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Sherri Richards, Published May 05 2009

Events address children’s mental health

Kris Wallman noticed her daughter was a “weepy kid.” Tears were her reaction to any kind of fear or stress.

Wallman watched the 4½-year-old girl pace the playground while biting her fingernails and not engaging with other children. And Lydia had trouble separating from Wallman when she brought her to Fargo preschool.

Presented with this constellation of symptoms, her pediatrician quickly diagnosed her with childhood depression and anxiety.

The diagnosis stunned Wallman. But with an older son who has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum, she knew the importance of early intervention for mental health disorders.

“I’m so grateful we realized it early on,” she says.

Several events this month are promoting awareness of children’s mental health, including a Mental Health Fair on Thursday in Moorhead. The hope is to offer support and information to parents and those who work with children, and to reduce the stigmas attached to mental illness.

Shawna Croaker, children’s mental health initiative coordinator with Dakota Medical Foundation, says parents should pay attention to their child’s mental health like they do their physical well-being.

“I think parents are the experts on their own children and they really need to feel there are places they can go if there’s a concern,” Croaker says. “People need to understand it’s not their fault if their child is having difficulties.”

Mental health disorders in children can manifest themselves in different ways. The child may have a hard time regulating his or her emotions, be unable to control impulses or react abnormally to daily events.

These disorders also change the experience of parenting. Providing consistency and being a calm presence are crucial, Croaker says.

“You have to re-evaluate what your expectations were as a parent, of what it would be like, and completely adjust the way you approach their schooling, their socialization and the things people take for granted,” Wallman says.

“A lot of parents that I talked to, when they found out their child isn’t developing like a typical child, parents will tend to go through a mourning period. The expectation of the child that they thought they were going to have has died. They have a child they never expected.”

Wallman says it’s important for parents to accept their children, and give them opportunities to realize their full potential.

“We love them and embrace them for the individuals they are,” she says. “I feel like I was chosen to be their parent.”

Carolyn Strnad of Moorhead describes being a parent of a child with a mental health disorder as stressful but rewarding. Her 18-year-old daughter has bipolar disorder.

“In a lot of ways, it’s like living in a whole new world,” she says. “You have to learn a new language and learn a system of services.”

She’s also experienced the stigma sometimes attached to mental illness. She calls it the “finger-pointing syndrome.”

“People point at you, ‘Look at that kid. Why don’t her parents get her under control?’ ” she says. “It’s difficult for my kid to make and keep friends, to be invited over to other peers’ houses to play. People can be pretty judgmental when they don’t know the whole picture. And scared, I think some people are scared of it.”

Strnad, who is helping plan the Children’s Mental Health Week event, hopes awareness can reduce that stigma. “It also brings awareness that these are children in our community. They are where we live and play, and their parents are where you’re working and they have many challenges throughout the day,” she says.

Wallman says it’s easy for parents and medical professionals to brush off individual symptoms, but documenting behaviors can reveal patterns that indicate a medical issue.

“You really have to become a detective as a parent of a young kid who has these reactions to these things,” Wallman says. “The most important thing in my opinion is for parents to trust their instincts. If they think something’s not right, start writing things down.”


If you go

Training sessions: Three free sessions will be offered this month. Registered attendees can request free child care at Kid’s Kingdom.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556