In recent years, mental illness among young people has become an increasingly serious concern for our society.
The pandemic served to make matters worse, but it was hardly the beginning of this troubling trend. According to the American Psychological Association, the number of young people impacted by persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness — as well as suicidal ideation and behaviors — went up by a staggering 40% in the 10 years prior to the pandemic.
The good news? While mental illness has long been stigmatized by many, attitudes are shifting, and more people — both adults and young people — are receiving care. According to CNN, 14.9% of five- to 17-year-olds in the United States were treated for mental illness in 2021.
But what about the youngest children who are in the most pivotal stage of their development who may be struggling with mental health challenges?
Meridian’s Gloria Cockerill, LCSW, an early childhood mental health expert who has worked with young children for more than two decades, has taken the opportunity to help shed light on this incredibly important — but sometimes overlooked — aspect of child and adolescent mental health.
How do we define early childhood?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, early childhood is defined as beginning while a child is still in the birthing parent’s womb and ending at the age of eight. During the first few years of this critical developmental stage, a child forms an astounding 1 million-plus new neural connections per second.
Age two is considered to be a significant milestone, as, according to First Steps South Carolina, it is the beginning of the time in which a child’s brain has roughly twice as many synapses as that of an adult’s. This, Cockerill explains, allows for a period of “immense learning.” By the time a child is five years old, approximately 90% of their brain will have developed, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“Brain development is experience dependent,” Cockerill says. “It is a child’s early experiences with their caregivers, others and their environment that shape the foundational architecture of their brain and their inner working model, or how they perceive themselves, others and the world around them.”
With the early childhood years being so important for a child’s development, many parents may be interested in learning more about protecting their young child’s overall mental health and well-being. For those who might be seeking or feeling they may need additional support, read on below for some helpful tips on what to consider before getting started with a therapist.
How to find the right therapist for your child
While taking the initiative to begin therapy may feel like a big step, going in prepared can make a world of a difference. Cockerill has the following recommendations for parents preparing to begin their journeys working with an early childhood mental health specialist.
Meet with the provider first
Before beginning therapy sessions, you’ll want to get a good understanding of the provider’s training. What is their experience in supporting children’s mental health? Do they have experience with patients impacted by the same specific issues as you and your family? Remember: you know your child best! After getting a better sense of who the provider is, do you feel comfortable with them and confident that they’ll be capable of forging a connection with your child?
Consider their therapeutic approach
Does the provider’s own unique therapeutic approach seem appropriate based on your understanding of the issues you and your child are experiencing? Also consider the extent to which caregivers are included in the treatment process. Another important question to consider is if you feel comfortable addressing any cultural differences or differences in family values with this provider.
Determine when to complete therapy
In order to help evaluate if your young child’s counseling has been successful, it’s important to establish what your ultimate goals are for therapy from the start and in collaboration with your provider. Do you want to help your child strengthen verbal communication skills for expressing emotions? Work past problematic behaviors? By considering what you’d like to accomplish with your child’s therapist, you’ll have a measure for success before you even get started with counseling.
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After taking the necessary consideration, parents can feel more confident that they’re ready for their family to begin therapy with an early childhood mental health specialist. And in doing so, they can help put their child on a path to a happier, more well-adjusted life.
“The earlier the intervention, the more effective and less costly services can be,” Cockerill says. “If you are ever unsure about what may be best for your child or family, it can be helpful to consult with your child’s pediatrician and/or consult with a mental health professional who specializes in working with children.”
Is play therapy right for your child?
While mental illness can affect people of all ages, there are some major differences in the ways that symptoms manifest in children compared to in adults. That’s because children often lack the necessary verbal communication skills to express their emotions effectively.
For this important reason, play therapy is an especially useful modality used by early childhood mental health specialists. “A child’s first language is play and can be the most effective way for them to express themselves and learn about their world experientially,” Cockerill explains.
Benefits of play therapy
According to Healthline, play therapy can help provide the following benefits:
- Taking ownership of behavior
- Learning coping strategies
- Developing problem-solving skills
- A greater deal of self-respect
- Displaying empathy and respect for other people
- Reducing anxiety
- Becoming more expressive and able to take on new experiences
- Increased social skills
- Strengthening familial bonds
A promotional video for the Association for Play Therapy
‘Theraplay® — Innovations and Integration’
As an experienced expert in early childhood mental health, Cockerill and her colleague Sam Bunnyfield recently authored a chapter in a new book on Theraplay®, a popular modality that was developed in Chicago beginning in the late 1960s.
Pioneered by Phyllis Booth, MA, LMFT, LCPC, RPT-S and Dr. Ann Jernberg for the Head Start program, Cockerill describes Theraplay® as “an attachment-based modality of play therapy that enhances the caregiver-child relationship.”
“Theraplay® — Innovations and Integration,” Cockerill says, “is geared to support and guide mental health practitioners in effectively considering and demonstrating how to combine distinct modalities of play therapy and other therapeutic practices with Theraplay®.”
In their chapter, Cockerill and Bunnyfield utilize a composite case to delve into an approach for integrating Theraplay® with Adlerian Play Therapy.
Books for families and upcoming events
In addition to her own contribution to the recent “Theraplay® — Innovations and Integration,” Cockerill has compiled a helpful list of book recommendations for parents. Below are some of her top picks for books for parents on supporting their children’s mental health in early childhood, and picture books that parents can read to their children.
Books for parents
- “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” (Daniel J.J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson)
- “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” (Daniel J.J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson)
Picture books for children
- “I’m Happy-Sad Today: Making Sense of Mixed Emotions” (Lory Britain, PhD and Matthew Rivera)
- “The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions” (Anna Llenas)
- “In My Heart: a Book of Feelings” (Jo Witek and Christine Roussey)
- “Brave as Can Be: a Book of Courage” (Jo Witek and Christine Roussey)
- “I Love You, Stinky Face” (Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore)
- “I Love You Through and Through” (Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak and Caroline Jayne Church)
- “Snuggle Puppy!: a Little Love Song” (Sandra Boynton)
- “Your Personal Penguin” (Sandra Boynton)
- “The Invisible String” (Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff)
- “The Rabbit Listened” (Cori Doerrfeld)
- “Daniel Feels Purple” (Fernando Gonzales III LCSW)
For those interested in attending a live event in the coming months, Cockerill will be presenting at two upcoming events this winter.
- First, you can find her at the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s 21st Annual Symposium: “3 Rs: Reflection, Representation, Resilience”; Her presentation, “Sunshine Circles: Building Healthy Relationships the Theraplay® Way,” is scheduled for Saturday, February 24, 2024 from 7:30 – 9 a.m. and will cover how to utilize Theraplay® for early childhood and elementary school settings
- On March 20, 2024 at 7 p.m., she’ll also be presenting as part of an early childhood development workshop from Meridian’s Reproductive Psychiatry & Wellness Division
Hero image by Alexander Dummer via Unsplash.com