Ask the Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

anita-khanna-head-shot

Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.

3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.

5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

How to raise kids who give back

It’s National Volunteer Week! And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of giving back. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and giving back.

1. Lead by example: “Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Director, Employee and Volunteer Engagement at United Way. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” This is something you can do from a young age by both bringing your kids along when you volunteer and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. Bean first started volunteering with her kids when they were six years old. She says this is a good age to get children excited about helping others as they start to explore their own independence. With her little ones, she chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Build on their interests: “Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and helping to give some pets a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, helping a child overseas. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends. When they get a bit older, you can also sign them up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Cubs. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, it’s a great time to get them involved. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you with something connected to that like making the weekly team snack, explains Bean.

3. Say ‘thank you’: One way to keep kids in the giving spirit is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having the event organizer thank them, will help them feel they’re now part of a wider community.

4. Be a gardener: Part of the process of raising kids who give back is planting seeds that help them see the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. This can start at any age. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” she says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding your kids to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. “For example, our son gets $2 pocket money and puts aside $1 each week for ‘penguins and polar bears,’ his choice.”

5. Encourage empathy: Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe, who is also a writer, and the author of the children’s book My New Best Friend, which teaches kids about being a friend to themselves. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.” One way to help to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids.

Looking for an easy way to get your child volunteering? Have your mini philanthropist (aged 10+) tag along with you at this year’s Scotiabank Rat Race! Stay tuned for volunteer opportunities—sign-up begins May 3.

How to get mental health help for your child

Do you have a child or teen who’s struggling with their mental health and aren’t sure where to get help? We reached out to several experts to put together this tip sheet for parents that can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.

SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING

One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag.  “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.

WAYS TO GET HELP:

IN AN EMERGENCY

If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.

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FAMILY DOCTOR

Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support.  A recent Toronto Star article notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.

COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES

There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and in some cases, supported by organizations including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto.  The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.

SPECIALISTS

Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in both Toronto and York Region who offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”

Ask The Expert: What happens when kids don’t get the best start in life?

anita-khanna-head-shot

Anita Khanna
Director, Social Action & Community Building
Family Service Toronto

Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and well-being of children and families. She’s also the national coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.

1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?

Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.

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2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?

The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
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3. Across Canada, nearly 1 in 5 children—and their families—lives below the poverty line. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?

Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.

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4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?

Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
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5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (including those living in poverty) get the best start in life?

The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.

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6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?

Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their well-being. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.

3 moms who inspire us

With Mother’s Day just days away, we wanted to celebrate three amazing moms we met over the past year. With hard work and a whole lot of love, these dedicated women are working to create opportunities for their children to ensure they have every chance at a bright future.

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From left: Najwa Issa Khalil and her children, Aya, Alaa and Ibrahim.

1. Najwa Issa Khalil: Najwa is a true testament to courage and resilience. Following the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria, she and her family were forced to leave their hometown of Aleppo. For the sake of their children, they fled to Canada—leaving behind everything to start a new life in an entirely new country. Najwa inspires us because she demonstrates the sacrifices mothers make to ensure the safety and well-being of their family. Today, with the help of a United Way agency, the family is integrating into their new community and are ready for what is sure to be a bright future. “I’m happy,” says Najwa. “We feel welcome and very safe in Canada.”

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2. Sushi Rosborough: For years, Sushi struggled with poverty and addiction. But, despite a life of uncertainty, this mother’s love for her son remained steady. In order to ensure he had every opportunity to thrive, Sushi knew she needed to break the cycle that had controlled her life for so long. After getting support at Street Health, a United Way agency, Sushi eventually enrolled in a peer outreach program. Today, she works as a peer support worker at the centre. ”My son is 26 now and he’s doing awesome,” says the proud mom. “He’s a security guard and really enjoys what he does.” The epitome of strength and perseverance—and proof that the love for your child can be the hope you need to turn your life around.

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Justine Chen See and her mom, Gladys.

3. Gladys Chen See: Gladys wanted a promising future for her daughter. But, Justine was born with an intellectual disability, and following high school, had no next steps to transition from adolescence to adulthood. So, Gladys decided to do something about it. With a little help from a United Way agency, Gladys, along with other parents of special-needs youth, turned a once-vacant tuck shop into a place where their kids could learn valuable life skills. It’s an opportunity that has changed both of their lives. “I’m hopeful she’ll have a future,” says Gladys. A mother who’s helping her daughter create a pathway to a future she never thought possible. And, confidence in her daughter’s ability that is nothing short of admirable.

Home-Image-1000x400Think your mom is awesome, too? Show her how much you care by making a gift in her honour. You’ll help moms in our community give their children opportunities to thrive. Plus, you’ll receive a Bloomex gift card to spend on flowers for Mother’s Day or beyond.