Helping children cope with stress the focus of Groton forum

Groton — Author Jeanine Fitzgerald, who spoke at a Monday forum at Fitch High School about how to help children build resilience and cope with stress, began her talk by saying "Children haven't changed, but childhood has."

Fitzgerald cited patterns based on research that point to an increase in narcissism and peer cruelty accompanied by a decrease in empathy. She listed statistics, such as a threefold increase in cyberbullying in 2014.

She then asked the about 85 parents, educators, community members and child service providers in attendance if they agreed that when it comes to resilience and helping children cope, there's a lot out there to help children cope with.

"It's a different world," she said.

Fitzgerald, the author of "The Dance of Interaction: A Guide to Managing Children's Challenging Behaviors," was the keynote speaker at "Healthy Development: A Summit on Infant, Child, and Adolescent Mental Health," the fourth mental health summit sponsored by Groton Public Schools and Children First Groton along with town and city officials.

Fitzgerald said to help build resiliency within children, which is decreasing, start with the child.

"One of the things I've said for a lot of years is we shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with the child," Fitzgerald said. "We should be asking what has happened to the child, because it's in the story of the child's life that you find the stressors that become sort of the foundation to some of the behaviors and emotions that we see."

She said that many children and adolescents who are struggling are part of environments "that are not necessarily supportive of the authentic needs of that child." That includes environments where children aren't given a chance to play and where children are put into academic and competitive worlds at much younger ages.

Her presentation asked three questions when considering how to create environments that support children: What does it take to balance brain chemistry? What does it take to strengthen the body and energize it for the demands of life? What does it take to cultivate a spirit of joy?

She said that when there is stress, children exhibit "survival behaviors and survival emotions,” such as fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and, for some children, depression. She said "stress is cumulative," with school a top source of stress for children, along with the social world and pressures from social media for middle school and high school students.

According to her presentation, children in survival mode may fall into four coping strategies of behavior: the "troublemaker" who other people may label as angry or hostile; the "mascot" who is the class clown and uses humor to survive; the "invisible child" who is described as quiet and withdraws to not be a problem for others; and the "super kid" or "hero" who is overly compliant and a perfectionist. She said that the challenge with the "invisible child" is if the problem plaguing the child isn't dealt with, "these are the children that are at great risk of being school shooters." She said the "super kid" is at risk for eating disorders, depression and suicide.

She said the coping strategies are the symptom of an "unsolved problem." That problem is the stressful environments that they are part of and the stress which  becomes cumulative over time.

She said helping children cope calls for identifying their unmet needs and tapping into the place where they draw strength, success, and pride, even in the midst of struggles. She said adults should create an approach to help children overcome whatever the deficit is and maximize their opportunity for growth. She also shared a list of seven deep connections that children need, including connections to themselves, their community, and nature.

After the talk, attendees, including parents, teachers, and community members, had conversations in smaller groups to discuss signs of stress, contributing factors to stress at home and school, and what are the needs of families.

In a break-out session attended by Fitzgerald, participants shared ideas to help children deal with stress: including offering encouragement; emphasizing the "big picture" and focusing on growth; giving children time to play more and not worrying about them being bored; and not falling prey to competing with other parents about what their children are doing. 

Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin said in a phone interview that if a group of superintendents in the state or nation were asked to name the most pressing issue they would say mental health and wellness and dealing and coping with mental health and trauma. She noted that it's very hard to have students learn when they are having trouble coping or facing social-emotional worries. Austin highlighted programs Groton Public Schools uses to teach the whole child and focus on mental health.

She said the conversations at the forum will help the school system, city, town and Children First better understand and address the needs of the community. After one of the first forums, a resource guide was developed so people can look up to see where they can find help, from providers with medical or counseling backgrounds to yoga and mindfulness resources.

Fitzgerald is slated to provide professional development to elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals on Tuesday.

k.drelich@theday.com

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