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Getting Help Managing Child Mental Health Issues

From OC Mom Blog

Posted by Shelby Barone

I haven’t gotten this personal on our blog in many years. I think it’s time.

There is nothing worse for a parent than to see their child under severe stress. Over the past couple of years, I have watched my younger son struggle in school, and seen the educational and social pressures cause him severe stress. The warning signs started small and then quickly escalated to the point that we were worried, and didn’t know what to do to help our child.

Learning has never been easy for our youngest son. He was born premature and suffered from many major health issues since birth. As parents, we felt relieved that a learning disability was the biggest side effect of the trauma he endured during pregnancy and birth, but for a 10-year-old boy – it can feel like the end of the world.

Last year, we watched his progress quickly go downhill. He was regressing, going to the nurse’s office every day for headaches, and intensely emotional. He was in a 3rd-grade classroom (at a school he had attended since kindergarten), and was at a 1st-grade learning level, at one of the highest performing elementary schools in Orange County, that couldn’t teach him the basics of how to read. He had an aide who sat next to him throughout the class time to help him read the assignments, and his peers were starting to become of age where they were noticing his struggles, and starting to tease him.

We knew that something had to change. We fought, oh how we fought, in our IEP meetings to get him access to a school psychologist, but it was too late. The damage had been done. We had a child in third grade who didn’t want to go to school anymore, was withdrawn from social settings, and was starting to show signs of depression.

As parents, we knew we had to make a change. A big change. It needed to happen fast. We had one child going off to High School, one who loved his elementary school, and one who was severely suffering in his school setting.

We were lucky to have a family member who specializes in these type of situations, and was able to help guide us through the situation to help set-up an action plan to help our son – that was to remove him from that school dynamic. Having three kids in three different schools was not the ideal situation, but one that we knew had to happen.

We started doing research and found a school that was a Waldorf School which focuses on the whole child vs. the test scores and hours of tedious homework. We put his name into the lottery, he got a spot, and we moved him to the school.

It took my son about three months to show signs of healing in the new loving school environment. At times, he would still flinch when the teacher would approach him, was afraid to be shamed when sharing a project in front of the class, but slowly…he began to love learning again.

I stopped getting daily calls from the nurse’s office. He stopped crying for hours at night. We started to see him smile again. He was healing. We were getting our son back.

Now that my son is in a school that supports, encourages, and makes him feel loved – and he is starting to thrive…I have been feeling some guilt. Like a lot of parents who have a child that has suffered mental health issues from stress, depression or anxiety, a lot of us find ourselves asking the questions; Did I respond appropriately? Did I make the right decisions, fast enough?

I had the pleasure last week of spending some time talking with Doctor Cindy Kim, a Pediatric Psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange (CHOC) about children’s mental health issues. The first thing that she said was that they don’t want to label children. She also told me that I am not alone in feeling guilt or responsibility for not protecting my child from what he was experiencing. At CHOC, they want to help parents to understand the root for why the child is behaving a certain way. After she said that, I wished that we had come to CHOC last year, to have a bigger team supporting us in making an action plan to get my son the help and changes that he needed in his life.

At CHOC, after the initial treatment, they begin to focus on the family. I don’t want to remember, but I do, the nights where my older children would do my son’s homework (that he couldn’t do – the teachers knew he couldn’t – but still sent home) to avoid him getting a homework deficiency. He would be in the background crying, and they were helping to do his homework as we calmed him, and yet they still had to do their own homework late into the night. Doctor Cindy Kim said it best when she told me that, “Mental health for any child, not only affects the child but also affects the family.”

They want to help parents understand what their children’s triggers are. “Help to identify, be mindful of the queues the child presents before having a panic attack. What are those triggers that caused their child to be more depressed, anxious or withdrawn,” said Doctor Cindy Kim. She continued to tell me that at CHOC they want to help parents to have a more helpful role in supporting their child in working through their symptoms. Parents are a critical component of a child’s treatment.

I sighed. At this moment of our phone call, I wished that I had Dr. Kim’s advice and support in helping our son through his struggles last year.

Dr. Kim continued to share with me that at CHOC, they are available to give parents resources and intervention on how to manage routine or potential triggers. They’ll help parents to teach their children to regulate, and self-calm. Most importantly, how to develop a support network to help the child – something that I wish I had when my son was dealing with traumatic stress. And, what strategies parents can use to identify situations, and to help their children to feel better, and manage situations more effectively.

The doctors at CHOC have been an important part of my younger son’s life. They cared for him in the NICU, helped him to fight RSV as a preemie, and have made it possible for him to attend school by regulating his low blood cell levels from Neutropenia. I should have known to come to CHOC when I first saw the warning signs, and I wish that I did. Maybe he would have known to move his school earlier? Made changes faster? I guess the mom guilt will never go away, but the peace of mind that my child is finally happy is all that matters in the world.

If you have a child, who shows signs of any mental health issues (don’t let the words frighten you – it’s not a label). Stress, anxiety, depression. The doctors at CHOC are here to help. They are here to help your child. They are here to help your family. They are here to be a part of your family team.

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CHOC Children's is affiliated with the UC Irvine School of Medicine