Tag

ANXIETY

When the Worry Bug Makes You Mad: Understanding the Importance of Positive Behavior Plans for Anxious Kids

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

“Don’t Feed the Worry Bug,” by Andi Green is a wonderful book for children who are anxious or experience a lot of worrisome thoughts. The story is about a monster who constantly feeds his WorryBug, only to find that as he worries more and more, the WorryBug continues to grow until the monster is totally overwhelmed by the emotion. Eventually, he learns to control it. In my practice, I evaluate a number of children with lots of worries…but they don’t actually look worried. Instead, children may appear defiant, hyperactive and aggressive. Why do children overwhelmed with anxiety sometimes become frustrated and angry or have poor behavioral control at home and in the classroom?

Children with anxiety “on the surface” may appear angry, oppositional and defiant to adults. However, these behaviors oftentimes reflect secondary responses to an underlying cause: anxiety. Responses to anxiety can be categorized as “fight, flight or freeze.” As a classic example, if you run into a grizzly bear on a hike, your body’s natural physiological response is to fight, flee or freeze. Your anxiety about the demands of a situation send your body and brain into a state of “threat alert.” Similarly, when a child is worrying about something, is socially anxious, or is feeling nervous about their ability to handle a task, this “threat alert” system is activated and the child’s ability to make well-thought out decisions is impaired. The child may be labeled a “behavior problem” because of the impulsivity, defiance, disruptiveness or aggression (fight mode). Or the child may appear distractible, silly and immature, or avoidant of challenging tasks (flight mode). An anxious child may also show difficulties shifting gears/transitioning, problems letting go of events, or seem unmotivated or apathetic (freeze mode). It is also not uncommon for children with anxiety to have challenges demonstrating appropriate social skills, such as problems with insight into how their behaviors may affect others. They may also experience challenges reading the nonverbal and verbal cues in their environment because their brain is “soaked” with high arousal, immobilizing their capacity to apply logic to everyday situations. How do we help children manage their anxiety and the resulting behavioral challenges from that anxiety?

A neuropsychological evaluation can provide insights into your child’s behavioral challenges to determine if there may be an “underlying cause,” such as anxiety, (or other causes such as learning disabilities, depression or poor information processing) which are driving weak emotional and behavior control. Once identified, a neuropsychologist can provide guidance on the most effective interventions for a child at school and at home.

In my experience, one of the most important interventions for a child who experiences anxiety and secondary behavioral challenges is the development of a Positive Behavior Plan at school, which can then be included in a child’s IEP. However, many children with anxiety do not respond well to traditional behavioral reward systems that solely focus on increasing or decreasing behaviors (e.g. follow directions, sit calmly, keep your body safe, etc.), as these systems do not teach the child the self-regulation skills necessary for controlling emotional and behavioral responses. Instead, an effective Positive Behavior Plan for a child with anxiety includes behavioral targets or “goals” that focus on the attempt at coping strategy application. Importantly, a child with anxiety should be rewarded for trying to use a coping strategy, as it will take time, practice and reinforcement before a child develops the capacity to apply coping strategies consistently and successfully.

Sample coping strategies that a child should be taught by a special educator, counselor or other specialist include “taking deep breaths, jumping jacks, taking a break, using words to say how I feel,” or other self-regulation tools. When the goals of a Positive Behavior Plan focus on using a coping strategy before or during moments of distress rather than a plan that is tied to increasing or decreasing specific behaviors after they occur, a child builds independent capacity to appraise and react appropriately to physical and emotional responses in the classroom and the community. Children learn the signs (e.g. in their body, mind and in their environment) that the WorryBug is approaching, and feel better equipped, confident and more in control of their emotions and behaviors. For more information on how to appropriately develop Positive Behavior Plans for children with anxiety, “The Behavior Code” by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport is an excellent resource for parents and educators.

When the “WorryBug” or anxiety makes kids mad, mean and aggressive, a comprehensive and thorough neuropsychological evaluation can determine how to best tackle the anxiety “beneath the surface” through therapeutic and educational interventions. A neuropsychological evaluation can also direct the development of strategic Positive Behavior Plans that are individualized and appropriate for the child’s home and school environment.

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Counseling/Therapy: So Many Types and Approaches…Which One Should I Choose?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS
Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

Many adults, teens and children struggle with a myriad of challenges from everyday stressors, feelings of worthlessness and insecurities to official diagnoses of anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, OCD, addiction, and more. Deciding how to grow and change and alleviate the pain and suffering can be daunting. There are so many different ways to address psychological pain. Psychological, medical, behavioral, psychopharmacological, complementary (e.g., acupuncture), and educational treatments, among others, are possible choices and can assist in lessening an individual’s anguish. How do I decide which one(s) to try? Usually, treatment involves more than one of these, so the decisions may not be as difficult as you think. The first step is recognizing that you, your child, your marriage or family needs help and taking a step to get help.

