Monthly Archives: May 2017

Is the Current Political Climate Hurting LGBTQ Youth? What Schools and Families Can Do


By Tyler Hatchel, MA (Counseling Psychology Doctoral Student, University of Florida, Espelage Lab)


How is the current sociopolitical climate impacting at-risk LGBTQ youth?


Although I believe that simply seeing or hearing about the diminished rights of diverse and oppressed folk is distressing for LGBTQ youth, Bandura’s seminal work on Social Learning Theory might suggest that the impact is more insidious. This theory posits that new behavior can be learned by simply watching and imitating others1. The likelihood of a new behavior occurring is potentially influenced by observed rewards or punishments (i.e., vicarious reinforcement).  It is then plausible that seeing aggression, discrimination, prejudice, and stigma being rewarded with monumental power could shape how all youth in the U.S. behave.


There is well established research showing that aggression in the sense of peer victimization and bullying is deleterious to the mental health of LGBTQ youth33,6,11,12,15,17. Although there are many different ways to frame aggression, Bandura (1973) has demonstrated that seeing aggressive behavior often predicts future aggression.  It follows then that the sociopolitical climate in the U. S. could predict more peer victimization directed at diverse youth like LGBTQ students.  However, there is not much school administrators and parents can do to easily change a nation’s political climate.  However, there are things one can do to change community or school climate.


What can schools do?


Create safe and supportive environments:



Accommodating the needs of LGBTQ youth are profound for improving school climate. School climate is vital when it comes to their well-being. Many studies have demonstrated that accepting and warm climates serve as protective factors whereas less accommodating climates have a negative impact on LGBTQ youth7,9,10,16.  Programs and policies play a large role in shaping school climate.


Use teachers and staff to reduce discrimination:



Teachers and staff are essential to creating welcoming environments for LGBTQ youth as well. If students hear prejudice from their teachers or do not observe an appreciation for diversity, then it is reasonable to posit that this would diminish the quality of climate and even predict student discrimination. I trust schools can protect their LGBTQ youth by hiring teachers and staff who are diverse themselves and allies for diverse youth. Watching role models be allies for LGBTQ youth could cultivate a sense of belonging for LGBTQ students.  I suspect some schools are not ready to remodel their entire staff.  If hiring is not a strategy available, training is another approach.  Cultivate an appreciation and understanding of diversity in your teachers.  Make it a point to incorporate LGBTQ-specific curriculum in your classes.


Foster school connectedness:



Feeling connected is another critical part of LGBTQ youth well-being4,5. Some research has suggested that peer victimization diminishes belonging which then predicts associated mental health issues like suicidality8. Although belonging and connectedness can be specific to an LGBTQ community, they do not have to be. LGBTQ youth can find belonging in theatre club or marching band if these programs are accepting or even appreciative of diversity.  I know I would feel connected to a band or club if the teacher was committed to social justice issues, an ally, and/or identified as LGBTQ.


But what can parents do, you ask?


You can be models for all youth by appreciating diversity in your homes and communities. Furthermore, you can advocate for the inclusion of anti-bullying programs, trans-inclusive policies, and other options like Gay Straight Alliances.  You can also push for the inclusion of diverse teachers/staff in your children’s schools.  Finally, please be an understanding and proud parent of your LGBTQ children as that is clearly another protective factor for LGBTQ youth13.


Essentials for LGBTQ youth well-being:


  • Less exposure to peer victimization
  • Warm and accommodating school climates
  • A sense of belonging and connectedness
  • Supportive families
  • Positive role models who appreciate diversity



LGBTQ youth are an incredibly important and valuable part of our society. Although these youth are clearly resilient, it is their right to be treated as equals by our schools, communities, and families.  This is especially true when dire sociopolitical climates are disheartening.


Resources for LGBTQ youth, parents, and schools:






1Bandura, A., (1971). Social learning theory. General Learning Corporation.

2Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Oxford, England: Prentice-Hall.

