Insomnia and Sleep Issues

You may have thought that you would be finished putting your kids to sleep once they emerged from the pre-school years. Think again! The reality is that even school-age children often need to be settled to sleep. This age group suffers from various sleep challenges like excess energy and difficulty winding down or over-excitement, or anxiety or other troubled emotions. Many kids cannot fall asleep, others sleep fitfully and others wake several times a night. And given that the responsibilities of being a student require that kids are not just physically awake but are also mentally alert during the day, parents will want to help their kids sleep well at night. A good night’s rest is important to academic success. Parents can do much to help their youngsters achieve this goal.

In this article, we will discuss some tips and strategies parents can use to help school-age children fall asleep. We will start off by discussing what might be preventing your child from getting a good night’s sleep.

Possible deterrents to sleep include:

Physical Discomfort
Being too hot or too cold can interfere with sleep. An environment that is too noisy may also cause sleep problems for some adults and children. Babies can’t tell you about their comfort levels, unfortunately. When they cry, however, you might try adjusting their blankets or clothing to see if it makes a difference. Opening or closing a window, adjusting lights, shutting or opening the door – any of these environmental changes might make a positive difference.

Deflated and Elated Emotions
Depressing and troubling situations like death in the family, or very good news like winning the lottery (or another exciting development), makes the body produce chemistry that may linger beyond the time we need at which we normally go to sleep. We only need to settle this chemistry back to normal in order to put both the mind and the body to rest and eventually enter the state of sleep. Babies who’ve had an unusually active day may be more alert at night even though parents may think that they should be more exhausted than usual. Similarly, children may have trouble settling down after a particularly exciting day at the amusement part. Teenagers who are prone to experience strong emotions relating to their social lives may also have trouble settling down; too much chemistry is running through their bodies. Parents going through stress or trauma inevitably have sleeping challenges, as do those who experience tremendously positive events. Most of these kinds of sleep issues are temporary.

If a noisy mind, emotional stress, or agitated emotions are what’s keeping your child (or yourself) up at night, you may wish to consider Bach Flower Remedies. Try “Rescue Sleep” – a mixture of Bach Remedies available at health food stores and online, consult a Bach practitioner for an individually tailored remedy, or learn more about Bach Flowers on this site. Another  fast and effective intervention for emotional stress is EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. You can learn this technique  yourself from Internet resources and books or you can consult a therapist who uses this technique in the clinical setting.  You can treat your child with it before bedtime, spending only a couple of minutes to release anxiety and stress or, you can teach an older child how to use the technique independently. Stress that doesn’t respond to self-help can be addressed effectively by a mental health professional.

Change in Sleeping Pattern
Our sleeping pattern is determined by our daily routine. As we normally sleep at a certain time everyday, our body gets used to this pattern and eventually remind us to sleep at that particular time, the same way we get hungry during lunch or dinner time. It does this by producing sleep hormones. When we suddenly try to change our time of sleep, we find it hard because our body is not used to producing sleep hormones at that time. When you change your child’s sleep time (as in the seasonal changing of the clock) be prepared for a week or so of poor sleep. Similarly, when you remove your toddler’s nap time, or go on vacation – expect disrupted sleep patterns. When the new pattern is established, sleep will be restored.

Change in Environment
Just as the body is affected by sleeping routine, it gets used to certain sleep settings. When we switch beds or when we put the lights on when we’re used to sleeping with the lights out, our body takes time to adapt to this new setting. We’ll go through sleepless nights and days before our body gets used to the new environment. When you change sleep locations due to vacations and visits, expect sleep disruption. When you move to a new house or even change your room within your old one, expect some sleep disturbance for a couple of weeks. Children and adults are similarly affected. Be patient and wait for the body to adjust.

Chemicals
Substances like caffeine and nicotine, as well as certain medications with stimulating effects enhance the activity of the brain. Take chemicals into consideration when serving kids food in the evening (cut down on sugar, caffeine, food colorings and highly processed snacks).

Over-stimulation
In the hour before bedtime, wild behavior, intense exercise, scary or intense media and other sources of stimulation can make it hard for kids and teens to settle down. It’s best to use that pre-sleep hour for calming the body and mind, rather than rousing it up!

Strategies for promoting sleep include:

Change the Bedtime
“Bedtime” is the time at which a person is tired enough to go to sleep. If you’ve set a 7:30p.m. bedtime for your child who isn’t sleepy until 9, then consider the possibility that you’ve set the wrong bedtime. Not all kids need the same amount of sleep. Some children, like some adults, can get by well on fewer hours than you might think is normal. Maybe you thought that every kid needs 9 hours sleep, but it turns out that YOUR child only needs 7! If your child can get up in the morning fairly easily and function well at school all day and maintain a decent mood until the evening, then he or she is getting enough sleep. But what if your child ISN’T doing well on just 7 hours, but has to get up for school on time anyways and still isn’t tired at the time that would allow him or her to get those important extra hours of sleep? In other words, what if your child does need  8 or 9 hours sleep but is only getting 7?   If this is the case, you haven’t set the bedtime too early. You need to find a way to help the child feel more tired at the right time.

You can Increase the Child’s Sleepiness
Some parents find that they can “tire their child out” by making sure the youngster has had plenty of fresh air and exercise in the daytime. Although this doesn’t work for every kid, it might work for yours – so give it a try. Encourage your older child to do sports, dance or other forms of exercise after school each day. Take your younger child to the park if possible, or for swimming lessons, skating lessons, karate or other active sports or physical activities. Try to arrange outdoor time – walking to and from school or friends or lessons. Try not to drive the child everywhere – let him or her walk or bike instead.

