We live in an environment where anxiety is a prevalent problem, for both adults and children. According to the data, every year there is a profound increase in number of children and teens experiencing significant anxiety, which is affecting their mental health and contributing to the rise in diagnoses like ADHD and autism. We need to be aware of this and learn how we can support our children, teaching them how to take care of their brains and bodies, and how to become more emotionally resilient.
In this podcast (episode #219) and blog, I speak with holistic child psychologist and nutrition specialist Nicole Beurkans about how to improve your children’s attention, anxiety, mood and behavior, the importance of holistic nutrition, sleep and movement for children, how to deal with parent guilt, the truth behind labels like autism and ADHD, and so much more!
Holistic child psychologists like Nicole looks beyond the symptoms a child is experiencing and tries to see the big picture: why is this happening? They look at what is going on through different lenses: a child’s mind, their physiology, their brain development, their family system, their diet, different education levels and so on. In her practice, Nicole looks at all these pieces together to find out what is going on and create a multi-faceted plan to help the child achieve their optimum potential. This is different to many conventional psychological treatments, which usually just address the child’s symptoms after giving a diagnosis and label, and are mainly psychological, so they don’t address all of the child’s issues. As a result, their improvement does not extend to every area of their life, and their treatment often plateaus or regresses.
Indeed, just giving a child a label like ADHD doesn’t tell a parent or guardian much about why a child has the problems they have. It just points out a list of symptoms that the child is experiencing, which many parents know already, as they are the ones that brought the child in for help! Giving these symptoms a label doesn’t resolve the actual issue. If you don’t address the underlying issues, then true healing is not possible, which is what we need to deal with both the WHY and the WHAT when it comes to children’s mental health.
More and more children are being diagnosed with mental and behavioral health issues like ADHD, although the standard treatment approaches are not working to alleviate this global rise in children’s mental health diagnoses.This is a major problem in the field of mental healthcare today. People often say many of these children do not have access to appropriate treatments, but even children who do have access to treatment are not doing that well, and many are getting worse! The current psychiatric model is just not working—there is no pill or quick-fix for each of these conditions.
Mental health is not like biological health—it does not fit neatly into the biomedical model. Many of children’s mental health labels do not even have standard tests and treatments, and parents and guardians often aren’t given the opportunity for full informed consent, which outlines all the benefits AND the risks of certain treatments. We don’t even know if most psychiatric medications are safe for children in the short and long-term, as there is no conclusive body of research on many of these drugs and the effects they have on a child’s mental and physical health and development.
Unfortunately, many parents and guardians are pressured into giving these children medication and using conventional treatments. A significant number of schools and institutions force parents and guardians, often through threats of suspension or expulsion, to give their child psychiatric medications, even though this is not legal in the US.
We need to stop thinking that something is wrong with these children, and start looking at the environments we put them in. Many children are put in a highly competitive and uniform school setting that is not designed to help them succeed, and when they don’t succeed, we blame the child and say that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. We should not, for example, expect a young boy to sit still for hours reading and then think that when he wriggles or loses concentration that he has a behavioral issue. Bad school practices should never equal “bad” children.
If these experiences sound familiar, what can you do as a parent or guardian?
1. Don’t feel guilty. We all do the best we can with the information we have been given. When we know better, we can do better, so don’t feel guilty if, as a parent or guardian, you have tried a lot of conventional treatments and they have not worked for your child.
2. Address the underlying issues.
A) Nutrition: Diet is essential for a child’s brain health and development. What we put in our child’s bodies affects how their brain functions, which is why junk food is so bad! Junk food = junk behavior and junk learning. There is a ton of research on this, so be mindful of what you are feeding your child or what your child is eating at school. For more on junk food and what it does to the mind, see my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
Some ways you can start improving your child’s diet today are:
- Replace all sugary drinks like soda and juice with water, as hydration is so important for a child’s mental and physical development.
- Reduce the amount of sugar in your child’s diet, especially artificial sugars from processed and packaged foods, which have a negative impact on their ability to regulate themselves and their blood sugar, and which can, in turn, affect their mood, anxiety levels and behavior.
- Make sure your child is eating lots of nutrient dense foods like fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, natural proteins and so on—this should be the bulk of their diet. These are not just factors in weight and physical health, but brain development and function too!
- See a professional like Nicole for targeted nutrient therapies as well if needed. Research-based and effective options, like targeted diets and supplements, can make a profound difference.