3Birkett, M., Espelage, D.L., & Koenig, B. (2009). LGB and questioning students in schools: The moderating effects of homophobic bullying and school climate on negative outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 989 – 1000. doi: 10.1007/s10964-008-9389-1

4Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark‐Sztainer, D., & Perry, C. L. (2003). Peer harassment, school connectedness, and academic achievement. Journal of School Health, 73, 311-316. doi: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2003.tb06588.x

5Eisenberg, M. E., & Resnick, M. D. (2006). Suicidality among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth: The role of protective factors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 662-668.

6Espelage, D. L., Merrin, G. J., & Hatchel, T. (2016). Peer Victimization and Dating Violence Among LGBTQ Youth: The Impact of School Violence and Crime on Mental Health Outcomes. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 1-18. doi: 10.1177/1541204016680408

7Goodenow, C., Szalacha, L., & Westheimer, K. (2006). School support groups, other school factors, and the safety of sexual minority adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 43(5), 573-589. DOI: 10.1002/pits.20173

8 Hatchel, T., Espelage, D. L., & Huang, Y. (in press). Sexual harassment victimization, school belonging, and depressive symptoms among LGBTQ adolescents: Temporal insights. Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

9Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective school climates and reduced risk for suicide ideation in sexual minority youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301508

10Hatzenbuehler, M. L., & Keyes, K. M. (2013). Inclusive anti-bullying policies and reduced risk of suicide attempts in lesbian and gay youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(1), S21-S26.

11 Huebner, D. M., Thoma, B. C., & Neilands, T. B. (2015). School victimization and substance use among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents. Prevention Science, 16(5), 734-743. DOI: 10.1007/s11121-014-0507-x

12Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 national school climate survey. New York, NY: GLSEN.

13Poteat, V. P., Mereish, E. H., DiGiovanni, C. D., & Koenig, B. W. (2011). The effects of general and homophobic victimization on adolescents’ psychosocial and educational concerns: the importance of intersecting identities and parent support. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 597.

14Robinson, J.P., & Espelage, D.L. (2011). Inequities in educational and psychological outcomes between LGBTQ and straight students in middle and high school. Educational Researcher, 40, 315-330. doi: 10.3102/0013189X11422112

15 Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., Diaz, R. M., Card, N. A., & Russell, S. T. (2010). Gender-nonconforming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: school victimization and young adult psychosocial adjustment. Developmental psychology, 46(6), 1580.

16Ueno, K. (2005). Sexual orientation and psychological distress in adolescence: Examining interpersonal stressors and social support processes. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68, 258-277.

17Ybarra, M. L., Mitchell, K. J., Kosciw, J. G., & Korchmaros, J. D. (2015). Understanding linkages between bullying and suicidal ideation in a national sample of LGB and heterosexual youth in the United States. Prevention Science, 16, 451-462. doi: 10.1007/s11121-014-0510-2




Tyler James Hatchel, MA is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Florida, Department of Psychology. Tyler graduated from California State University, Los Angeles with a BA and MA in psychology. His research interests broadly include developmental psychology, prevention science, aggression, and mental health. He is particularly interested in examining the well-being of at risk and stigmatized youth. More specifically, he has completed a number of studies that explored the various risk and protective factors that shape the relations between peer victimization and poor outcomes for LGBTQ youth. He is also interested in digital media, suicidality, and tele-health. He is currently appointed as a research assistant for Dr. Espelage’s lab which focuses on understanding and preventing bullying, peer aggression, and sexual assault. Tyler has both been the recipient of a number of awards and published a few studies. He has worked with at The Trevor Project, with number of public school administrators, and served as a counselor at the University of Florida. He would like to become appointed as a professor and continue completing translational research that proves beneficial for at risk and stigmatized youth.

Filed under: Children and Youth, Human Rights and Social Justice, LGBT Issues Tagged: bullying, bullying prevention, Education, homophobia, LGBT allies, LGBT students, LGBT youth, politics, safe and supportive schools, safe schools, school climate, school connectedness, transphobia

[CROSS-POST] Put Aside What We Don’t Know and Support Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs


This post originally appeared on the Campaign for Youth Justice blog and is cross-posted with their permission.

By Micah Haskell-Hoehl, Senior Policy Associate at the American Psychological Association

We need to be careful about the language we use to discuss mental health and juvenile justice—and even more careful about how we meet the mental health needs of justice-involved youth.

