Endorsed by the World Health Organisation
Endorsed by the World Health Organisation

Don’t worry, be happy plan for kids

happy plan kids

Don’t worry, be happy plan for kids

“IN A SUITE of offices behind a coffee shop in Brisbane’s multi-cultural West End, a small woman with dark hair asks a group of preschoolers about their week.

“‘What was your happy thing for the week? she asks a boy.

As the child replies, she reminds him to look her in the eye end smile.

“Did you practise what we talked about, helping someone and smiling,” she asks.

“Did you help your mum and dad? Did you give your mum a hug when she was tired?”

It’s sounds like the most casual of chats between child and adult. But this adult is psychology professor Paula Barrett and through this conversation she is carrying out her life’s mission.

She is helping to build social, emotional and coping skills in children, skills that add up to that 21st-century buzz word resilience.

In an increasingly pressured world. Barrett and others like her believe children in general — and some children in particular — need more skills to cope with life’s demands.

Barrett, head of the Pathways Health and Research Centre at West End, does not believe children have changed —but the world has.

“Life is very different now from what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” she says. “It’s more active. There’s more stimulation, lack of sleep, bad diet and developmentally inappropriate expectations for children. Everything goes so fast, lights flashing, loud noises, computers, phones. It’s just very intense stimulation all the time. And children have to grew up very fast. There’s not enough time to be children, to play and relax.”

Barrett believes all children can benefit from honing emotional, social and coping skills early on. But for one in five children the need for these skills is more acute. This is the sensitive child with increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

“This is not your average child,” Barrett says. “They are usually very artistic, or musical, or very sporty. They are in general high achievers.”

Combine this sensitive temperament with a traumatic life event and 1 child can be in trouble. A third of mastic children will develop anxiety while at primary school. And If the problem is not dealt with at this stage, it can lead to depression in late adolescence and early adulthood.

“We know one in five kids is going to be prone (to anxiety) but by mid-primary school a percentage of these will show signs — social anxiety, separation anxiety, generalised anxiety, stomach aches, headaches all the tine and they’re stressed.” Barrett says.

“If these kids don’t get help, almost surely in Years 11 and 12 or is beginning of university they are going to he depressed because we know that anxiety in primary school age is the greatest risk factor for depression in late adolescence. So it would be in everyone’s beet interests to not just say ‘what are we going to do about these depressed kids but to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Barrett does not focus on Australia’s alarming suicide statistics.

An estimated 2500 people will commit suicide this year and the number who attempt it will be up to 20 times greater. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in people aged under 30.

The goal of the Portuguese-born mother-of-two is to maximise every child’s chances of happiness through prevention or treatment of anxiety and depression.

Enter the non-profit Pathways Health and Research Centre where Barrett and her staff, all with a clinical masters degree or PhD in psychology, are working at building resilience in children.

After more than 20 years as an academic first at Griffith University and now The University of Queensland, Barrett is “walking the bridge” between academia and the community to disseminate the results of her extensive research.

RESEARCH SHOWS THAT four main factors protect against anxiety and depression.

Barrett lists these as: “Positive family interactions and unconditional family support, focusing on what is positive in the child: constructive friendships. positive thinking, being a glass half-full person; and stable, unconditional attachment.

“This is the message that no matter what your kids do, you will always love them and there will always be a place for them in your home and you will always be there for them even if you detest their behaviour.”

Also important are extended family support networks and family friendships through neighbourhood, church or sporting communities.

Pathways’ programs are aimed at helping children and their families to maximise these factors. Barrett several years ago developed the Friends program for primary and high school children. It has since been extensively clinically trailed internationally and two years ago was endorsed by the World Health Organisation as “best practice”.

The Friends program is used in primary and high schools in Canada, the US, Norway, New Zealand, Holland, Mexico, most Australian states and in some Queensland private schools.

Now Barrett has gone a step further, developing Fun Friends, a program for 4-6-year-olds, which was successfully trialled in 28 Queensland preschools last year.

Fun Friends is not yet in use in schools — it is run privately at Pathways — but Barrett’s goal is to have the program in every Queensland Prep or preschool class.

“If we work with a preschool, we teach the teachers to run the program with the parents so it’s a social and emotional skills acquisition program,” she says.

“Some of the skills are non-verbal: looking people in the eye, smiling, asking people how they are, being helpful to other people, understanding feelings in yourself and other people, taking turns, sharing, thinking happy thoughts and helpful thoughts about themselves and others, breaking challenges into small easy steps, making step plans, thinking about role models and how to be a good friend to yourself and others.”

Barrett scorns the “Aspirin fix”, the idea that emotional problems can be solved with an hour of talking. “People should feel very happy about learning social, emotional and coping skills rather than when they have a massive life problem they have to go and get treatment,” Barrett says. “Let’s prevent big problems from happening by learning skills in advance.”

Stressful times tend to be the major transition points in life, beginning school, moving from primary to high school, making career choices, starting university or work, having your first child. Anxiety can manifest as the preschooler who won’t join in games, the otherwise confident Year 7 student who suddenly develops health phobias, the bright high school student who tortures herself over assignments for fear they won’t be “perfect”.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Tony Cook agrees that childhood anxiety is a major issue in today’s society. He estimates one in 10 have an anxiety disorder but sees these children as sitting at the top of a pyramid with “a lot of kids at the bottom with sense general anxiety”.

