Helping Kids Through Trauma and PTSD

We all deal with stress everyday. Rushing to get to school in time, making ends meet during a recession, dealing with a particularly annoying in-law — stress is a part of life. And in most occasions, the stress we face is manageable.

But some sources of stress can be incredibly intense, overwhelming and beyond our physical and/or emotional resources to deal with. When this happens, the stressful event is said to be traumatic. All parents want to protect their children from things that can unsettle or harm them. But sadly, there are many things in life that even the most conscientious of parents can’t control. Our children may witness or experience traumatic events despite our best efforts to shield them. When this happens, they may have difficulty bouncing back. Sleep disturbances, sadness, anger and fear may plague a traumatized child long after the traumatic event has ended.

What is a Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological reaction to highly stressful events, particularly those that threaten life or safety. When an experience is considered traumatic, it means that the coping resources of the person witnessing or experiencing it are not enough to deal with the impact of the event, and some degree of psychological shock or breakdown occurs. Events that most people consider traumatic include vehicular accidents, crimes, natural disasters and physical or sexual abuse. Although parents may think that trauma results only from catastrophic events like war or rape, it can actually occur as a result of more normal and common events. For instance, a child can be traumatized by being chased by a dog, by a harsh reprimand from a teacher, from a threatening bully, or from being laughed at while giving an oral report. What makes an event traumatic differs from person to person, as individual coping abilities must be taken into account. Personality factors, psychological profile and past history all play a role in producing a traumatic reaction.

A trauma response often includes symptoms like reliving the event over and over again (by obsessing about it; experiencing intrusive thoughts that interrupt thoughts and activities), panic attacks, nightmares, numbness & fog responses, avoiding people, places and things that trigger a memory of the event, depressed and/or angry mood and increased nervousness (startle response).

Trauma can initiate a syndrome that shows up long after the traumatic event or events have ended. Like an initial trauma response, it affects physical and emotional functioning causing nightmares, hypervigilance, panic attacks, intrusive memories, numbness and other symptoms; the syndrome is called PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It can occur weeks, years or decades after the traumatic events have passed.

Those who have some level of anxiety to begin with and those who have suffered several previous traumatic incidents are more likely to develop PTSD than other people. Lack of a support system or lack of adequate emotional support right after a trauma, also increases the chances of developing PTSD later on.

What is the Best Way to Handle PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that can be effectively treated. Self-help is part of the process for teens and adults, including finding support groups, reading up on PTSD, engaging in effective stress-management routines (including regular exercise, relaxation techniques and routines for self-care), utilizing alternative treatments to strengthen the nervous system (such as herbal remedies, Bach Flower Therapy, Aromatherapy, homeopathy, accupuncture and so forth). Parents can help incorporate calming strategies into a child’s routines.

Parental support is critical when a child is dealing with trauma. Unlike adults, younger children don’t yet have the ability to understand what they are going through. Not only is the original event traumatic, but their trauma symptoms too, can be traumatic. For instance, physical symptoms like tremors and nightmares, mental symptoms like obsessions and hallucinations, and emotional symptoms like fear and anxiety can be overwhelming for a child to be experiencing.

The first line of business is to help children manage their emotions. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. A traumatized child may talk about the same thing over and over again, and this is okay. The content of the sharing is less important than the process of getting things out. If a child finds difficulty in expressing what he is going through verbally, either because of age or because of the trauma, then consider non-verbal ways of venting emotions. Letting it all out can also be done using drawings and pictures, clay sculptures and toys, play-acting, and storytelling.

Second, give your child a rational explanation of the traumatic event, that is appropriate to his or her age. The more information the child has, the less he or she is likely to generalize the event to other situations. For instance, knowing that a car crashed because it skidded on the snow can help a child feel safe in cars with good snow tires and in cars driving on dry roads. Without this information, the child may conclude that all cars are dangerous at all times. (While this is in fact true, the healthy state of mind is one of sufficient denial that a person can comfortably drive and be driven at all times. Phobic and traumatized people, on the other hand, over-exaggerate the likelihood of a catastrophic event occurring again, such that they can’t live in a normal way.)

When a child is suffering rather mild symptoms, parents may find that self-help interventions are sufficient. For instance, learning how to do EFT (emotional freedom technique) with the child may complete calm the youngster’s nervous system. However, parents may prefer to take their child to a child psychologist who practices EFT or EMDR. Both of these techniques are used to rapidly heal the trauma of one-time events. If the child is experiencing many symptoms of trauma, it is essential that parents DO NOT try the self-help approach. Instead, they should take their child to a mental health professional who is specifically trained in the treatment of PTSD.

The Bach Flower Remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can help reduce temporary and chronic symptoms of trauma and is especially effective for home-management of symptoms in between psychotherapy sessions. If you are aware that the child has just suffered a traumatic event (like watching someone get badly injured or being personally assaulted, injured or threatened), offer Rescue Remedy immediately. It may help prevent a traumatic reaction from setting in.

However, the fastest and most effective way to end the debilitating symptoms of PTSD is to get the proper professional help. Not all mental health professionals are equally trained in the treatment of PTSD. Make sure that your practitioner is! Therapeutic interventions include EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing), EFT and other forms of Energy Psychology, TIR (Traumatic Incident Reduction),  and other specific tools for the treatment of trauma.

The good news is that children respond well to treatment of trauma. They can experience a complete healing of their symptoms and a return to “normalcy.” In fact, child are often even happier, calmer and more mature after trauma therapy than they were before the traumatic event(s) occurred.

Nightmares

Everyone dreams. Most people probably remember having at least one nightmare – a very frightening dream. There are some people who are bothered by regular nightmares, so much so that they don’t want to go to sleep. This can happen to children as well as to adults. After experiencing a traumatic event, people can have nightmares virtually nightly, until the trauma is resolved. Whether it’s once in a blue moon or a regular occurrence, a child’s nightmare always requires parental attention.

If your child has had nightmares, consider the following tips:

Some Kids are Sensitive to Images
Some kids are particularly vulnerable to scary images they see in books, movies and on T.V.. They can also create their own frightening images based on what they hear in snippets of conversations around them.  It isn’t possible to always shelter kids from unpleasant images, but parents can certainly respect the child’s vulnerability and try to limit frightening stimulation – for example, there is no need to insist that a child confront a disturbing image that is only recreational in nature (i.e a violent movie). If a child has come across a disturbing image, parents can help the child to talk about it, both accepting the child’s fear and also explaining the pretend-nature of the picture. For children whose vivid imaginations and sensitivity often lead to nightmares, parents can try offering the Bach Flower Remedy called Walnut – a harmless, water-based form of vibrational medicine available at health food stores everywhere. Give two drops in liquid (water, juice, milk, etc.) four times a day until the nightmares stop. Or, for nightmares about ghosts and other vague, scary fantasies, try the Bach Remedy called Aspen. The remedy Mimulus can help with nightmares about more specific fears, such as people dying or scary events like being robbed or chased. A Bach Flower practitioner can help further. You may also find more information about Bach Flower Remedies on this site.

