Solving emotional distress in children and teens

My daughter is really struggling, how can I help her?

Many, many parents find their children having emotional stuggles. They might have a story like CeeJai on the SAMHSA Stakeholder input forum:

I have a daughter [labeled with] paranoid schizophrenia who refuses to go to a hospital or take medication, because according to her— there is nothing wrong with her. My daughter has been homeless, without food and too afraid to let anyone know where she was located. She walked out of her apartment in the middle of December —-because she believed the people who were living in the apartment above her had a “meduca machine” that could read her mind. She walked out and never went back to the apartment again—she was too afraid!!!!

What can we do to help these people? This is my story of what helped me through my own challenges of “psychosis” and homelessness without using labels that would apply for the rest of my life.

 Before Medicating Children and Teens Was Possible

As a suicidal teenager in the early ‘60’s – homicidal when the teasing got too bad – I was saved by my special gift and motivation for Jewish studies., College professors at the Baltimore Hebrew University made a huge fuss over me, (I attended 10 hours a week in junior high and high school.)

Local and national Jewish leaders who visited my father and grandfather allowed me to sit at their table as an equal.  It gave me a sense of competence, importance, purpose, direction, and community that I did not get from public school.

There was no medication except tranquilizers in those days.

Activities like acting, music, visual art, gardening, volunteer work, and sports can do the same for other children and teens that Jewish studies did for me, depending on the young person’s interests and ability.

“Psychosis” or Spiritual Awakening?

Twice as a junior in college, at 18 and 19, I had what many docs would call “psychotic breaks.”  The first time, scared to death. I ran to the student health service, where they shot me full of 1,200 cc. of Thorazine. It took a week to recover from the drug.

Six months later, an enjoyable walking hallucination that I experienced as a “spiritual awakening” ended scary. I refused the Thorazine, convinced the experience had important content I needed help understanding. I did not want to be “cured” of it. I decided not to talk to any shrink who thought having a spiritual experience meant I was crazy.

The college psychologist said lots of people my age have spiritual experiences. I went home three weeks early, and spent the summer working with a psychiatrist who was an expert on very creative adolescents, Jewish mysticism, and the identity crisis.

We explored the dominant themes in my life, discovered and faced the early childhood trauma underlying most of my current emotional distress. In our last session, he said that I did have a spiritual experience in the sense that I saw the dominant themes of my life spontaneously, symbolically, and metaphorically.

The two docs asked me what happened instead of telling me what was wrong with me.  They validated my experience. Neither mentioned medication or a diagnostic label, except “very creative.”

I was OK after that until I started being traumatized in my first career choices.

Medicating Children and Teens Today

Four years ago, my nephew had problems adjusting as a college freshman. His prosperous, professionally educated, high achieving parents put him on medication.  He became suicidal, scaring other students and school administrators, who sent him packing.  To get back into that school, he had to prove he was no longer “sick.”  It took him two years to prove that negative.

Another friend refused to medicate her difficult child. When school officials threatened to terminate her parental rights, she promised to comply.  At the end of the successful school year, school officials said, “Aren’t you glad you listened to us?”

“I never filled any of those prescriptions,” she said. “I did his homework with him every night, made sure he understood it, and told him he was a bright, good boy.  He acted out because the teachers treated him like a stupid behavior problem.”

Validation, support, positive reinforcement, a sense of purpose and community, physical exercise, spirituality, gardening, the arts, and other creative and social outlets are all evidence-based and effective methods for helping teens with emotional distress. Many times medicating children and teens is presented as the only option. Medications help some people and sometimes are necessary to get some temporary distance from emotional pain. However, just as in treating physical pain, the root cause of emotional distress must be solved. If the pain is not able to be removed, just as with chronic physical pain, chronic mental health is most effectively handled by self-support strategies, positive relationships, busy-ness and engagement, and building community.

Often the most important thing to do is find out what is most the most interesting thing for the young person, and use this as the peg for his/her general education.

Wordworks Blog Author: Ken Braiterman

Ken Braiterman, Wellness Wordworks board chair, has been an activist, news reporter, opinion writer, and columnist since 1968. From 1997 to 2009, he was New Hampshire's leading advocate for recovery-based mental health services. He is an advanced Wellness and Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator.

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