Psychological treatments include many options: psychotherapy (i.e., “talk therapy or insight-based therapy”), psychoeducational counseling, biofeedback, social training, behavior therapy, mindfulness, stress management, anger management and so many more. Therapy can be individual, group, family or couples work, and there is no single approach that works for everyone. It often depends on the referral question and complaint. Counseling is typically provided by a psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, marriage and family counselor, expressive therapist, psychiatrist and/or psychiatric nurse. Many factors go into making psychological treatment decisions (i.e., referring question/complaint, cost, location, approach, etc.). When it comes to therapy, it is most important to have “goodness of fit” between the clinician and the client. The client needs to have a connection with and feel valued, supported and understood by their practitioner. This allows whatever treatment approach or method to be more readily accepted by the client.

Reviewing the differences between treatment approaches may help with the decision-making process beyond “the goodness of fit.” Psychotherapy involves talking with a clinician to address emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges that can be both conscious and unconscious. The client’s past experiences, perceptions and history may play an important role in psychotherapy. The client “tells a story” that helps the clinician understand their life experiences through their eyes, therefore allowing treatment to be tailored to that client’s personal experience. By working through one’s thoughts, past experiences and stressors with a caring clinician, the client is able to gain insight and perspective, reduce symptoms, change behavior, learn strategies to lighten the load and improve quality of life. Often psychotherapy is long-term and involves good communication/language skills as well as higher level of thinking, often abstractly, and insight capacity.

Psychoeducational treatment is somewhat different than psychotherapy. Education is central to treatment and is a more directive approach. It can have very specific goals and may be short-term. The past is not actively addressed; rather, the purpose is to teach the client to acknowledge, accept and understand their disability and/or mental health condition and provide ways to support growth, change and meet goals. Psychoeducational treatment can be provided to individuals, groups, families, couples, employers and others and may include reading informational text, video analysis, homework, data collection, biofeedback, journal writing and more.

Some of the goals of both treatment approaches may be to:

  • connect how thoughts, feelings and behavior are intertwined;
  • improve coping and problem-solving skills to better deal with life’s stressors;
  • increase positive self-regard; and
  • recognize and better deal with strong emotions.

Many clinicians have training in specific techniques and some use a combination of approaches and philosophies. Psychotherapy typically falls into broad categories: Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic, Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Therapy, Humanistic Therapy and Integrative or Holistic Therapy.  Sometimes a specific approach may be the best method of choice given a specific condition or specific goal of the client. Some techniques have been researched on large samples of people and proven to yield positive results with certain diagnoses; while others are newer, less researched (yet are still effective).

In determining what technique is most appropriate, consider the age, diagnosis, goal of treatment, efficacy of the treatment, as well as the personality, cognitive and language capacity, cultural/family background, location, cost, etc. Many treatment approaches share common techniques, but some techniques are better suited with certain conditions/diagnoses. There are upwards of 100 different types of psychotherapeutic approaches, so knowing which one works with what conditions, resonates with you as the client and can meet the needs/goals.

Another option is online treatment. In recent years, many in-person practices and newer standalone online treatment options have emerged. Often these are for mild depression and anxiety. As you search out any treatment, ask for references and reviews and assess treatment efficacy. Some online sites include Talkspace, TeenCounsleing and more. There are also online apps to help with stress management, anxiety, depression and more, such as Moodfit, HeadSpace for Kids, MindShift, Inner Balance, and so many more. Needless to say, online therapy and apps are not the same as in-person therapy but may augment and be helpful in some situations.

Many clients at NESCA present with learning differences, anxiety, OCD, depression, trauma, addiction, ASD, and more. The following partial list includes just some of the treatment approaches recommended by many of NESCA’s neuropsychologists. At NESCA, we currently offer a psychoeducational approach to psychological treatment and short-term pandemic related issues of anxiety and depression. If interested in learning more, please visit: https://nesca-newton.com/integrativetherapeutic/.

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Attachment-based Therapy
  • Animal-assisted Therapy
  • Bibliotherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy
  • Expressive Therapy (art, music, drama, etc.)
  • Family Systems Therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Narrative Therapy
  • Positive Psychology
  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
  • Play Therapy
  • Psychoeducational Counseling
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Additional information about treatment approaches can be found at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/types-of-therapy.

https://www.nami.org/learn-more/treatment/psychotherapy

https://apa.org/topics/psychotehrpay/approaches

https://talkspace.com/blog/different-types-therapy-psychotherapy-best/

https://verywellmind.com

 

About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.