Nightmares can be Triggered by Food Sensitivities
If there is no other apparent reason for the nightmares, you might consider the possibility of food sensitivities. Sometimes such sensitivities can chemical processes that can cause nightmares. Any food can cause problems, so you might need a systematic approach to food elimination in order to find out if there is a sensitivity. Naturopaths and self-help books can help with the process, or you might be able to find a medical specialist who tests for sensitivities (not allergies).

Consider Stress or Traumatic Events
If your child has experienced a stressful event or situation lately (i.e. medical or dental procedures, moving, a mean teacher, examinations, and so on), or even a traumatic experience (car accident, robbery, bullying, assault, family violence), then it’s possible that the nightmare is a sign that he or she is having difficulty coping with the situation. If a child who recently experienced the death of a loved one, for example, gets recurring nightmares, it’s possible that there are feelings he or she can’t identify or express. The child may also have experienced some sort of traumatic or overwhelming experience that you aren’t aware of – at school, at a place of worship, at an extracurricular activity, while volunteering or babysitting or even in your own home with his or her siblings or other relatives.  If you KNOW that something stressful has happened, be sure to talk to your child, naming the feelings that YOU would have if you were dealing with that situation. Help the child to express his or her feelings by using Emotional Coaching  (learn how to use this technique in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Unremitting nightmares should always best checked out by a child psychologist.

Medicines, Substances and Illness
Certain health conditions can trigger nightmares, as can mind-altering substances and even over-the-counter medications. Withdrawal from substances can also trigger nightmares. If your child has been unwell or on medication and is having unusual nightmares, speak to the pediatrician.

Ways to Help Your Child
Accept your child’s fear and anxiety. Saying things like, “It’s not real. Go back to sleep,” doesn’t do anything to comfort a child and may even make them feel ashamed simply for having a normal reaction. Remember: to a young child, a dream can be so vivid, it feels like it actually happened. Go slowly and gently, taking time to calm and soothe your child to help orient him back to reality. Give a hug or a kiss or rub his or her back. Get him or her a glass of water or even a cracker to munch on, as eating and drinking are “grounding” activities that bring a child back into his body and away from the fantasy in his head. Putting a few drops of Rescue Remedy in the water can be particularly helpful, or even dropping them on a child’s wrists will work (Rescue Remedy is available in health food stores and is a harmless Bach Flower Remedy that quickly turns off adrenaline and restores emotional balance in cases where the fight-or-flight response has been activated.)

After a bad dream, separation anxiety may re-surface. Kids may demand that you stay with them as they go back to sleep, or they might insist on following you back to your room. They may also put up a big fuss when you attempt to leave their presence. Remember that these responses to terrifying dreams are all normal. Because your child is feeling fearful and maybe even disoriented and confused, make the exception if possible, and indulge his or her need for physical presence.

Nightmares are ultimately fantasy, so fantasy is an excellent way to deal with them. If your child’s nightmare did not have a happy ending, perhaps you can continue the story together — with your child emerging triumphant against the object of his or her fear. For instance, if the nightmare is about being attacked by monsters, a child can be encouraged to pretend that he or she is a “monster exterminator.” The child can role-play assertively warning the monster that he’s toast, and capturing the monster with special weapons. Although this may seem silly, this very strategy is used very successfully to help victims of trauma to deal with their terrifying nightmares.

Help Your Child Cope with the Aftereffects of a Nightmare
Sometimes the fear isn’t just an aftershock to a nightmare. It’s also possible that a nightmare creates worry that tragedy will happen in real life. For example, dreaming that a loved one died can create fear in a child that the loved one will indeed pass away. Gently but firmly explain to your child that just because something happened in a dream doesn’t mean it will happen in real life. At the same time, acknowledge your child’s fear. For instance, you can say something like, “I understand that you’re worried that Grandpa will die because he died in your dream. That must make you feel very sad.” When you name the child’s feeling, the feeling will intensify (often to the point of tears) and then disappear. In this example, the child might cry when the parent acknowledges the sad thought and then the child might say, “Anyway, it was just a dream. I know Grandpa is fine.” Allowing a person to feel his feelings is a fast way of helping that person to clear the negative feelings out of his system.

Help Your Child Prevent Nightmares
If a nightmare has really made a child feel helpless and victimized, you can teach him ways on how to manipulate images in a dream. While controlling one’s dreams takes practice to learn to do, the steps are child-friendly. Just encourage kids to visualize their desired dream content when they get to bed (“think of something nice that you’d like to dream about”), and remind themselves that they are just dreaming when faced with bad dream content. They can wake themselves up and change their focus to a positive storyline as they fall asleep again.

In addition, using effective stress management techniques before bed can help alleviate bad dreams. For instance, you might teach your child EFT (emotional freedom technique – there’s lots of on-line resources for this technique as well as therapists who can teach it to your child) so that the child can remove worries, fears and problems from his mind before falling asleep (YOU should learn it too!). This helps the mind have a better, more peaceful rest.

For a recurring nightmare, ask the child to create a satisfactory ending for the bad dream. Have him tell you the dream along with the new ending. Have him do it over and over until he feels calm. If he’s old enough, he can also write and rewrite the new dream, helping to install it deeper in his unconscious mind.

Therapeutic Bedtime Stories
Parents can make up healing bedtime stories for young children. One way to do this is to create a main character whose name just happens to be the same name as that of your frightened child. By way of example, let’s call the main character in our story “Liam.” The title of the series of stories is “Liam the Brave.” You now make up a different story each night about episodes starring Liam-the-Brave. In each story, Liam fights off scary foes using his arsenal of magic weapons. For instance, on Monday night, Liam-the-Brave takes a canoe trip down the river in deepest Africa. As he passes through the tropical jungle, he encounters crocodiles, warrior tribes, hungry animals and more. Every time he faces a threat, he pulls out a magic weapon from his magic weapon bag and aims it at the “enemy.” By waving, shaking or otherwise triggering the weapon, Liam successfully makes the threat vanish into thin air. He then continues on his trip, observing the beautiful waterfalls, plants and friendly animals, until the next threat appears. And so on. Of course, the story always ends happily with Liam arriving at his destination. On Tuesday night, the parent tells a similar story, this time taking place in outer space. On Wednesday night, the events may take place in the Antarctic and so on. Although the stories are nonsensical, they have been shown to give children a sense of power over internal enemies. Try them for a week or so and see if they help end your child’s nightmares and his fear of having bad dreams.

Consider Professional Help
Your child should not have to suffer from regular nightmares. Be sure to speak to your doctor and/or a child psychologist if your interventions have not resolved the problem.

