By Terra Clark, MSW, Courier & Press, November 29, 2016 – As a staggering number of people continue to fall victim to heroin and other opioid addictions, their lives begin to crumble around them.

Opioids are prescription drugs usually prescribed to treat pain, such as hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g. OxyContin, Percocet), and morphine (e.g. Kadian, Avinza). Heroin is also an opioid but is cheaper, and in some cases, easier to obtain than prescription opioids.

The downward spiral of addiction takes others in its wake. Families often suffer physically, financially, and emotionally – and children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of a parent’s drug abuse and addiction.

Moreover, substance abuse can affect parenting skills, since using substances changes the way a person thinks, looks, feels and behaves. These changes are unpredictable, making the home feel even more unstable.

Under the influence, a parent will often neglect their child’s needs. The child may be confused or scared by the changes in the parent. A parent who is drugged cannot respond effectively, if at all, to a child’s needs.

When using, parents have poor impulse control and say and do things they wouldn’t normally do or react to their child in ways that are inappropriate or harmful. It is normal for a parent to feel frustrated at times; after all, parenting is challenging. The use of substances makes it more likely that the parent will respond to frustration inappropriately, directing it at the child. Children may see these behaviors or reactions as “normal” and repeat the same behaviors/actions they see from their parents.

Often, the maltreatment is a matter of what the parent fails to do. A substance-abusing parent may consistently overlook meals and other necessities such as proper hygiene and supervision.

Then there is emotional neglect; the unpredictability of a substance-abusing parent scares a child. The parent may be loving one minute and enraged the next. Children need consistent affection and attention, and addicted parents typically cannot provide such an environment.

A substance-abusing parent may leave the child alone for long periods of time or expose the child to violence by allowing drug trafficking in the home or other drug-abusing adults that are a direct threat to the child.

In many ways, children of drug addicted parents are robbed of their childhoods. These children often take over household responsibilities, care for siblings and sometimes even parents who cannot care for themselves. This can affect learning, friendships, mental health, and every aspect of their lives. Children often feel it is their fault because they cannot understand their parent’s substance abuse problem, especially if the parent criticizes or yells often.

Surrounded by the lifestyle of substance abuse, a child is under constant stress. Children are always wondering, “How will my parent react?” “What will happen next?” “Who will be here today?” Children in this situation are unlikely to develop at the same rate intellectually, socially or emotionally as children whose lives are less burdened by stress.

Children who grow up in a home with substance abuse often find that it follows them into adulthood. They have difficulty in relationships due to mistrust and the lack of exposure to healthy adult relationships. Children of substance abusers are more likely to abuse drugs and start at an earlier age.

There is hope and help if you want to make things better for yourself or your family. You can talk to your primary care physician or call a trained therapist.

It is never too late to be a sober parent and a positive role model offering consistency, structure, attention, communication, praise and patience. Your children deserve for you to be at your best!


By Brooke Skipper, LCSW, Courier & Press, Nov. 22, 2016 –

Turning on the news or logging into social media each day, you are sure to be bombarded with messages of fear, anger and intolerance.

The constant turmoil in our country and our world makes the thought of raising children scary. Will they be safe? Will they make good friends? Will they get bullied? What if they are the bully?

It seems more important than ever to raise kids who can understand and be kind to other people. You do not have to go out of your way to do so.

Teaching empathy should be part of everyday life: how you respond to your child’s questions, how you solve conflict with siblings, how you strengthen his or her capacity to think about other people. You have influence in fostering your child’s ability to empathize.

Here are some easy ways to build empathy into each day:

  1. Develop “feelings” language. A child cannot be expected to consider the emotions of others if they do not first understand their own. This goes beyond the basic happy/sad/mad. Try pointing out different emotions in books, TV shows and those around you. Use a variety of words to strengthen their “feelings” vocabulary such as frustrated, hurt, hopeful or excited.
  2. Demonstrate empathy in your own behavior. Empathizing with your child can be done in many ways, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their individual personalities and taking a genuine interest in their lives. Children also learn empathy by watching our interactions with others. They’ll notice if we are friendly to the server at a restaurant or rude to the cashier at the grocery.
  3. Be consistent. If you ask your child to use kind language when speaking to others, make sure you are modeling that language in your own conversations. If you’ve been short-tempered with your child or spoken harshly to your spouse, apologize. All parents make mistakes. It’s how you address your mistake afterward that makes a difference.
  4. Recognize kindness. When your child shares a toy with someone or gives the dog a hug, be sure to acknowledge the actions as kind. Over time, your child will understand that being a helpful friend, sibling, neighbor and human being is something you value.
  5. Praise daily, but don’t overdo it. Praising your child’s efforts is important for building confidence and positive self-esteem. However, you do not want your child to demand praise for small, expected tasks. Find a balance that works in your home. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with sibling, and with neighbors, and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.
  6. Promote emotional literacy. Many schools are working to incorporate social/emotional learning programs. Talk with your child’s Youth First social worker, teacher or counselor to determine what is available at their school.
  7. Volunteer. Teaching your child the gift of giving back is an invaluable lesson. Children learn to think about the experience of those around them and can appreciate the positive aspects of their own life. There are many ways to volunteer in the community that are also age-appropriate.

