“We are all benefiting,” Caroline says, reflecting on her family’s experience with Catholic Charities’ school-based counseling service. “I’m really happy with how our kids have responded to the counseling sessions.”
Caroline lives with her husband, son, daughter and mother—a mix of generations that sometimes produces friction in her household. In the midst of this family dynamic, her son in particular was displaying some anger issues, especially toward his younger sister.
Caroline found a solution when the Catholic school her children attend sent a letter home about the availability of anger-management counseling. The school was offering students both group and one-on-one sessions with a counselor from Catholic Charities.
She jumped at the opportunity. Before enrolling her 11-year-old son Dylan, Caroline wondered about the stigma that frequently attaches to mental health counseling. Would he cooperate with the counselor? Would he be embarrassed when his peers found out? She hoped his previous experience with counseling would help him adjust to sessions at school.
“The stigma of mental health is still mixed, but moving to a more positive place,” says Karen Campbell, Mental Health Counselor at Catholic Charities. “We are changing that mentality every day in our schools.”
In spite of her husband’s skepticism, Caroline went ahead and enrolled their son. And much to her relief, Dylan was receptive to the idea. In fact, he eventually requested that his 8-year-old sister Violet come as well.
“Dylan was very open about it, which was such a relief,” Caroline says. “Best of all, it really seems to be helping.”
The results have been impressive. In a place away from the classrooms, the kids have sessions together and individually with their counselor. Over the course of the semester, they have learned to better communicate with each other and their parents. The children have also come up with rules of behavior they both abide by, which has greatly decreased tensions.
“Kids need structure,” says Karen. “It establishes healthy boundaries so everyone knows what to expect.”
She explains that forming new habits of behavior is much like physical exercise. For example, it can take a great deal of practice to master the complex movements of a golf swing. With enough repetition of the correct sequence, the movements become less conscious and more reflexive.
Karen adds that the goal isn’t necessarily to completely eliminate the negative behavior—such a standard would set unrealistic expectations. Rather, the goal is to greatly reduce the frequency of the behavior, which then affords the counselor and student the opportunity to celebrate successes.
“These successes build resiliency in kids,” says Karen. “And resiliency is critical to making behavior changes permanent.”
Catholic Charities always insists on parental involvement when counseling children. In this case, Dylan and Violet were reluctant at first to involve their mom because they wanted to work out their differences themselves. But then as their successes mounted, something remarkable happened: Dylan and Violet became eager to share their achievements with their mom.
Understanding their program and seeing her children put these new skills to work at home gave Caroline the opportunity to praise their progress. It also equipped her with the specifics she needed to hold them accountable whenever they might lapse into old patterns of behavior.
“It is empowering for kids to be reminded of the choices they’ve made,” says Karen. “Mom is simply reminding them what they have agreed to, which motivates them to do better.”
Caroline is grateful that the pastor of her parish has been very supportive of the counseling initiative at school. She also greatly appreciates that the therapist is Catholic so if her children want to integrate their faith into the session, they may do so.
“We counselors want students to adopt coping skills to deal with stress and frustration,” says Karen. “As Catholics our coping skills include prayer and the scriptures so, if the student identifies this as a source of support, we encourage them to turn prayer or an inspirational Bible verse to help deal with stress in their daily lives.”
Caroline would encourage other schools to bring on a Catholic Charities therapist.
“When things are better at home, they are also better at school,” she says. “The sooner this happens, the better it is for everyone.”
[note: because of the need to maintain anonymity for Adrienne and her family, we will rely on pseudonyms and stock photography for this story.]