Occupational Therapy and Pediatric Mental Health
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Does your child struggle with anxiety? With big emotions that make home routines a huge challenge? Does your child have extreme fears that make going out difficult or refuse to participate in classroom activities? Does your child react with aggressive behaviors towards others? Does he or she self harm?
Think of an OT as a detective working alongside you to figure out what exactly is going on with your loved one. She will, through conversation, observation, and play try to get a comprehensive picture of your child, their environment and the demands placed on them in order to understand where a mismatch may exist between your child’s abilities and what they are asked to do. From there she can help find practical strategies for home and school, help your child understand their feelings and learn tools to manage them, and maybe make recommendations for other tools and resources that may help.
For example, think of Jack- he has a lot of difficulty following classroom routines and staying focused on his work in his grade one class. He also can be quite emotionally reactive, having frequent meltdowns and also at times striking out at his classmates or his parents. At home, his parents have significant difficulty getting him out the door in the morning and to bed at night, and he seems to have a screaming meltdown whenever they go out shopping.
These difficulties can be caused by sensory sensitivities- for example sounds in the classroom or in busy places that are making Jack feel overwhelmed. They can be caused by a decreased body awareness, making Jack feel out of touch and ungrounded, and as well creating movement needs that never seem to be met. He may have social anxieties and fears of new situations. He may have decreased cognitive skills, having difficulty organizing his thoughts and knowing what to do during transitions, and feeling lost with work that is above his head. He may have an overactive stress response due to a past trauma. Or the difficulties may be caused by a combination of these things.
Or think of Maggie, the 13 year old who hasn’t been able to attend school all year. She feels panicky and nauseous every time she is in the classroom. She can’t sleep well at night, and she’s started going out with friends less and less. She’s seen different counselors, but they haven’t seemed to help.
Or Lyla who screams every time her mom tries to bathe her or change her diaper. She takes her clothes off all the time and has meltdowns every time the family goes somewhere new.
Or Jason, who can never sit still and always seems to be getting into physical altercations with his peers, who’s school work is a mess and is constantly getting sent out of the classroom for being a disruption.
An OT can help you understand your child more, and help tease out what is causing your child’s difficulties at home, school, or in the community. From there she can give practical strategies in terms of environmental changes, routines, movements, ways of responding, breathing exercises, grounding activities etc, to help your child function at their very best. She can work with your child to understand his or her body and feelings and to learn what it feels like to be calm, or to be over stimulated or anxious; and to learn practical strategies to move back into a ‘just right state’. She can help find strategies to improve engagement in every day moments like morning routines, meal times, school activities, cooperative play, exploring the world, going shopping, and getting ready for bed.
Your child may still need a counselor, or a psychologist, or some other professional, but with Occupational Therapy you can get a better picture of what your child might need, and as well gain additional tools and resources to start making changes immediately. And sometimes, Occupational Therapy is just what your child needs to feel safe in their bodies and in touch with their worlds in order to be ready for other therapies or interventions.