Teach Your Child to Relax and Wind Down for Sleep
To help ready a child for sleep, reduce stimulation in the half hour or hour before bedtime. Help the child turn his or her attention away from the activities of the day toward a quieting down, readying for sleep focus. You can teach the child (or have someone else teach the child – like a yoga teacher or a psychological practitioner) how to use the breath to induce deep relaxation and restfulness. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response is one excellent breathing tool that is so simple even very young children can use it and so effective that it helps people of all ages learn to deeply relax and fall asleep. The technique involves breathing normally, but on the “out” breath, think the number “one.” That’s all there is to it. Yet breathing this way for a few minutes, alters all the rhythms of the body and mind and settles them into patterns conducive to profound relaxation or sleep.

Try Natural Sleep Aids
There is a reason why parents give their kids milk before going to bed. Milk has a very calming effect on a drinker, and taking it before going to sleep can help facilitate some zzz’s. You may also consider natural herbs that are known for helping people get a good night’s rest. There are many herbal preparations (teas, lollipops, syrups) that are safe and healthy for kids. A special blend with sedative properties can be prepared by a professional herbalist or you might be able to find a pre-mixed blend in your local health-food store or on-line. The more days the herb is used, the stronger its effects become. Sometimes the herb is to be taken in the evening to help the child to unwind, and sometimes the herb is taken during the day, to help the entire nervous system become more calm and settled, which will facilitate normal bedtime sleepiness in the evening. Consult a herbalist to learn about which herbs are appropriate for children or teens and which ones should be avoided. Learn about dosage and safety issues.

Nutritional supplements can have similar effects. Some feeds are sedative and calming in nature and can even induce fatigue. Arrange a consultation with a holistic nutritionist or dietician who may be able to guide you. Naturopaths may also be able to advise you on the selection of foods and nutritional supplements that can help calm and settle the child or teen for sleep. Similarly, homeopaths, acupuncturists, Bach Flower practitioners and other types of alternative healers may be able to offer interventions that can improve your child’s circadian rhythms (sleep cycle), or help relax an overactive body or mind.

Consult a Doctor
Sometimes a doctor will prescribe melatonin to help the child experience fatigue at the right time. If the child’s wakefulness is caused by ADHD, medications can be altered or added to induce sleepiness. Other physical and mental health conditions that cause the child to be hyperalert can also be addressed with medication.

Create a “Parking Bay” for Nightly Concerns
There are occasions when kids have trouble sleeping because they have so many worries about the next day. If this is the case, parents can help their child by starting a ritual of listing down all these worries before going to bed. Create a pact: once a concern is listed on paper or on a white board, it means that it is to be temporarily set aside until the next day. This way your child gets to unload from their mind all the things that are bothering them before going to bed. However, after writing down worries, be sure to write down some positive thoughts, memories of the day and things to look forward to. You want to help the brain go to sleep peacefully and happily.

Set a Schedule
You know how kids are with their assignments; if you leave your child to accomplish their homework when they want to, they will play all afternoon and evening, and then try to finish their assignments way into the night! If you want your school-age child to sleep on time, set a regular time for homework and a regular time — with justified limitations — for their play. If kids are conditioned from an early age that the day ends at bed time, then they are less likely to stay up well into the night. Make the transition to bedtime with a period of quiet time – bathing, stretching, reading in bed. Teach your child a few yoga postures and breathing patterns to dispell stress and physical tension.

Be Strict about Lights Out Policy
Lastly, one effective way parents can get their children to sleep on time is to implement a daily lights out policy at a reasonable bed time. Lights outs should include no computer or TV time after bedtime. In a house of parents and teens,  everyone may go to bed at the same time – or not!. However, when there are younger kids in the family, there will always be several different bedtimes going on. As each person hits their bedtime zone, everything must quiet down around them. The quiet and stillness itself is a cue to the brain to settle down and get ready for sleep.

Consult a Mental Health Professional
If you have done all you can to help your child establish good sleep habits but your child is still having trouble falling asleep, then make an appointment with a mental health professional who can guide you further.

Child Doesn’t Eat Enough

Eating problems are common among people of all ages. One concern that a parent may have is that his or her child is not eating enough food. Let’s look at the reasons behind lack of appetite and learn what parents can do to help.

If your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough food, consider the following tips:

It May be a Matter of Perception
Sometimes the child’s food intake is actually fine, despite appearances to the contrary. In fact, sometimes parents argue over whether there is or isn’t an actual problem. The best way to clarify the issue is to seek a medical opinion. Your pediatrician will compare your child’s weight gain against those of his peers and also against his own developmental curve. Let the doctor know exactly what the child eats (and doesn’t eat). She’ll put all the facts together to determine whether the child is ingesting sufficient calories and nutrients. and to see whether further investigation is warranted.

Consider Possible Medical Causes
A consultation with a doctor is important because, in addition to ascertaining the existence and severity of an eating problem, the doctor can diagnose underlying medical causes.  For example, certain intestinal bacteria might be at the root of the problem. Thyroid conditions and other metabolic problems might exist, making it seem that the child is eating less than he or she actually is. Food sensitivities, mood issues, anxiety and other emotional problems can also play a role in low appetite.

Of course, it might turn out that there are no medical reasons for the lack of interest in food. Sometimes a child just doesn’t enjoy food all that much. In that case, the doctor can speak to the child about the importance of eating breakfast and/or other meals, or eating larger quantities of food or making higher calorie food choices – whatever needs to be addressed. Kids are much more likely to take the doctor seriously than to listen to Mom or Dad on this subject. Many doctors will also refer a child to a nutritionist for specific instruction and support. Nutritionists and dietitians can help design an individualized child-friendly menu plan that provides adequate nutrients and calories.

Consider Alternative Treatment
If the doctor gives the “all clear” parents may still want to enlist the help of an alternative health practitioner. Naturopaths, homeopaths, herbalists and other alternative healers have different methods of assessment and treatment. They may uncover a biological process that the regular doctor doesn’t consider. They also have their own methods of intervention. Sometimes this route can make a positive difference.