 

To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Appreciating and Responding to The New York Times article, For Some Teens, It’s Been a Year of Anxiety and Trips to the E.R. by Benedict Carey

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA

As an occupational therapist working almost exclusively with teenagers and young adults over the past year, the title of Benedict Carey’s article jumped out at me like a tired and worn flag, waving frantically for acknowledgement. Our teens are anxious, tired, and dealing with living through the proverbial “unprecedented times” without the developmental capabilities needed to quickly adapt in this era of remote learning, remote social interaction, and remote extracurriculars. Remote everything!

It is important for me to note that I really enjoy working with teenagers. I find myself in constant awe of their resiliency, their willingness to confront hard truths that many of us shy away from, and their ability to push forward despite having huge questions about who they truly are. All of these things are tough and require immense emotional fortitude, but this year many of these challenges feel impossible.

Carey has taken the time to gather perspectives from multiple stakeholders. He provides a platform for parents, educators, professors, therapists, pediatricians, and directors of hospital programs to explain the struggles of supporting these kids without adequate resources. Parents describe the fear of supporting their children as they struggle with mental health. Doctors discuss the frustration of having inadequate resources and support in emergency rooms around the country. Carey highlights that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of adolescent emergency admissions for mental problems, like panic and anxiety, is up 31 percent. Some of my clients add to this statistic and are navigating their own path through chaotic hospitalizations and overwhelmed support systems. Carey’s article is absolutely worth taking the time to read, if only to see the ubiquity of these issues and how they are happening all around our country. Simply put, we have a clear problem. Less clear, is the solution.

When meeting with adolescents and young adults themselves, I hear three main fears popping up week after week. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to support these specific fears or feelings.

  1. “I can’t get this done, (and therefore) I am going to completely ruin my future.”

When looking at future success through a transition lens, we consider the areas of independent living, community participation, post-secondary education, and employment. In the school setting, most students’ curricula are focused solely on academic success. Sometimes, we do a poor job of teaching students about multiple intelligences or emphasizing the importance of hard work. While grades are important, they are not everything, and while standardized testing is returning to students’ schedules, they should not serve as students’ measure of self-worth. We know this, but do they? We have to teach our children that if they are hardworking, kind, and truly doing their best, the threat of “ruining their future” is much less likely than they fear. Let’s highlight the undeniably true narrative that everyone’s path can look different and still lead to success.

  1. “I’m so tired. All of the time.”

Many of my clients tell me they are not sleeping. If they are sleeping, they fall asleep late with a phone in their hand, constantly refreshing apps or trying to maintain communication with their peers. In our current remote world, the phone can feel like a lifeline. Sleep is a foundational need for mental and physical health. Students who are 15 or 16 years old often have a limited understanding of how holistic the effects of decreased sleep can be. Sleep is not their priority. Recently, I have seen parents disable the internet or have their teenagers put their phones into a lockbox from midnight until 6:00am. This new boundary is often met with anger or frustration at the beginning, but then these students start to sleep. They are better able to manage their emotions. They have more energy. They start to see the benefits despite their skepticism. If a tech break doesn’t feel quite right for your family, it is still worth opening up a conversation about the need for strong sleep hygiene and modeling a routine that promotes calming down by limiting screens before bed, which can have hugely positive effects.

  1. “This is never going to end.”

In many ways, a year feels much longer to a 17 year-old than it does to an older adult. Working at a job for four years never feels as long or as formative as the four years of high school. And objectively, a year to a 17 year-old is over five percent of their life, while it’s only two percent of 50 year old’s life. Let’s acknowledge that. Let’s verbalize the fact that teenage years are also full of milestones that have been constantly cancelled or changed to fit social distancing recommendations and safety precautions. There is a sense of loss and grief surrounding many events that these students have been looking forward to since elementary school. Encourage students to do their own research into what the next six months may look like as we start to open back up. Help them to understand the vaccine rollout and the pitfalls and successes that we have had as a nation tackling a novel disease.

Adolescent mental health is going to be an on-going challenge that we tackle as a community. As we slowly forge out of isolation, let’s center our conversations around the mental health of our teens and honestly acknowledge the unique position that they have found themselves in.

References

Carey, B. (2021, February 23). For some teens, it’s been a year of anxiety and trips to the e.r. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/23/health/coronavirus-mental-health-teens.html

Leeb, R.T., Radhakrishnan, L., Martinez, P., Njaj, R., Holland, K.M. (2020, October 27). Mental health-related emergency department visits among children aged <18 during the covid-19 pandemic. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2020:1675-1680. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3

 

About the Author

Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

The Uncertainty, Stress and Anxiety About What School Will Look Like

By | NESCA Notes 2020

*This blog post was originally published prior to the start of in-person school last fall for some. While many students have returned to their school buildings, many others are just now returning or will be in the coming weeks. 

