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The Importance of Seeking Help for Your Child

by Heather Miller, LCSW, June 12, 2018 –

“It’s probably normal. Every child goes through phases likes this. More than likely he’ll outgrow it.”

I was trying to reassure myself there was no reason for concern, but the growing pit in my stomach suggested otherwise.

By now I should know that, for me, having a child with special needs often means being at peace with the unexpected. Challenges arise, behaviors manifest, and at times progress is made without a clear understanding of why or how. For many parents this lack of control is difficult to accept.

When my child reached a plateau in progress I tried to determine how I could hit the play button and “un-pause” where we were.  It was time for me to do what I have suggested as a school social worker to many parents, to seek help and support.

From my experience, this is what I have found to be helpful:

  1. Friends – Raising a child with special needs can feel isolating at times. There’s uncertainty about what others think of your parenting, your child’s behavior, and why you may have to cancel at the last minute due to a meltdown.  Being honest about the challenges we face as well as what support I need has been helpful.  The website abilities.com suggests the following: “Try to remember that these people lack the context that we are constantly embedded in. Explain, teach, be patient, raise awareness…”  Friends want to help and be supportive but may need suggestions about how they can assist.
  2. Accountability Partners – As the parent of a special needs child, I know what I need to do but sometimes need a little push to follow through. Sharing next steps with one or two friends can help. I needed to look into services for my child, but making the call seemed overwhelming and made me feel vulnerable. Sharing these feelings with a couple of friends and asking that they follow up with me in a week made it feel more manageable. When asked, being able to say I had completed the first step made me feel accomplished and ready to move to the next step.
  3. Services – Once I decided I needed to get an outside perspective, the next step was determining where to seek help. I often refer parents to various organizations and agencies for services. If I hadn’t experienced this as part of my job, I would have been lost figuring out where to start.  If ever in a similar situation, please do not hesitate to call a Youth First School Social Worker at your child’s school. Recommendations for your specific need can be made; there is no need to guess.
  4. Perspective – Parents want what is best for their children, but every parent makes mistakes. Abilities.com suggests focusing on what you have done well and moving past the mistakes. Asking for help is not a sign of failure or poor parenting. It’s recognizing that some rough patches are rougher than others and require some help to smooth the path. After making the initial phone call for assistance for my child, I felt relief and a sense of pride.  I was giving my child the opportunity to be his best at this stage in his life.

I’ve now been on both sides of this experience as a service provider and a parent. My goal is the same in each role – to reduce stress and increase positive parent/child interaction.  Youth First School Social Workers in area schools are equipped to help you with this goal as well.

Grief Camp Helps Kids Struggling With Loss

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, April 10, 2018 –

“On Saturday, I’m going to help with Camp Memories.  I’m excited!” 

“What’s Camp Memories?”

“It’s a day-long program for kids that have lost a loved one.  It’s a great day.”

“That doesn’t sound fun.  That sounds sad.  What do you do all day, talk about people dying?”

This is typical of the response I receive when mentioning Camp Memories.  Grief is a subject that often makes individuals uncomfortable.  The idea of spending an entire day centered on loss is unimaginable to many; however, it’s one of my favorite programs.

When children lose a loved one, they experience a mixture of emotions.  Obviously, there is sadness and at times anger, but loneliness is also a key emotion related to grief.  After the death, the child must return to school where not many, if any, of their friends and classmates have experienced grief as they have.

According to an article in Social Work Today by Kate Jackson, this feeling of loneliness and standing out may lead to isolation.  Often, children cope with isolation by experiencing an increase in anxiety, substance abuse, and physical complaints.

At Camp Memories, losing a loved one is the common denominator among participants.  Children spend an entire day surrounded by other people their age that have a true understanding of what they’ve experienced.

Camp Memories began three years ago as a way to address the need to help children in our community cope with grief.  The Youth First program takes place on a designated Saturday from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm.  Master’s level social workers facilitate the program.

Camp Memories incorporates a variety of activities including sand tray therapy, normalizing grief through games, art therapy activities and free play.  Participants spend the day processing their experiences in a safe environment.  Additionally, parents participate in an opening and closing meeting to keep them informed about their child’s day.

