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Supporting kids' mental health
or, a conversation with child psychologist Dr. Kate Daderko
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To say that everyone is concerned about mental health these days is an understatement. I’ve heard several parents express concern about their kids’ psychological well-being since the start of COVID. They aren’t alone—a national survey found that 71% of parents feared the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health.
When I worked as a therapist, I specialized in treating adults who had experienced childhood trauma and in parenting education. Though I have some direct experience with kids, I wanted to reach out to someone who was currently on the frontlines of child mental health. I immediately thought of my colleague, Kate Daderko, a child psychologist and mom of three boys (ages 5, 3, and almost 1).
Kate and I met a decade ago when we were both selected as Doris Duke Fellows. I was immediately drawn to Kate because she was relatable, funny, and we both rolled our eyes at the same things (a sign of good judgment, for sure 😉). Plus, we were both interested in careers outside of the traditional tenure-track. While I went into higher education administration and leadership development, Kate went into clinical psychology and ended up opening her own private practice as a child psychologist in Seattle.
JW: How has the pandemic affected children’s’ mental health?
KD: Unfortunately, the pandemic has really taken a toll on young people’s mental health. Emergency rooms have seen significant increases in mental health visits, and outpatient therapists (like myself) have seen referrals increase substantially. More children and teens need mental health support than the current system can support. And while it’s wonderful that life is getting back to a “new normal,” many children and teens are still struggling.
JW: What should parents be watching out for?
KD: Parents should be mindful of changes in behavior. For example, changes in school performance, isolating from family and friends, changes in sleep (going 24 hours without sleeping, sleeping excessive amounts), frequent temper tantrums, or mood changes.
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you’re wondering if something is going on with your child or teen. Therapists would much rather have a parent seek help early, as opposed to once there is a really big issue. Because demand is so high right now, it can be difficult to get an appointment with a mental health provider, so it’s wise to start the search early.
JW: What should parents consider when selecting a provider?
KD: I typically recommend that parents look for therapists who are trained in evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and parenting training (Incredible Years, Parent-Child Interactive Therapy, Helping the Noncompliant Child).
JW: How can parents best support a struggling child?
KD: The most important thing to communicate to your child is that you love them and want to help. Beyond that, it’s really dependent on the child. I’d recommend asking your child how you can help and maybe even offer up some ideas if they aren’t sure.
Also, if you are worried about your child’s safety, ask direct questions about whether they are thinking about hurting themselves. If they have a thought-out plan and the means to execute it, please call the crisis line in your area or take your child/teen to an emergency room. These questions can be hard to ask, but know that they (1) don’t increase the risk of suicidality/self-harm and (2) can help your child/teen stay safe.
JW: What can parents do to support their kids’ psychological well-being?
KD: Fill up your kids emotional piggy bank! You can do this through playing, praising, and encouraging their efforts. The #1 thing I recommend to parents is to spend a little bit of one-on-one time every day (think 10 minutes) focused solely on connecting with your child.
For younger kids, this would look like doing whatever they want to do (within reason) and spending that time letting them guide the play. Describe what you see (“You're putting the red block on the green block”, “You kept trying and finally got it the way you wanted!”, “You're using a quiet voice”). Don't ask questions, give commands, or try to teach. Try to ignore minor misbehaviors too.
I've currently been trying to do this with my middle child because we've been getting pretty frustrated with each other lately. I'm very guilty of checking my phone too many times a day, so to make sure I don't pick up my phone while we are doing his choice, I set a timer for 10-15 minutes and flip my phone over so that I'm not distracted. I’ve found that it’s helped strengthen our connection and has resulted in fewer power struggles.
JW: Clinical work can be draining. How do you avoid burnout and take care of yourself?
KD: Honestly, I could be doing a much better job at this. We are in the middle of a remodel and not living at our house, which has led to sleep disruptions for all three kids (i.e., my night and early morning work times have been taken away). I’ve also over-committed at work in terms of the number of clients I’m seeing.
I keep trying to remind myself that this is all a phase and I will get more sleep/have more time to myself/feel more human eventually! I also talk to friends who are in the profession when I’ve had an especially hard case. I bake. I am working on telling myself that it is okay to lessen my caseload, even if it means that I’m not helping as many children and teens. I also need to get back in the habit of giving myself a few work-free nights during the week, so I can recharge and do something relaxing.
JW: What are your favorite resources on child mental health and parenting?
KD: I'll be honest- I'm the worst at recommending resources (especially books) because I frequently don't have the bandwidth for them!
My close friend, who is a psychologist, has a great Instagram account called Helping Families Thrive, focused entirely on evidence-based parenting practices. I love it because it doesn't require a big attention span to learn new things.
I like Wise-Minded Parenting by Russell and Kastner. My favorite tip is to ask yourself, “I may be right, but am I being effective?”
Tilt Parenting Podcast is a great resource for learning disabilities, special education, ADHD, autism, giftedness, twice-exceptionality, and more.
I couldn’t survive working parenthood without… SUPPORT! I’m so lucky to live near my mom who helps me every week with my kids. I also have several friends who I text with about what hot messes we are and it helps me feel like I’m not alone!
Magical parenting phrase: I wish I had something that worked all the time. Using humor to defuse situations always helps and reflecting back what I’m hearing and seeing (e.g., “You’re feeling really ____ right now.”)
Favorite vacation spot: My dad and stepmom’s house on Hood Canal, near Puget Sound. It’s a relatively short drive from Seattle, my stepmom is an amazing cook, and the kids love it.
What’s in your cup of ambition? Lukewarm or reheated coffee. Unless my kids actually “sleep in” and I get to drink it without interruption.
Best piece of advice for working moms that you ever received: You’re never going to feel like you’re doing it as well as you want to—just do the best you can.
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