learned! At the same time, children can actually teach us a lot about our own mental health. They show us that taking time to laugh, play and have adventures in the world around us can help us cope with the trials of life.
A CDC survey recently revealed that the number of children visiting emergency rooms due to suicide attempts or suicidal behavior has doubled since 2007, and an estimated 152,000 children suffer from mental health-related issues right here in the Dallas region.
So this Mental Health Awareness Month, don’t leave this important work to the “professionals.” Though they serve a critical role in helping children with significant trauma and mental health issues, anyone who interacts with kids in any capacity has the ability to build up a child’s mental and social emotional health.
A strong, healthy relationship can serve as a protective factor for any child, especially children at risk for mental health issues, and sometimes, it is only in the context of a safe relationship that a child can share their struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance use or a myriad of other issues – and that is certainly something worth sticking around for.
Written by: Robin Bruster, Director of Behavioral Health for Heart House