Oklahoma leads the nation in adverse childhood experiences and has one of the top suicide rates in the country.
So it may come as no surprise that anxiety, depression and behavioral issues impact so many children in our community.
But it is a problem in need of massive and immediate correction, according to the therapists at Rogers County Youth Services.
Counselors Lori Weatherholtz and Raylene Stebbins, social workers Shala Padilla and Abby Harris, family therapists Stephanie Kuykendall and Noah Wickham, and RCYS Director Herb McSpadden spoke about the problems they see working with Rogers County children and families on a daily basis and what can be done to solve them.
One of the most prevalent issues is family dysfunction.
Wickham and Kuykendall said they most commonly deal with divorce, separation and family breakups, followed by parental issues facing ADHD and impulse control.
“As families transition through stages of life, parents don’t always know how to navigate the changes,” Kuykendall said, suggesting that many more families would benefit by asking for help.
All of these issues tend to be tied to one key problem, Wickham said.
“Isolation and busyness are awful, awful enemies of the family,” Wickham said. “People mark their success based on how busy they are, not on how much time they spend together.”
When people neglect their familial relationship, that is when families fall apart, he said.
Divorce has short-term and long-term mental health effects on children, especially when combined with abuse or parental alienation.
Trauma is typically measured in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), with 10 early environmental factors impacting an individual’s physical and mental health, behaviors and opportunities in later life.
Those include emotional abuse; physical abuse; sexual abuse; lack of feeling loved or supported in your family; lack of food, clean clothes or access to healthcare; substance abuse by caretakers; divorce or abandonment by a caretaker; mental illness in the family; witnessing another family member be abused; or a family member in prison.
“Predictions of success in life are worse the higher your score is, but technically, you’ve had trauma is you’ve had even one ACE,” Stebbins said.
The RCYS therapists, who work with a range of ages, said anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of the children they work with have had more than four ACEs.
Some clients scored 10 out of 10 on the scale.
“It’s not uncommon,” McSpadden said.
Often, the problem is generational, Wickham said. “Sometimes it is the parent’s trauma that is affecting their parenting.”
Kuykendall and Wickham, who work primarily with families going through separation, noted lower rates of children with high ACEs score than their colleagues.
“We mostly work with parents that are willing to come to session,” Wickham said. “Trauma scores are closely related to parental involvement.”
Social Media and Sextortion
Children today are also faced with the unique challenge of social media, which has been linked to increased anxiety and depression in all age groups.
“Kids isolate each other, they don’t know how to talk to each other, they have no social skills, they don’t know what a friend is,” Stebbins said.
When kids are on their phones late into the night, it can cause sleep deprivation, which leads to poor performance in school and even more significant mental health issues.
“Parents aren’t parenting properly because they are on social media also,” Weatherholtz said.
Social media is problematic because it encourages children to compare themselves to others and feel inferior. But it also isolates them from parents, which can lead to more serious problems.
“We have a lot of kids around here getting into relationships with people online who they have never met before and then sending them inappropriate videos or images of themselves,” Harris said. “Those people are then extorting them for those images, saying ‘if you don’t send me more, or send me money for them, I’m going to send them to everyone in your contact list.’”
“They are using a lot of guilt tactics and bribery to get child pornography,” Harris said.
“And revenge porn,” McSpadden added. “A girlfriend and boyfriend break up and images get shared or a girl takes a picture of another girl in the locker room.”
Multiple students at local schools have been on court-ordered probation requiring counseling for engaging in these interactions.
Harris added that violent video games that are not age appropriate are also affecting childrens’ mental health.
“There is a common theme of ill-prepared kids on personal screens,” Wickham said.
How to Help
The therapists offered a number of ways that the Claremore community could help lessen the hardships of children.
Number one, ending the stigma that surrounds discussions of mental health.
“Support your family members when they seek mental health assistance,” Kuykendall said.
Look for signs that children might be experiencing anxiety and depression such as behavioral and sensory regulation problems.
“Slow the heck down and spend time with each other away from screens,” Wickham said.
“Be willing to learn how to be a better parent,” Wickham said. “When things are going wrong, be willing to open up and let somebody know you need some help.”
McSpadded said, “Parents need to talk to their kids about social media use and sexting in fourth grade, before they transfer into junior high.”
“As a standard rule, I would encourage every parent to keep electronics out of their kids bedroom past 8 or 9 p.m.,” McSpadden said.
The therapists also suggested that people can help children by helping Rogers County Youth Services fund their proven programs.
Those include: informative and preventative courses on sexting taught to 3,000 students in local schools, free co-parenting courses for families going through divorce, a long-term suspension program with an 80 percent success rate for students returning to school on-level, and individual counseling.