Make More Child-Friendly Meals
Even if the doctor doesn’t follow up with professional intervention around menu planning, it may be important for the parent to consider the role of food preferences in the child’s eating problem. Sometimes the child doesn’t like the menu offerings.  Maybe he’d be happy to eat brown-sugar maple-flavored oatmeal for breakfast, but Mom is serving the “healthier” plain oats with a bit of salt added. Or, he might be interested in french fries and burgers, but Dad is making baked potatoes and meatloaf. Let’s face it – almost all children enjoy a different menu than their parents do. If a parent makes sure to offer the kind of food that a child likes – he or she will eat more of it! That doesn’t  mean go ahead and serve generous helpings of junk food! Instead, try using spices and flavoring to make food more enticing. Parents can enlist the help of a dietitian themselves, in order to get ideas on how to make healthy food that kids will actually eat.

Minimize Attention to Eating Patterns
Although parents can make a “mental note” about their child’s eating habits, it’s usually not a good idea to let the child know that you have serious concerns in this area until AFTER a doctor has also expressed such concerns. When arranging for a medical consult for an older child or teen, a parent can just say something like, “I don’t know if it’s me or you – but I’m wondering if your eating patterns are O.K. We’ll let Dr. Smith decide. I’ve made an appointment for Tuesday at 4 p.m. ” Before Dr. Smith’s announces a problem, the parent can just keep records of the child’s eating habits without saying much to the child about it. Children don’t tend to respond positively to parental urges to eat more or differently.

Consider Other Lifestyle Issues
The less your child exercises, the less he needs to eat in order to maintain his weight. The truth is that your child will be more interested in food if he gets out to play some sports, go for a regular walk, ride a bike or otherwise move around at least 30 minutes a day. Turn off the T.V. and computers for a half hour each day and show your child where the skateboard is!

Consider Psychological Causes
If you suspect that your child doesn’t eat enough in order to round up some concern and attention from you, then experiment with giving that youngster more attention. However, give him or her attention for everything under the sun – except for not eating enough. (As mentioned above, be careful NOT to talk to the child about eating more. When you see him not taking food or not finishing food on his plate, DON’T encourage him to eat just a little more or clean his plate. You are accidentally reinforcing inappropriate behavior when you attend to it.)

Some psychological issues go far deeper than behavioral problems. If your simple behavioral interventions fail to have a positive impact, there may be something else going on. In this case, a mental health professional such as a child psychologist or a child psychiatrist is the best one to diagnose and treat the problem.

Keep in mind too, that all children’s problems are worsened by conflict at home. See if you can “de-stress” your marriage (or divorce) with or without professional help. Also check your parenting skills – if you know that you are expressing excessive anger, take serious steps to address that problem; anger doesn’t cause any one specific developmental problem but certainly contributes to every one. Children can have mental health problems for purely biological reasons, but the emotional environment at home can affect the intensity and course of the problem.

Eats Too Much

The epidemic of obesity and weight-related issues among young people has reached alarming heights. Around 25 million children below the age of seven are believed to be overweight. Experts blame the modern lifestyle of fast food and computer games for the phenomenon, alongside the phenomenon of overworked parents who lack the time and energy to pay close attention to the food they are serving their kids, or those who simply cannot afford to do so. No matter what lifestyle factors are at play, the bottom line is that when kids eat more than they can properly burn off, they will weigh more than they should.

Obesity
Eating too much can lead to being a little overweight or significantly overweight. The term “obese” normally refers to a person who possesses a gross excess of fat in the body. Obese children often suffer harassment at the hands of their peers who may mock or tease them. This experience alone can leave emotional lasting scars. However, obesity also puts youngsters at risk for many serious and even potentially fatal diseases. According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity increases the likelihood of premature death and disability during adulthood. Obese people are more likely than normal weight people to suffer heart attack, stroke, liver problems, diabetes, osteoarthritis and even cancer. Obesity is also linked to mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety disorders.

What can Parents Do?
Some children are food addicts. Despite their parents’ best efforts, the children eat too much and too often – with weight issues being the result. Nagging children does not cure their addiction – it just annoys them and makes them feel shame and guilt. Criticizing your child for his or her eating habits will likely just be a waste of time and can even damage the parent-child relationship. So what can parents do?

Avoid Strict Diets
Efforts to strictly limit caloric intake can backfire, turning kids into food thieves and/or rebellious eaters. It’s better to help kids learn to enjoy the right foods in the right amounts. Parents can refrain from serving foods that are rich in fat and sugar such as french fries, fatty cuts of meat, cakes and sodas and other white flour and white sugar products, replacing them with delicious foods that are healthier and less calorie dense. In fact, parents can offer vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean meat, dairy products, legumes and grains – but only when they are prepared in such a way that the kids will actually enjoy them. Foods that are real foods are much more difficult to consume in excessive quantities: they are naturally satisfying and filling. It is far easier to eat too many potato chips than it is to eat too many roasted baby carrots!

Many parents have discovered the secret power of spices: children will actually enjoy healthy foods when they are skillfully spiced; it’s the bland foods that lack appeal. Many international cuisines use spices that may not currently be in your cupboard but that are easily available in your local supermarket. Home-made desserts can be made with nut flours and coconut flours – products that are so nutritionally enriched that they actually reduce cravings. Borrow a few cookbooks from your neighborhood library, look online to get some new ideas for enhancing the flavor of your foods or take a cooking class – do whatever you need to do to introduce your children to nutritious AND delicious foods. If you are short on time (and who isn’t?), you can find amazing food that takes only a couple of ingredients and a couple of minutes to make. You can prepare meals in a crockpot that will cook throughout the day and be ready when you come home from work. The health food store may also carry some ready-made foods – but do read the ingredients; being sold in a health food store does not guarantee that the product is calorie wise or even nutritious.