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist Fellow and Therapist

Much of adjusting to the world in the midst of a global pandemic has been learning to live with nearly constant uncertainty. Undoubtedly, this pandemic and ensuing uncertainty has caused significant stress for youth and their families. The experience of persistent stress can result in increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression. Symptoms may become magnified in those who already faced mental health challenges. There is little doubt that there will be increases in mental and behavior health problems for children and families both in anticipating the re-opening of schools, and when schools reopen their physical buildings.

We all wonder what school will look like in the fall. The anticipation of returning to school can be especially stressful, and will likely be so for most youth. Given that students will not have been in schools with their peers for several months, it can be anticipated that they might feel a heighted sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Even in “normal times,” returning to the complex social and educational environment of school can be worrisome for many children and adolescents.

Each individual child will have had their own experiences while schools were closed. Some children and/or staff members may have been impacted by COVID-19 and some families and/or staff may be experiencing financial hardship due to parental unemployment or loss of household income. It is important to realize that regardless of their experience, each individual will have a unique response. It is helpful to recognize the signs of stress and help children learn positive ways of coping with it.

Signs of stress in preschool children include, but are not limited to, anger, nervousness, eating and sleeping problems (including nightmares), fear of being alone, irritability and uncontrollable crying.

In elementary age children, stress may manifest as increased complaining of headaches and stomachaches, feeling insecure, reduced appetite and difficulty sleeping, withdrawal and worrying about the future.

Signs of stress in pre-teens and teens may include anger, disillusionment, distrust of the world, low self-esteem, stomachaches and headaches, panic attacks and rebellious behavior.

As each person works through this very challenging situation, it is more important than ever to adopt a position of acceptance, as we never truly know what another person is experiencing or has experienced. The following are offered as suggestions on how to help children and teens cope with stress.

  • Help them identify how they are feeling and acknowledge and validate those feelings.
  • Encourage them to talk about what is bothering them.
  • Share strategies you use to cope with stress.
  • Talk openly and, as appropriate, share stories about stress in your day.
  • Find a physical activity and/or hobby that they enjoy and encourage them to participate.
  • Encourage them to eat healthy foods and emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle, especially as it relates to stress.
  • Make sure they get plenty of sleep.
  • Set clear expectations, without being overly rigid, and allow for “down” time.
  • Spend time outdoors, encourage them to do something they love – read a book, ride their bike, bake, etc.
  • Learn and teach your children relaxation skills, such as breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, meditating, yoga, drawing or writing.

Our world will have changed by the time children re-enter their classrooms. No matter what happens in the fall, when it is time for school to start, it will inevitably be stressful. Learning to cope with and manage stress is important for physical and emotional health. However, if you are concerned about your child or are struggling yourself, seek help and support for yourself, your child or anyone in your family who is struggling.

Below are some helpful resources:

https://www.apa.org/topics/children-teens-stress

https://nesca-newton.com/helping-your-anxious-child-through-covid-19/

https://childmind.org/article/how-to-ask-what-kids-are-feeling-during-stressful-times/

https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/health-encyclopedia/he.stress-in-children-and-teens.ug1832

 

About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Hess recently graduated from Rivier University with a PsyD in Counseling and School Psychology. Previously, she earned an M.A. from Antioch New England in Applied Psychology. She also worked as an elementary school counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before embarking on her doctorate. During her doctorate, she did her pre-doctoral internship with RIT in Rochester, N.Y. where she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma. Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18, their families and young adults. She also trained part-time with a pediatric neuropsychologist conducting neuropsychological evaluations. Currently, Dr. Hess is a second-year post-doctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychological assessment, working with NESCA Londonderry’s Dr. Angela Currie.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Helping Your Anxious Child through COVID-19

By | NESCA Notes 2020

 

Almost a year into Covid-19, many of us can use this blog as a reminder when our children exhibit signs of anxiety from learning of new developments with the pandemic; friends, family or others testing positive for Covid-19; or returning to school. The guidance shared in this blog still holds true, nearly one year since many of us went into lockdown and schools shuttered. 

 

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

A recent New York Times article by Jessica Grose discusses ways to support your child, specifically helping them to feel less anxious, during the COVID-19 situation. Their “top 4” suggestions are great ones – validate their feelings, manage your own anxiety, aim for some kind of predictable routine and try mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation activities.

The larger consideration in this case is this: anxiety, particularly in the current situation, is normal. We can label it with clinical words, give you our best clinical tools and recommend that you seek help (and please do!). At the same time, if we take a large step back, being anxious right now is exactly how we are meant to feel. We are social beings, designed to live in the community and support one another through face-to-face social interactions. When something threatens our safety, or the safety of our families, it is normal to respond with fear, worry and hypervigilance. Everyday interactions that would typically result in no response, like hearing someone nearby cough or sneeze, all of a sudden have become indicators of a threat. Even having others in close proximity to us is now a threat, meaning that the social communities in which we are supposed to thrive have now become potentially dangerous places. In this new environment, our bodies, well-attuned and primed to handle threats, are doing what they should do – they are putting us on “hyper-alert mode,” keeping us exceedingly sensitive to these threats so that we can avoid them and preserve our safety.