By the numbers, the link may seem straightforward. Up to 70 percent of youth detained in the juvenile justice system—three to four times the rate among their peers in the community—have diagnosable symptoms of a mental health disorder. Depending on the individual diagnosis, the disparity can be even greater, and, particularly alarming, justice-involved youth experience severe emotional disturbance at two and a half times the rate in the community.


Yet, the association between justice-involvement and mental illness during childhood and adolescence is anything but direct. Mental illness is not the same, research has shown, as risk for delinquency and recidivism. Similarly, the evidence-based practices for treating childhood mental health disorders and treating needs related to risk for delinquency are not one and the same. Because of this, we must avoid reducing juvenile delinquency to mental illness and making statements that stigmatize mental illness and delinquency by framing the former as a cause of the latter.


As cloudy as this picture may seem, though, it should not dissuade juvenile courts, juvenile justice systems, and public mental health agencies from jumping in with both feet to help these young people. We know a tremendous amount about how to address mental health needs among justice-involved youth effectively. Indeed, a wealth of resources exist to help policymakers enact reforms and help agencies build capacity and improve practices. Below is a quick—nowhere near exhaustive—list of a few key dos and don’ts.


DO use evidence-based methods. Provide a mental health screening for every young person detained and, when indicated, follow up with assessment, treatment planning, and treatment by a licensed or certified mental health practitioner with expertise in childhood mental health disorders.


DO divert youth, whenever public safety imperatives allow it, to home- and community-based services. The overwhelming majority of justice-involved youth will respond better—including reducing their risk of recidivism—to treatment in their homes and communities. Furthermore, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program funds will cover these services, unlike those provided within secure facilities. In situations of mental crisis, law enforcement can divert individuals—even prior to arrest—into mental health services, as is practiced in models such as Crisis Intervention Teams.


DO ensure that evidence-based care delivered by a licensed or certified mental health professional practicing in their area of expertise is provided, when, as a last resort, it is absolutely necessary to hold a young person in a detention or corrections facility. Adequate staffing is critical to providing effective services.


DO adopt a trauma-informed lens. Research has found a strong association between trauma, especially polyvictimization, with risk for delinquency. Both internalizing symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, vandalism) can be manifestations of traumatic stress, though also mistaken for symptoms of other mental health problems. If traumatic stress is the primary driver of symptoms, this should inform treatment decisions and goals. Traumatic stress requires specific types of intervention and also makes the treatment of comorbid mental health needs more complicated. However, professionals need training in trauma-informed policy and practice to address these needs effectively.


DO account for the differences between boys and girls. Research shows that certain types of trauma and abuse, such as sexual victimization at the hands of family and community members and traffickers, are more prevalent among girls. This means that girls frequently have pathways into justice-involvement that are different from boys and need treatment that addresses their gender-specific background, experiences, and needs.


DON’T address mental health problems and delinquency problems as one and the same. Despite the high prevalence of mental health disorders among justice-involved youth, mental illness is not the same as criminogenic risk. While critical that these young people receive needed mental health services, they alone are unlikely to reduce risk of recidivism, which should be treated in an integrated fashion with mental health problems.


DON’T give psychotropic medications, unless they’re part of a treatment plan based on a mental health assessment developed by a licensed or certified mental health practitioner with expertise in childhood disorders. Psychotropic medications carry risks that must be weighed against their potential benefits, and clinical trials have not been performed to establish their safety and efficacy in children and adolescents. They should never be prescribed to a young person exhibiting behavioral problems for the convenience of facility staff.


DON’T exacerbate traumatic stress or symptoms of mental illness by holding youth unnecessarily in secure detention or correctional facilities. These settings can expose already vulnerable youth to chaos, victimization at the hands of staff and other young people, violence, and other potentially harmful situations, and evidence indicates that the use of secure confinement tends not to bring about desired outcomes, such as reduced risk of recidivism.


Again, this brief list is far from exhaustive and hits some of the high-points. For additional resources on evidence-based and promising best practices, program development and improvement, and funding, please visit the websites of our colleagues at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, Models for Change initiative, and Juvenile Delinquency Alternatives Initiative. Additionally, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention provides grants, training, technical assistance, and other resources for agencies and policymakers looking to improve treatment for this group of young people.


