“Children are children, no matter where they are from.” This is one of the beliefs that guides the work of Dr. Fadi Haddad, a member of our advisory board. Aside from being an expert in children’s mental health, Dr. Haddad has a passion for travel. In July he was able to bring his work and his passion together on a trip to Bulgaria, where he volunteered his time and expertise with World Wide Orphans, an organization that provides resources for orphanages. In honor of World Mental Health Day, we wanted to share some of his experiences, as well as a few of the universal insights into children’s behavior and health that he gained from his trip.
Although this was not Dr. Haddad’s first volunteer trip -- he has also done similar work in Vietnam -- he said what he witnessed in Bulgaria was particularly eye-opening. While Bulgaria is transitioning from orphanages to a foster care system, there are still many children that remain in institutions, mostly those who have physical, neurological or psychological disabilities. These children, and the staff who care for them, were the focus of Dr. Haddad’s trip.
Bulgaria is a very poor country, and these orphanages face extremely limited resources, but Dr. Haddad was inspired by the resilience of both the children and the staff. Hundreds of counselors and adoption specialists attended his workshops. Their dedication and commitment was evident in the questions they asked -- questions about what to do in the difficult real-life situations they faced on a day-to-day basis. The children were equally inspiring. One of the children he met, seven years old and blind, knew every one of the staff members by voice and touch, and when he was introduced to Dr. Haddad, the boy welcomed him and sang a song for him, all with a huge smile on his face.
According to the WHO, around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have mental disorders, and neuropsychiatric disorders are among the leading causes of disability in young people. These challenges are universal and, as Dr. Haddad reflected on his trip to Bulgaria, he realized that despite the difference in culture, resources, and language, he had been emphasizing many of the same principles that he teaches in the US. No matter where you are in the world, when you are trying to care for a child who is struggling -- with behavioral difficulties, physical or mental health challenges, or simply the everyday ups and downs, fears and worries, of being a kid -- the same “compassion guidelines” apply.
1. We need to take a holistic view of children’s health and behavior. Too often, we judge behavior before we ask the necessary questions and do the research. In Bulgaria, he was asked what to do in the case of a nonverbal child who continuously banged his head on the walls. Dr. Haddad emphasized the importance of looking into the child’s medical history. When was the last time he saw a pediatrician or the dentist? Is it possible the child could be suffering from a toothache or a stomachache? We can’t diagnose behavioral issues as psychiatric without first asking these basic health questions, and this is true whether we are in Bulgaria or Manhattan.
2. Use the three-part approach: Acceptance, empathy, curiosity. No matter what the child’s feelings are, we can try to be accepting and express empathy. Too many times we dismiss a child’s feelings. For instance, if a child is feeling anxious, our first response can be “Don’t worry about it.” But by responding in this way we invalidate the child’s feeling when instead we should be trying to understand why the child is feeling anxious.
3. Put your oxygen mask on first. If we are not OK ourselves, we cannot take care of our children. This is as true for Meeting House parents as for the staff members of the orphanages Dr. Haddad visited.
4. All children want the same things. Dr. Haddad has seen the same universal desire in the children he has worked with all over the world -- children want the love and comfort of adults in their lives, and no matter who they are or what their circumstance, all children want to be happy.
5. All parents want the same things. Likewise, the caregivers in his workshops had the same wish as parents, counselors, and doctors worldwide -- they want the children in their communities to be healthy, safe, and happy.
More than any specific treatment or therapy, we can rely on these universal values, or "compassion guidelines," as a primary resource in relating to any child, in any situation. Dr. Haddad’s experience in Bulgaria reminds us that the values that form our “DNA” at The Meeting House -- empathy, relationships and community, and passion -- are powerful tools for healing for children in all places.