“There has been a range of changes in society over the past 30-40 years which have had the effect of disadvantaging kids — marital break-up father’s absence. increasing use of drugs, two parents working and less extended family to help. I think kids have lost out in this world. Responses vary, but one of the responses can be more anxiety.”

Cook says recognised strategies to overcoming anxious thinking include the Friends program and books such as Helping Your Anxious Child by Ron Rapee of Macquarie University’s Anxiety Research Unit.

“Significant anxiety can have a very marked effect. It can cause kids to miss cramps and have fewer friends, decreased academic performance and reduced career options,” Cook says.

Cook advises parents to try to counter unrealistic thinking in their children and to stop avoidance. “If your child has a school phobia, every day they stay away the fear grows by 10 percent but if they go, it diminishes by 10 per cent.”

As awareness grow, of the need to build emotional resilience in children, a variety of methods are being developed.

The University of Queensland is trialling an internet treatment program for anxious children who might otherwise not receive help.

Psychologist Dr Caroline Donovan says long waiting lists for government treatment programs, coupled with the stigma and expense of seeing a private psychologist, mean many children and teenagers miss out.

“The internet is an obvious way to reach them because most families have computers and kids are computer literate,” Donovan says.

“Anxious kids are the good kids in the class so it’s not picked up by teachers. They hand their assignments in on time. They are not the behaviour-disorder kids on they are often overlooked. People say they will grow out of it. Maybe they will but maybe they won’t.” Some teenagers seek relief through substance abuse.

At Churchill, Raceview and Leichhardt state schools in the Ipswich area west of Brisbane. primary students are developing their emotional intelligence through games run by teachers from an innovative DVD, Play is the Way.

Created by Perth-based drama teacher Wilson McCaskill, the games are based on the theory of emotional intelligence, as outlined by American psychologist Daniel Goleman. “The outcome of the game can’t be achieved unless you are behaving in an appropriate way.” McCaskill says “You have to he able to control yourself, handle the team you are in and your own emotional state and stay motivated.”

On Brisbane’s northside, a cluster of 10 state and Catholic primary schools in the Geebung area has trialled a resilience project developed by Griffith University at the request of the Queensland Government.

Professor Don Stewart, who will report to Queensland Health this month, says an evaluation has found “major advantage in having a project that builds resilience and social and emotional wellbeing”

“Schools have begun to realise they have a role to plan in making children and their families feel connected to society,” Stewart say. “This will pay off over the generations.”

Stewart would like to see the program used in all Queensland primary schools.

“Building resilience at primary school leads to benefits in high school,” he says. “If they learn they’re OK, the squabbling and fighting in the peer group in secondary school doesn’t seem to be insurmountable. We are teaching skills as well as mental attitudes being able to bounce back, being able to tolerate difference, and improving your communication so people know when you are feeling down and upset.”

St Peters Lutheran College, Brisbane Girls Grammar School and St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace are among the Brisbane private schools using Barrett’s Friends program.

Converting anger

WHEN Flynn Hammonds, 5, took part in a resilience program at hi preschool last year, he learnt about “milkshake breathing”.

His mother, Kerry Hammonds, said the children were taught the breathing technique as part or the Fun Friends program trialled at the C&K Rosalie Kindergarten-Preschool in Brisbane’s inner west.

“You breathe in through your nose and count to three and then breathe out through your mouth.” Hammonds said. “You do it when you are frustrated or upset.

“When Flynn’s older sister Paris way upset recently he went up to her and said: ‘Paris, use your milkshake breathing’.”

Hammonds, a mother of three, said the preschoolers also learnt about changing their thoughts from “red thoughts” when they were frustrated or angry to calmer “green thoughts”.

And the steps to make friends were spelt out and practised.

“They learnt what to do: put a smile on your face. say ‘hello my name is Flynn, would you like to play with me’?

“There was also information about being empathetic and caring towards other people.”

The whole family, including Paris, 9, and Jack, 7, was involved through worksheets sent home with exercises to do. “It was really quite amazing,” Hammonds said. “It would be fantastic if the Government introduced it into all schools.”

Rosemary Tucker enrolled her son, Blake, 14, in the primary school-age Friends program at 11 after his school called her to say he was having social difficulties.

“The other kids wanted to include him but he wouldn’t join in. And if more than 10 people came in our home he wouldn’t come out of his room,” she said.

Tucker, of Rochedale on Brishane’s southside, said her son now had the confidence to successfully attend a large secondary boys school.

Signs of anxiety in primary school

Dr Paula Barrett says: “Anxious children may be exhibiting signs of perfectionism. They tend to think: ‘Everything has to be perfect and if I’m not sure I can be absolutely perfect I’m not even going to try’.

“They also tend to worry a lot about everything, whether people like them, whether everything is going perfectly at school. So anything new or that hasn’t gone perfectly, like a school excursion that is changed, or a new teacher, or they’ve got a B+ instead of an A+, while another person would just move on, they worry sick about it.

“They go to bed at night and they lie there for an hour or two worrying before they can go to steep and they tend to get a lot of psychosomatic symptoms. They go the GP with a lot of stomach aches and skin disorders. They find it hard to face anything new like a new teacher or a sports carnival, school excursion or school camp.”

Signs of depression in late adolescence

They Include insomnia, early morning waking, negative thinking, lack of hope and thinking that no one can help them, that no one understands.”

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