Suicidal Feelings

A certain number of people kill themselves each year, most of whom were suffering from severe depression. Fortunately, 90% of people with depression are able to live full lives while managing their episodes of depressed mood. Only about 10% will end their lives (this number depends on where a person lives – countries vary in their availability of effective treatments and support for depression, so there is a wide international variability in suicide rates).  The pervasive sad mood that comes with depression, as well as the increased tendency among the depressed to obsess on negative thoughts, makes them susceptible to the hopelessness and irrationality characteristic of the suicidal person. People do not “choose” suicide; they fall victim to it as part of their illness.

What are the Implications for Parents?
The link between suicidality and depression should serve as alarm bells when helping our children deal with mental health issues. If we have a loved one who is suffering from depression, it is always prudent to watch out for signs of suicidality. A depressed child is at risk for succumbing to suicidal thoughts; it is up to parents to help prevent this. Vigilant parents can be familiar with the warning signs of suicidality and take action. Moreover, they can do everything possible to get their child the right kind of help. In addition, they can work hard to reduce the other stressors in the child’s life – like school work (negotiate accommodations with the school) and conflict in the home. In fact, when the parents work on their own marriage and parenting skills to increase peace in the home, this can help tremendously.

What are the Warning Signs?
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry these signs are:

  • Change in eating and sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
  • Violent behavior or running away
  • Substance abuse
  • Neglect of personal grooming
  • Personality change
  • Difficulty concentrating, persistent boredom
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Marked personality change
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people will appreciate me more.”)
  • Writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Engaging in reckless or dangerous behavior; being injured frequently in accidents
  • Giving away or discard favorite possessions
  • Saying permanent sounding goodbyes to friends and family
  • Seeking out weapons, pills, or other lethal tools

A child or teen  who is planning to commit suicide may also:

  • Complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
  • Give verbal hints with statements such as: “I won’t be a problem for you much longer.”, “Nothing matters.”, “It’s no use.”, and “I won’t see you again.”
  • Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • Have signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)

The risk of suicide is high among those who have attempted suicide before, know someone who has killed themselves, and are pessimistic about the chances of getting relief from chronic depression. Also, teens who have a family history of mental illness and suicide are more likely to attempt suicide as are teens who have clinical depression or who suffer from active addiction. Teens who’ve already made a suicide attempt have a higher chance of committing suicide successfully. Vulnerable teenagers who suffer a serious loss (like the breakup of a romantic relationship) may try to stop the pain with suicide. A history of physical or sexual abuse, incarceration, alienation from parents and refusal to access mental health services all increase suicidal risk. Males have a higher “success” rate for suicide than females, but females make many more suicide attempts than do males. Also take note if your depressed child suddenly seems unusally happy. Sometimes this switch in attitude happens because a child has decided to end his suffering and he is actually experiencing a state of relief. Remember that depressed mood is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition and should always be professionally treated.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends taking a child’s suicidal statements seriously. If a child or adolescent says, “I want to kill myself,” or “I’m going to commit suicide,” ask him what he means. Don’t be afraid of saying the word “suicide.” You won’t be giving the teen an idea that he hadn’t thought about. Instead, you’ll help him or her think things through. Ask about depression, anxiety and unhappiness. Don’t just tell the child no to talk that way.  Show interest and concern and get your child to a qualified mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist).

Suicidal Behavior in Teens
Teenagers are a vulnerable group. They experience tremendous pressure from all sides: from inside their changing bodies, from their parents, from their schools and from their peers. No one can be perfect in every area and so everyone is doing poorly in something. But teenagers can feel isolated with their failures and setbacks, lacking the perspective that older people have that “we’re all in this together.” Teenagers are intent on fitting in, looking good, being acceptable. If the only group they can fit into is a violent, drug-ridden street gang, then that’ll be the group they might very well join, especially if they have little support elsewhere or few sources of success and strength.

Because the pressure is so intense, many teens do not cope well. Their survival strategies depend to a large extent on their genetic make-up and the strategies they learn at home. Some teenagers have “hardy” genes that help them survive and thrive under stressful conditions. They can laugh their way through almost anything or simply tough it out. Others are genetically vulnerable to bouts of depression. However, the depressed teen is more at risk than depressed adults. Teens are very focused in the present. They have trouble imagining that in a few years life can improve tremendously. Their impulsivity can lead them to put an end to it all right now because they just can’t see any way out.

What You Can Do
Parents can also help buffer teens from stress by keeping the doors of communication open. Make it easy for your kids to talk to you. Keep criticism to a minimum; instead, give praise and positive feedback generously. Have fun with your teenager and try to make your home pleasant, comfortable and safe. Keep conflict down with your spouse. Avoid drama. Take care of yourself and create a healthy model of stress management strategies for your kids to learn from. Create a positive atmosphere. Have a dinner table several times a week and use it to have discussions on politics, human nature, interesting things in the news or whatever—keep talking with your kids. Make your values clear. Bring tradition and ritual into your home.  Accept all feelings without correction or disapproval. Ask for behavioral change gently and respectfully. Never yell at your teenager. Never insult, name call, use sarcasm or any other form of verbal abuse. Instead, be sensitive to your teen’s feelings at all times. Discipline when necessary but only after you’ve warned a child that discipline will occur and only with mild discipline—never affecting the teen’s social life (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for safe and effective ways of guiding teenagers).

If your teen demonstrates any of the symptoms of depression or suicidality, talk to him or her about what you are observing and arrange an appointment with a mental health professional. You can call suicide helplines in your area to get information about how to help your child. You can take your child for a mental health assessment. If your child is uncooperative, seek mental health guidance yourself. Since a suicidal person feels isolated and hopeless, any steps that family members take to address the situation can be powerfully preventative. Remember, too, that many parents have walked this road before you. Access on-line and community support if your child has been threatening suicide.

Types of Depression

“Depression” is a common mental health condition. However, the word refers to many types of mood issues, rather than just one straightforward condition. In fact, there are many types of depression, depending on symptoms, severity, cause and duration of the illness.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the following are some of the types of depression:

Major Depressive Disorder
When people use the term depression, they usually mean a Major Depressive Disorder. Unlike short-term feelings of sadness, which can be due to any situation that can cause one to feel rightly sad and upset, major depressive disorder is an intense and debilitating condition affecting many aspects of one’s mood, energy and physical functioning.

A person with Major Depressive Disorder can suffer from feelings of hopelessness and despair, self-incriminating thoughts, crying spells, fatigue, weight loss, sleep disturbances, lost of interest in activities and relationships, inability to work, and thoughts of suicide. Major Depressive Disorder, also called clinical depression, is diagnosed if the debilitating symptoms are manifested by the patient for at least two consecutive weeks and causes significant distress and/or impairment in functioning.

