Occupational therapy for child and adolescent mental health enables kids and teens to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives!
As one of CASA’s occupational therapists, I have been tasked with the job to enable child and adolescent functioning by addressing key components of occupation: self-care, productivity, and leisure.
One of the challenges that we often see in child and adolescent mental health involves maladaptive behaviour and limited self-regulation. When a child or adolescent has difficulty with self-regulation, they may act out behaviourally, due to having a limited number of tools (coping strategies) in their toolbox. As a result, these children and adolescents are at risk for becoming labelled as the “problem child.” This label can have a devastating effect on a child or adolescent’s self-esteem and life trajectory. There is a huge role within occupational therapy and mental health for reframing this behaviour and challenging the convention of the “problem child.”
What is self-regulation and how does sensory modulation have an impact?
When it comes to self-regulation, occupational therapists work in partnership with other mental health professionals to help foster the development of this skill. Self-regulation refers to the ability for an individual to manage their own energy level, emotions, behaviour, and attention. There are many facets of self-regulation including the ability to tolerate strong emotions and the development of inhibition (reducing impulsive behaviour). Sensory modulation (the brain’s ability to process and organize sensory information for use) also has an impact on a person’s ability to self-regulate. It is theorized that some children and adolescents have difficulty processing sensory information and, as a result, they may become over-stimulated or under-stimulated by everyday sensations in their environment.
Why is sensory modulation important?
Imagine what it would feel like if you were a child who was extremely sensitive to even the slightest touch. The tags on your clothing and the sensation of socks on your feet are intolerable. You might have a hard time focusing in class because your clothing makes you feel itchy. You avoid standing in lines next to other kids because you are fearful that you might accidentally be touched! You are constantly in a state of overload from your sensory environment. This makes it difficult to stay regulated. Therefore, instead of calmly asking your teacher if you can stand at the back of the line (where you are less likely to be accidentally touched), you have a full blown meltdown instead. Coping with your sensory environment is hard enough without having to worry about sitting still and listening. Learning…. the primary job of a child in school might be next to impossible under these circumstances and what might look like a “problem behaviour,” may actually be a child’s nervous system struggling to cope with the sensory environment.
When a child or adolescent has difficulty modulating sensory information, it affects their whole family. Parents are often confused why everyday tasks such as bathing, eating, or brushing their hair is so difficult for their child. It may become isolating for parents who may worry about their child’s behaviour out in the community.
What can you do about it?
Luckily there are a variety of treatment options and occupational therapy, in partnership with other mental health initiatives, can help!
As an occupational therapist working within many of CASA’s programs, part of my role is to consider if there is a sensory modulation component to the behaviour that I am seeing. If there is, there may be environmental, task, or process modifications that can be put into place to ensure that there is a better match between the child’s sensory processing (their nervous system) and their environment. Through this process, I work closely with families to develop strategies to support their child or adolescent’s functioning across different environments (such as the home and school).
Occupational therapy and other mental health approaches (such as individual and/or family therapy, CBT, education on relaxation and stress management, and medication management) work together to ensure that the children and adolescents we work with at CASA develop the skills they need to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Remember, there is no such thing as a problem child!