Everything in the Right Time
In addition, try serving your children junk foods and sugary treats (pastries, sugar cereals and candies) in small quantities and ONLY on specific regular occasions (i.e the weekend or better yet, only on one day of the weekend!). Allowing kids to have a little bit of these treats helps reduce feelings of deprivation. No child should have to feel that any one food or one kind of food is too “fattening” to enjoy on occasion in small portions. Remember: feelings of deprivation tend to sabotage any healthy eating plan,leading to eventual weight gain.

Offer Them a Drink Before Meals
One way to get a child to eat a little less during meal time is to give him a tall glass of water five minutes before eating. The extra fluid can make him feel fuller even before he takes a bite. You may also consider giving a healthy snack before bigger meals in order to lessen your child’s appetite.

Serve Smaller Portions
Although there is no need to have your child track his or her calories, there is also no need to serve enormous quantities of food to your family. Kids get used to whatever their parents provide. Try shifting from the buffet, help-yourself style to fixed servings, preparing small portions already set for each member of the family. Or, go with the buffet style but encourage your child to notice how many servings he has had and how large they are. You can say things like, “You can have as much as you want, but just notice how many helpings you’ve taken,” or “Take as big a serving as you like, but just notice how much of your plate it covers – 1/4 or 1/2 or almost all of it.” Asking the child to notice what he is doing gives him the beginning of inner control. Often “mindless eating” – that is, not noticing – is the culprit behind unwanted extra pounds. You may also encourage your child to chew slower and take his time eating. Research has shown that it takes a while for the “stomach is full” message to reach our brains, so chewing slowly can help this message get to the brain before a person takes the next spoonful. Pausing between bites and waiting a bit between courses also allows the “full” message to get to the brain in time to stop a person from grabbing more food.

Exercise and Movement is Also Important
Try to get the family moving. If possible, enroll the kids in physical activities after school – swimming, karate, gymnastics, dance class, hockey and so on. Or, take them to the park to run around and play. Walk around the block with them if possible; walk wherever you can with them instead of driving. Don’t let them just sit in front of a screen all day. Provide a model for them as well: let them see you doing your stretches and exercises in your home. Remember – don’t nag your child or fight with him or her as this can lead to stress – which in turn leads to over-eating. Try to make physical activity fun and normal rather than some sort of punishment for a child who needs to lose some weight.

Consider Mood and Anxiety Issues
Is the increased appetite new for your child? If so, consider the possibility that your child is using food as a way to manage emotional issues. Perhaps the child is going through a stressful transition. Or perhaps she feels insecure about something. Understanding emotional triggers to eating can help parents manage their child’s eating habits by addressing the root causes. In some cases, psychological counseling may be more appropriate than a diet.

Get a Physical Check-up
Increased appetite can be a sign of an underlying medical condition; perhaps the body is starving for a particular vitamin or mineral. Consider taking your child to both a medical doctor and a naturopath for a thorough assessment. Dealing  with physical triggers to excess eating as early as possible may  help prevent more serious health issues from developing.

Your Child Needs Your Help
Kids cannot solve their overeating problems on their own. Their parents must help them – not only because the children may already be “food addicts” overwhelmed by their own cravings, but also because they lack skills, knowledge and ability to manage their own weight loss program. It is up to parents to become knowledgeable – whether that is through self-education or through the assistance of weight loss professionals like pediatric specialists or obesity specialists. You are also the one to see to it that your child gets the help he or she may need. If your own interventions are not helping, try to get your child professional help. Possible sources of help include your child’s doctor, a dietician, a nutritionist, a child psychologist or weight-loss clinic that treats kids and teens.

Habits

What’s the difference between a bad habit, a nervous habit and a compulsive habit? When should a parent be concerned about a child’s habit?

Bad Habits
Everyone has bad habits. Leaving one’s dish on the table is a bad habit – one that many kids (and adults!) have. Calling a sibling “stupid” or some other insulting name can be a bad habit. Slamming the car door too hard can also be a bad habit. A bad habit is any repetitive behavior that needs improvement. That behavior can be a small, annoying behavior or it can be a more serious problematic behavior. For instance, a teen might have a bad habit of calling home past midnight to say that he’ll be out later than expected, or, he might have a really bad habit of forgetting to call home at all and just showing up at 3 in the morning.

Parents can help their children overcome bad habits by using normal parenting techniques like teaching, rewarding and disciplining. If the child’s bad habit is interfering with his health or functioning, however, then professional intervention is a good idea. For instance, a child who is chronically sleep-deprived due to going to bed too late or who is doing poorly in school due to chronically getting up too late, may benefit from counseling or other appropriate therapy.

Nervous Habits
Nervous habits are bodily behaviors that aim to discharge stress or tension. Twirling one’s hair, biting one’s nails, rocking back and forth, shaking one’s feet while seated – all these actions are examples of nervous habits. Talking rapidly, running to the bathroom urgently, gulping down food, giggling inappropriately – these, too, can be nervous habits.

If a child has a nervous habit he or she may benefit from learning better techniques for stress reduction. There are children’s classes and groups for yoga and mindfulness meditation that can be helpful. Alternative therapies can also help. For instance, herbal medicine can come the system down and Bach Flower Therapy can relieve stress and tension. Parental nagging to stop the nervous habit, on the other hand, does not help at all – if anything, it might increase the nervous habit. If the habit is bothering the child or parent, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Compulsive Habits
While bad habits and nervous habits occur to some extent in almost everyone, compulsive habits occur only in those who have various mental health disorders. Eating disorders often involve compulsive activities like weighing oneself or cutting food into tiny bits. Certain kinds of psychotic disorders also have compulsive symptoms.