Dysthymic Disorder
A less severe form of depression is called Dysthymic Disorder or Dysthymia. The feelings of sadness and helplessness in Dysthymia are less debilitating, and are often merely aggravated by other physical or mental illnesses. Symptoms of Dysthymia come and go, and vary in intensity per episode. However, it can be a chronic disease that runs in families. Diagnosis requires at least two years of chronic low mood. People with dysthymia tend to underfunction at home and at work, due to low energy, low mood, chronic irritability and negativity, low motivation, sleep issues, low self-esteem and other symptoms. If left unmanaged, Dysthymia can progress to a Major Depressive Disorder.

Bipolar Depression 
Bipolar Depression, also called manic-depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, is a mood disorder that is characterized by cycles of extreme elevated moods (called mania) and depressive episodes. During the manic stage of the disorder, patients can exhibit symptoms like extreme alertness, difficulty sleeping, increased energy and erratic euphoria. But this “high” is often followed by an extreme low typical of a Major Depressive Disorder. Bipolar Depression comes in two types – Bipolar I and Bipolar II. The first is a very disturbed state in which manic episodes can lead to high risk behaviors, highly inappropriate behaviors and troubles with the law (picture a teenager standing naked on a neighbor’s rooftop singing at the top of his lungs). Bipolar II is characterized by more eccentric-looking behavior that is out of character for the person (picture someone enthusiastically filling her entire house with antiques that she’s thinking of selling in order to make an enormous fortune – even though she’s never done anything like this before).

Loved ones of people with Bipolar Depression often miss the illness in the patient, because the manic stage is mistaken for a sign of recovery. But note that the mania stage has a particular irrational urgency to it, and is not to be mistaken for actual happiness. In fact, a depressed person with Bipolar Depression is anxious, irritable and prone to self-defeating behaviors during their emotional high.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) refers to depression that only comes during particular times of the year. For instance, there are patients who exhibit symptoms of depression only during the cold winter months, but they are otherwise fine during the summer. In other cases the opposite is true; it’s the summer that brings in the blues. In tropical countries, the rainy season can be the most troublesome part of the year.

Psychotic Major Depression (PMD)
There are occasions when the depression is so intense; it causes a loss of contact with reality. A person with Psychotic Major Depression may experience hallucinations (sensing things that don’t really exist) or delusions (irrationally interpreting events and observations). Psychotic symptoms in PMD are often temporary, and will go away once the cause of the depression is addressed. The condition is not to be confused with schizophrenia, which can also cause depression.

Atypical Depression
A kind of depression that is difficult to diagnose and treat is called atypical depression. As the term implies, atypical depression is depression whose symptoms don’t always follow what is traditionally associated with clinical depression. The symptoms also appear to come and go, and can be lifted by positive life events. It is believed that atypical depression is primarily biological in origin, a product of chemical imbalance in the brain.

Symptoms of atypical depression may include loss of energy, unexplained and uncontrollable crying, insomnia or hypersomnia, irritability, unexplained aches and pains, difficulty concentrating and loss of interest in daily tasks.

Depression in Teenagers

The teenage years are known to be emotionally challenging. Kids are going through so many transitions and are experiencing so many pressures at this time. Aside from the physical changes of puberty and their effect on body image and personal confidence,  there’s also adjustments to high school and dating and new challenges in the realms of alcohol, drugs, sexuality and the virtual social universe. For the most part, adolescents negotiate all of this without too much trouble. However, a percentage of teenagers will struggle with addictions and mental health challenges. Adolescence is the time when many people first experience panic attacks, eating disorders and mood episodes.

Teenage depression is one mood disorder that is fairly common, affecting around 20% of teenagers. Some forms of depression are comparatively mild while others can be so intense that they are life-threatening. In all cases, adolescent depression must be taken seriously. Parents need to know about depression and what they can do to help their kids.

What is Depression?
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by low mood (which, in teenagers, is most often expressed as irritability or “moodiness,” but can also be expressed as sadness), hopelessness, trouble making decisions, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, weight gain or weight loss and sleeping problems (most commonly, waking up around 2 or 3 a.m. or getting up way too early).  Unlike episodic sadness, depression is stronger and seems harder to manage. A person who is depressed cannot simply “shake the blues away” or decide to cheer up. In fact, they feel flat, like there is nothing that can make them happy or give them pleasure. When this state of mind is so intense that it interferes with a child’s social functioning (i.e. she is withdrawing from her friends) and/or academic functioning (i.e. she can’t concentrate, can’t study, is doing poorly in her schoolwork and grades are slipping) and it has occurred pretty consistently for a two week period, it may be an episode of “Major Depressive Disorder.” When the state of mind is less intense (does not interfere with social or academic functioning) and chronic (lasting for at least 2 years fairly consistently), then it may be a form of depression called “Dysthymia.” Of course, diagnoses of either of these disorders occurs when the mood disorder is NOT being caused by something else (like withdrawal from drugs or use of alcohol or a traumatic experience, etc.). The only real way to know if a child is depressed is to have her assessed by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. The child’s symptoms may indicate another disorder entirely or the child may be “normal” – just going through a rough time. However, it’s crucial that parents don’t try to diagnose their child themselves. Clinical depression can lead to suicide in teenagers.

Experts believe that depression has a biological origin. While a family history of depression doesn’t automatically condemn a teen to get the disease, it increases the likelihood of depression when other risks factors are present in the child’s life. Risk factors for teen depression include a history of childhood depression (chronic unhappiness in childhood), instability in the family, troubled or weak relationship with parents, poor emotional management skills (too much anger, moodiness or anxiety), lack of social support (good friends and/or loving relationships) and stressful life events like loss (of a significant relationship) or failure (to make the team, or get desired grades, etc.).

How can Parents Help a Teenager with Depression?
It’s ideal if you can establish an open relationship with your child before depression strikes. This way, she is more likely to come to you for help when what she is feeling becomes too overwhelming to ignore. You can help by listening. In fact, it is more important to listen than to talk. A depressed child does not need a pep talk. She needs professional care. Let her talk about her feelings without offering her advice or easy solutions. Instead, use emotional coaching (name her feelings). For instance, you can say things like, “That sounds really hard,” or “I can see how much that’s bothering you” or “I hear how hopeless you feel.” Follow such remarks with, “I think the best help for these kinds of feelings is professional help. A psychologist who works with teenagers knows all about this stuff and knows how to help kids feel so much better. These are such important issues and they deserve the best help that we can find. How would you feel if I asked Dr. Green (the child’s pediatrician) for a referral to a good psychologist?” If the child doesn’t want to accept help, wait a couple of days and raise the subject again. The best help you can give your child is to get her to a mental health professional. If firmness is required, then use it. Do whatever you would do if you suspected that your child had diabetes. (You would do whatever was necessary to get your child to a doctor; do the same thing for this condition). Your child will thank you once she is experiencing an improved mood!