With willingness, the excellent knowledge we have already, and the research that is going to further improve policy, practice, and programming, we not only can meet the serious level of mental health need among justice-involved youth, but help them cultivate their strengths, thrive, and develop into their best selves. Please visit APA’s page on Children, Youth, and Families policy, email me, or follow me on Twitter, for additional information.


Micah A. Haskell-Hoehl is a Senior Policy Associate at the American Psychological Association. He co-manages the APA Congressional Fellowship. Responsible for issues related to children, youth, and families and criminal and juvenile justice.

Filed under: Children and Youth, Criminal and Juvenile Justice Tagged: children's mental health, justice involved youth, juvenile justice, juvenile justice reform, youth in detention

What’s Going On? How We Can Confront Child Sexual Abuse in America

Runaway or Lost Girl Holding Old, Ragged Teddy Bear

By Karen Ethridge, PhD, & Tonya Davis, PhD (Alabama A&M University)


The child welfare system is charged with promoting the wellbeing of children by ensuring their safety and strengthening their families, so they may successfully care for children. While the child welfare system is comprised of a complex set of procedures that vary by state, finding solutions to combat the collateral effects some children face when placed into the child welfare system may be just as complex, if not illusive. Child sexual abuse has heightened awareness among the public. This increased awareness escalates the need for specialized treatment and knowledge of the short- and long-term effects of sexual abuse in children, especially in the fluid families of Americans today.


The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS), state child protection agencies, and law enforcement agencies serve as three official sources of data on the incidence of childhood sexual abuse. According to research conducted by these agencies, child abuse has become an alarming social issue in American society.

  • On a yearly basis, the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS) reports approximately 133,600 cases of sexual abuse among children.
  • Further data from the Survey of Child Abuse and Neglect report that 330,000 children are sexually abused in a year, with law enforcement citing some 150,000 cases each year.


Considerable evidence reveals:

  • At least 20% of American women and 5% to 10% of American men have experienced some form of sexual abuse as children.
  • The peak age of vulnerability for abuse of both boys and girls occurs between the age of 7 and 13.
  • The percentage of adults disclosing histories of sexual abuse range- from 2% to 62% for females and 3% to 16% for males.

There are numerous reasons that explain the rising number of sexual abuse reports. The first reason being the willingness to report and disclose. Another is the age group of children exposed to abuse appears to be younger victims. The last one is the heightened awareness from the general public and service professionals on the issue.

Mounting research indicates that childhood sexual abuse seems to be a major risk factor in negative adulthood psychological functioning. In fact, research conducted over the last decade indicates a definite causal relationship between emotional difficulties and sexual abuse. Children who have been sexually abused are more likely to meet the criteria for a host of psychological difficulties such as:

  • generalized anxiety disorder,
  • phobias,
  • panic disorder,
  • post-traumatic stress disorder, and/or
  • obsessive compulsive disorder.


The sexually abused child may be anxious in the presence of intimate or close relationships, and especially fearful when interacting with authority figures. Sexual abuse survivors who recount a single incident with a supportive parent are more likely to report minimal negative symptoms or none of the typical negative symptoms. The problems and symptoms described in the literature include:

  • post-traumatic stress,
  • cognitive distortions,
  • emotional gain avoidance,
  • academic difficulties,
  • impaired sense of self, and
  • interpersonal difficulties.


Quote from a Former Child Protective Supervisor 

“Child abuse by nature is threatening, disruptive and interferes with the child’s developing sense of security. They no longer believe in a safe, just world, so it shouldn’t be surprising that victims of sexual abuse are prone to chronic feelings of fearfulness or anxiety.”


Quote of a School Psychologist in a School Setting   

“Often times, these children show extremes in behaviors based on their age. Some children are hesitant to talk while others are very angry and act out in schools.”


Treatment for Child Sexual Abuse in the Child Welfare System

Most treatment settings for child sex abuse victims offer an array of psychological services intended to help the victim and their family cope with the immediate impact of the abuse. The services provided range from sexual abuse hotlines to individual and family counseling, group therapy, dyad counseling, marital counseling, and support groups.

