By Krista Kirk, MSW, LSW – January 24, 2024

Navigating friendships in high school can be a daunting task for many teens. As we grow older, our brains become more complex, and with that, our friendships become more complex as well. It is no longer as simple as relying on our parents to help us make friends through playdates with the children of their friends.

High school students must learn how to navigate peer relationships on their own, which can be a challenging process. However, with the right guidance and support, it is possible to build strong and healthy friendships that can last a lifetime.

It is vital to remember friendships do not form at the snap of a finger. They take time to develop and mature. School is a prime place to make friends; however, this is not easy for every student. Remind your teen that if they notice someone without a friend or friend group, they could encourage that student to join them at lunch or get involved in a club, sport, hobby, or outside organization they are interested in.

Parents also want to watch for signs of unhealthy friendships; here are some red flags:

● Your child isolates from other friends, peers, or family

● The friend shames them for spending time with others

● Your child has a significant age gap with their friend(s)

● The friend strives to “one-up” them after they share good/bad news

● The friend blames them for their own problems or disciplinary actions

● The friend encourages them to keep secrets from everyone but the friend

● You notice shifts in behavior or engaging in behavior that is more reckless

● Feeling drained or not feeling like themselves after spending time with friends

If you or your child see some of these red flags in a friendship, it is important for them to let the friend know how they feel. Encourage them to use “I” statements such as, “I don’t like when you get mad when I want to spend time with my family.” Another tip is to stick with the facts. Stating facts comes off as less aggressive and can help if the friend becomes defensive.

It is also important for your child to establish boundaries in a friendship and hold firm to the boundaries. If the friend continues to cross their boundaries, they will need to consider establishing stronger boundaries.

You can also advise your child to take a break from unhealthy friendships to help them process how to communicate more effectively and establish healthy boundaries.

Additionally, here are some tips to help your teen build positive friendships:

● Model healthy friendships yourself

● Have a discussion with your teen on what qualities they look for in a friend

● Highlight good qualities you see in their friends

● Help them realize quality friendships are better than quantity

● Be supportive and lend a listening ear

● Be realistic about friendships having ups and downs

When reflecting on friendships at the high school level, it is important to remember that our friendships play a part in how others view us and how we are remembered. It is important to seek characteristics and values in a friend that reflect our own.

For example, if they would like others to remember them as a welcoming person, they should surround themselves with peers who will let others join their circle and make them feel welcome. Encourage them to remember who they are and who they want to be. We all have control over who we choose as friends. As humans grow and change, so do friendships.

By Kandace Troxell, Intern – January 17, 2024

When you have a baby, your world changes. Your entire focus on life shifts from yourself to keeping your newborn safe and happy. You are constantly holding them, cradling their head, and watching their every move to ensure their safety.

As they grow into a toddler, you put safety locks and guards throughout the house to ensure that they do not bump their head or seriously injure themself. When they become a young child, you insist they wear a helmet when riding a bike and you keep a diligent eye on them in and around swimming pools.

As they reach the teenage years, you make sure they wear their seat belts when they drive in their first car. As parents, protecting your child’s physical health is completely natural…but have you considered how you are protecting your child’s mental health?

Children’s bodies develop and change as they grow, and their brains are developing and changing as well. According to Melissa Ford, senior strategist and writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, a child’s brain is growing and changing even as they move into the teenage and young adult years. In the same way that you protected their bodies, it is important to protect their minds.

One way of doing so, according to Ford, is to create a nurturing environment for the child to grow and develop. If a teenager is experiencing a stressful environment, they may not have the ability to process their emotions in a productive and healthy way because they are overwhelmed by the stress of the environment.

How can you create a low stress environment at home? Start with creating a solid foundation by making sure a child’s basic needs are met, including providing three meals a day, making sure they practice good hygiene, and ensuring that they get adequate sleep. Additionally, it is important to create an environment that does not focus on pressure, shame, or guilt, but instead, focuses on understanding, openness, and empathy.

