Helping Children with Behavioral Health Challenges

By John Gregory | 10/06/18 9:30 AM

Even as a young child, Shawn Gonzalez seemed different. He was obsessed with numbers, he didn’t like clothes with seams in them, and he hated taking showers because the falling water hurt.

But other than some unusual behaviors, Shawn’s mother, Resa, says her son seemed to be developing normally. That is, until second grade.

“And then it was like we went off the rails for a bit,” she says.

Now an academically gifted 17-year old in Henry County, Shawn describes that period of his childhood as being in a dark place.

“I like to think of the time between kindergarten through second grade as I was losing myself,” he says. “I was always a happy kid, and then things started to wear at me, which is kind of weird to say when you’re not even out of elementary school.”

Shawn and Resa Gonzalez appeared on KET’s Connections to share their stories of living with mental and behavioral health challenges. The program also featured Carol Cecil, executive director of the Kentucky Partnership for Families and Children, a statewide support, training and advocacy group that works with families and caregivers of children with behavioral health issues.


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’Where I Was Lost, I’ve Found Myself Again’
Shawn says he realized something was wrong the day his twin sister was named student of the month at their school. The second grader became so upset that he screamed, cried, and threw a desk over what he saw as the unfairness of her being selected over him.

He was first diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Resa says she initially resisted medicating Shawn, preferring to try therapy instead. But doctors eventually placed the boy on medications so intense that they had a “zombie-like effect” on Shawn.

Later examinations of Shawn found that he is bipolar and has obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as Asperger’s syndrome. He’s on about a third of the drugs he once took, and he’s also using nutritional supplements to help stabilize his behavior. Before, he couldn’t take out the trash without becoming locked in an endless mental loop of “what if” scenarios that stopped him from completing the task. Now, he simply says “I’ll try” and, more often than not, finishes the job.

“I feel like where I was lost, I’ve found myself again,” Shawn says.

Now Shawn is a top student: he’s captain of his school’s academic team, president of the Spanish Honors Society, and active in art club and journalism. He also scored a 28 on his ACT.

Shawn says learning happens differently for him, that his brain has to figure out how different things work together. He says that’s why math and science classes come so easily to him.

“I get in trouble at school because I don’t use calculators and I don’t show my work,” says Shawn. “I’ve been accused of cheating in every math class I’ve ever been in until they realize I’m just doing it [in my head].”

Even if academics are easy for Shawn, interpersonal relationships are still tricky. He struggles to understand social and emotional cues in others, and he says sarcasm is especially hard for him to detect. But over time, he’s forced himself to interact more with people so he can learn to feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations.

“I’ve been working my whole life to use the educational part of my brain to almost study humanity and be able to [teach] myself how to act, how to behave,” Shawn says.

Finding a Support System
The past 17 years haven’t been easy for Shawn’s mother, either.

“I didn’t come from a family where we understood mental disabilities or behavioral challenges,” says Resa Gonzalez. “We didn’t get it, we didn’t understand it, we didn’t know about it.”

She admits there were times when Shawn was at his worst and she had so little time to sleep or eat that she thought she might break down. What Resa needed, she says, was a support system.

“You have to have somebody that you can call in the middle of the night and say… I’m about ready to lose it,” she says. “And that other person is going to know exactly what you mean and not judge you for it.”

Resa found those people – her “tribe,” she calls them – in the Kentucky Partnership for Families and Children. The Frankfort-based organization works statewide to help families and caregivers of children with mental health and behavioral health issues.

“It is a family organization with families helping families,” says KPFC Executive Director Carol Cecil.

Cecil says many parents feel isolated because they don’t have anyone they can talk to about their situation. When they do share their experiences, Cecil says parents often feel blamed and second-guessed for having a child who has behavioral problems.

“If we spanked more, if we didn’t spank as much. If we disciplined more, if we didn’t discipline as much,” Cecil says. “If we were the perfect parent, they wouldn’t have bipolar disorder or ADHD, and that’s not how it works.”

KPFC offers a range of training programs – from parenting techniques, to navigating the health care and social service systems, to networking and advocacy skills. Already this year, Cecil says the organization has trained more than 200 adults, youth, and community providers. Even though mental health problems are discussed more openly than they once were, Cecil says there are still stigmas and misconceptions attached to the conditions.

“It’s not a choice,” she says. “A person’s brain changes because of trauma or because of how it’s made up to start with… You do have a disability, that’s okay. That’s not who you are, that is something you have and it doesn’t define you.”

Cecil raised two biological children and two special needs kids that she and her husband adopted. When they faced parenting challenges, Cecil says they had the advantage of their training, she in special education and he in social work. That got them wondering about all the parents who don’t have those backgrounds and face the challenges of raising a son or daughter with mental health issues.

“It’s our belief that once God gives you those tools, you’re expected to use them to help others,” Cecil says. “That’s what brought me to KPFC: I quit teaching full-time just to start helping other families learn how to advocate to get what their kids need.”

’You’re Going to Reach Great Places’
Since KPFC has helped her and her family, Resa Gonzalez decided she wants to help families who face similar challenges. She now works as part of the office support staff for the organization.

“Once I was secure in my knowledge,” Resa says, “I was able to teach the rest of us… Pay it forward, and be there for somebody else, which is what I try to do.”

Resa says ongoing therapy is helping her and her son strengthen their relationship. She says Shawn minds her 99.9 percent of the time, and his “blow-ups” now are very rare.

“We can get into some ugly places sometimes,” she Resa says. “We’ve learned to agree to disagree.”

“He is what he is, in all his glorious splendor,” she says.

Shawn says the therapy is helping him learn what he has to monitor and improve in his own behavior. When asked what advice he would offer his 6-year old self, his response is both realistic and hopeful.

“I know it’s going to be very tough, but trust me,” says Shawn. “Stick it out, keep moving forward, and you’re going to reach great places.”