Your investments in children through Lena Pope are more important today than they were a year ago. Lena Pope’s services to children and their families have been essential this year and will continue to be for years to come as we deal with the lasting effects of the pandemic. Right now, it is vital we continue investing in children, so they have the opportunity to live happy and successful lives.

After living in a year-long pandemic without access to the support systems and resources needed to thrive, families have been in survival mode. “The long-term impact of the stress of 2020 and 2021 on mental health for adults and children has yet to be fully understood, and we expect to see the ripple effects for many years to come as children are able to begin processing the trauma and stress they experienced.” – Dr. Ashley Elgin, CEO of Lena Pope.

That is where Lena Pope’s Counseling Services come in. We provide counseling services for children and their families to cope with issues including anxiety, depression, substance use, trauma, and behavior challenges. Since the pandemic started, we have seen an increase in the time spent using counseling services, from 13 weeks to an average of 18 weeks. Our clients are in more intense situations with amplified stress because of the pandemic, election, social unrest, natural disasters, along with their own history and personal stress. Due to the increased stress and longer length of time in the counseling program, the number of families we have been able to help has been impacted.

Mental health often gets put on the back burner when there are competing priorities and emergencies that require attention. Families who are worried about putting food on the table will be focused on meeting those basic needs before they can focus on their mental health. Unfortunately, we have seen many of our clients turning toward substance use and other negative behaviors because the increased stress of the last year.

 “Even when all other areas of life are good, it’s still hard work to deal with trauma. And right now, a lot of people don’t have the emotional stamina to deal with trauma.” – Stacey Lewis, LCSW, Director of Counseling Services.

For children, the impact on their mental health is not only from what has happened in their world – virtual or in-person school, lack of social interaction with friends, missing important milestones, the constant reminders about masks, handwashing, etc. – but also how the adults in their life have handled the stress of the last year. Children have watched adults adjust, learn, grieve, show resilience, and lean on a variety of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, including exercise, therapy, reading for fun, substance use, changing eating patterns, numbing, etc. Even families with a lot of support and coping skills have experienced bumps and bruises. And we have seen families who were already struggling have a harder time coping with more urgent issues piling on top of each other. While we know children are resilient, without intervention, those children will follow the behavior that was modeled for them by the adults in their lives.

Kids often do not have control over their world, and in a pandemic-year that is even more true. Our family therapists have seen kids seek control over their life in various ways – focused control over their eating, perfectionism, stealing, gambling, self-blame, and internalizing. Community-wide referrals for in-patient substance use have increased, meaning teens and adults have increased their drug usage, turned to a more severe drug of choice, or their substance abuse has gotten to the point that it is negatively impacting their daily life and ability to take care of themselves or their family.

It may seem like there are no positives, but what we know about children and their brains says otherwise. Today is a good day to add opportunities for connection with your child because their brains are always making new pathways and learning.

So, what can you do to create some connection and provide support to your children? Here are some tips from one of Lena Pope’s family therapists, Elizabeth Brown, LPC.

Creating Connection with Your Children

The absolute easiest and most impactful thing a parent can do to create connection is spend uninterrupted time with their child, letting their child lead in the activity. Whether this is playing Legos with a small child or learning way more than you ever thought you’d know about a Korean boy band with your teenager, the time together speaks volumes! It is ok if you aren’t even particularly interested in the topic the child is interested in. Let them educate you, let them lead, and enjoy the ride. It is important not to criticize or suggest what they should be doing differently. This nonjudgmental presence creates an opportunity for beautiful connection.

Helping Children and Teens Deal with Stress

Listen and validate their feelings. Reflect back what you are hearing – “so you have a lot of projects due this week and you feel like there’s no way you can get it all done.” Next, validate. “That must be tough. No wonder you’re tired!” After being heard and validated, kids are much more likely to be open to the solutions you have in mind. If you don’t have solutions in mind, get the child’s feedback by simply asking “how can I help you with this?”

Self-Care for Adults and Children

In our staff meetings, our counseling services team has been discussing the need for self-care to be an ongoing, daily process. If we wait until we feel completely burned out, the time for self-care to be most effective has already passed! A great way to help kids with this is to model what self-care looks like. This essentially involves acknowledging what we are feeling, what we need, and then doing it. Some examples could be “Wow, I am feeling so frazzled and wound up. I need to stop and take some deep breaths to calm my body down” or “I am feeling so tired and run down. I think I need to cancel my plans for this evening and stay home to rest.”

Verbalizing this aloud models for children the skills of putting our feelings into words and taking action to care for ourselves when we need it. All of this reinforces the truth that our feelings matter and we are worth taking care of.

It can often be hard for adults to identify what our own self care should look like. Luckily, there is no one way to care for ourselves. I think a great place to start is to acknowledge that as humans our energy is finite and give ourselves permission to need rest. We often hear that we need to care for ourselves so we can keep on caring for others. The message that is often left out is that each one of us deserves to be cared for, simply because we are human beings. We don’t have to earn the right to deserve self-care. This shift in thinking can be a helpful start!

At Lena Pope, our evidence-based, research-tested programs focus on prevention and early intervention services that improve the emotional health of children and families regardless of their ability to pay. Lena Pope Counseling Services accepts many insurance providers, including Medicaid and CHIP, and provides financial assistance based on income and family size for individuals without insurance. Our goal is to ensure all members of our community have access to mental health and substance use treatment.