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Help is Available for Children and Adolescents with Mental Health or Behavioral Disorders
By Caitlin Wilson

When children start showing symptoms of mental health and behavioral disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) and mood disorders, the first step is to consult a health care specialist who can recognize the specific developmental problem. But the real challenge for parents is often what to do next. Specialized partial hospitalization programs and early intervention preschools only help with part of the struggle. "Parents have to get a clear picture of what they need to do and how to modify their parenting skill-set," says Richard Sharp, director of child/adolescent behavioral health services for Mercy Behavioral Health, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and CHE Trinity Health, in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.

Medications can be a controversial form of treatment, especially for children. Medications for disorders, including ADHD, are widely prescribed and can be an important part addressing behaviors especially when combined with therapy. However, there are many instances where medications are not indicated.

Recognizing and understanding the connection between the parent's actions and the child's behaviors is important if change is to occur. This is where therapists can help. Parents can be so involved in their children's lives that they are unable to get a broader perspective. However, therapists can help parents see from that perspective and give them the tools and resources to help the child.

"What therapy helps parents do is connect the dots," Sharp says. "Up close, parents cannot recognize the pattern. But when they step back, they are able to see it."

Any kind of therapy where the entire family can be involved is best. Creating treatment that is age-appropriate is essential. For older children, the preferred therapy is usually some form of talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, cognitive behavioral therapy blends cognitive and behavioral therapies. Cognitive therapy aims to change a person's thinking to be more adaptive and healthy by focusing on his or her thoughts and beliefs. Behavioral therapy aims to change unhealthy behavior patterns by focusing on a person's actions.

With younger children, treatment is usually conducted through observing the child through play therapy and talking with the parents about their child's symptoms and behaviors.

If more intensive therapy is needed, parents may choose in-home rather than traditional therapy. In-home therapy helps the therapist and the parents see first-hand where any disruptions may occur.

"You can't compare the two therapies," Sharp says, commenting on which therapy is more effective for children. "Children will respond better to treatment if they find it beneficial."

The problem that most therapists and pediatricians see often is what Sharp calls the "Niagara Falls moment."

"Parents tend to come to us for help, describing their child in a moment of crisis, like going over the falls," Sharp says. "In order to prevent future crises from happening, we have to talk about what was going on before the crisis and allow them to see how they can get the child 'out of the water, further up stream' beforehand. Encouraging them to think about what led up to the crisis, and giving them the tools and resources they need, can help them avoid a crisis in the future."

Getting children involved in group activities or team sports can also help. If children get involved in areas where they might excel, it can give them more confidence in social situations.

"There's a great deal of community support in group activities and it becomes a good place to develop peer relations in a public setting," Sharp says. "It's definitely one of the most proactive things parents can do."

Useful Child & Adolescent Mental Health Links for Parents

Daniel Brooks, Ph.D., L.P.C., an outpatient supervisor with Pittsburgh Mercy Health System (PMHS), offers these useful links for parents:

Mercy Behavioral Health, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, offers an array of community-based services for children, adolescents, and adults with mental health and substance use disorders. To learn more, visit www.pmhs.org or call 1-877-637-2924. The phone is answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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