Children are in this mode, too, albeit with far fewer resources to help mitigate their fear and worry. As adults, we have far more lived experience with threats, anxiety, fear and worry, and we can use this experience to manage our responses to this novel situation. For children, this may be the first time they are struggling with persistent worry and fear. Or, they may have struggled to cope with other fears and worries for a long time, and this new stressor has overwhelmed their system. In either case, it is important to normalize fear and anxiety, in addition to the myriad of other emotions that children may be experiencing.

The key is balance. We have to balance validating and normalizing feelings with reinforcing unhealthy habits. What does that look like? One dimension to consider is time – validating and normalizing feelings is a short acknowledgement that the child is heard, understood and believed. On the other hand, repeatedly discussing the same questions or topics, engaging in persistent conversations about the threats and explaining “adult” information to children (especially dire predictions, long-term impacts, etc.) is not healthy. These behaviors may appear to decrease anxiety in the short-term, but over time, can be detrimental.

Another important consideration is space – focusing on what is happening in the present is important to help children process and understand the radical changes that are impacting their day-to-day lives. However, if you find that your conversations linger on the past or the future, try to shift back to the present. Your mind may be filled with regrets from the past (e.g., “I knew we should have stocked up on their favorite snack last time we were at the store”) or fears for the future (e.g., “My parents are elderly and at high risk”), and these thoughts are entirely normal. At the same time, when talking with children, it is important to try as much as possible to focus on the here and now. Of course, it is important to give children the space to express their fears for the future, and we can and should acknowledge and validate these fears. We can also, simultaneously, bring children’s focus back to the present and back to tangible, concrete things that they can do (e.g., “I know you are really worried about grandma, and it’s sad that we can’t see her right now. Everyone is working hard to keep her safe, and we are going to call and talk to her later today”).

For some children, advanced intellectual abilities may allow them to understand (at least, in some sense) a great deal of the information that is portrayed on the television and news media. However, it is important to remember that, while their cognitive abilities are years ahead of their peers, their emotional development is not. It may be necessary to closely monitor their online activity, as they may be seeking out information (which is a normal response to fears, especially fear of the unknown) without having the critical thinking abilities to understand the source or potential biases in the way the information is presented. On the other hand, some children may struggle to understand the situation, either because of their young age, learning disability or other developmental delays. If this describes your child, consider putting together a story, with pictures and words, to help them understand some basic information (e.g., why we can’t go to school right now, why we can’t go play with friends). This is often referred to as a “social story,” and clinicians at NESCA can help you create one specifically for your child.

Last, and most certainly not least, seek help and support for yourself, your child or anyone in your family who is struggling. While experiencing anxiety during these times is normal, when these thoughts and feelings are taking over your child’s daily life (or your own), it may be time to look for assistance. Many clinicians, including here at NESCA, are available via phone or videoconferencing, and we can assist with a range of concerns. Whether you want a brief consultation to help you respond to persistent questions from your child or whether your child has a pre-existing anxiety disorder that is exacerbated by these challenging times, we are here to help.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

School Stressors in a Pandemic

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Amity Kulis, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

A recent article published by NBC News highlights the multiple stressors facing school-aged children and their families during this pandemic, with a more specific focus on the differing stress levels between remote and in-person learners. It is becoming clearer that during this time, learners and their families are facing higher rates of depression and anxiety, and there are concerns that students who are attending school remotely are learning less, particularly children with disabilities and those from low-income families.

A recent study from NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford Graduate School of Education, compared the differences between students who have been learning exclusively online and those who have been able to attend at least partially in-person. The study involved more than 10,000 students in 12 U.S. high schools who completed a self-questionnaire provided by the research study. The high schools were reported to come from multiple locations around the country (Arizona, Texas, New York and Midwest) and were descried as “demographically similar to the nation in terms of student family income,” though this was not true of being matched for race and likely other factors not discussed in the article. This also does not appear to be a peer-reviewed study, which suggests limitations to predictive power of the outcomes. Nevertheless, findings suggested that students who spent time in the classroom self-reported lower rates of stress and worry than students who were fully remote. An alarming finding was that half of all students, regardless of how they were attending school at the time of the study, reported they were more stressed by school than they had been during the previous year. Students reported exhaustion, headaches, insomnia or other stress-related ailments at high levels – regardless of whether they were in-person or not – with the highest rates being for remote learners: 84 percent fully remote learners; 82 percent hybrid students; and 78 percent fully in-person.

The article suggested that additional stressors found for remote students included on average more homework and that these remote students were also less likely to feel they had an adult they could go to with a personal problem. Anecdotally, one teacher commented, “In the room, you get more eye contact.” The teacher added, “On the screen, oftentimes the kid could be sitting in front of a window. You can’t see them, so it’s hard to make sure they’re attentive.”