Treatment for Depression

Contrary to popular belief, depression isn’t  simply a case of “bad attitude.” Someone suffering from depression can’t just talk him or herself out of it or cheer him or herself up with a good movie or a round of exercise. Depression is a serious mental illness, whether it comes in the form of severe sporadic episodes (major depressive episode) or whether it is a chronic state that affects overall functioning (dysthymia).  If you’ve suffered from depression yourself, you know that the sadness and lethargy that comes with the condition can be debilitating. But while depression can be overwhelming, it’s also a mental health condition that is very treatable. Many people recover even from severe depression, and many treatment options are known to be effective.

The following are some of the  ways a person can cope with depression:

Work with a Qualified Mental Health Practitioner
Seek a highly trained psychologist or psychiatrist to help you overcome depression. While social workers, psychotherapists and counselors may be trained in general counseling techniques, they are not necessarily trained in the treatment of serious mental health conditions. You have a right to know what kind of training your practitioner has in the condition that you are suffering from. Just ask. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have training in the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Psychologists provide therapy such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), Mindfulness Psychotherapy for Depression, Interpersonal Therapy, Experiential Therapy,  and many other treatments. Psychiatrists may or may not have training in psychological treatments for depression, but they DO have the appropriate training in the biological aspects of the disorder and can provide appropriate medication and other biological treatments. If you suffer from mild depression that doesn’t interfere with your ability to function, you may benefit from the services of any therapist who works with mood issues (as opposed to clinical depression).

Consider Alternative Therapies
Some people don’t need or don’t want psychotropic medication for their depressive symptoms. There are many excellent alternative therapies that can contribute to the relief of mood issues. Herbal medicine, homeopathy, Bach Flower Therapy, acupuncture, nutritional therapies and more, are all available to address symptoms of depression. You can find more information about these therapies in books or online.

Additional Aids in Fighting Depression
The following may also prove useful to you in reducing symptoms of depression:

  • Following a structured exercise program (look for a qualified fitness trainer to guide you), yoga or martial arts program may provide a chemical boost that reduces the symptoms of depression.
  • Some hospital programs for depression offer 8 or 12 week courses in mindfulness meditation to reduce depression. Ask your doctor about these, or find a private program in your area.
  • Support groups may prove effective in reducing depression symptoms. These can be done in person, but there are also online support groups available. Look for one in your area or speak to your doctor to get reccomendations.

Self-Help
There are many excellent books and on-line resources for depression. Take advantage of them! You can also find CD’s with guided imagery for depression, affirmations, hypnotic suggestions and more. There are emotional-relief strategies that you can learn on-line as well such as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) – an effective tool for combating mood symptoms. Do research and learn what’s out there. It may not all be for you, but there will be something that you can benefit from.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression is the most common complaint presented to mental health practitioners. This is not surprising; almost all of us have experienced sadness at some point in our lives, with some episodes being quite intense. However, clinical depression is not just sadness. It is a multifaceted illness that affects every aspect of a person’s functioning. It causes major distress and disrupts the sufferer’s ability to carry on with work, school, or other responsibilities. The illness can occur among the young and old, the rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated, and it can come at any point in a person’s lifetime. The good news is: depression is treatable. When sufferers are trained to spot the early symptoms, the onset of depression can be managed and relapses can be avoided.

What are the Symptoms of Depression?
Symptoms of depression can be classified into four categories: emotional, mental, behavioral and physiological symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Emotional Symptoms of Depression
Mood disturbance is the most significant among the symptoms of depression. An individual with depression may be prone to feelings of sadness, emptiness, dejection, helplessness, hopelessness and lack of self-worth. Episodes of crying, irritability and/or of anger are also common. A marked loss of interest in work, relationships and self-care may also be seen.

Mental Symptoms of Depression
There are also cognitive symptoms associated with depression. Psychologist Beck believes that people with depression are tortured by what he calls the cognitive triad: a negative view of one’s self, a negative view of the world and a pessimistic view of the future.

Self-accusation and mental anguish are typical, especially when the obsessions start to come. For instance, a depressed individual may constantly tell himself that he is ugly, incompetent or unwanted; that others do not care about his welfare; and that tomorrow will offer no relief. It is this cognitive triad that keeps a depressed person stuck in the rut, unless some form of therapy is conducted to correct and heal the debilitating thoughts.

Depression can also cause a person to have difficulty making decisions or concentrating on tasks.

Behavioral Symptoms of Depression
Depression may be about an internal state, but symptoms of depression can be objective and observable. In many cases, physical appearance already provides a clue regarding the depressed person’s mental health. People with severe depression may not care much about their appearance or even their hygiene. They may gain or lose significant amounts of weight. Their movements may be slower or faster than those of the average person, and there may be a delay in their communication. They may have difficulty in accomplishing their job or otherwise carrying on their normal tasks. They may withdraw from others.

Physiological Symptoms of Depression 
Depression is an illness that affects the entire person — his or her physicality and biological processes included. People with depression suffer from disturbed patterns of eating and sleeping. They can have loss of appetite or an increase in appetite (what is called emotional eating). They can suffer with various forms of insomnia (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up in the wee hours, etc. Or, they can end up sleeping much longer than the average person. They may be more prone to ailments such as heart conditions, stomach disturbances, infections, unexplained pain and vague disorders.

If you or loved one has symptoms like those above, consult a doctor or mental health practitioner. Treatment not only provides more rapid relief than “waiting it out,” but also helps prevent recurrences of the disorder.

Stomach Aches as a Symptom of Stress

Children get a variety of aches and pains just like grown ups do, but “tummy aches” seem particularly common. Although the doctor may find a physical cause, this is the least common scenario; apart from constipation and food intolerance, medical reasons for this pain are rarely discovered. A gastroenterologist (stomach disorder specialist) may need to be part of the medical team in severe and unremitting cases. However, since food sensitivities often cause stomach pain, after the doctors’ examinations, a naturopathic assessment might be helpful too. In addition, emotional stress can cause stomach pain. In fact, once all medical and physical causes have been ruled out, it is generally assumed that the child’s stomach ache is either stress-induced or even imaginary. Since stress, upset, fear and pressure can cause all kinds of bodily symptoms (headaches, stomach aches, colds, sleep disorders and so on), it is safe to assume that a child who complains about stomach aches actually has them. Usually the pediatrician makes a diagnosis of “anxiety” or “stress.”  Of course parents are rarely surprised at such a diagnosis: they themselves already suspect emotional causes for the tummy aches since they so often occur in the year of the “hated” teacher or in the week of the spelling test. The only thing parents may wonder about is if the pain is real or if it is offered up as an escape clause.

