Navigating Mental Health with Children | Way of life


Oh, the youth. Full of energy and fun, but plagued with growing pains, tough lessons, and challenges of its own. Although difficulties are a natural part of life, sometimes things get too difficult, even for children.

How can parents and caregivers tell the difference between teenage hormones and something more serious? When does “bad behavior” actually indicate something else? How can caregivers approach children in a way that builds trust and connection?

Theresa Arriola, director of the Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, says this is an urgent issue after two years of pandemic-induced isolation and hiatus.

“There is a big increase in the problems that children in Guam are experiencing – adjustment problems, depression, socialization problems. And so the pandemic has really taken a toll on everyone, but especially on our children, who are just learning to cope with everyday stress,” Arriola said.

According to Arriola, there are a wide variety of things that impact a child’s mental health, from genetic predisposition to traumatic experiences, to lack of sleep or lack of routine. The presence of a stable and trusted adult in their lives is essential to help them learn to manage the feelings that arise from their experiences.

“The child needs to be consistent and know what to expect from a caring adult in their family so they can easily navigate and manage emotions and reactions to the daily stresses of life.

Everything that we have to deal with as adults, a child has to deal with as well, but they are not equipped with the coping mechanisms that, in general, adults have,” Arriola said.

What to look for

So how do you know if your child is struggling and needs support? Arriola says depression and anxiety in children and teens can look different than you’d expect and don’t necessarily manifest the same way they do in adults.

“There are the overt signs, the ones you obviously see, like arguing, yelling, bullying, fighting, things like that.

“And then there are the hidden signs, the not-so-obvious signs, like the change in eating habits, the change in sleeping habits, something they used to appreciate before all of a sudden they didn’t appreciate anymore, not spending time with certain friends that they used to spend all the time with,” Arriola said.

Start the conversation

Arriola says that whether you’re a parent, teacher, or another adult in a child’s life, it’s important that you open the conversation nonjudgmentally when you notice changes.

“Tell the child you are caring for, ‘Is everything okay? Looks like you’re going through something. If the child doesn’t want to talk, just say, ‘Okay, but know that I’m here when you’re ready to talk,’” she said.

The tone of this approach is very important, according to Arriola. Aggressively asking children to confess what’s bothering them could have the opposite effect.

“If you tend to take the very aggressive approach of, ‘What’s wrong with you, you’re different, just tell me,’ kids don’t react to that kind of stuff. . They crawl even more in their shell.

“And it goes to show that kids who are talked to very calmly and let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk go a long way. Much more than a more aggressive and intimidating type of thing,” said Arriola.

Next steps

Once this conversation is open, a new set of questions arises. What action should caregivers take if a child is open about their difficulties? Arriola says that depending on the severity of their feelings, there are several different paths.

According to Arriola, if a child is expressing feelings of depression or anxiety, continuing the conversation and maintaining that space without judgment is a great first step, as is making sure the child has a clear routine and expectations to guide their days.

Although Arriola says not all situations require counseling, and for children very rarely require medication, the Guam Health and Behavioral Wellness Center has a Child and Adolescent Services Division. available for additional support.

“If a child is open, that’s wonderful, and shares with a caring adult in their life that they have thoughts of harming themselves or others, that’s a point where you definitely want to ask. professional help.

“I recommend that you bring them to Guam Behavioral Health immediately, have an intake exam done, have an assessment done, and they will be immediately referred to our child and adolescent program. And then our fine people there, our advisors, will definitely start the process to make sure that proper professional services are offered,” Arriola said.


In the event that a child isn’t so open but a caregiver seriously suspects they may be having suicidal thoughts, Arriola says it’s important they ask the question directly.

“There’s a myth that if I think someone is going to hurt themselves, and I ask them the question, ‘Are you going to hurt yourself?’ The myth is that they will be pushed overboard.

It’s normal to ask someone, “I care about you, you seem to be in trouble.” Do you plan to harm yourself? Because it might actually open up a discussion about a kid saying, “Yeah, come to think of it, I am.” And that will then lead you to get them to the appropriate professional help that they need,” she said.

For caregivers feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect of opening such a conversation, Arriola enthusiastically offered safeTALK.

“My dream is for every person on Guam to receive at least basic safeTALK training, which is the suicide prevention training we offer.

“It’s really just a four-hour training that dispels a lot of myths about approaching someone, and how to approach someone safely and how to talk to them safely. That’s really key” , she said.

Arriola warns caregivers to avoid mindsets such as “adults didn’t tell me about this stuff and I did fine” or to treat this approach as a treat. Doing so could mean missing an opportunity to protect children from long-term harm.

“Adults with behavioral or mental health issues, or substance abuse issues, don’t just wake up and say, ‘I have a mental health issue as an adult. It happened in their childhood or youth, and they probably didn’t get the proper services that they should have.

“So there’s no such thing as being overprotective or trying to reach out and help a child,” Arriola said.


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