Information about treatment programs normally adopts one or more of the four basic therapeutic aims:

  • Relieving symptoms
  • Destigmatizing
  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Preventing future abuse


Based on childhood sexual abuse research to date, an effective treatment program should include:

  1. Assessments of intellectual and social emotional functioning.
  2. Evidence-based techniques to address children struggling with more than one condition or more than one symptom.
  3. Social support services for the child and family members (i.e., non-abusing members)
  4. Systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of treatment including changes in the victim’s symptoms.
  5. Routine coordination of treatment with agencies that provide medical, social and legal services such as churches and other safe havens.


Call for Action   

Giving a voice to our youngest victims is the responsibility of every American. While childhood sexual abuse prevention education is one strategy, it cannot succeed in isolation. Additional services should have educational as well as a treatment-focused continuum that targets the general population and high risk groups (i.e., perpetrators or victims) to prevent recidivism. Compounding this problem is the fact that child sexual abuse is unpredictable – neither potential victims nor perpetrators can be reliably identified. Ultimately, our work is incomplete when it comes to altering the public’s opinion of childhood sexual abuse, as well as strengthening parental capacity to mature their child’s healthy emotional and sexual development. With increased knowledge and awareness, and effective treatment of sexual offenders, the public can help combat the immense societal problem of childhood sexual abuse.



Beutler, L. E. ,  Williams, R. E. , &  Zetzer, H. A.  (1998). Efficacy of treatment for victims of child sexual abuse.  The Future of Children, 4(2), 153-175.

Cecil, C. A., Viding, E., Fearon, P., Glaser, D., & McCrory, E. J. (2017). Disentangling the mental health impact of childhood abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 63, 106-119.

Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., & Iyengar, S. (2011). Community treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder for children exposed to intimate partner violence. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 165(1), 16-21.

Silverman, W. K., Ortiz, C. D., Viswesvaran, C., Burns, B. J., Kolko, D. J., Putnam, F. W., & Amaya-Jackson, L. (2008). Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents exposed to traumatic events. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 37(1), 156-183.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. (1993). National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect reports: Study of High Risk Child Abuse and Neglect Groups: United States, 1993.




Tonya Davis, PhD, is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor working in private practice for over 15 years providing counseling and assessment services for families and children. She has an extensive history of working with families and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as well as children who have experienced trauma. She currently serves on the faculty of Alabama A&M University as an Assistant Professor in the Psychology & Counseling Department. She completed her doctoral degree in School Psychology from the University of Alabama. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Karen Ethridge, PhD, currently serves as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology from The University of Alabama in Huntsville. She earned her Master of Science in Psychology (with a concentration in Personnel Administration and Industrial Organizational Psychology) from Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama. She completed her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from Capella University. Her research interests are academic self-efficacy and academic success in college students. She is currently the co-director of the Prevention and Learning Lab at Alabama A&M University where one of the goals is to focus on instructional learning and efficacy. She has worked with the Madison County Department of Human Resources as a Social Service Supervisor from 1998 to 2004. Since 2004, she initially served as an adjunct professor, then as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University in the Psychology and Counseling Department. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: abuse, child abuse, child abuse prevention, child sexual abuse, child welfare, evidence-based treatments, sexual abuse, trauma

“All Politics is Local”: 5 Simple Tips for Becoming a Better Advocate

science march 1

By Amalia Corby (Senior Legislative & Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Government Relations Office)


Interest in our political process has dramatically increased across the U.S. since the last election. People want accountability from their elected representatives and are ready to engage on complex issues such as health care coverage, immigration, and tax reform. The demand for grassroots advocacy training has grown along with this increased engagement. Allow me to share a little secret that may eventually put lobbyists such as myself out of a job—being an advocate is easy. You likely already have all the tools you need!


Here are some tips to help you get started.


Tip 1: Show up!

Take advantage of opportunities to meet your Senator or Representative, visit their in-district offices, or to attend town halls. If you can’t meet face-to-face with your Member of Congress (MOC), spend time with one of their staff members. Congressional staff are young, sharp, and motivated to serve their constituents. They are the eyes and ears of the office and if they care about your issue, chances are they will talk to their boss about it.