The Body Speaks
Although some desperate children may take to lying about their pain, most who complain of stomach aches, head aches, dizziness and other stress symptoms are in fact describing exactly what they are feeling. Stress causes bodily changes in children and grownups alike and has been sighted in the medical literature as being the underlying cause for about 80% of all true medical conditions. Stress hurts both physically and emotionally. Each person will first experience stress in his or her genetically endowed vulnerable physical systems: some people will first experience stress in their stomachs, others in tight muscles, some in head pain, some in lowered immunity, some in increased anxiety and some in lowered mood. Untended stress can actually lead to disease as it penetrates deeper in the physical body and it can even lead to death.

For healthy youngsters stress rarely causes more than temporary physical discomfort or ailments such as colds, flu’s, diarrhea, constipation, headaches or migraines. However, the explanation “it’s just stress” does nothing to relieve any of these conditions. Whereas adults may be advised to seek professional counseling for the relief of their stress, children are rarely advised to do anything about it at all. Parents often “treat” stress-induced tummy aches by telling the child, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing. The doctor says you’re fine.”

Taking Stress Seriously
Such a strategy teaches children to ignore their initial symptoms of stress – the ones that go through their “vulnerable systems” as discussed above. This means that they may develop the habit of waiting until the stress has penetrated further, causing intense problems in their vulnerable physical/mental systems or moving into other systems of the body, creating symptoms and illnesses that can no longer be ignored. Indeed, some experts say that adults can reduce their chances of experiencing serious illness by paying attention to the body’s first signals that all is not well, rather than continuously ignoring minor signs and symptoms. Teaching kids this valuable health lesson involves refraining from minimizing the significance of their stress. It’s important NOT to use the phrase, “just stress.” Instead, parents can acknowledge the importance of stress in their child’s life. “Is your tummy hurting again Honey? I guess that means there is a part of you that is worried or bothered about something. Why don’t you close your eyes for a minute and ask your tummy what it is trying to tell you? If you listen carefully, your tummy will tell you what it’s upset about.” Even if the child cannot create a communication with his subconscious mind this way (but don’t be surprised – many children and adults can actually do this!) – the parent is teaching that the body and mind are linked and that stress is something to pay attention to. It is possible too, that the child doesn’t have to ask his tummy – he already KNOWS what it is bothering him. In that case, the parent can simply acknowledge that fear and upset happen in both the mind and the body and that we have to take care of both parts of ourselves.

Stress Management for Kids
Identifying the source of stress must be followed by an action plan. Sometimes it is possible to reduce the stress itself by making a changes in the real world (“How about taking one course less this term?” or “I’ll talk to the teacher and see how we can adjust things,”). Even when it isn’t possible to remove or adjust the stress, strengthening and calming the body is always an essential part of stress management. Helping the child sleep and eat better, exercise more, laugh more and relax more can reduce the harmful effects of stress. Taking the child for art therapy or talking therapy, naturopathic support or other professional support may provide profound relief. Allowing the child to talk about his stress can help prevent the stress from moving into the body where it becomes a “tummy ache.” Parents can use emotional coaching – naming, accepting and validating feelings – to help stress-proof their kids. In faith based homes, teaching children to talk directly to God about their problems and teaching them that God hears, cares and acts, can be an excellent stress management tool – as the research literature indicates. Of course, parents should model all of the interventions they want their kids to use and more. Children learn about stress management through watching you live your life in balance. Stress management can be a family project in which everyone takes on a minor lifestyle adjustment or specific relaxation strategy.  In fact, your own calm and happy mood is very helpful for your stressed-out youngster – and terrific for you as well!

Specific Tools for Stress-Relief
Here are some more ideas for helping your child move stress out of his or her body:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep daily. Sleep can have a significant impact on a child’s stress levels.
  • Exercising, doing yoga or playing sports often. Exercise helps all organs and body systems function better, and contributes to improved digestion and fewer pain syndromes.
  • Eating the right foods. Some foods (like processed foods or foods that are high in sugar or trans fat) can cause an increase in stress levels. Other foods (like whole grains or foods high in fiber and vitamins) can reduce stress. In general junky foods contribute to stress, while healthy foods reduce stress. Make sure your child is eating nutrient-rich food as much as possible.
  • Learning breathing techniques and meditation. Many simple breathing techniques can work wonders for stress. One simple technique you can teach you child is to think the word “in” while breathing in and think the word “out” while breathing out. Encourage the child to practice this technique before taking tests and examinations, before falling asleep, when anticipating some sort of stressful event, when in the dentist’s chair, when getting a needle or other medical procedure, when feeling overwhelmed or when feeling upset. This form of breath work is simple enough that even young children can do it. Older kids and teens, however, will benefit the most since they will be able to identify innumerable occasions for its use. Paying attention to the in and out of the breath is as calming to the nervous system as an anti-anxiety drug and has no negative side-effects!
  • Relaxation and stress-reduction MP3’s. There are stress-reduction CD’s and MP3’s that are especially designed for children. There are many different kinds including guided imagery, progressive relaxation, mindfulness training and binaural beats. Sometimes the child will need to experiment to see which product is most helpful. However, if the child is willing to use one of these products on a very regular basis (i.e. daily), he or she will obtain great benefits.

Consider Teaching Your Child EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
This simple acupressure tool can knock stress and pain right out of the body. There are lots of internet resources for learning how to use EFT and there are also many mental health professionals who are trained in the technique. EFT is meant to be a self-help tool. Older kids and adolescents will find it to be an easy way to help themselves feel less tense, happier, calmer, less anxious and less stressed. All of this can help reduce stomach aches. Moreover, EFT provides pain relief. Therefore children can be taught how to use EFT to release pain quickly and easily all by themselves.

Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. There are different emotional issues that can lead to stomach aches. Sometimes a child is a perfectionist and really pushes him or herself in school. The remedy Rock Water will help him or her take a more relaxed, more balanced view of things. However, many other issues may be provoking stress: social rejection, too much schoolwork, fear of going away to camp, moving to a new house, dealing with a parent’s divorce and so on and so forth.  A Bach Flower Practitioner can help you pick the remedies that are most pertinent to your child’s situation. Meanwhile, here are some for you to consider: Agrimony (for a child who seems happy on the outside, but whose body carries the stress), Larch ( for fear of failing or other performance issues), Elm (for feelings of overwhelm), Mimulus (for fear and worry), White Chestnut (for repetitive thinking and obsessing over problems), Walnut ( for adjusting to change more easily). You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach mixing bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child four drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, midday, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the stress has dissipated. Start treatment again, if the stress returns. Eventually, the stress should diminish completely.