At the beginning of the day, children are typically hesitant about participating and nervous about what will be discussed.  As the day progresses they begin sharing their experiences as well their emotional responses to these experiences.  Sadness, anger, guilt, worry, and fear are some of the common emotions children express throughout the day.

As the day grows to a close participants are smiling, chatting, and having fun playing with their new friends.  Allowing them an opportunity to talk about their grief through activities geared for children helps them make sense of their emotions.

In my experience as a facilitator for Camp Memories, I have seen children enter with grief weighing heavily on them.  I’ve seen these same children leave with a much lighter sense about them.  This is why this program is so important and beneficial.

Youth First’s next Camp Memories is scheduled for May 12 at Washington Middle School.  If your child has experienced the loss of a loved one and is interested in participating, please contact your school’s Youth First School Social Worker or Laura Keys at 812-421-8336 x 107.  Space is limited.  This is a free program that depends on donations to continue providing grief support for children.

Five Steps to Better Communication With Your Teen

By Katie Omohundro, LCSW, Tuesday, April 3, 2018 –

Communication can be a tricky thing. When you add an adolescent with a growing brain and fluctuating emotions to the mix, communication with the goal of balancing freedom for teens and control from caregivers can be a challenge.

Here are five points to consider that may help improve communication and your relationship with your teen:

  1. Change your mindset.  Being flexible helps. This does not mean we should go against what we believe is best for our children. You should be flexible, however, and try to understand your teen’s perspective. Doing this instead of digging in your heels to show “who’s boss” will encourage better flow of communication.
  1. Allow your child to grow up. During adolescence kids go from having their parents as the center of the universe to avoiding them and thinking they’re clueless. These reactions are perfectly normal. It can be difficult to avoid fighting the quirkiness of adolescence, but allowing time for your teen to navigate through these changes and grow up to make healthy decisions is part of growing up. Coaching rather than micromanaging encourages kids to maneuver through life while feeling confident they have someone to help them along the way.
  1. Make each moment a teachable one. Asking ourselves what really matters during these years can help keep things in perspective. Be present and find those teachable moments. Avoid constant lectures on touchy subjects like schoolwork and chores and the urge to give unsolicited advice. This helps focus the conversation on listening and hearing what is important to your child.
  1. Be real. Being honest with your teen about how you feel allows them to see your struggles and vulnerable side. If you’re afraid your child is going to get involved with a crowd that’s into risky behaviors, it’s okay to let your child know you worry about him and don’t want him spending time with people known to make unhealthy decisions.  Don’t let fear drive you. If you’re too strict and intrusive it can lead to teen rebellion, which isn’t good for anyone. Being authentic and vulnerable will make it easier for your teen to show you that side of them, too.
  1. Validate your teen’s feelings and emotions. Validate your teen by letting them know you understand their feelings. Validation does not mean you agree with or condone the behavior but rather means you’re not judging. Validating feelings allows teens a safe space to open up and allows parents to meet teens where they are.

The foundation of a healthy parent-teen relationship begins with trust, mutual respect, and the ability to pick and choose battles. Figuring out what our “non-negotiables” are (such as no drinking or no texting while driving) is a must. Share these with you teen so they know where you stand. Every child needs guidance, especially during adolescence.

Although the adolescent years may seem to drag on, they’ll be gone in no time. Finding a balance that works for you and your family can make those years enjoyable when it comes to communication and a healthy relationship with your teen.

The Challenges of Parenting Tweens

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, Oct. 17, 2017 –

“Why did Jack score two goals and I didn’t score any?”  “I’m terrible at soccer.  I should just quit.”  “Everyone else in my class knows how to do this math problem but me.  I’m awful at it.”  “You just don’t understand.”

And so it begins… I have a tween.  With this new label comes a noticeable change in my once easy-going, happy, confident child.  New emotions have set in as well as constant comparisons between my tween and classmates, teammates, and friends.

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines a tween as a boy or girl who is 11 or 12 years old.  The tween years serve as the transitional years between being a child and becoming a teenager.