A social media meme is making the rounds that states, “We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.” There is a lot of power in this statement. In order to create a kinder world, we need to teach our children the importance of being kind and thinking about the feelings of others.


Youth First is one of the featured “best practices” on the Bright Ideas Indiana website. This is a joint venture between the State of Indiana and the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. It highlights promising practices by Indiana nonprofits to encourage peer-to-peer learning and innovation.

Click here to see this recognition of our work:  http://www.brightideasindiana.org/youth-first-inc/


By Terra Ours, LCSW, Courier & Press, Nov. 15, 2016 – Michael  is being raised by a single mom who recently went to prison with a 10-year sentence. What effect will his mother’s incarceration have on 7-year-old Michael?

It is often said that we don’t incarcerate a person, we incarcerate a family. This statement is especially true when considering the impact of parental incarceration on children.

Studies show parental incarceration can be more traumatic for children than death or divorce. The effect on a child’s health, education and relationships puts them at an elevated risk for future incarceration as well.

The impact of parental incarceration on a child’s educational process is overwhelming. However, this issue is difficult for schools to track and often becomes hidden and overlooked when the child “flies under the radar,” performing fairly well academically  but is left to deal with the trauma, shame and stigma alone.

Lower grades, poor health leading to chronic absenteeism, lower school engagement, increased behavioral problems, learning disabilities and anxiety are just a few of the issues children may experience when they have a parent in prison.

Children often also experience anger, depression and anxiety related to being separated from their parent. These children are at an increased risk for experiencing additional “adverse childhood experiences,” otherwise known as ACEs. Research has shown that cumulative ACEs are often an indicator of childhood trauma and a precursor to future mental and physical health problems.

As a Youth First Social Worker in area schools, I have witnessed the devastating effects on a child with an incarcerated parent. Children are often too embarrassed to seek help for fear of being ridiculed by classmates. This leaves the child to bear the secret alone.

What do we do to help children experiencing the impact of an incarcerated loved one?

As long as the parental relationship is safe, it is very important for children to be able to maintain a relationship with their parent during the incarceration. Visits, letters or phone conversations can calm a child’s fears about their parent’s welfare and the parent’s feelings for them.

Reach out to the prison to identify resources available to help the child stay connected. If a child is unable to physically visit their parent, make resources available so the child is able to call or mail letters.

Explain to the child, at the appropriate developmental level, why the parent is not living in the home. Children have rules, and even very young children can understand the consequences of breaking a rule.

Help the child understand they did not have a part in the incarceration of their parent. Children will often take the blame for circumstances beyond their control. Help the child understand they are not at fault for what has happened, and what they are feeling is completely normal.

Most importantly, advocate for the child to receive resources and support within the community. Seek out social workers in the child’s school to help locate additional resources and assistance with addressing traumas related to the incarceration. Encourage the child to speak to a counselor, empowering the child to tell their story.


By Joel Fehsenfeld, LCSW, Courier & Press, Nov. 1, 2016 –

In last week’s column we discussed what many people believe to be the secret to their success: grit. In short review, grit is the balanced combination of passion and perseverance but not one without the other.

According to Angela Duckworth, awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her research on success, one of the first steps to instilling grit in your child is to put a challenge in front of them. Give your child the opportunity to pursue at least one difficult task that requires discipline and practice, like playing a musical instrument or a sport.

Once given the challenge, have your child follow through. Feelings of frustration can surface at times, but resist the urge to take over or let them quit. Learning isn’t always easy, so helping your child think through the steps teaches them to deal with and overcome adversity.

If your child fails at the task at hand, it’s okay. Being able to pick yourself up after hitting a low moment is a crucial skill a child should learn; that is how perseverance is instilled. Remind your child it is possible to be smart, accomplished and successful and still lose or fail at times.

Share with your child your own hard-fought battles and challenges. Some feel the most important skill a child needs to learn is the ability to get back up after a fall.  Encourage them and model that failure is nothing to be afraid of. A simple do-it-yourself project in the home can be a great opportunity to show a child some of the challenges grown-ups face.

Another way to build grit in your child is to develop a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” describes a growth mindset as the journey of improving and strengthening your abilities through hard work, effort, good strategies and/or help and input from others. This mindset opposes the belief that your talents, intelligence and abilities are set in stone.

Dweck has come up with some tips to encourage your children to develop a growth mindset. The first step is to praise their effort, strategies and choices rather than their ability or intelligence. Kids will be more apt to take on challenges and stick with something if the praise they receive is directed toward the work they put in rather than their natural ability or intelligence. Demonstrate that a little bit of elbow grease goes a long way toward improvement.

Responding positively to failure is a critical lesson to learn. They also need to learn that not being perfect is okay. Helping your child set goals teaches them a step toward success and equips them with the skills to achieve the task at hand.

Instilling grit in your children does take effort and consistency, but in the long run the results will benefit them in many aspects of their life. If you would like to learn more about grit, check out Angela Duckworth’s website and take the grit scale at angeladuckworth.com or check out this TED Talk presentation by Angela Duckworth at youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8.