While there are limitations to this study, it is clear that students and their families are currently experiencing a high level of stress. Many schools have been aware of this problem and have taken steps to embed extra programming into their students’ weeks. We need to continue to prioritize community connection and wellness for students attending school in-person and online. It is important to ensure that students know who they can reach out to and how, particularly those learners who are not stepping foot into a school building this year. It is also important to build in opportunities for stress management, as well as instruction in healthy habits, such as exercise, sleep hygiene and healthy eating. Clearly both children and their caregivers could benefit from this type of support right now. If you or a loved one is experiencing heightened emotional stress, it is important to reach out for help. This can include alerting your child’s school to their increasing stress, as well as bringing concerns to your child’s doctor. A referral to a psychologist or licensed mental health professional may be in order to help you and your child through this difficult time.

Source: Remote Students Are More Stressed Than Their Peers In The Classroom, Study Shows by Erin Einhorn, 2/15/2021 published by NBC News.

 

About the Author
Dr. Amity Kulis joined NESCA in 2012 after earning her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, with a concentration in Children, Adolescents and Families (CAF). She completed post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology with an emphasis on treating children with developmental, intellectual, learning and executive functioning challenges. She also has extensive training psychological (projective) testing and has conducted individual and group therapies for children of all ages. Before joining NESCA, Dr. Kulis worked in private practices, clinics, and schools, conducting comprehensive assessments on children ranging from toddlers through young adults. In addition, Dr. Kulis has had the opportunity to consult with various school systems, conducting observations of programs, and providing in-service trainings for staff. Dr. Kulis currently conducts neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for school-aged children through young adulthood. She regularly participates in transition assessments (focusing on the needs of adolescents as they emerge into adulthood) and has a special interest in working with complex learners that may also struggle with emotional challenges and psychiatric conditions. In addition to administering comprehensive and data-driven evaluations, Dr. Kulis regularly conducts school-based observations and participates in school meetings to help share her findings and consultation with a student’s TEAM.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Kulis or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

 

How to Not Worry Alone: Signs Your Teen May Need More Help

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

As we reach nearly a year since children and teens in Massachusetts were sent home from school, many of us are experiencing the sadness and disappointment that comes from chronic stress. Combined with colder weather keeping us indoors and more limited daylight, it’s certainly harder for us to stay positive and upbeat. Children and teens have experienced tremendous and immeasurable loss over the last year – loss of normalcy, of freedom, of rites of passage like graduations, of competition and sport, of friendships, to name a few. Some have lost loved ones to illness and death, and others to separation and distance. They have experienced large doses of social deprivation and far less interaction with the world. And, while most children and teens will weather this storm, there are some whose resilience is very much at risk.

The evidence strongly suggests that there are increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal ideation in children and teens. Some changes in your child or teen since the “good old days” pre-pandemic are expected, just as ebbs and flows in our mood throughout the day or week are. So how is one to know when the situation is going from “normal adjustment” to the completely abnormal pandemic to a more dire and urgent need for help?  Here are few signs to keep alert to:

  • If you see your child withdrawing from activities they enjoy – even those around the house – pay attention. This might mean that a teen has stopped showing interest in baking projects, in connecting with friends over gaming, in watching movies with the family, etc. The shift from limited social interactions to total isolation is important.
  • If you see your child persistently struggling with daily living activities that used to be somewhat easy, keep a close eye on sleep and hygiene. Depressed children and teens tend to sleep much more or even much less than their peers with a sense of being tired and lethargic. Be alert for newer changes in hygiene and bathing that may have not been an issue before.
  • If you are noticing a persistent low or sad mood, pay attention to how your child talks about the future. A sense of hopelessness or difficulty articulating anything they look forward to about the future (for a family trip, for a chance to see a friend again, for a new season of a favorite show) is a sign that emotional health is precarious.
  • If you notice behavioral outbursts that happen more often and seem to grow more intense, your child or teen may be showing the irritability and anger that is common in depression in children and teens.
  • If your child had signs of anxiety or depression before the pandemic, the increased stress is likely to hit harder.

If a child or teen’s low mood seems to be persistent (around all the time) and pervasive (no matter what they are doing), it’s time to reach out for help. If you have noticed these struggles, who do you call?

  • Start with your child’s pediatrician. Many clinics have social workers on staff who can help to locate service agencies in your area. You can call and request a list of referral agencies or therapists. It may also help to ensure that there are not physical illnesses that are underlying the emotional problem.
  • Contact your child’s school. It’s worthwhile to check out how your child’s teacher perceives their engagement with school since a decline in academic functioning and even motivation to do any school work can be an important sign of a problem. Contact the guidance counselor, school psychologist, or social worker to ask for support. If the staff are unable to arrange therapy at school, they can provide names of therapists in the community.
  • Contact your insurance company either by calling or reviewing information on their website. Most providers are using telehealth platforms to interact with clients. Insurance companies regularly contact providers who are paneled to take insurance to see if they are accepting new patients for telehealth.
  • Ask friends or family for any providers they may have worked with in the past.