Other Considerations
Be careful not to accidentally reinforce sickness with too much attention.  Don’t give extra attention than normal to your child when he or she is feeling unwell. Give the sympathy and compassion necessary, but carry on with life as normal. Providing more tender attention in times of illness than in times of good health, can give your child the idea that being sick leads to more attention from you (and therefore he’ll enjoy being ill). Therefore, be careful to show tenderness and nurturing even when your child feels just fine! Then, when you help him or her through a tummy ache, it won’t seem like such a big treat that it’s worth being sick for.

Consider Professional Assessment
If your interventions have not helped sufficiently, consider setting up a meeting with a mental health professional for an assessment. Sometimes there is more going on than meets the eye and often, a trained professional can provide the best help.       

Difficulty Awakening or Remaining Asleep

Most parents won’t be surprised to learn that babies and young children don’t always sleep through the night. In fact, even older children and teens may wake up before dawn.

If your child wakes up in the middle of the night consider the following tips:

Waking Up After Being Put to Sleep
This problem is very common among babies and some toddlers. A very new baby may wake up only minutes after being put to sleep. Older babies may wake an hour or two after “going down for the night.” And toddlers are notorious for waking up 4 or 5 hours after going to bed.

Children, like adults, drift in and out of various sleep cycles. When they are in a light stage of sleep, they may wake seeking food, comfort or both (i.e. babies may wake up to nurse). These small humans may wake several times throughout the night, disturbing their already exhausted parents.

Most people keep very small babies close to them at night (in their bed or in a cradle or crib in the parent’s room or nearby) in order to minimize the amount of energy nighttime parenting will take. It’s easier to roll over to take care of a baby than to get up, paddle down the hall, tend to the baby and then return to one’s own bed. However, many people do the latter even with newborns and certainly with older babies and toddlers. At a certain point, a parent may stop responding to the waking child in order to train the child to sleep through the night. Many people wait until the baby is around 9 months old before starting to withdraw nighttime attention in a gradual process. Some wait until the child is 14 months. Some just wait until the child stops waking up all by him or herself. Whatever works for the parent is fine. Parents know the limits of their own energy and they know what parenting style works best for them. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving nighttime waking problems. However, as long as a baby is permitted to nurse at night, he or she will tend to wake up many times in order to do so. Nighttime weaning therefore is a necessary step on the way to stopping nighttime waking.

Some school-age children also wake in the night. Usually, some sort of health problem (like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or nightmare disorder) is responsible. However, anxiety can also be a culprit; when an anxious child goes into a light sleep cycle, he or she may wake up for a moment and discover that he or she is alone – this can cause the child to wake up fully, get out of bed and run to the parents’ room. Teenagers can also wake up after going to sleep. Like school-age children, this indicates some sort of physical or emotional issue. Teenagers may have sleep disorders caused by, caffeine, drugs or alcohol as well as mental health issues like anxiety or depression, that interrupt sleep. When children and teens wake up in the night, a trip to the doctor for a complete check-up is recommended. If everything checks out fine, a trip to a mental health professional is then indicated. Even when the child does not have a mental health diagnosis, a psychologist can teach the child self-soothing and relaxation skills that can help him or her fall back to sleep independently and quickly and/or stay asleep throughout the night.

Difficulty Waking Up in the Morning
A totally different type of problem is having trouble waking up. This issue doesn’t seem to affect babies or toddlers! School age children usually have trouble waking up when they have not had enough sleep. This can happen because the parents haven’t established a consistent, appropriate bedtime or because the child cannot fall asleep at the appropriate time. Sometimes a child’s system is too active and he or she just can’t wind down and go to sleep. Some kids lie awake for hours after being put to bed. Of course they’re tired in the morning! Teens who can’t get up may have the same problems but they are likely to be short-changed on sleep for other reasons as well. This age group likes to stay up on their computers late at night or stay up with friends into the wee hours of the mornings. They can’t get up because they just don’t go to bed on time.

Children who can’t fall asleep at night may benefit from medical and/or alternative treatment. Medications, herbs and supplements are available that help the nervous system settle down at the right time of night. Melatonin is one such treatment but there are many others; ask your doctor and/or naturopath for assessment and treatment. For children who CAN fall asleep but choose not to, more structure and discipline may be required. Consequences for failing to be up on time can help motivate a youngster to get into bed earlier. A teen who wants a ride to the bus stop can be deprived of that ride if he isn’t out of bed on time. Or he can be deprived of his allowance or some other privilege. Children who can’t get up on time may have to go to bed a half hour earlier the next night or lose some privilege. If you are having trouble finding consequences that matter, consult a psychologist or parenting specialist for ideas.

It’s important to establish some sort of reward or consequences system to help kids get up on time – do not use anger as a wake-up tool! Sometimes, waking up is as simple as finding the right alarm clock (i.e. something very loud and very funny is good for kids). Teach kids NOT to use the snooze alarm, as this just teaches them to sleep through the alarm.

Remember too, that the parental model is important – if you sleep in, your child is more likely to do so as well. And keep in mind that most kids do grow out of the “sleeping in” stage eventually. Those who don’t generally find careers that allow them to sleep in! Try to guide your child but don’t stress too much about it. The consequences that life presents are usually sufficient to encourage morning wakening (i.e. detentions at school, job issues, parenting responsibilities and all the rest).

How to Raise Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) refers to “people smarts.” A person with high emotional intelligence understands both himself and others. Not only does the person understand people, but he also knows how to make them feel comfortable – he knows how to bring out the best in others. As a result, the person with high E.Q. experiences more success in relationships and at work. Kids with high E.Q. have better relationships at home and at school, with kids and with adults. Moreover, high E.Q.in children and teens is associated with better academic performance, better physical health, better emotional health and better behavior. In adults, high E.Q. is associated with better performance in every area of life.

What can you do to help foster your child’s emotional intelligence? In this article we will discuss ways one can boost their child’s emotional intelligence.

Adapt an Authoritative, Not an Autocratic Parenting Style
Parenting style has a huge influence on children’s emotional intelligence. When parents can guide their children while still being sensitive to their feelings, children have higher E.Q. Authorative parents are warm, but consistent in setting appropriate limits and boundaries. They will use discipline, but not at the expense of respectful communication and care. Their children will learn how to be sensitive to others and they will also learn how to “talk to themselves” compassionately, modelling after their parents. This gentle self-talk becomes a major aspect of their emotional intelligence, a tool they can use to reduce their stress in a healthy way.

Autocratic parents, on the other hand, don’t care that much about the child’s feelings. Instead, they focus on the rules of the household, what is allowed and what is prohibited, what the child may and may not do. Sensitivity to the child’s inner world is missing. In this case, children fail to experience parental empathy and as a result, fail to learn how to soothe their own upset emotions. They may attempt to relieve their discomfort by becoming aggressive, acting out their feelings. Eventually they may turn to comforts outside of themselves such as addictions (to food, alcohol, drugs, etc.). Acting out and addictive behavior reflects lower E.Q.

