“Why would kids be stressed out?” some might ask. They don’t face difficult issues, such as the cost of living and the pressures of the working world. Don’t they just happily skip through their young lives? Robin Alter, a clinical child psychologist, says she has come across these attitudes frequently over her 40 years of practice.
“We naively think of childhood as a time of play and carefreeness, devoid of responsibilities. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Dr. Alter notes that acquiring knowledge can be highly stressful. Children and youth are constantly confronted with new learning curves. On top of developing skills and abilities, she points out, they need to figure out what the rules of behaviour are, how to socialize, manage emotions and act appropriately.
“We are more challenged when we are children than we are for the rest of our lives. Children, like adults, are trying to succeed in the world, whether it’s socially or athletically or academically, or just being good kids in their family,” she says. “It weighs heavily on them. Their stress is enormous.”
Unfortunately, that emotional turmoil can lead to mental health issues that may impact them for the rest of their lives. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 70 per cent of those with mental illness first experienced symptoms before age 18. Mental health disorders affect approximately 1.2 million children and youth in Canada. By age 25, that number rises to 7.5 million, or about one in five Canadians.
“Young people are suffering with mental health afflictions at alarming rates,” says Kofi-Len Belfon, also a clinical child psychologist. “Certainly, they do face significant pressures and challenges.”
Both Dr. Alter and Dr. Belfon agree that addressing these needs, helping children build a strong foundation for mental health, and enabling them to develop tools for social and psychological resiliency is essential work. Both are trustees of Strong Minds Strong Kids, Psychology Canada, a charitable organization founded almost 50 years ago as The Psychology Foundation of Canada, aimed at promoting mental well-being based on psychological science and the design and delivery of evidence-based programming.
Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon
A clinical child psychologist
Strong Minds Strong Kids, Psychology Canada has developed a suite of programs centred around providing coping strategies for babies and their caregivers, children and teens, making them available to communities across Canada, according to Dr. Alter.
“Within the last five years alone, more than one million kids have been impacted by these programs at minimal or no cost,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”
Dr. Belfon adds, “Being on the side of health promotion is refreshing.”
As a parent, “watching our kids go through pain as they learn is really tough,” he says. “But without measured exposure to challenges, kids will never learn how to manage difficulties and regulate those strong emotions that arise.
“The better we can manage our mental health, the more resilient we can be in the world in terms of facing adversity and bouncing back from it,” notes Dr. Belfon. “I think it’s also important to practise self-kindness and having compassion for ourselves.”
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