Special needs are often associated with physical disabilities. While not as visible, special needs also includes learning, emotional and behavioral challenges. Common mental health challenges are anxiety, depression, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and (obsessive-compulsive disorder) OCD. There are different levels of emotional challenges ranging from mild and moderate to more severe.
Mental health challenges in children often go under-diagnosed for different reasons. Parents might unintentionally ignore their child’s needs as they think their child is just acting out and may not realize that there is an underlying issue. Teachers most often have not been trained to identify emotional needs in their students. For example, they might not realize that when a student raises their hand often to go to the bathroom, there can be an underlying emotional issue in the classroom. There can be breakdowns in communication with a child and their parents, teachers and pediatricians. If the child doesn’t understand or cannot verbalize their emotions, the adults may not be fully aware of the child’s emotional distress. And finally, there is still a stigma associated with mental health issues, which might prevent parents from reaching out for help.
Rates of children and adolescents with mental health disorders are increasing dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six U.S. children aged 2 to 8 years old has a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.
Dr. Jessica Borelli, associate professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine and advisory board member of the Extraordinary Lives Foundation in Mission Viejo says, ”The best way to know if your child is hurting is to stay in close emotional contact with them. Make space for your child’s thoughts and feelings in your daily life by carving out time to talk to your child every day. Express an interest in knowing what is really going on inside of them and show them that you can handle their biggest feelings when they have them.”
Experts agree that early diagnosis and treatment for both children and their families are key.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” This famous African proverb certainly applies to children with emotional special needs. It’s critical for community collaboration so children can grow up in safe and healthy environments. A child’s core support team — parents, caregivers, physicians and teachers — should be familiar with warning signs that help detect emotional challenges sooner than later. For example, a shift in a child’s behavior can mean that they are experiencing an emotional challenge. A quiet child might seem more agitated or aggressive whereas an outgoing child might withdraw and isolate themselves. Children might experience physical ailments such as stomach issues or headaches, which could indicate an underlying emotional cause. They might also engage in escape and avoidance behaviors, which will get them out of an environment that is causing them stress or distress. A student may frequently ask to be excused in class or want to stay home if they are experiencing negative emotions at school.
The key is open and honest communication between parents, educators and health professionals. By identifying early signs of emotional distress, the issues can be brought to light and treated.
Many resources are available to children and their families through the county and mental health community partners. Pediatricians and schools are a great first line of defense to evaluate and guide families on their journey to obtain help. The OC Health Care Agency (855-OC-Links) provides phone and online support for anyone seeking information or referral to any of the Health Care Agency’s Behavioral Health Services for both children and adult mental health.
Extraordinary Lives Foundation was formed five years ago to address mental health issues in young children. The Orange County-based nonprofit published “The Power of Piggie Bear” as a teaching tool to empower children and increase their emotional intelligence. It focuses on self-acceptance and self-love while helping children to identify their emotions and comfort themselves. One of the tools is Piggie Bear’s deep belly breathing to create an internal feeling of calm.
The book was instrumental in helping a Lake Forest family whose preschooler was threatened at school and literally given methods to end her life by a group of 3- and 4-year-old boys. “The Power of Piggie Bear” helped the 4-year-old girl decrease her anxiety, and identify and talk about her emotions. The family has also used therapy and other forms of holistic healing.
The Piggie Bear plush animal is utilized with the book to provide unconditional love, comfort and support for children in hospitals, foster care, military families and children’s shelters.
Extraordinary Lives Foundation is currently working with several health-related professionals to create a curriculum for the perinatal, prenatal and postpartum stages of pregnancy, geared toward parents helping their children. The organization also guides parents to alternative healing modalities to help their children live happier and healthier lives.
Mara James is the founder and CEO of Extraordinary Lives Foundation. She founded the Orange County-based nonprofit organization in 2015 to promote children’s mental health and wellness while supporting families with awareness, education and resources. For more information, visit ELFempowers.org.
Top Photo: A young girl hugs her Piggie Bear
Center Photo: Mara James reading “The Power of Piggie Bear” to children at CHOC
Bottom Photo: “The Power of Piggie Bear” book cover