Interview by Stephanie Scarcliff

Tomi Barbour, MA, LPC
Tomi earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Wyoming and a Master of Arts Counseling: Clinical Mental Health from Adams State College. She is a licensed professional counselor in the State of Wyoming, specializing in adolescent and adult individual counseling, mindfulness and guided imagery, pain management, hypnotherapy, hypnosis and domestic violence/anger management.

You’ve got questions. (So many questions.) We’ve got answers.

Gillette counselor Tomi Barbour helps kids and adolescents with adjustment disorder, substance abuse and other mental health issues. In a recent sit down, she talks about a parent’s role in their child’s mental health and how The Counseling Center is integrating new treatments.

What’s your specialty?

I focus primarily on community mental health, which covers a broad spectrum of the population without limiting the age or life phase of my clients.

Why did you choose this specialty?

We live in a rural Wyoming community, and it makes sense for a counselor to be adaptable and understand the issues that can affect a client throughout the duration of their lifetime.

What do you like about working with kids and adolescents?

It’s an honor to do my job, every day. People come to see me and they trust me. They trust me with their problems, they trust me with their kids, and they trust me to do everything within my power to help, often through some of the most challenging experiences of their lives. For me, being able to help people, children, and teens in particular, that’s the most rewarding job I can imagine.

What’s the biggest mental health issue Gillette’s children face?

I think the root problem is self-image issues. Kids are really trying to figure out who they are in the world and how they fit, and there are new challenges to a child’s growth and development in Campbell County in 2019. Things like changing family structure, new societal norms, or the overwhelming influence of peers via social media result in kids having a larger pool of influence. Also, understanding media-driven information and content is so important. Some people are surprised to learn that how a child’s parents are doing can directly impact that child’s mental health. For example, if a parent is not doing well emotionally, or perhaps financially, oftentimes the child will also struggle. Think of it like this, the family is a system and when one part of the system isn’t running up to par, it affects everyone in that system.

What about for teens and adolescents? What problems are they facing?

For teens, the world begins to shift from being centered around one’s parents and siblings to being more peer-driven and peer-centric. At this point, subgroups begin to form which can further any already preexisting divides, especially for those teens who do not fit into publicly perceived social norms, and can leave a teenager feeling unaccepted, unwanted, and depressed.

Why are self-perception issues so relevant for teens?

Teen issues, in terms of “who I am in the world and where do I fit in” haven’t changed, but external influences have. In the past, the peer group that would have held the most influence over a teen would have included other teens within the community where they lived, including their schoolmates, teammates, neighbors, and friends from church. Now, teens have access to peer groups across the globe, so they have a lot more pressure to figure out who they are and more points of reference from which to compare themselves, which can distort a teen’s perception of self and reality. 

Is screen time the problem? How many hours do you recommend?

The standard recommendation from the American Pediatric Association is one hour for ages 2-5 and two hours for older kids, preferably of high-quality, educational-type programming. For example, shows or videos that help children learn about the world or teach important life skills like empathy and connection. We like to call these shows academic or social skills-promoting but, ultimately, if your kid is in front of the TV, on a phone, or tablet, this is the preferred form of programming because there’s some value in it — making it better than most. My son is 12, he gets an hour on the phone and his game time is only 30 minutes. But he has unlimited access to apps like Audible, Kindle, and Calm, which are educational, mindfulness, and mental health apps that can be used to help kids and teens with mental health issues.

Are blended family, single-parent or two parent-working homes a problem?

No. There have always been challenges when it comes to parenting, but what impacts the mental health of children the most, in my opinion, is not the family’s situation. It’s how the family adapts and meets the needs of their children. For example, divorced, single-parent homes, and two parent-working homes, do not necessarily have a negative impact on the mental health of a child. It is how a parent or parents choose to respond that impacts the coping of the child.

Your advice to parents?

In my experience, the parents who are the most successful are those who work continuously to be in tune with their child and their child’s needs. Kids tend to speak through behaviors because they can’t always effectively communicate what they’re feeling and needing. So, if you notice behavioral issues like anger outbursts or temper tantrums, particularly for children under 12, or withdrawal and mood changes in your pre-teen or teen, it may be a good time to seek professional involvement and have your child speak with a counselor. If your child is withdrawn or suicidal, it is absolutely the time to seek counseling.

Is there a recent development in your field that you’re excited about?

It may not be a recent development, but I am excited about the concept of executive functioning skills. These are the skills we all use to adapt, meet, and overcome challenges in our lives. These skills include things like emotional regulation, flexible thinking, planning, and organization. It is really exciting to work with children and watch them learn and incorporate these skills.

What’s the biggest mental-health misconception among parents?

If you bring a kid to counseling, it means they’re damaged. That’s simply not the case. I tell parents to think of mental health like physical therapy; sometimes your kids and teens will need a little extra help. Don’t wait until it’s too late to seek out help for your child or yourself. Comparing your kid or your parenting skills and styles to others isn’t fair. No two children or their mental health issues are the same.

Is there a patient or parent behavior you wish you could change?

When I started out, one of the biggest mistakes I made was to press the parent’s concern onto the child, and the child would just shut down. What I’ve found is my job is to help everyone understand different perspectives of the problem and work together to find a solution. Sometimes it is helping the child understand the parent’s concern, and sometimes it is helping the parent understand the child’s perspective.

One in five children in the United States has a diagnosable mental health condition, but children and adolescents represent a mental health treatment gap in which many who need help and treatment don’t get it. The Counseling Center, located at 1401 W. 2nd Street in Gillette, provides mental health and counseling services including crisis intervention, trauma, domestic violence, divorce, relationships, anger management and substance abuse evaluations aimed at closing the gap.

What’s a parent’s end-game when bringing a child to counseling?

Successful parents tend to ask things like, “How do I help my child navigate through this and learn the best way to approach this problem in the future?” We also like to see parents exercise empathy, provide guidance, and meet their child’s discipline needs without limiting outcomes or hindering their child’s independence and character development.

What’s the “perfect parent” look like?

Perfection is a myth. Every day I counsel kids, teens, adults, and parents, I learn more about how to become a better parent to my son. I’m privileged to gain lots of insights and knowledge into the struggles of the average parent and I learn from hearing how children feel. I do worry that I’ll mess him up sometimes because I want him to talk about his feelings all the time. He rolls his eyes and is like, “Mom, stop.” But that’s the job of a parent: We don’t stop. Love and support are a full-time gig.   

By: Stephanie Scarcliff

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