B) Sleep: Studies have shown that up to 40% of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD have an undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorder. When a child starts sleeping well again, their symptoms often disappear, because healthy sleeping patterns are incredibly important for a child’s mental development.Talk to your child about their sleeping habits and be aware of the signs of a possible sleep issue, so you can address it before it turns into major problem:
- Taking a long time to fall asleep
- Waking up a lot during the night
- Very restless in their sleep
- Snoring regularly
- Gasping for air during the night
- Difficult to wake in the morning, especially when younger
- Grumpy and tired in the morning
C) Movement: Children are more sedentary than ever before in history—even at school. But physical movement, especially during a child’s younger years, drives brain development! When children are sitting passively in front of devices or screens or at a desk for long periods of time, it can negatively impact their brain development.
It is important to limit your child’s screen time and make sure they are getting a good amount of physical activity every day and playing as much as possible, both inside the home and outside when the weather is good. Look at how you can build movement in each day, like obstacle courses in the basement, family walks, jumping on a trampoline and so on. Don’t prioritize screen time as the default mode!
D) Stressors: These can be manifold, including trauma, school stressors (like bullying or peer pressure) and family stressors. They impact a child’s mental and physical development, and need to be addressed as soon as possible, especially if a child has symptoms of a mental or behavioral health issue like ADHD.
E) Relationships: Does your child have appropriate relationships that model and support emotional and behavioral self-regulation? Make sure that they are surrounded by people that help, not hinder, their development. This means creating a safe environment for our child to talk about their issues, teaching them that anxiety is a normal part of life, as well as modeling healthy coping skills and providing our children with mental health solutions, such as seeing a therapist, performing deep breathing exercises, taking breaks, doing yoga and practicing mindfulness.
But what about something like autism? Brain-based disorders like ADHD and autism exist on a spectrum in children—autism is just on the more significant end of this spectrum. There is often not a whole lot of difference between a child that has been diagnosed with severe ADHD and a child diagnosed with high-functioning autism; this is where common mental health labels often fall short in explaining what is going on.
From the research, we know that many children diagnosed with autism have significant underlying physiological issues that need to be addressed, like gastro-intestinal issues, thyroid issues, autoimmune issues, seizures and migraines. Autism is not just a mental health diagnosis or behavioral issue. If a child is truly on the autism spectrum, then this is a full body systemic issue and needs to be addressed holistically to truly support the child’s development and progress.
Traditional treatments for autism usually just focus on behavioral therapies, which are often not very effective on their own and can be very traumatizing, because they are based on rewards and punishments for certain behaviors. However, if they don’t address the child’s underlying health and physical issues, they won’t get very far with the treatment.
Relationship-based treatments for children diagnosed with autism (including different communication and language therapies), alongside addressing a child’s physical health, are far better and more effective in the long run than conventional behavioral therapies. Autism is a profound neurological and physiological disorder — a whole brain and body disorder —that affects a child’s development. The behaviors are merely symptoms of what is going on, and we should not solely rely on behavioral interventions.
For more on parenting, ADHD, autism and mental health, listen to my podcast with Nicole (episode #219), and check out her website, which has tons of great resources for parents! If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
*This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.
For more mental self-care tips to model and teach to your children, pre-order my new book 101 Ways to be Less Stressed, which is now on sale at 20% off!
You can also check out my app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the roots of your mental distress, and overcome thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental and physical wellbeing through the mental process of reconceptualization.
To learn more about how to help your children improve their mental health and resilience and overcome anxiety, register for my Virtual Mental Health Summit this December 3-6! For more see drleafconference.com. CME and CEU credits are available for PAs, NPs, RNs, MDs, DOs, and other medical professionals, and certificates of attendance will be given for physical therapists, occupational therapists and social workers!
4:25 The failure of conventional child psychology, and why a holistic approach to children’s mental health is so important
7:00 Why mental health labels don’t solve mental health problems
7:55 The truth behind labels like ADHD
10:40 What is wrong with the current psychiatric model of mental health, and why one pill won’t treat all your child’s issues
18:33 The link between children’s nutrition and mental health
19:30 Why parents or guardians are often forced or pressured into giving their children psychiatric medication
23:31 Advice for a parent whose child is battling with their mental health
29:50 The importance of reading for a child’s development
32:50 How too much sugar can impact a child’s brain function and mental health
38:33 What exactly is autism, and how can you help your child if they have been diagnosed with autism?
49:56 How to help your child and teenager if they are anxious or stressed
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