With this transition comes uncertainty as to what defines the tween.  This uncertainty manifests in various ways such as tears, angry outbursts, and more seriously, depression and anxiety.

Parents and caregivers are often caught off-guard as to how to help their tween navigate this stage of life.  Following are some tips for helping parents and tweens not only survive these years, but to use them to strengthen relationships.

 First, remember to validate and acknowledge the tween’s feelings.  Give permission for your tween to be sad or angry.

This will assist the tween in feeling comfortable with sharing various emotions with adults.  Additionally, this simple acknowledgement will help the tween trust the adult by knowing their feelings will not be laughed at or dismissed.

During this stage, tweens are attempting to define themselves.  Often this is done by ranking their abilities compared to others.  No matter what the tween is comparing, he or she will always find someone who is better than them.

Adults can help by directing praise and compliments toward character traits rather than abilities or accomplishments.  Praising a tween for getting a B in math will likely be followed by the response, “but so and so got an A.”

Focusing on the traits that resulted in the tween earning the B will assist the tween with recognizing the positive traits he or she possesses.  In this situation, stating, “You showed a lot of patience when learning the new material in math.  It would have been easy to give up, but you continually gave it your all,” will bring the focus to the traits of patience and perseverance rather than a letter grade, which serves as a ranking system.

The most important factor in helping your tween is to be available.  According to World of Psychology, it is imperative to give your tween options to communicate their feelings to you.  Allowing your child to choose whether to talk face-to-face, by text, or by calling you about emotions and situations will increase the likelihood of your tween coming to you with concerns and for support.

If you find that your tween is experiencing more serious emotional outbursts or is becoming increasingly withdrawn and isolated, additional assistance may be needed.

Contacting your school’s Youth First Social Worker with these concerns can result in early intervention.   Early intervention by a professional is beneficial to help tweens learn coping skills before the emotions become too intense and overwhelming.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, August 15, 2017 –

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb seems to be even more relevant in 2017, with working parents and single parents (and the accompanying family “busyness” that has become the norm) trying to raise a family.

And yet, even though it seems that the support of a “village” is so desperately needed, it often seems like this concept has somewhat disappeared from our society.

Raising children is a difficult task for which no one is ever completely prepared.  There are situations where support from others is not only warranted but also desired by the parent.

Often in our individualistic society, offering support to a fellow parent is considered improper and viewed as “stepping on toes.”  However, this mindset can lead to lonely, stressed parents, which then leads to stressed children.

Often risk factors are examined to explain why some children are more likely than others to “be successful” and overcome challenges.  Coupled with risk factors are protective factors, which can help the child take steps toward success.

According to the National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, protective factors “are conditions in families and communities that, when present, increase the health and well-being of children and families.”  Examples of protective factors include social connections for parents as well as concrete supports for parents.

Offering support to a fellow parent does not have to be time-consuming or overly personal.  Following are simple ways in which support can be given:

  • Invite the family to a social function you are planning to attend such as a church event or neighborhood picnic.  Such events give adults the ability to connect with one another and form friendships that can lead to additional support.
  • Offer a kind word and a smile to a parent that has a child having a meltdown at the store, park or other place.  An empathetic response and assurance that every parent has experienced a public meltdown by a child is likely to be appreciated.
  • Focus on the big picture by recognizing that people parent in different ways but the ultimate goal is to raise happy, healthy children.  Getting hung up on differences such as appropriate consequences can lead to additional division rather than support.  No two parents will likely agree about how to handle every situation involving a child, but accepting that there are numerous ways to parent is important.
  • If you know the family and feel comfortable, offer to set up a carpool system or swap babysitting services.  Thirty minutes of child-free house cleaning can be a huge support to a parent and not overly burdensome for you.

* What’s Going on Inside Your Teen’s Head?

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, April 11, 2017 –

If you are the parent of a teen, you have most likely thought, “You’re seriously worried about that?” a few dozen times.

The issues that worry adults are often completely different than the issues that worry teens.  Adults may often be confused about why a teen would be worried about a particular issue and may also wonder how to best give support.