The more feeling words used by parents and educators, the more sensitive a child becomes to his inner reality. Most of us tend to use few emotion words in our dealings with children, and when we do, we often use the same few tired ones over and over.  It is important that we move beyond “mad,” “sad,” “glad,” and “scared.”  Shades of feeling are most helpful and can be used when describing our own feelings or the child’s feelings. Words like irritated, annoyed, frustrated, anxious, worried, terrified, alarmed, disappointed, hurt, insulted, embarrassed, uncomfortable, unsure, curious, interested, hopeful, concerned, shocked, elated, excited, enthusiastic, let down, abandoned, deserted, mellow, calm, peaceful, relaxed, bored, withdrawn, furious, enraged, frightened, panicked, and proud can be used DAILY to help provide an emotional education in the home or classroom. These are the regular feelings that children have in facing life, stimulated by everyday experiences, dreams, movies and even novels. Identifying a youngster’s emotional reaction and feeding it back to him, helps him to become aware of his inner processing. This information then forms the core of his emotional intelligence, providing an accurate barometer of his response to his world. From this place of inner certainty, a child is well-equipped to navigate life, knowing what he feels, what he is searching for and when he has attained it. His familiarity with the world of feelings allows him to connect accurately and sensitively with others. This prevents him from hurting other people’s feelings with words and further, permits him to achieve great kindness and sensitivity in his interpersonal transactions.

Here are some practical steps you can take to bring feelings into focus:

  1. Respond to your child. From the time your child is a crying infant to the time she is a young adult, be sure to be responsive. This means that you take her communications seriously. If she cries, try to come (instead of making her cry it out.). If she asks for something, try to answer her promptly. If she talks, you listen and respond appropriately. All of this responsiveness builds emotional intelligence because you are giving your youngster valuable relationship feedback. In the opposite scenario, in which a parent either fails to respond or responds only after a long waiting period, the child learns that people tune each other out. This causes the child to shut down. She assumes that her feelings aren’t that important based on lack of parental responsiveness and from this concludes that people’s feelings aren’t that important – the very OPPOSITE of the conclusions made by emotionally intelligent people. Quick responsiveness gives the message that people’s feelings matter. This is a prerequisite concept for emotional intelligence.
  2. Use a FEELING vocabulary. Pepper your daily conversation with “feeling” words. You can name your own feelings. Let your child know that you feel excited or dismayed or discouraged or resentful or whatever. This gives your child the vital information that everyone – including parents – has feelings and an inner life. Some people do this naturally, of course, but many do not. For instance, when a child is making too much noise, a parent may just say something like, “Can you please quiet down?” However, the Emotional Coach would say something like, “I’m starting to feel overwhelmed with all this noise going on. Can you please quiet down?” Similarly, a regular parent might give positive feedback to a child in this way, “I like the way you waited patiently in line with me at the bank today.” An Emotional Coach, on the other hand, might say something like, “I felt very relaxed with you in the bank today because you were waiting so patiently.” In other words, the Emotional Coach looks for opportunities to describe his or her inner experience. It is this description that helps the child begin to build an emotional vocabularly that will open the doors to Emotional Intelligence.
  3. Name your child’s feelings. Children feel feelings all day long but not all parents comment on them. In fact, many parents are more practical, focusing on solutions to problems. For instance, if a child is upset because there are no more of his favorite cookies left in the jar, the typical parent might say, “I’ll pick up some more for you when I go shopping this week.” While that solves the problem, it doesn’t build emotional intelligence. An Emotional Coach might say, “Oh, that’s so disappointing! You really love those cookies! I’ll pick some up for you when I go shopping this week.” The extra few words acknowledging the child’s inner world (“Oh that’s so disappointing”) make all the difference when it comes to building Emotional Intelligence. Similarly, parents often try to get kids to STOP their feelings or at least SHRINK their feelings by saying things like, “Just calm down – it’s not such a big deal” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” of “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” The Emotional Coach, on the other hand, accepts all the child’s feelings, giving the child the name for what is going on inside. “I can see how upset you are,” or “You’re really scared about this,” or “It so important to you,” and so on. By accepting all feelings as they are, the Emotional Coach teaches kids not to be afraid of or overwhelmed by feelings. This is a very important part of becoming emotionally intelligent.
  4. Teach your child how to express emotions appropriately. While all feelings are acceptable, all BEHAVIORS are not. It is not O.K. to hit and scream just because you feel angry. It is not O.K. to cry for an hour at the top of your lungs just because you are disappointed. Parents must teach children – by their example and by their interventions – the appropriate behavioral expression of emotions. For instance, parents can teach children to express their anger in a respectful way by saying things like, “When you are mad at your brother for touching your puzzle, just tell him ‘I don’t want you to touch my puzzle. I’m working hard on it and it bothers me when you move the piece around.’ Don’t slap his hand!” Parents will have to use the normal techniques of positive attention, encouragement and discipline to get the lessons across. It is, of course, essential, that parents are respectful themselves in the way they express their upset, fear and disappointment. See “The Relationship Rule” in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for details on how to teach the proper way to express negative emotions.
  5. Let them experience failure and disappointment. It’s understandable that parents want to protect their children from disappointment. But know that rescuing children from pain, to the point that they never get to experience life, will backfire in the long run. Children need to know how to bounce back from adversity — resilience muscles need training too! And children won’t know how it is to rebound from disappointment if they aren’t allowed to experience it to begin with. When your child gets a poor mark on a project, don’t rush to the teacher to get the mark raised; instead, use emotional coaching with your child (that is, NAME her feelings). “This mark is so disappointing! You tried really hard and the teacher didn’t appreciate it. That is frustrating!” By naming feelings, you actually help shrink them down to size. Feeling words act as “containers” for feelings. It’s O.K. for the child to be upset, or even to cry. After awhile, she’ll calm down. And this is the important part – learning that calm follows a storm. Everything in life doesn’t need to be perfect. There is such a thing as recovery. “There will be more projects, more chances to get a good grade.” You want to show the child that you yourself aren’t afraid of negative experiences or emotions. This model that life is “survivable” can really help a child cope when the going gets rough.
  6. Expand their social network. Few parents think of other people as possible teaching instruments in promoting emotional intelligence. But kids can learn more from interesting personalities and other people’s life experiences than they can from a classroom lecture. Having to adapt well to different types of people — quiet, assertive, annoying, fun-loving — can teach a child how to regulate their behavior based on the demands of an interaction. The challenges other people go through can also provide insight on how to manage one’s own trials in life. Learning vicariously through the success and failure of other people is a good way to raise a child’s E.Q. So if you can, go ahead and enroll your child in various clubs or organizations. When they’re a bit older, encourage them to volunteer in community service. Send them on mission trips. Let them talk with grandpa or grandma. Every person has a lesson to impart to a child.