Asking for help for your struggling child or teen is a brave and powerful message. It shows your child that you do not ever need to worry alone.

 

For additional resources, please see:

The American Psychological Association at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/06/covid-suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/young-adults.html

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

 

About the Author

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Anxiety Reducers for Children and Teens with ASD

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Research indicates that children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are more sensitive to heightened physiological sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight” response), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, feeling “on edge” and body-based tenseness. Heightened physiological arousal is neurologically connected to sensory processing and emotional responses. This is why some children with ASD have “high startle responses” or sensitivities to specific sensations, such as touch or sounds. This is also why some children and teens with ASD are vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, particularly within social situations and settings.

There is growing research focusing on possible strategies and interventions that reduce anxiety and “buffer” the “fight or flight” response that can be activated for many children and teens with ASD.

5 Research-driven Anxiety Reducers:

Animals: Include companion or therapy animals in social groups or social outings (particularly new social events). In one study, children with ASD showed a 43% decrease in skin conductance responses during free play with peers in the presence of animals, as compared to toys (O’Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2015).

Exercise: Make a plan to engage in a “warm up” body-based activity right before a social event when anxiety levels are increasing (e.g., jumping jacks, burpees, squats). Research indicates that exercise calms the amygdala and decreases physiological arousal.

Relax or Distract: Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Recent research has indicated that regular and routine engagement in PMR sessions can be a useful strategy for individuals with ASD. Distract yourself from the anxiety-producing situation for the short term (e.g., count by 3s, name three things you can see and hear in the room, repeat words from your favorite song in your head).

Plan to Take a Break: Children and teens can benefit from having a healthy “escape plan” to take a break from socially-demanding and sensory-demanding settings (e.g., a large event like a play or concert, a college lecture, an interview for a job). Research indicates that “rest breaks” during mentally demanding tasks result in increased alertness, decreased fatigue and heightened relaxation.

Social Stories: Social stories provide the opportunity to practice and prepare for stressful situations, decreasing “fight or flight” responses. Read more about examples and applications of social stories in my colleague, Dr. Erin Gibbons’ previous blog post.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Click here to learn more about NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Good Night, Sleep Tight: What if I Can’t Sleep Right?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

The American Psychological Association recently issued a press release about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our dreaming. Not surprisingly, the information in four published articles indicates that people are having more anxious dreams now. This seems obvious given the emotional toll and high levels of stress as everyone juggles work, virtual school, health and safety, and family needs in a pandemic. We have an overflowing plate of stress on our hands with distant notions of when this stress will end. While these articles describe the anxious dreaming and sleep of adults, it’s not a stretch to consider that children and teens may have disrupted sleep right now. Their plates are overflowing, too, as they manage virtual and hybrid learning, confusing social demands, less movement and exercise than usual, and less contact with both adults and kids.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sleep to our system. Sleep is when our body restores itself, builds important immune functions and consolidates memories and learning. When children do not get enough sleep, we can see a whole host of problems, including issues with attention, concentration, learning, irritability, poor emotion regulation and risky behaviors in addition to the physical health outcomes.

What do we do to help our kids and teens get more and better sleep? It’s time to get sleep hygiene back on track. It’s possible to do even if the pandemic has caused the norm to drastically shift. Here are some tips for promoting sleep for children and teens:

Establish a consistent schedule. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Establish consistent times for settling down for bed and waking up that are the same every day of the week. Try to stick to this schedule whether your child is having an in-person learning day or remote, whether it is a weekend or weekday. This can be tricky with teenagers who tend to sleep in on weekend days. Try to stick within an hour, if possible, to get your body on a more consistent schedule. Avoid naps during the day if you can, even if there has been a rough night of sleep (or limit naps to less than 30 minutes). Daytime napping can interrupt night sleep patterns.

Develop a routine to settle for bed. Children and teens need to settle down for bed gradually. We can’t go from wide awake to peaceful slumber in a few moments. Limit screen time 30 minutes before bed as the light that is given off by televisions, phones or other devices confuses our systems and causes delays in releasing melatonin (the magic sleep hormone). Choose the same relaxing activity each night. Children and teens can read (or listen to a story read aloud by a parent), listen to an audiobook, color in special coloring book, listen to music or a podcast, or take a warm bath or shower. Include your child or teen in conversations about what relaxing activity to try before bed. Keep the same activity for several weeks before trying other ones. The brain does not want variety when you are trying to settle for bed, or it can become more alert in the face of a novel activity. The routine promotes relaxation.

