Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working with a group of parents of young people with mental health issues. They are part of an organization called F.O.R.C.E. and I was honoured to speak at their spring conference and share the self-regulation framework and its potential application to their children and the challenges they face. The session went well; people were engaged with the self-reg story, saw the links to their lived experiences, appreciated the neuroscience research behind self-regulation and its application at the individual, family, classroom, and community levels. It was clear that the conditions that promote or inhibit good mental health are equally evident at home, school and in the community and that a tie-in to the self-regulation framework is helpful.
Since that event, I have thought a great deal about what I learned from those parents and the stories they shared: the challenges, the necessary courage and the unwavering love and commitment they have for their children. Subsequent discussions with resource people from F.O.R.C.E. have deepened my awareness of the journey these kids and their parents are engaged in, sometimes with and sometimes without the system alignment, support and understanding they need. Think about a highly anxious and “dysregulated” child whose parents have worked hard to establish the best possible conditions at home. They have been tireless in their efforts to create a place where the child feels safe and nurtured, where she feels confident and competent to take risks, move out of a comfort zone and then activate strategies to return* to a “set point” of calmness and focus. *Remember that self-regulation is the capacity to expend energy in dealing with stressors and then replenish/restore energy to be ready for the next of life’s daily challenges. For that child, think about what happens when that she ventures out to the neighbourhood school and its community. When things go well, it is often because of the school staff’s professional capacity, founded in a culture of kindness and understanding, and a non-judgmental commitment that supports the young person’s journey. We don’t blame the dysregulated and overstressed/overwhelmed child; we get curious as to the conditions that led to such a state and we work with the child and family to alter some of the variables. Together, we are learning detectives. Thanks to teamwork and a positive home-school connection, we develop strategies to support self-regulation and, as necessary particularly for younger and more dependent children, to encourage co-regulation. That’s a good news story about highly committed supportive systems.
On the other hand, there can be a troubling version of the same story, one where the system rolls on, overwhelming the child with inflexible approaches, using louder and harder exhortations and increasingly anxiety-inducing reward and punishment. That approach is from a different era and we now know that overwhelming a child who is already anxious and off-balance doesn’t make things better. Which approach works? Ask the parent, the child and the teacher – there’s no doubt that building understanding, compassion and greater sophistication in strategies (in a post-behaviourist world), changes that youngster’s life chances dramatically.
The query “When will what we know change what we do?” is not the same as “When will what is known change what is done.” The former exhorts us to engage, to learn and to apply that learning. It requires new curiosity over old certainty. The latter gives us a free pass; we can wait for someone else to take charge and create an answer.
There are no free passes and there is no time to wait for someone else to solve this issue. Every day, we see and hear about examples of youth mental health crises and we know the range of stressors visiting themselves upon kids is exponentially greater than what was experienced in past generations. Kids with extreme anxiety, depression, social disconnection and other vulnerabilities are here now, in numbers greater than ever before. As our systems are asked to adapt to the emerging realities of the people they serve – especially the most vulnerable – the voices I heard at the F.O.R.C.E. session said “Thank you” to those who are on this journey with them, and “Please Hurry” to all of us as we turn our attention to their children’s needs. There is great work being done by experts in this field, and their discoveries have to become our promising practices. It is a powerful calling, with no time like the present.