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Today is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. It draws attention to an important topic. Approximately one in five children in the United States have a diagnosable mental health illness. Serious in itself, but even more so if you consider that half of all lifetime disorders begin by age fourteen. The dropout rate for students with mental illnesses is 50% – higher than any other type of disability. As a result, they are often unemployed, homeless, and seriously at risk for suicide, delinquency, and substance abuse.

There are strong correlations between high rates of adverse childhood experiences and subsequent mental illness. But there is also support for the idea that children can be taught strategies that buffer the negative effects of early trauma, thereby preventing lifetime disorders. Learning to regulate feelings and behavior is high on the list. But there are some others you may not have thought about. Each one can contribute to children’s mental health and well-being.

Service Learning

Children with early trauma histories often have a hard time seeing any meaning to their lives. Their inability to control their life circumstances leaves them feeling out of control. They are tempted to withdraw or use substances to avoid their anger, shame, and loss.

Opportunities to provide meaningful service to others helps them reconnect. Caring for others taps into children’s altruism, making them aware of their ability to respond to others in kind, respectful ways.

Service learning fosters children’s sense of purpose and efficacy as they observe the impact of their good deeds on other people’s lives. It helps them mobilize their inner resources to turn toward the future, trying new roles and practicing new behaviors.

Problem-solving

Problem-solving is a quagmire for children with high rates of adverse childhood experiences. Past experiences with inconsistent caregivers and unpredictable routines impair their ability to order things sequentially or to use sequential steps to resolve a dispute. They find it difficult to shift their attention or hold more than one perspective on a problem.

Children’s problem solving skills improve when adults use the same vocabulary to talk about all sorts of problems- social or academic. First, DEFINE what the problem is- put it in words and write it down you can refer back to it if the conversation gets off track. Next, DECIDE what needs to happen to solve the problem. This involves predicting possible outcomes for alternative solutions. DETERMINE what resources are needed. And finally. SOLVE the problem using the agreed upon strategies. MONITOR progress to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.

Finding Friends

Children with early histories of adversity or trauma often find themselves excluded from the friendship circle of their peers. Some are left out because their aggressive behavior is seen as threatening or out of control. Others who appear withdrawn or disinterested are viewed as socially inept and are seldom included in games or activities. In both cases, repeated experiences of peer rejection reinforce these children’s self-perception as intrinsically bad.

Fostering friendships among children with early trauma histories and their peers requires adult mediation. Direct instruction is required on how to be a friend, as well as how to manage conflict, and repair misunderstandings as they occur.

Many children with early trauma histories have limited play skills that further exacerbates the social distance between them and their peers. Teach them how to play age-appropriate games. Provide them with opportunities learn the rules and practice popular team sports. These simple strategies can go a long way in increasing children’s ability to form and sustain friendships – an important resource for lifelong mental health.