By Mark Nicklawske

Work or school difficulties, money problems and complicated family dynamics typically trigger high levels of adult stress and trauma that can trickle down to children and cause serious developmental issues.

Many children learn to deal with these difficult life situations through strong families, good friends, solid schools, faith organizations and healthy group activities. But officials at Cambia Hills, the mental health treatment arm of The Hills Youth and Family Services, said sometimes kids need more help.

“Even when these natural supports are consistent and highly functioning, they sometimes are not enough,” said Cambia Hills Outpatient Clinical Supervisor Christine Squier.

Some children need more help than others as they deal with stressful life issues like experiencing change, getting through tough situations or feeling uncomfortable. When children struggle and encounter bigger problems, it may be time to seek out professional assistance.

“If your child starts to experience bumps that are increasing in intensity and start to last longer without resolve, this is a time to utilize new sources of support beyond the already established natural support system,” said Squier. “One option is psychotherapy.”

Squier said when psychotherapy is used in a timely manner it can be a brief intervention and help children increase their ability to manage life problems and handle future bumps in the road.

“It can be difficult to notice when your child could benefit from psychotherapy,” she said. “Too often warning signs are ignored and lead to bigger problems such as academic failure, reduced engagement in their natural support network or beginning substance use.”

Squier listed several early warning signs:

  • Sudden, unexplained drop in grades
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Preferring to be alone rather than with friends or family
  • Loss of self confidence and personal effectiveness
  • Persistent negative thinking (especially in pre-adolescence)
  • Increased physical issues like head or stomach aches and chronic fatigue
  • Intense and ongoing mood swings that include fear, anger or sadness
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory issues
  • Changes in behavior that include fighting, refusal to attend activities or school, not doing schoolwork, avoiding social interactions or arguing with authority figures
  • Substance use – including overuse of energy drinks, vaping and JUUL

Brianna Carkhuff, case manager for a new Cambia Hills youth mental health unit, said children are not immune to serious mental health issues.

“Trauma can happen at any age,” she said. “It seems that there’s a lot of kids that are working through a lot of different types of trauma and don’t have the services they need. So obviously the trauma is coming out in a lot of different behaviors.”

Sometimes parents are unable to manage these behaviors.

Cambia Hills offers a several options to help treat youth mental health issues.  Day treatment programs have been established at Rockridge Academy in Lakeside and in the Denfeld neighborhood, an intensive residential treatment program was recently expanded to now treat children ages 10-17; and community-based services are in place at the Washington Center in the Duluth Central Hillside.

Carkhuff said therapy programs are designed to give youth the tools to manage issues throughout their life.

“We can try and help change (behavior) around before it gets so ingrained that it kind of becomes their way of life,” she said.

It’s difficult to determine if children are experiencing more trauma than past generations or if parents and professionals are more aware of the problems. Either way, said Carkhuff, it pays to address issues early.

“The younger that we get them, say 10-years-old, we still have time to get in there and really try to help them develop positive ways of coping with life’s hard stuff,” she said.

Squier said therapy may be brief and last a few months or can become an ongoing support system for both child and family. “Effective therapy can have a variety of long term impacts that improve the course of a your child’s life,” she said.

Therapy increases insight, language and skills for children to better understand their emotions, said Squier. Once they understand their feelings they can find the motivation to improve their lives and build confidence in themselves.

“There is no ‘one way’ to live that leads to happiness or success,” said Squier. “Each child needs to accept themselves and find out what success is for them and how they can get they can get there.”