Compulsive habits are most characteristic of the anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This sort of habit is more ritualistic than the habits we’ve discussed so far. For instance, someone with a “nervous” habit might tap her feet while waiting in a long line. However, someone with a compulsive habit might tap her feet exactly 13 times – not because she is tense, but because she is attempting to reduce truly anxious, troubling feelings. Tapping exactly 13 times – not one less or one more -is a compulsion. A compulsion is a specific action whose purpose is to calm the anxiety associated with troubling obsessions (thoughts or sensations). There are many, many types of compulsive habits. Washing one’s hands a certain number of times is a common compulsive habit that often results in red, chapped, even bleeding skin. Counting steps, saying certain words or numbers, checking things repeatedly, praying in a specified way not characteristic for others who practice the same religion – all of these can be compulsive habits. The child who engages in these or other compulsive habits is a slave to the habit – he or she MUST perform the action or else suffers overwhelming anxiety.

Compulsive habits do not tend to go away by themselves. Instead, they get worse and worse over time and spread into more and more styles of compulsive habits. The sooner a child receives professional treatment for compulsive habits, the sooner the child will be able to lead a normal, healthy, compulsion-free life. If you think that your child’s habits may be compulsive in nature, arrange for an assessment with a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist). Treatment can help!

Habits and Nervous Behavior

Everyone has some bad habits. And everyone engages in their bad habits more often when they are feeling tense or nervous. For instance, a teenager or adult may have taken up the “bad habit” of smoking cigarettes. The smoker will almost always be smoking more often when feeling anxious. Younger children can have habits like picking their nose, biting their nails, or twirling their hair. (You can learn more about these bad habits and how to help them by reading articles under the category Nervous Habits on this site). Some kids crack their knuckles, chew their pencils, or nibble on their shirt cuffs. Some rock back and forth in their chairs. In fact, there is hardly a limit to the type of bad habit that a child can “invent!”

If your child has some bad habits or nervous behaviors, consider the following tips:

Nervous Behavior Means the Child is Nervous!
Whether it is pacing back and forth, pulling out hairs, or shaking one’s leg, the purpose of a habit is to release some nervous tension. If you can address the tension directly, the habit will most likely go away (or at least diminish) all by itself. Instead of telling your youngster to stop shaking his leg, offer him something for his “nerves.” Now this doesn’t mean that you should offer him a stiff drink! (That’s a bad habit that a lot of adults are into!). There are plenty of healthy, child-safe “stress busters” that you can offer your child. For instance, your child might be calmed by the right herbal tea. A herbalist or naturopath might be able to prescribe a herbal mixture that reduces your child’s overall level of tension or “nerves.” Herbs can be prepared as bedtime tea’s or they can be taken as syrups or even lollipops when they are made by a professional herbalist. Some herbs are available in tincture or tablet form from your local healthfood store. All herbs are medicinal so make sure that you consult a professional before giving your child herbal medicine. Less medicinal than herbs are essential oils. These, too, are available at healthfood stores. Aromatherapy – the use of essential oils to calm nervous tension – is less medicinal than herbal medicine, but still a little medicinal (for example, some oils need to be avoided in pregnancy or when someone has epilepsy). Therefore, it is adviseable to check with a professional aromatherapist before preparing oils for your child. However, once you learn which oils are safe and how you can prepare them for your child, you will find essential oils to be a delightful way to calm your child’s stress, help him sleep and reduce his nervous habits. A calming treatment that is not medicinal in any way is Bach Flower Therapy. The Bach Flower remedies are essentially water. They do not affect the body – rather, they affect the emotions. They help a child feel less upset, worried, angry or sad. They can help with excess nervous energy, anxious feelings or other “nervous” symptoms. You can read descriptions of the remedies on-line and choose the ones you think are most appropriate for your child or you can consult a professional Bach Flower Therapist. Always include Agrimony in your Bach Remedy mixture when you want to treat a nervous habit; Agrimony is the remedy that helps reduce nervous behaviors. In addition to natural therapies (and these are only a few of the treatments that are available), you may find that psychological counseling can help reduce your child’s anxiety and stress. Obviously this intervention is most important when your child is really stressed and nervous. However, your child who is just “the nervous type” (not very, very anxious), may benefit from psychological interventions as well. Most appropriate for the average child is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), mindfulness meditation for children, CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) self-help workbooks and other psychoeducational tools. Exercise is another great way to reduce nervous energy: enroll your child in active sports, gymnastics, yoga, swimming – make sure your child is physically active daily!

Refrain from Telling Your Child to Stop His Habit
Telling a child to stop doing whatever he’s doing not only DOESN’T help, but it also hurts. Your child isn’t trying to be “bad” when engaging in a nervous habit. It’s almost like it is happening outside of his conscious awareness. Rather than telling him to stop, simply re-direct him to another activity. Interrupting habits helps to break up the strong neural pathway that is beginning to develop. For instance, suppose your child is sitting in a chair wildly kicking one leg back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Don’t tell the child to stop! Instead, ask him to please fetch you something from another part of the house. This will interrupt his habit and anything you can do to interrupt the pattern will be quite helpful.

Never Humiliate or Mock Your Child for His Nervous Habit
Some people try to “shame” their child out of their nervous habit. Even if you manage to cure a child this way, the cost is way too great. Don’t do it. There are better ways to cure a habit. For instance, if your child has a habit of nose-picking, DO NOT tell him he is disgusting! Instead, follow the steps you’ll find in the “Nose-Picking” article on this site.

Get Your Doctor’s Advice if a Habit is Persistent
Pediatricians have seen it all. Ask your child’s pediatrician for advice on how to help your child with his nervous habit.

Try to Reduce Stressful Events in Your Child’s Life
This can be a hard one. You might really WANT that divorce, even if it causes your child to become unravelled. However, do what you can to limit the stress your child is exposed to on a daily basis and you’ll find that his nervous habits diminish. Refrain from yelling at anyone or engaging in any kind of conflict. In fact, try to stay in a good mood when your child is around.  Nurture your own mental health by taking good care of yourself. This will help you be happier and calmer and this will only be good for your child. Getting help for yourself or your marriage or even your divorce, can be an important step in calming your household and supporting your child’s mental health.

