Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
~ Benjamin Franklin
Have you ever found yourself repeatedly telling your child to complete a task or stop doing something? If so, how long did it take for them to listen to your request? When a child is being told to do (or stop doing) something, it can have minimal influence on the child because their brain is only capable of storing information like this for a short period of time. When a child is taught something, it sticks in their brain since it is more memorable and when a child is involved in the learning process, it is unforgettable. Think about when teaching a child to ride a bike for the first time. Do you verbally tell them how to do it? Or do you physically guide them through the process? This same concept when applied to a child in therapy can greatly impact their treatment results.
Guide Versus Tell in Therapy
Parents may be surprised to learn that therapy can be beneficial for all ages including early childhood (ages six and under). Early intervention is key to providing your child with the skills to be successful and to ensure that their needs are being met. Many factors play into a child’s mental health during these early stages of development. Rapid changes contribute to so many crucial moments along the way toward healthy functioning for brain and body.
Young children are in the early stages of developing their needs for their health, resources, security, and relationships (Mental Health America, n.d.). The health needs for children develop alongside their rapidly changing brains and bodies. These health needs include basic resources such as adequate food, water, and shelter, followed by many psychological needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows how many of our needs as humans are built one upon another––like a pyramid. The base layer includes our physiological needs, followed by our need for safety and security, followed by love and belonging, then self-esteem, with self-actualization at the top of the pyramid. When children’s basic needs are not being met, there is a high risk of them experiencing mental health problems and overall well-being concerns. Children also need a sense of safety and security for their mental health to develop properly. When children are exposed to situations that compromise their safety, their brains learn to constantly shift to and from fight, flight and freeze states. Children find much of their safety and security through relationships with others. In the early years of their lives, they rely on other people to help take care of them. When children experience a lack of social support (i.e. parents, grandparents, and peers) or unhealthy relationships, they risk not knowing how to build healthy bonds with others, and may not know how to attain those needs higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy. When children’s health, security, resources, and relationship needs are adequately met, they have a better chance of being able to effectively communicate with others, use coping skills, build a healthy self-esteem, and pursue their longer-term dreams as they grow up.
Signs Your Child May Need Additional Support
While some behaviors and emotions in early childhood are typical and to be expected, it is important to know the signs your child may need additional support.
- Tantrums: Excessive tantrums lasting longer than other children in the same age group. This includes and is not limited to behaviors such as head banging, throwing items, screaming, crying.
- Aggression: Excessive aggressive behavior such as hitting, kicking, slapping, punching, biting, and throwing objects at others. This includes concerns for your child’s safety and the safety of others around them.
- Sleep Problems: Problems falling asleep, staying asleep, challenges with bedtime, and having nightmares or night terrors are common issues of children needing additional help.
- Regression: If your child’s speech or toileting skills decline. This includes your child not speaking after development of language skills and frequent toileting accidents after toilet training development.
- Experiencing a traumatic or stressful event: This includes the child witnessing or experiencing any form of abuse, neglect, loss of someone close to them, domestic violence, or removal from their caregiver.
If your child is experiencing any of these 5 signs, he or she may need additional assistance from a therapist. Remember that your young child may not have the words to express themselves appropriately. Instead, expect your child to indirectly express their needs through their behaviors.
What Does Therapy Look Like for Young Children?
In some cases, therapy for the early childhood age group involves using play therapy techniques. Play therapy consists of a child and their therapist playing together in a safe space in a way that is intentional and therapeutic. The child uses play to communicate with the therapist rather than traditional talk therapy which is used with adults (Landreth, 2002). Using play therapy techniques can be beneficial when the child has minimal to no language skills or when the child is unable to express their feelings.
In other cases, therapists will work directly with the child’s caregiver. The term caregiver is used to include all people who may be caring for a child (i.e. biological parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, foster parent, teacher, etc.). When a therapist is working with a caregiver directly, the therapist will assess for the antecedents, frequency, duration, and severity of the child’s behaviors and emotions. In addition, the therapist will assess how the caregiver(s) respond to the child. Once the therapist has an overall understanding of the child, then the therapist will provide the caregiver with strategies and skills to help manage their child’s challenging behaviors and emotions. These strategies and skills are meant to help the caregiver set age-appropriate expectations for the child, while also supporting the caregiver to manage their own emotions when responding to their child’s behaviors.
If you have a young child whom you are concerned about how to appropriately address their mental health, consider reaching out to a play therapist for help.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Mental Health America. (n.d.). Prevention and early intervention in mental health. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/prevention-and-early-intervention-mental-health