Tip 2: Share a story.

If you’re able to secure a meeting, remember that Members of Congress love a good story. A personal connection to an issue, either in your personal or professional life, can make a huge difference. As a psychologist, you may have both a personal and professional connection to the issue—this is an amazing advantage—in sharing your story, you may also have the opportunity to talk about the underlying research or clinical implications tied to your concerns.

Before you talk to congressional staff, think not only about what you want to communicate, but why. What is your underlying motivation? Share it.


Tip 3: Know your issue.

Do you know the underlying legislation or funding mechanism tied to your concerns? News and the internet will give you some information, but this is also where your professional association, advocacy organizations, or fellow activists can help.

While at times there is a fair amount of crystal ball-gazing in Washington, the legislative calendar is somewhat predictable–for example, appropriations (funding) activity always ramps up in spring. Government relations offices will know what’s happening, bound to happen, might happen, or definitely will not happen.


Tip 4: Talk about it (respectfully).

Respectful political discourse has become increasingly difficult, and while social media can be a great way to communicate, it can create problems as well. Before you post, take time to think about your audience. What will your message contribute? Will it change anyone’s mind, or lead to further entrenchment? Is this conversation best had in-person?

Likewise, when you call your congressional office, be nice to the tired soul on the end of the line who has to field constituent calls all day. They will listen to your concerns, and take note for the MOC.


Tip 5: Act locally.

There are many opportunities to be a catalyst for change closer to home. Even in Washington, D.C., arguably the most political city in the U.S., city council seats go unchallenged for years.

State level legislation is another opportunity. Grassroots movements often begin in the states and eventually get attention on the national level. Hot button issues that are stagnant at the national level can move quickly in the states. In recent years, state legislation on firearms, abortion, and campus sexual assault reporting has changed the national discourse on these issues.


For more information on advocating for psychology, please check out APA’s Guide to Advocacy. While you’re there, please join APA’s Federal Action Network (FAN), an e-mail grassroots network to help interested psychologists advocate for their discipline. APA Government Relations Offices disseminate information and action alerts to FAN members focusing on recent or upcoming federal legislative or regulatory action of concern to psychology.


Additional Resources:

Our Science Directorate colleagues recently produced this advocacy training video.

Watch below:


For a list of useful advocacy tools, check out the APA March for Science page.

Filed under: Public Policy Tagged: advocacy, advocacy training, Congress, grassroots advocacy, policy, policy change, politics, public policy

Think of the Kids: Four Questions with Two Child Psychology Authors


By Jim Sliwa (Director, APA Public Affairs)

To mark Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day (May 4), we posed a series of questions to the authors of two titles from APA’s Magination Press, which publishes innovative books that help children deal with the many challenges and problems they face as they grow up.


jon-lasser-200x300Jon Lasser, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, school psychologist, professor and program director of the School Psychology program at Texas State University. He is the co-author (along with his daughter Sage Foster-Lasser) of “Grow Happy,” which teaches children how they can play a pivotal role in creating their own happiness.

Grow-Happy Cover


DrSileoHeadshotFrank J. Sileo, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is the author of “A World of Pausabilities: An Exercise in Mindfulness,” which uses rhyming verse and illustrations to introduce children to mindfulness and how to apply it to simple, everyday moments.

Pausabilities Cover


Why, in your professional opinion, is children’s mental health so important for success later in life?

Lasser: We have different ways of thinking about success that encompass successful careers, relationships and social status. Investing in children’s mental health helps kids achieve positive outcomes in all that they do. Consider the importance of emotional regulation at work, at home and in communities. Children’s capacity to take the perspectives of others, think before acting and self-regulate serve as the foundation for effective learning and collaborating. By promoting the social and emotional health of children, we cultivate internal resources that will serve them throughout their lives.