Child Gambles

If you think that gambling is still a “strictly for adults only” enterprise, you are sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, gambling is fast becoming an epidemic among children and adolescents, with kids as young as 9 years old getting hooked. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that around 4% of American children are already addicted to gambling, with an anti-compulsive gambling advocate calling the situation a “hidden epidemic.”

Gambling and Kids
Gambling refers to the betting of money or anything of value on a game with uncertain result. Traditional gambling mediums include card games, casino machines, and betting on the outcome of sporting activities like soccer, boxing or horse racing. Gambling used to be a highly regulated (albeit multi-billion dollar) adult industry. But because of the advent of the internet, the relaxation of some state’s gambling laws to accommodate children, and the proliferation of lotteries and gaming arcades open to the general public, gambling has reached the younger population. Loss of parental control and financial difficulty in the family also add to the phenomenon. The situation is so bad that some kids end up owing bookies hundreds of thousands of dollars long before they even step into high school!

Gambling in itself is not bad; many people enjoy social gambling as a past time, a way to relax and unwind. But children are particularly vulnerable to becoming pathological gamblers – gamblers who are unable to resist the urge to gamble despite the serious consequences of their behavior. This is because young children and teens have yet to develop skills in managing impulses, assessing risks and chances, and appreciating the financial value of money surrendered to gambling hosts. Most of the time, children (like adults with gambling disorders) are stuck in the excitement of risk-taking and the thrill of a winning streak, with no awareness of the long-term negative consequences.

What can Parents Do?
As a parent, it’s important that you are aware of the signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling in children. Remember, in this age of technology, gambling behavior can be easy to hide (there are even betting agencies that collect simply by cellphone texts!). But like any addiction, the more serious it becomes, the more difficult it is to conceal.

What should parents look out for? Be mindful of secretive internet or newspaper browsing; your child may be following the results of an event he has a stake on. Watch out as well for unexplained loss or gain of money and material possessions. Check for sudden or gradual drop in grades, absences in school or loss of interest in tasks and activities that used to interest them before. Monitor their language; see if they are more prone to using gambling terms during conversations. Be aware of the people they interact with everyday — they might already be setting regular appointments with bookies.

If you’ve discovered that your child has a gambling problem, it’s best to confront him or her about it right away. Impulse control disorders rarely go away on their own, as kids have lost the ability to regulate their own behavior. Parental control and intervention is necessary. If the problem is only recent and mild, parents may be able to handle it on their own. However, when gambling is already more entrenched, professional intervention will be necessary. In some cases, parents may directly contact the casinos or the bookies to ensure that a child will not be allowed to gamble anymore. Implements can also be confiscated, such as credit cards, computers and cellphones. A child may also be grounded for awhile, allowing the compulsion to “cool off.” For serious young gamblers, mandatory visits to a mental health professional must be included along with these types of restrictions and guidelines. It is also very helpful for parents to attend twelve-step programs for family members of addicts while the child him or herself, attends similar regular meetings for addicts. Often, family therapy will be a useful adjunct to other interventions. Doing everything possible as soon as possible can help young gamblers heal their compulsion. On the other hand, ignoring the behavior or simply telling a child to “stop it” may lead to a lifetime of debilitating, destructive gambling activities.

Substance Abuse

One of the strongest fears among parents today is that their child will develop an addiction to a drug or illegal substance. This fear is understandable; addiction is a progressive, life-threatening disorder that affects both physical health and mental functioning. All parents want to see their children live the life that they deserve; addiction is a one way path to destruction.

Addiction, also called substance dependency, typically begins with substance use followed by substance abuse.

Substance Use and Intoxication
Substance use is simply choosing to partake of a substance, whether it’s something found in everyday meals (e.g. caffeine, sugar) or something more threatening such as lifestyle drugs (e.g. alcohol, nicotine from cigarettes), regulated medicines (e.g. cough syrup, pain killers, ADHD drugs), or illegal drugs (e.g. cocaine, marijuana in some states, hallucinogens). In the case of non-illegal substances, substance use means eating or drinking within acceptable limits or within the amount prescribed by a medical practitioner. In the case of illegal drugs and some regulated chemicals, substance use refers to the “experimentation stage”, when kids decide to try “just once” a prohibited substance.

Substance use can lead to a condition called intoxication, or the experience of the natural effects of substance use in the body. Alcohol intoxication, for example, results in poor vision, impaired judgment, blurry speech, loss of memory and poor sense of balance. Stronger psychoactive drugs, like hallucinogens, can cause temporary feelings of euphoria and loss of reality. Not all feelings produced by intoxication are pleasant ones. Intoxication can also cause overwhelming anxiety or even psychotic episodes. Intoxication is a usually a temporary state that goes away after the substance is flushed out of the body.

Substance Abuse and Dependency
Substance use has progressed to substance abuse when the dosage of the chemical taken is no longer within reasonable limits (for instance, drinking 5 cups of coffee with every meal every day), or when a person continues to use an illegal substance to get some positive effect, such as a feeling of euphoria or relief. Abuse is the choice to use a substance despite experiencing negative effects of the behavior, such as poor grades, interpersonal problems or loss of money. The key word in this definition of abuse is “choice”; the person is not yet dependent on the substance. Dependency occurs once tolerance sets in (see below), and withdrawal symptoms (see below) result from abstinence from the drug or chemical.

Tolerance and Withdrawal
Tolerance and withdrawal are the two hallmarks of an addiction.

