Psychotherapy for Children Diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy
By Drew Dillard
The causes of cerebral palsy (CP) are both many and unknown, and no two people diagnosed with CP endure identical situations. However, at one point or another, nearly all people with cerebral palsy will face emotional and psychological challenges regarding the limitations CP has placed upon them. Let’s explore the types of psychotherapy available and how they might benefit your child.
Psychotherapy is a general term referring to therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a patient in an effort to improve that person’s sense of well-being, coping skills, communication skills and general disposition in the navigation of life’s challenges. It is different from therapeutic disciplines such as physical, speech & language, music & dance, occupational and play therapy, but is an important part of the overall care plan for your CP child.
Behavioral therapy uses psychological techniques that encourage the mastery of tasks. It is rooted in the belief that responses to emotional challenges and negative behaviors are learned and can therefore be changed through therapy. Children do not yet possess the cognitive ability to process all that goes on with their thoughts and emotions, much less the ability to clearly communicate with them. Psychotherapists are trained in identifying troubling situations, helping that child explore the thoughts, emotions and beliefs surrounding that situation, then helping them acquire skills that will allow them to respond in a more effective and beneficial manner.
The activities used in behavioral therapy vary greatly depending on the abilities of the child and the problem behavior being addressed. Activities can be designed to teach completing tasks, managing emotions, resolving conflicts, delaying gratification and any number of other basic life skills. Behavioral therapy can help alleviate depression, mood swings, sadness, loss, anger, and frustration by allowing previous negative outcomes to be replaced with a more positive perspective.
Counseling or Talk Therapy
As they get older, children with cerebral palsy will likely feel ostracized by peers, isolated from friendships, embarrassed by body image and/or frustrated with treatment goals. This may be a good time to introduce them to “counseling” or “talk therapy,” where they can talk about the things that are bothering them and learn to put them in perspective. It differs from behavioral therapy in that the goals are more along the lines of learning to accept and embrace one’s individuality rather than of raw behavior modification.
Even the most “normal” young person faces daily psychological and emotional challenges. Your hopes for your child at this age won’t differ much from that of any other parent. You want your child to cultivate a healthy attitude toward his or her challenges and to acquire the basic tools that will carry them into adulthood. Many adolescents and teens see therapists to help process these complicated years. The right therapist can work wonders.
Social and Group Therapy
Individuals with physical or cognitive limitations often face real, and sometimes self-imposed, challenges in building relationships. Difficulties in communicating, fitting in or feeling accepted can lead to delays in social, emotional and even physical development.
Social therapy, introduced in the late 1970’s, helps children learn and embrace strategies that will help them develop friendships as they grow older by participating in group therapeutic settings. This decreases their sense of loneliness, isolation and stress. Social therapy focuses on the health and welfare of the individual as an integral part of a group dynamic. This relational approach helps children integrate into society and understand their role within.
Children with Mild Cerebral Palsy
Mild forms of cerebral palsy are often more difficult to detect and diagnose. Sometimes this leads to missed opportunities to introduce early-intervention corrective treatments, including those of a psychological nature. Undiagnosed abnormalities are often more emotionally troubling than diagnosed ones. If a child’s family and doctors don’t know what’s going on, it can be frustrating and confusing for the child.
A child that only exhibits minor physical impediments, such as issues of balance and coordination, may be completely normal in every other way. This can easily affect the child’s self-esteem. Also, children with minor physical or intellectual limitations are actually more likely to be teased and bullied for it than a child with an overt disability. Likewise, recent studies have shown that children with even minor learning disabilities benefit as much from treating the emotional component of the condition as with remediation of the learning disability itself.
It Takes a Village
It is important that parents and caregivers remain fully involved in the child’s therapies, especially with pre-teens. Caregivers need to understand and practice the positive behavior modifications learned in therapy to be able to recognize attention disorders, identify stressors, prevent meltdowns and minimize triggers all in an effort to reinforce a child’s progress.
Parents, caregivers and children with CP can all benefit from the positive interactions achieved with psychotherapy to compassionately, respectfully and appropriately interact with each other in a stable, secure and happy environment. Share your experience and advice with other families within CPFN on our Facebook page.