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Thursday 1 December 2016

Mental Distress in Children - a brief perspective after 40 years of working in the field.

Gottman Institute

Link to Linkedin - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mental-distress-children-dave-traxson?trk=hp-feed-article-title-share
"Thinking of your child as behaving badly - Disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling with something difficult - Disposes you to help them deal with their distress."

After 40 years of working with children I return a full circle to the seminal book that informed my teaching and psychology, 'Children in Distress,' by Sir Alec Clegg the inspirational Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire where I was lucky to teach, who believed and promoted meeting childrens' emotional needs by art, poetry, drama, self-expression and physical outlets and only then can you meet their wider educational needs.
In an after dinner speech in 1972 he highlighted some important principles for his audience of teachers in training at Bretton College, Yorkshire, which he helped found:
  • that there is good in every child, however damaged, repellent or ill-favoured he or she might be;
  • that a child's strengths / successes on which a teacher can build must somehow be found for every child;
  • that all children matter and all can make a unique contribution to society;
  • that happy relationships between head, teachers, and pupils are all-important;
  • that the life of the child can be enriched by the development of their creative powers;
  • that encouragement and recognition of relative progress is far more important than punishment;
  • that teachers just as much as pupils need support and thrive on recognition and specific high quality positive feedback.
I consequently believe like Sir Alec that mental distress is the root of all traumatised or anxious behaviour patterns in schools and society, not biochemical imbalances or brain cell malfunctions - I passionately believed this then and still do even more today.
The British Psychological Society more recently in a paper entitled,'Psychological Health and Wellbeing,'(2009) stated,
"Psychological models of mental health, quintessentially, emphasize the key role of a healthy, supportive, connected childhood in producing well adjusted adults. + We fully support the proposals in the 'New Horizons' initiative to develop policies to ensure a healthy start to life for children."
My attempt at a useful working definition of 'Mental Distress,' in the children we work with, is the gradual and even the not so gradual accumulation of inner anxieties and mental confusions which can trigger negative thought patterns, associated behavioural responses and the increased release of stress hormones, which in turn can further exacerbate feelings of the loss of personal power over the world they inhabit. Increasingly debilitating emotional responses can then interfere with their effective daily functioning in both educational and social settings.

My Stress Bucket Metaphor which was first published in 1993 in a chapter entitled,'Destressing Children in the Clasroom,' and has been used widely since in a therapeutic way indicates that there are three different levels of stress triggers going into the child's mental virtual vessel for accumulating stress. These are teaspoons, cupfulls and kettlefulls in ascending order. Clear 'kettlefulls' going into a child's bucket are abuse, bereavement, bullying, domestic violence, family dysfunctionality, neglect and toxic drug harm. All of these have major Safeguarding responsibilities for society and child mental health professionals believe these key ones are responsible for the vast majority of mental distress in the children with whom we work.When using the Stress Bucket I do a 'My turn - your turn' script where I illustrate the different sizes by relevant age appropriate examples and then pose the open question, "And what about in your life at the moment?" It is very rare not to engage a child in this process but obviously there will be different degrees of success.
The earlier simply stated but transformative views for professionals and parents of a child's complex and interactive needs may help us to better provide for the emotional needs and wellbeing of children in our schools. The following principles may also inform our decision making and the strategies we choose to support vulnerable children.
Nurture not narcotic prescriptions are the answer to meeting a vulnerable child's emotional needs in schools and the wider society and enabling a sense of belonging are paramount. The success of nurture groups in many schools and their Inclusive Ethoses has conclusively proved this in my view.
Tender Loving Care is the answer not punishment based regimes that culminate in crazy ideas such as repeated 'Isolation,' Saturday morning detentions and Permanent Exclusions, which can cause significant harm to children. Exclusion from a family and exclusion from a school are two very destructive approaches for vulnerable and already damaged children. We have to sort isues out in the five hours a day we have to care for children within the Inclusive Ethos that we have chosen to create. Italy has not excluded children from local schools since 1979 and Ontario has been fully inclusive for a similar period of time. The proven strengths for childrens' collective wellbeing speaks for itself as can be witnessed on any visit to communities in these societies.
Hope, personal strengths and collaboratively finding creative solutions are the lifesprings of positive change in children and always will be.
"There is no more apt window on the soul of a society than the way it treats its children." Nelson Mandella.
And now to return to the finale of Alec Clegg's speech which he found in Rome about a world famous artist there -
"The bearer of these presents is Michelangelo the sculptor. His nature is such that he requires to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement. But if love be shown him and he be treated really well, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder."

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