It may be difficult to not trivialize a teen’s worries at times, but validating your child’s emotions is crucial to the adult-teen relationship.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, immaturity of the brain plays a large role in why teens worry.  A study utilizing MRI found that when attempting to distinguish between safety and threat, teens use the part of the brain responsible for basic fear responses.

When given the same scenario, findings indicate that adults utilize a more mature part of the brain responsible for reasoned judgments.  This suggests that teens may be more fearful in general due to their physical inability to adequately distinguish between safety and threat.

What do teens worry about the most? An article found on familyeducation.com notes that teens worry about the following:

  • What others think of them
  • Grades
  • Lack of time
  • Family difficulties
  • The future

Parents and caregivers can help teens get through worrisome situations.  This assistance will strengthen the parent-child relationship and teach the teen coping skills to use independently in the future.

Here are three ideas for supporting your worried teen:

  • Validate that your teen is worried and, without judgment, allow them to tell you what is leading to the worry.
  • Assist your teen in narrowing down the actual issue as well as brainstorming possible solutions.  Allow your teen to think of possible solutions rather than telling them what to do to solve the issue.
  • Remain focused on how your teen is feeling rather than trying to “cheerlead” them out of a worry.  Being positive and supportive is very important; however, comments such as “Oh, it will be just fine – don’t worry,” often feel generic and uncaring.

While some amount of worrying is a normal part of every teen’s experience, excessive worry that interferes with functioning or quality of life may require professional intervention. If you feel your teen is consumed with worry and this is affecting their daily activities, contact the Youth First Social Worker at your child’s school, a guidance counselor, an outpatient therapist, or your teen’s pediatrician to discuss these concerns.

Additionally, if communicating with your teen is difficult, Youth First programs such as Strengthening Families can help develop communication skills for families with children of all ages. Please call 812-421-8336 or visit youthfirstinc.org for more information about Strengthening Families or other Youth First programs.

The Importance of the Pause – Teaching Your Kids Impulse Control

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Girl texting

By Heather Miller, MSW, Courier & Press, June 21, 2016 –

“I didn’t think about it.” As a Youth First Social Worker in a middle school, this is a statement I hear multiple times per week.

Impulse control and the ability to predict future consequences for present decisions are difficult concepts for the adolescent brain to process. Couple this with a fast-paced society that expects immediate feedback and gratification, and the challenge to think before acting becomes understandably difficult.

Students today are navigating life and relationships in a world primarily composed of red and green — stop and go — with no time for yellow, the pause.

Fifteen years ago, before the advent of social media, the pause allowed students to rethink their actions and tear up a hate-filled note they wrote to a peer the night before.

The pause often prevented the negative consequences that accompany intense emotions. Now, without the pause, students type a hate-filled text and press send. A text cannot be torn up, and the ramifications are often immediate.

The pause has been hijacked by social media, texting and email. Thus, when students tell me, “I didn’t think about it,” I know they did not think through the situation and possible consequences. Furthermore, many kids have not been taught how to do this.

The following tips will help teach kids how to pause before acting.

  • For younger children, use the visuals of a stoplight to guide the child in thinking through a real situation or made-up scenario. This will help instill the concept of thinking through possible consequences before acting. Begin at red, or stopping, to describe the situation; move to yellow, thinking through what may have been the reason for the situation as well as possible outcomes for different consequences; finally, move to green, choosing the action that will yield the best results.
  • To capture an adolescent’s attention, use famous athletes or movie stars to demonstrate how quickly lives can change by one action. Similar to the stoplight illustration, discuss the situation, the action taken, the consequences of the action, and how a different action may have created a different consequence.
  • If children are using texting, email and/or social media, discuss waiting a set amount of time before sending a message about a volatile issue. This is an important part of demonstrating the maturity needed to have a social media account or phone. Make it a nonnegotiable expectation.
  • For children of all ages, explain how the brain works and processes emotions as well as the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control. This gives kids an understanding of how their brains are equipped to deal with intense emotions. For more information please review the article, “Teaching Students: A Brain Owner’s Manual,” by Dr. Judy Willis.

If you have a child that would benefit from additional skills training in impulse control, please contact your school’s Youth First School Social Worker or a licensed mental health professional.