The counseling group created a support group for children after seeing the effects the pandemic had on their mental and emotional well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous disruption in the lives of both adults and children, and many parents have seen a change in their child’s behavior and emotional well-being.
The Nurture Place saw a need for group therapy that could help children understand all the changes and disruptions happening during the pandemic, and in February the counseling center started an anxiety support group for youth.
“Something we wanted to be intentional about is that it met their needs,” said Summer Darnell, licensed mental health counselor. “That each week they look forward to it. … It’s been really fun and a really positive experience. I think parents get a lot out of someone looking after their emotional needs. We have people looking after their educational health and their physical needs, but … there hasn’t been something like this out there.
“This level of care hasn’t been available,” Darnell said. “We’re being more proactive.”
Angela Gonzalez, executive director of The Nurture Place, in Winter Garden, described the addition as “child-focused holistic programs that are going to benefit our community at large — building stronger families and communities.”
The Nurture Place’s website shares this statistic: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2 to 8 years (17.4%) has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. And, furthermore, research has shown that the majority of problems in children go undiagnosed and untreated.
Gonzalez said the counseling center’s team developed the program because they saw children needed to be able to manage higher levels of stress and anxiety because of the pandemic. It gives children a way to get together to learn new skills while discovering they aren’t alone in their feelings.
The in-person groups meets for an hour once a week for six weeks, and one has met at a local elementary school. Children are divided into age groups: younger (kindergarten through second grade) and older (third through fifth grades).
Each session follows a scheduled routine. Angie Hilken, licensed clinical social worker, said there is security in a scheduled routine … especially for children to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen.
Counselors make a list of stressful situations — such as taking a test, getting in trouble, having an ill family member or friend, or trying something new — and then ask the children to write both negative and positive responses to each stressor.
“Then we talked about, how are ways we can think about things that are maybe more negative or, even though it’s stressful, how can we think positively,” Hilken said.
The counselors have found that through fun and play, the participants are able to relax and open up about their emotions and “be themselves,” Darnell said.
Through these sessions, the counselors discovered even really young children can experience stress and anxiety.
“Because of the pandemic, the ability for people to just be available has lessened,” Hilken said. “Because we have all felt more stress and changes, and we’re trying to acclimate to that, and I think what gets lost is the ability to notice what’s happening for our children. We’ve been super fortunate that we have parents who say, ‘We are worried,’ or ‘We just want to make sure they’re OK … and have skills they can carry forward for the rest of their life.’”
These skills are designed to help children who are exhibiting changes in behavior, such as withdrawal or a tendency to have heightened emotional reactions, as well as sleeping and eating disruptions. Some might become withdrawn or show heightened emotional reactions.
“That’s one of the things we focus on in the group — ‘When I’m experiencing stress, how do I recognize that to be able to communicate it to be able to say I need help?’” Hilken said.
Letters are sent home to parents that summarize that week’s session and share tips on strengthening communication at home.
Gonzalez experienced the sessions as a parent, as well, when her daughter participated in a group.
“I was really impressed as a parent that they can recognize when they are dysregulated and how they can regulate to calm down — not just my child but everyone,” she said. “One thing we talked about is it’s OK to have all these feelings at one time and it’s OK to talk about it and it’s OK to express it and talk about those feelings. I think that takes care of a lot of stress.”
Normalizing mental health is important, and The Nurture Place’s goal is to help people understand that counseling is not just for folks with extreme depression.
“Reopening (after the pandemic) is also going to bring a whole new level of anxiety and stress for families,” Hilken said. “Yes, the pandemic and what we’ve been through has been stressful, but opening provides a new level of stresses. ‘How am I going to ensure my child is safe?’”
Communication and community support are key.
“We’re really hopeful that we as a community can support families as … we’ve gone through the pandemic together and we’re going to be coming out of it together,” Darnell said. “Even though it’s a positive adjustment, of change, it brings another level of stress, of uncertainty.”
WHAT CAN HELP
The Nurture Place offers ways for children to cope with stress and emotions.
“Throughout the groups we’re practicing sharing with one another, mindfulness techniques such as breathing and relaxation,” Darnell said. “We’re taking care of our bodies by making sure we’re hydrated and we’re getting a snack. That’s very important in keeping ourselves calm and healthy.”
Other tips include practicing problem solving, conscious breathing and imaging themselves in a safe place.
Now that school is out, parents can help their children adjust by keeping basic daily routines even though it is summertime. Parents should plan a time of connection with their children, including game nights, dance parties, exercise and fun activities they can plan together.
“One very helpful thing parents can do for their kids this summer … is listen,” Hilken said. “Our children express their needs sometimes through words but most often through behaviors; when we can slow down and notice, we are better able to meet those needs.”
For more information, visit thenurtureplace.org, which also has a link for classes that are starting again in the fall. The counseling center is located at 1001 W. Plant St.