Tolerance refers to the body’s natural adaptation to a drug or substance. When a person becomes tolerant to a drug, a dosage that used to produce a specific effect will fail to deliver the results it used to. For example, if 5 mg of a drug used to be enough to grant a feeling of high, now a higher dosage is required to achieve the same effect.  Similarly, if one pain reliever used to work sufficiently well to relieve a headache, tolerance can result in needing double or triple the dose to get the same amount of relief.

Withdrawal symptoms are the negative effects of not using a substance that one is already dependent on. Many people have experienced minor withdrawal effects from going off of coffee or sugar. When dependent on alcohol and drugs, however, withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe. They may include physical effects (headaches, insomnia, shaking, increased heart rate, vomiting, sweating), emotional (depression, irritability, panic, hallucinations) or mental (obsession, difficulty in concentrating). The un-ease that comes during withdrawal is what promotes the addiction; the user now feels compelled to take a drug or substance, not for its positive effect, but because he or she can’t live without it.

What can Parents Do?
Bring home drug-education books from your local children’s library. Books for children use lots of pictures and simple explanations about the effects of alcohol and drugs on the body and mind as well as the effects on a young person’s life. Such materials are designed to “speak” to kids in a way that they can really understand and relate to and they are often far superior to any “lecture” or education delivered by parents. Leaving these kinds of materials in the bathroom and around the house without comment is probably the best approach. Alternatively, read them to children (ages 9 – 12) along with other bedtime material. For teens, just leave the books out and perhaps discuss the material with them at the dinner table. Open communication helps. Also, maintaining a positive, healthy relationship with teens is protective to a certain extent.

If parents want to protect their children from substance abuse disorders, it’s important that they are present and alert as early as the “use” stage. Regulated drugs like pain killers must be carefully watched and monitored, so that they will not get abused. More importantly, children should be made aware than in case of many illegal drugs, there is no such thing as “just experimenting.” Because illegal drugs are addictive by nature, just one try may be enough to get a person hooked. This is especially true for children and teenagers who have a family history of substance dependency.

Once substance use has already progressed to substance dependency, a purely psychological intervention may not be enough to get a user to stop. Because the body’s chemistry is already altered by repeated abuse of medication, detoxification at a rehabilitation facility may be needed before any psychological intervention can be carried out.  If this is the case, it’s best to consult a physician and/or a mental health practitioner specializing in substance abuse disorders.

Bad Self-Image

Have you ever visited the “mirror room” in a circus? You know, the one where there are many different kinds of mirrors, each one reflecting an unreal and exaggerated version of the viewer, making the person look so much taller, smaller, fatter or skinnier than he or she really is?

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD, every day is like staring into a circus mirror. Except, people with the condition don’t realize that what they are seeing is a distortion – they believe their distorted reflection is real. They consider themselves physically flawed, although no one else would agree with this assessment. They preoccupy themselves about a perceived flaw in one or more of their features or body parts — their nose is too big, their eyes too small, their skin too light or too dark. They feel ugly — both from the inside and out.

While most people have some issues with their appearance — indeed, the beauty and fashion industry preys on our insecurities — the obsession about perceived physical flaws among those with BDD is excessive. In fact, most of their perceived flaws simply don’t exist, or if they do, they are barely noticeable. However, sufferers are absolutely convinced that they are deformed or ugly and feel shamed just by being in the presence of other people; they are often so anxious that they can’t work or enjoy life. Some are so intent on fixing their imperfections that they risk multiple surgeries and unproven treatments.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder often comes with other mental health conditions like clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse control disorders like trichotillomania, anxiety disorders and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

What causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
BDD is more common than most people realize; it is believed to affect 2 in every 100 members of the population. It is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults, mainly because it is during these times that the pressure to present a “beautiful” front is most intense.

A family history of BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorders increases the likelihood of the condition developing in a person. This implies that BDD has an organic origin, such as chemical imbalance in the part of the brain that controls emotions and habits. Traumatic experiences, like physical and sexual abuse, can also trigger Body Dysmorphic Disorder in those who have the genetic vulnerability for it.

What Are the Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
The following are some of the signs parents should look out for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive pre-occupation with physical appearance
  • A pervasive belief that one is ugly or unattractive despite assurances and evidence to the contrary
  • A feeling of shame or self-loathing related to one’s body
  • Frequent examination of the body parts they consider as flawed
  • Eating disorders
  • Use of many cosmetic products or procedures, exercise regimens, with no pleasure at results
  • Social withdrawal or social anxiety
  • Inability to function because of preoccupation about appearance

What Can Parents Do?
If you see signs that a child or teen may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. The obsessive-compulsive nature of the illness, as well as the pervasiveness of the perceptual disturbance make simple assurances ineffective. Counseling, therapy and medication are known to help. If the illness is accompanied by dysfunctional eating and exercise habits, then the help of a medical doctor, eating disorders specialists or psychiatrist will also be helpful.

Refuses to Go to a Mental Health Professional

In an ideal world, consulting a mental health professional would be as easy as consulting a medical doctor – and as stigma-free. Unfortunately, many people still feel an element of shame, embarrassment or other type of awkwardness about going to a psychological professional. Some people still think that mental health professionals only deal with people who are “crazy” and understandably don’t want to be an identified member of such a population. In fact, in the “olden days” mental illness was poorly understood and derogatory terms such as “crazy” were used to describe people who we know know were suffering from various biological disorders such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder or delusional disorders. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can now help mentally ill people feel and function better than ever before. Moreover, modern mental health professionals assist not only those who are suffering from true mental illness, but also those who are completely mentally healthy. They help almost everyone to function in less stressful, more productive and happier ways, helping  them achieve their full potential in every area. People who access mental health services in order to feel and achieve their best, tend to be more emotionally sophisticated, open-minded and growth-oriented than those who do not. In other words, it is often the most mentally healthy people who consult mental health pofessionals today.