Sileo: Early on, it is important for parents and caregivers to build healthy and strong mental health for children. Parents tend to focus exclusively on building and maintaining physical health. In order for children to reach their potential, attention must be paid to a child’s mental health. The relationship a child has with parents and the variety of caregivers can help shape the developing brain. When there is instability in brain development, it can greatly impair learning and the development of healthy and appropriate relationships with others. For a child’s developing brain, we want to nurture the growth of learning, social skills and overall physical health. When children are provided with a strong foundation early on in life regarding their social-emotional needs, we lay the groundwork for potential success later in life.


How does child mental health differ from mental health in adults, if at all?

Lasser: Children and adults have much in common. We share a need to communicate and a desire to be connected with others. Our basic psychological needs for relationships cut across the lifespan. That being said, there are significant developmental differences. For example, depression in children may be more likely expressed as irritability. Some mental health concerns for children can be best understood in the context of family or school systems. Helping children with mental health needs often requires the collaborative efforts of parents, teachers and other influential adults. We can help children by ensuring that their developmental needs are being met and that environmental demands (such as teacher and parent expectations) are appropriate.


Sileo: Children can show signs of mental health issues similar to adults. Children can receive diagnoses like adults (e.g., anxiety disorders, depression). It can be difficult for mental health providers to identify mental health issues in children. Mental health professionals have to differentiate diagnosing a mental health issue from normal child development. Children differ from adults because they undergo various physical, mental and emotional changes as they go through typical growth and development. Children have not yet learned how to cope with others and the environment around them. Moreover, children respond to and process emotional experiences differently due to lack of maturity, inexperience and brain development.


Your book is geared toward children age 4 to 8. While it’s most likely that these children will be reading the book alongside their parents who can help them make sense of the concepts, how did you go about creating and structuring content that would be accessible and useful to young minds?

Lasser: Writing a children’s book requires careful thinking about the children to whom the book will be read. For Grow Happy to work, my co-author, Sage Foster-Lasser, and I thought carefully about writing the book in such a way that young children would be able to understand. We piloted early drafts with children in the target age range and revised as needed. We also worked hard to keep sentences short and to limit the vocabulary to very short words. Chris Lyles’ beautiful illustrations are also attractive to young children and bring the story to life. Children identify with Kiko, the main character, who is a child. They also fall in love with Chico, her dog.


Sileo: I have been working with children for over 21 years. In my practice, I do play therapy and read a lot of children’s books to children and on my own. I also keep a pulse on the youth culture by periodically watching the shows that are of importance to children. When I write my books, I often read them to family and friends who have young children to make sure the words and concepts are kid-friendly and understandable. I also read my books to my patients before I send them for possible publication. In my practice, I treat children of various ages, diagnoses and learning/reading levels. This affords me a good barometer [of] whether young people can understand the book’s content and message. Kids can be brutally honest. If they don’t like or understand something, they will tell you. The feedback is always helpful to me. Kids know what they like and what they don’t.


What are some simple things that you would recommend parents of young children can do to help support healthy emotional and psychological development?

Lasser: Children thrive when they have a deeply rooted understanding that they are loved and valued, and parents who express this unconditional positive regard to their children daily are meeting a basic psychological need. That alone can go very far in promoting mentally healthy children. When parents play with their children, particularly imaginative play (pretending to be animals or royalty or robots), it encourages the development of so many social and emotional skills, such as perspective taking, communication, and planning skills. Parents can also help by allowing children to express their feelings freely and listening to those feelings without criticizing or judging. In other words, parents build their children’s mental health by being present and engaged.


Sileo: It really depends on the age of your child but here are some general guidelines:  Remember that you are their role models for behavior, identifying emotions and how to express them appropriately. Be a good listener. Communication is a two-way street—talking and listening.  Build your child’s self-esteem and confidence. When children have self-esteem, they are happier, have a sense of security and are better adjusted. When they have good self-confidence, they can learn to work hard despite challenges, learn to ask for help, and do better in school. We can show children that we respect individuality. Children have their own interests, strengths and talents. Do not compare your child to others. Play and make time for your children. Make memories, catch them being good, read with them, limit electronics and provide structure and regular schedules around bedtimes. Set limits and boundaries to make them feel safe in the world. Be consistent in what you say and do.  Lack of consistency can cause kids to feel anxious. Simple things you say and do can go a long way.

Jim Sliwa is director of public affairs for the American Psychological Association.


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