When it comes to mental health, there is no ONE right approach or treatment. Every story is different; every child is different. Helping a child or teen work through their mental health issues extends outside of the home. Teachers and counselors are an essential part of this journey.
The following is a Q & A with Dr. Dan Daly, current Director of Youth Care Emeritus and former Executive Vice President and Director of Youth Care at Boys Town. This article originally appeared on Boys Town’s Parenting blog. Dr. Daly discusses Boys Town's unique approach to mental health and what that means for parents, kids and families. Learning how mental health issues impact children will be beneficial to school staff to bridge the gap between school and home.
Q: "What do most parents think about in terms of mental health approaches and treatment for struggling children and teens?"
A: "Most parents think of a pill or some kind of psychotherapy. What they aren't thinking about is, 'How can we function differently as a family to help our child get better?' And that's what we help parents learn to do at Boys Town. Now, therapy can help people feel better and medications can help, too. But parents live with their children the remaining 163 hours of the week outside that hour of therapy. Boys Town's approach helps parents make adjustments on how they're reacting to their child's struggle and what and how to teach skills that can help them get better and overcome their struggles. We believe the best resource for children is a compassionate, dedicated parent – it's the best therapeutic resource in every family."
Q: "How is Boys Town's approach to mental health unique?"
A: "What most parents are looking for when their kids are struggling is an instant fix. For many parents, this means looking to medication as a way to fix their child's problem. While medication can help and be an important part of a child's wellness plan, it's not an instant or permanent fix like medication can be for diabetes or high blood pressure. It's different for mental health issues. For example, with a person who is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, medications might be prescribed to help dampen down reactivity, but they won't necessarily dampen down obsessive thinking or the over-reactivity to arguments with loved ones. These issues are challenges of living with anxiety that require new skills and ways to cope.
Boys Town, we use a behavioral analysis approach to mental health. This
approach helps people understand the life circumstances they are facing, what
kind of impact their environment has on those circumstances, and skills and
strategies they can use to deal with and resolve those circumstances.
"So, Boys Town's behavioral approach isn't what the typical parent thinks about when they think about mental health care. We are a strengths- and deficits-based approach to mental health. We help parents explore and answer questions like: What are the child's and family's strengths? What are the child's and other family members' temperaments? What are the child's and family's deficits? How can we help them shore up those deficits? How do we go about emphasizing and building on their strengths? How do we help the child and family to confront certain things they need to confront in order to function better? And how do we help them discern what's really not important in their lives and the circumstances they don't need to deal with or confront?
"Boys Town's approach is not an instant fix; rather, it's one that helps struggling children and families learn new skills and tap into resources that can help them change so they get better and thrive."
Q: "Why is Boys Town's approach so effective with helping children and families get better?"
"Number one, there are solutions. That's the biggest advantage. And we can
teach parents these solutions. Also, we've heard about all these problems
before, and the thousands of kids and families we've treated and continue to
treat all over the country have taught us how to best help. What is difficult
for parents is that they and their child may have to change how they approach
these problems. Change is hard, but new patterns of behavior yield new results.
When the discomfort and motivation are high, families are much more willing to
commit to trying the new skills and techniques – and when they do, they see
"Second, Boys Town's skill-based approach and teaching techniques are research-based solutions that are easy for parents to understand and implement in their daily lives. They are environmental solutions, so parents and children are not going to have to be in therapy twice a week for years. Typically, we can significantly impact most of the problems in 6 to 10 sessions. For example, if your problem is you can't get your teenage daughter to do homework, your 3 year old won't sleep in his own bed, your 4 year old is still wetting the bed, or you can't get your son to come home before 11:00 pm on a school night, we can probably help you fix those problems in 6 to 10 sessions with some straightforward, common-sense strategies.
"Third, common problems like daydreaming, lack of concentration, or troublesome behavior at school are usually not due to a 'mental illness' and typically respond to new approaches by parents and teachers. For example, truly hyperactive children may need medication, but many also need behavioral changes by parents and teachers to help them thrive. While there are children whose temperaments make them more prone to high intensity emotional responses, parents can learn strategies that lessen this responsiveness and teach their child new coping strategies. This is also true for other issues like depression and anxiety which are often situational and temporary.
"Finally, we're going to teach parents how to talk to their children in good times and tough times, how to observe their children's behavior and praise or correct it, and how to react when kids overreact or become upset. We give parents new behaviors and strategies to use so they can bring a positive approach to discipline and problems that arise. This can help children learn how to make good choices on their own, and it allows parents to create a healthy, happy, and nurturing home."
For more resources on Mental Health Awareness, visit Boys Town Press.