Although YOU may know all this, your child may not. In fact, your child may have the old misconception that going to a mental health professional means that there is something wrong with you. As a result, he or she may not want to see a mental health professional, even though you know that this is exactly what is needed.

If your child refuses to go to a mental health professional, consider the following tips:

Explain to your Child what Mental Health is and what Mental Health Professionals Do
As previously mentioned, there are many misconceptions that float around regarding the mental health profession — and even young children could have heard of them through playmates and peers. It’s important then that you explain carefully that mental health is just one aspect of our health. Emphasize that healthy people access mental health services in order to learn new skills, improve relationships, reduce stress and emotional discomfort, feel better physically, and achieve more in school or life. Be specific too – talk about the various tasks that mental health professionals perform such as psycho-educational assessments, mental health assessments, family counseling (to reduce conflict or help cope with stress), remove and/or manage fear, anger or sadness, and much more.

Your child may not recognize or agree that he or she has an issue that requires intervention. As a parent, you are in charge of your child’s well-being. If your child had an infection, you would insist on medical attention. Similarly, if your child needs help for an emotional problem, it is up to you to arrange it. If the child in question is a teenager, you might have to deal with resistance – be prepared. First try to motivate the youngster with reason – explain the possible benefits of assessment and treatment. If the child still refuses to cooperate, let him or her know that, privileges will be removed. For example, “No you don’t have to go to see Dr. Haber, but if you decide not to come, you will  not have the use of my car until you change your mind.” Think of whatever consequences might help motivate your adolescent to cooperate.

Tell children what to expect at their first session. If there will be art or music or toys, let your child know that the session should be very enjoyable, even while the therapist is learning about the child’s issues and learning how to be help. If it will be a talking therapy, tell the child how the therapist might open the conversation, what sort of questions might be asked and how the child might approach the conversation. Tell the child how to handle tricky situations like not wanting to talk or open up too much or feeling not understood or being fearful. In other words, prepare for everything!

Gently but Clearly Explain Why you are Referring Them to a Mental Health Practitioner
Tell your child why you have scheduled a mental health consultation. Explain that the consultation is meant to help the child and is not some sort of negative consequence! Kids who are caught breaking the law, or even family rules, are often scheduled for counseling in order to find out the reason for the misbehavior. Children who do not do well in school are referred to educational psychologists for assessment of learning disorders or other causes. Depressed or anxious teens may be sent to psychiatrists or psychologists for treatment. If you are having relationship difficulties with your youngster, make sure to participate in the counseling process in some way, either having joint sessions with the child or having individuals sessions just like the child is having, or both.

Negotiate Confidentiality Boundaries Beforehand
A tricky issue for children in therapy is confidentiality. It’s common for some kids to have hesitation talking to a mental health professional. For them, counselors are just their parents’ spies — a way parents can gather information about them. It’s important that parents (and maybe the mental health professional him or herself) clarify beforehand that all issues discussed within sessions are confidential, and that only the generic nature of issues discussed would be revealed to parents. Similarly, the mental health practitioner can specify what will remain confidential and what sorts of information cannot remain confidential, giving the child the opportunity to share or withhold information knowing the limits of confidentiality.

Tell your Kids that They can Terminate a Consultation Anytime
It’s important that kids actually enjoy their therapy experiences. Negative therapy experiences may affect them negatively throughout life as they refuse to get much needed help because of traumatic memories of therapy in childhood! Therefore, make sure that your child LIKES going to therapy or change the therapist, or the type of therapy, or even consider stopping therapy for the time being and trying again later. Usually, mental health professionals are good at establishing rapport with their clients and child and adolescent specialists are particularly skilled at making kids feel comfortable. Nonetheless, if your child remains uncomfortable after a couple of meetings, end the therapy. Adults also need to feel comfortable in therapy in order to benefit and they, too, have the right to “shop around” for a compatible therapist or therapy approach. Since there are so many different types of treatments and so many therapists, there; they will do their best to get your child feeling at ease before they start an actual intervention. But many factors can cause your child to be uncomfortable with a mental health professional. It’s helpful then that your child knows that you are at least willing to consider enlisting a different professional, or terminating sessions if there are significant concerns.

Surprising Benefits of Family Meals

Family meals nourish more than the bodies of those who consume them. In fact, ask according to new research, family meals offer surprising benefits.

For instance, it has been found that children who eat meals with their parents on a regular basis are at lower risk for developing addictive behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol use. Family meals also appear to help prevent the development of eating disorders in teenagers. Interestingly, eating family meals also is correlated with an improvement in children’s eating habits: children who have regular meals with their parents tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food. This improvement may be a result of the parental model at the table or it might be or that family meals tend to be more nutritious than meals eaten alone.

A fascinating study indicates that the power of a family meal is so strong, that the positive benefits continue to exist even when family mealtime consists of sitting in front of the TV together. Since numerous studies have previously linked television viewing to unhealthy eating habits, researchers at the University of Minnesota were surprised to find that families who watched TV during dinner continued to benefit from eating together.

Of course, the ideal family meal is one in which parents and children interact with each other. Especially in today’s rushed and hectic environment, it can be difficult for parents and children to have meaningful communication. Family meals are a great opportunity for catching up, having stimulating conversation, exploring ideas and values, passing down family stories, and dealing with family issues. It is also a time when parents can observe changes in their children and track development and growth.

So if family meals are so wonderful, why do many families fail to eat together? Late work hours and busy extracurricular schedules can make getting all family members together at the same time very challenging. But dinner isn’t the only opportunity for a shared meal. Some families may find that breakfast is a better option. For exceptionally busy families, having one or two family meals a week might be better than nothing at all.

The important thing to remember is that being together as a family has benefits that can last far beyond childhood. The sense of stability and connectedness that shared meals create, give children an emotional advantage they’ll take with them into adulthood.  And that is something probably worth making time for.