Want to know how best to work with children or where to focus your energy with parents in order to make the biggest impact on children’s wellbeing? I have narrowed down over 20 years of therapeutic training and hands on experience into 5 important areas of focus for parents and clinicians working with children. And the great news is that these focal points are important for us as adults as well and can be used with diverse groups of children, for the most part regardless of age or diagnosis. Each of these areas have been shown to increase a child’s feeling of contentment and well-being and helping parents incorporate them into their child’s every-day life has become my personal passion. First, before we dive into these areas of focus it is important to note that when dealing with a confirmed diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, medical illnesses or other difficulties, professional help and guidance from a licensed mental health professional and pediatrician are paramount to going it alone. Although the following tools are not meant to replace techniques or methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, applied behavioral therapy and others, the addition of these key components will not interfere with any therapeutic discipline. They are tools meant to inform our way of being with children, and for that matter – ourselves.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing thoughts, feelings and sensations in a nonjudgmental way. This is obviously a huge favorite of mine. I’ve written about it many times before, I teach it to adults and children and I use it in my own daily life. Slowing down and being truly present to see our children is perhaps the single best thing we can do for the children we parent or work with right now. And when we teach children to notice the sensations in their own bodies, their feelings of sadness, joy or anger and to sit in observation of those thoughts and feelings we are giving them life-long tools associated with self-regulation and emotional intelligence.
2. Play & Movement
This seems so basic right? However, statistics show that all across our nation the amount of time children are spending in free play and in active motion is decreasing at alarming rates. Recesses are getting made shorter or cut out entirely in schools. Children are spending more and more time indoors and in front of screens. Often, parents and therapists build on these trends by employing screen based learning tools to keep the attention of distracted children. Sometimes parents feel that the only place their child is truly safe is inside their apartment or house. The problems associated with this trend away from free play and active movement are numerous and include learning, social skills and speech delays, obesity and increase in sensory processing difficulties just to mention a few. When we as social workers or parents allow our children to engage in free play where they make the rules or the game itself we allow them to hone important decision making tools, enhance imagination and build basic conflict resolution skills. When we encourage our children to run, tumble, balance, hop, crawl and dance we are helping their developing brains to build important neurological pathways that ultimately allow a child to thrive in the areas of safety, learning, remembering and adapting. WOW – who doesn’t want a handle on those areas?
Along these same lines of brain chemistry and neuropathways comes the area of creativity. A quick – Thank You to Pinterest! Now social workers, child care workers, teachers and parents have a whole variety of creative projects to introduce to their children right at their fingertips. Building time for children to explore different mediums of art (music, painting, drawing, clay) fires up neurons in the brain associated with critical thinking and agency – the ability to make our own decisions, act independently and follow steps toward achieving a goal. And even for the stressed out, time crunched, low budget or just plain “old school” among us – studies have shown that the simple act of coloring can, in many cases be as beneficial as meditation when it comes to stress reduction. One thing to remember, especially when working with younger children… By urging the use of creativity I’m not suggesting parking a kid on the carpet with some paints and a brush. Rather, creativity coupled with the presence of a caring witness and aid is a powerful tool for building attachment and trust.
This will feel especially affirming to anyone who might, right about now be thinking something like “Well this sounds fun for the child but who has time for all of this and when will the child learn to do his chores?” When I talk about service I’m talking about the good old fashion notion of treating others the way you want to be treated. The idea of pitching in and of giving back. When we start early to teach our children that they are valuable members of a team (their family, their class, their neighborhood, etc.) they learn important values associated with responsibility and empathy. Imagine the difference between a child learning to do their chores because, well “Because I told you so!” versus because their contribution is needed and necessary. Over time when parent’s model acts of service on a larger scale in their neighborhoods or communities, children will learn to incorporate this practice in their lives as well.
Teaching a child to be grateful provides a huge bonus to them and to us. Parents, caregivers, social works alike – we all know the rush of pride and love when a child thanks us for something we have done or given to them. But what we may not have known until recent years is the powerful impact those Thank-You’s are giving to the child simultaneously. As reported by a leading gratitude researcher, Dr. Robert Emmons (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/profile/Robert.Emmons) it turns out, children who are regularly taught practices of gratitude are being shown to have less physical ailments, better sleep habits and more feelings of overall contentment. The phrase “Count your blessings”, we now know, actually has physical benefits as the act of being grateful releases dopamine (the “feel good hormone”) and activates the parasympathetic system which increases feelings of calm and happiness. And what is even more exciting is that we can incorporate all of the important keys above while helping children to be grateful. Children can make “Thank-You” cards and walk them to their neighbor’s house or give them to their teacher after school. They can make up a gratitude dance or play or run around the house pointing to or taking pictures of things that make them happy. They can use recycled paper to make a gratitude journal noting all the things they are thankful for. They can rake grandma’s leaves as a way of thanking her for her unconditional love and then laugh and jump in that pile to her delight.
The good news and take away for all of us who love working with children in one way, shape or form is that all of these powerful tools help children feel good while they are being practiced. Not surprisingly, they help us feel great too.
Author: Amy Johnson Chong is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Circle of Security Parent Facilitator. She is the creator and founder of Living All In (www.livingallin.org) and when not writing, counseling or teaching parents and children she can be found playing with her own family in the pool or on the beach.