If you followed the news during this year’s state legislative session, you saw many discussions about mental health, particularly where children and teens are concerned. There’s increased awareness of the level of stress and anxiety kids are experiencing, and lawmakers have been asking schools to do more to identify and support those who need help.

As mental health professionals, we see that as a step in the right direction, but we can’t expect schools to do all the heavy lifting. Mental health isn’t just an educational issue. We need to encourage our communities to play an increased role, and we need families to educate themselves about the challenges their children may be facing.

Often, the symptoms of those challenges show in a child or teen’s behavior. A child may start struggling to keep up in school, lash out inappropriately at family members, withdraw from friends or favorite activities, or begin to abuse alcohol or drugs. Their parents aren’t sure why it’s happening or what they can do. As we work with the families, we frequently find the answer in the past. The behavior may be a response to adverse experiences the child has suffered along the way.

Parents are frequently surprised when we suggest that, because they can’t remember a specific experience like an accident, or physical or sexual abuse, often defined as “trauma.” What psychologists mean by trauma, however, includes a broad range of experiences that even includes difficult pregnancies, rough deliveries, early hospitalizations, living with a family member who suffers from a mental illness or substance abuse, or being bullied.

That’s not guesswork. It’s brain science. Medical researchers have discovered that traumas such as these fill the brain with excessive amounts of stress hormones like cortisol. A newborn in a neuro intensive care unit may not be consciously aware of her surroundings, but her brain instinctively reacts to the needles, strange noises, and distance from her mother, and tries to protect her by releasing those chemicals as a defense.

As she grows, the brain responds to other perceived threats it encounters by releasing the same stress hormones. Maybe it’s another child walking off with a favorite toy, a snarling dog, or a teacher handing out a spelling test. Instead of responding in regular ways, her brain becomes accustomed to immediately activating those fight-or-flight chemicals. Is it any wonder she finds it hard to form relationships, trust others, or deal with smaller challenges? Her brain responds to those situations as though they were threats.

The good news is that there are proven therapy techniques that can “rewire” the brain to react as it should. Our team includes professional counselors who have had specialized training in identifying the impacts of trauma and helping kids and teens develop more appropriate responses to stress. If you’re encountering challenges with your child or teen that you just don’t understand, a good starting point would be sitting down with us. We can discuss your situation, help you understand what’s involved, and begin the process of helping your son or daughter move beyond their past.

Information about other adverse experiences and their impact can be found here.

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