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VIDEO: Cape Breton program aims to build foundation for good mental health in young children

Family Place Resource Centre staff, from left, sitting, Kathy Milburn, Brandy Cassidy and standing, Sheila Cassidy, discuss the Handle with Care program in their Sydney office on Jan. 15. Handle with Care teaches people who care for or work with children ages newborn to six years, techniques to help foster good mental health during early development.
Family Place Resource Centre staff, from left, sitting, Kathy Milburn, Brandy Cassidy and standing, Sheila Cassidy, discuss the Handle with Care program in their Sydney office on Jan. 15. Handle with Care teaches people who care for or work with children ages newborn to six years, techniques to help foster good mental health during early development. - Nikki Sullivan
SYDNEY, N.S. —

Healthy children grow into healthy adults is the main message in a new program being taught by Family Place Resource Centre staff in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Except this program, called Handle with Care, focuses on mental health — not physical health — and it's aimed at parents, caregivers and people who work with children ages newborn to six.

"The payoffs in mental health for children (when these strategies are used) are huge," said Brandy MacNeil, one of the Family Place workers trained to teach the program.

"There's evidence (collected after four provinces were used to pilot the program from 2004-11) showing it helps children feel more secure, helps with anxiety ... helps build confidence and healthy relationships."

Created in 2002 by co-collaborators Nancy Cohen at the Hinks-Dellcrest Centre (now the SickKids Centre for Community Health) and Bonnie Pape at the national office of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the evidence-based program started rolling-out in Atlantic Canada in 2012.

The first six-week Handle with Care program happened in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Glace Bay in June 2018. The second was offered in North Sydney. Currently, there are two Handle with Care programs in place — in Glace Bay and Sydney.


Handle with Care — The History 

  • Created: 2002
  • Co-collaborators: Bonnie Pape and Nancy Cohen
  • Who are they: Mental health professionals in Toronto 
  • What it does: Teaches strategies for good mental health in young children
  • Who is it for: Parents, caregivers, people working with children aged newborn to six 
  • National training started: 2004 
  • Pilot areas start program: 2007
  • Pilot areas outcome evaluations: 2011
  • Started in Atlantic Canada: 2012
  • Currently funded by: Public Health Agency of Canada

Classes are kept small, usually with only six participants who meet once a week for two hours.

MacNeil and co-teacher Kathy Milburn say the weekly meetings are jam-packed with information, interactive exercise and personal stories. They said sometimes the sessions "get heavy" which is why there are two instructors — if a participant needs to leave the room, one instructor can continue the teaching while the other helps the participant.

Although the course is aimed at helping teach skills to encourage strong mental health in children during the early years, MacNeil and Milburn said Handle with Care can also benefit parents or caregivers who might be struggling due to isolation or other life situations.

"Parents could have left complete chaos at home and after coming to a Handle with Care sessions, feel less stress, more happy and better prepared to parent," said MacNeil.

Self-care for the parent or caregiver is a big part of the course, which focuses on four building blocks for good mental health in young children.

"You can't take care of your children if you aren't taking care of yourself," said Milburn who has been a family resource worker for 16 years.


Handle with Care — Cape Breton

  • Provided by: Family Place Resource Centre 
  • Started: 2018
  • Where: Glace Bay, Sydney
  • Course runs: Six weeks, two hours per session
  • Cost: Free
  • Registration: Required
  • Workshop sizes: Six participants
  • Information: 902-562-5616; email: kmilburn@familyplace.ca

MacNeil added, "I used to think self-care was going for a hair appointment or getting your nails done ... But it's also primary care too. Taking time to have a shower in the morning, making yourself a good meal. We think we are being good parents when we focus only on our children but when our bucket isn't filled, we can't be the best parent we can."

Each week of the program focuses on a different building block. Week one starts with learning how to build trust and bond with the child. Next comes techniques to help foster self-esteem, then learning how to help children express emotions and ends with strategies on teaching children how to build healthy relationships.

The program teaches things like the importance of focused praise, such as "That tree you drew is excellent" versus "Good job" for everything. It also shows how empathizing with a child isn't the same as giving in and how to create healthy routines like bedtime.

Participants in the program are often referred through community partners like SchoolsPlus or are clients of Family Place. However, anyone can attend and anyone working with children is encouraged to attend.

To find out when the next installments of Handle with Care will take place in the CBRM call Family Place at 902-562-5616 or email kmilburn@familyplace.ca.

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