Schedule talk time. Children and teens tend to think about their day as they are laying down. This can lead to “just one more thing” that kids have to tell us or one more question. They can also anticipate what is happening next, which can lead to an increase in anxiety. Schedule a “talk time” with your child or teen to discuss the day and think ahead to tomorrow. Do this at least 30 minutes before bedtime (ideally closer to dinnertime) to avoid a lengthy conversation that can activate anxiety. Use this time to validate feelings and model problem-solving about any issues coming up.

Provide comfort after dreams. We can expect that everyone may wake up at some point after an anxiety dream. If we can predict it, it can make it feel less overwhelming. Teach children and teens what to do when they wake up feeling anxious, including seeking the support of their parent for the very upsetting ones. Offer comfort and a tuck back into bed. Encourage your child to talk about how to resolve the frightening dream in a way that is silly, funny or triumphant to shift the focus away from what felt upsetting. Have a scary dream about a monster? Imagine him having to perform a ballet while balancing hot sauce on his head. Have an anxiety dream about a teacher yelling at you for forgetting your homework? Imagine turning it in and your teacher leading the rest of class in a celebratory song. You can also encourage children or teens to think of their favorite movie or book, and ask them to close their eyes and replay the movie or book to refocus the mind.

Practice breathing. To soothe our overactive anxiety systems, practice taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath filling up the back of your lungs and visualize the air going through your body. Practice circle breathing where air comes in one nostril and out the other (of course it comes in and goes out both!).  With younger kids, a little modeling helps. You can also encourage kids and teens to tense different parts of their body, hold for a count of 10, and then release to feel more relaxed.

Reach out for help. If your child or teen has persistent trouble with sleep, contact your pediatrician. It may be time for a more thorough evaluation to rule out sleep disorders, medical causes or behavioral patterns that signal a bigger sleep problem.

 

For more information, please check out these resources:

American Psychological Association (APA) press release related to dreaming:  https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/09/upsetting-dreams-covid-19

Fantastic APA resource on sleep: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/ce-corner-sleep

What To Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep (2008) by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.

 

About the Author: 

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Positive Coping Strategies for Stress, Anxiety and Trauma During Times of Crisis

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Amidst the global pandemic, children, their caregivers, their teachers and therapists are naturally experiencing heightened stress and anxiety. We are more likely to be sent into “fight, flight, freeze, mode” – the body and brain’s critical survival strategy to prepare and deal with perceived threat. For example, when you see a Grizzly Bear on your hiking trail, you instinctually run, fight back or hide.

However, we can become “stuck” or more sensitive to this instinctual urge, which is not adaptive and can negatively impact physical, emotional and social health. For example, chronic deployment of the “flight, flight, freeze” response occurs for individuals who experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic deployment of “fight, flight, freeze” responses is also more likely amidst a global pandemic, such as COVID-19. Importantly, chronic deployment of “fight, flight, freeze” responses also occurs for individuals and communities who experience chronic racial injustice and oppression.

Under chronic experiences of stress and threat, our body remains activated and hyper-aroused, even when deploying this response is not helpful. For example, children may shut down or dysregulate when faced with even small stressors – making an error on a math worksheet or even accidentally spilling something on the table. Children and teens may be more irritable, defiant or isolative. Overall, chronic deployment of the “fight, flight, freeze” response heightens anxiety, stress and general feelings of malaise.

So, what can we do? What can we do to “turn off” or lessen this stress response? What are some ways to positively cope during these difficult times?

  1. Research shows that the #1 resiliency factor is the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship with an adult. Build connection and community through shared activities and conversations about your experiences. Remember to always take care of yourself before taking care of others – self-care is critical.
  2. Focus on validation first; problem-solving second. Validating, acknowledging and accepting pain, distress, hurt and the like builds communication and naturally decreases tension and stress. Validation is the essential first step prior to action, problem-solving and positive coping.
  3. In order to grow positive coping, it is helpful to build mastery and self-expression. Strategies that can help to both organize and “release” feelings and stressful experiences rather than “bottle them up” include:
  • Use your body to heal your mind: play, do yoga, engage with nature, exercise;
  • Engage in shared action to promote communication and change at a community and systemic level. Volunteer or advocate for a cause of importance. Contact your local legislators and express your concerns;
  • Write or draw about your experience. Use collages, images or videos to express your goals, experiences and fears;
  • Engage in therapeutic movement. Create a music playlist for various emotions. Dance or engage in rhythmic actions (e.g. knitting, pottery);
  • Identify your strengths and what you value in life. Happiness is fleeting – goals and values last longer and support positive coping. For a free strengths and values survey, check out: https://www.viacharacter.org/;
  • Connect with community resources available in your area, such as therapists, mentors, religious organizations, support groups, local-nonprofits, etc.; and
  • Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.