Another way to protect your child’s brain is by helping them understand the importance of doing so. The Center for Parent and Teen Communication explains that one essential way to educate your child about their brain is to teach them about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on their brain and body. Young people may perceive drugs and alcohol as fun, recreational activities to enjoy with friends; however, there are serious consequences for their developing brains.

Additionally, you can teach children WHY it is important to protect and care for their mental health. Together as a family, you can practice self-care activities that lessen stress. These self-care practices could include eating a healthy diet, exercising, doing yoga, taking long walks, journaling, talking to others, and more.

We all want what is best for our children. The bottom line is that it is just as important as a parent to protect your child’s developing brain and their mental health as it is to protect their bodies from harm.

By Aaron Ledford, MSW, LSW – January 10, 2024

Emotions, defined as human reactions we experience in response to events or situations, are a mysterious thing and an abstract concept. Without living our emotions out, they are not “real” concrete things. You can’t draw happiness, but you can draw a picture of something that makes you happy. You can’t draw sadness, but you can draw a situation that makes you sad.

Unless we allow ourselves to live out the specific emotion, they do not and cannot exist. As adults, we can understand this concept to a certain degree, but a child may have a difficult time absorbing this.

We are often given the message that controlling our emotions is about pushing them aside, treating them as if they don’t exist, and “getting over it” so the task at hand can be accomplished. While this is one way of coping, it may not be the best method for everyone, especially a child who is struggling with overwhelming sadness or anxiety. A better method of coping is redirecting our perceived negative emotions into something positive and powerful.

There is a proverb that reads, “If you cannot control yourself, you are like a city without walls, easily conquered.” Self-control is an important thing for anyone to learn and develop. Without learning this concept, we would just give into our intrusive thoughts and suffer the consequences of those actions.

I would like to define self-control as a catch and release of our negative emotions. What I mean by this is understanding what we are feeling, evaluating whether this emotion is valid in the situation, accepting that it is okay and normal to feel this way, and then releasing the hold that emotion might have on us.

We all go through life experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. As adults, we have become so used to the idea that it has become a normal everyday occurrence and we can process our emotions easier. For young people this is a new and foreign thing to experience, especially in a school setting. Helping students identify, evaluate, accept, and release negative emotions can be paramount in the development of a new and emotionally intelligent generation.

Redirection is another possible method of handling one’s emotions. Redirection is taking the negative emotions and thoughts and turning them into something productive and flourishing. For instance, if you are dealing with a lot of stress from a job and coping with unhealthy habits or lifestyle choices, redirection would be going to the gym to release those emotions.

Redirection allows the individual to make better choices when it comes to their emotional state and self-care. Learning how to properly take care of one’s needs after a stressful day is essential for a healthy lifestyle and developing smart coping skills in the future. This method also allows young people to pursue positive passions in their lives. Many people play sports or play an instrument and develop their creative arts talents to help redirect their negative emotions into positive activities. This method also helps by releasing emotions in small doses instead of bottling them up to be expelled later.

As with everything, there are also downsides to this method. One of the downsides includes not fully processing the emotions one is feeling. Just piling on different activities to cope with the negativity may result in covering up an underlying issue and never addressing the concern. This method would make it easier to ignore the root issue causing the negative emotions or thoughts, so this should be carefully and thoughtfully considered.

By Shannon Loehrlein, MSW, LCSW

I love to travel. My parents instilled a love of travel in me from a young age. My mother was a history teacher, and we would spend some vacations visiting historic sites (not my favorite as a middle school student). Other times we would visit Disney World or take a cruise. I know many children do not have this opportunity, and I have always considered myself fortunate.

This summer I had the experience of a lifetime taking my kids to Europe, Alaska, and Disney World. My busy summer made me think about the importance of travel for children.  

My kids are currently 9 and 4 and have both traveled since they were only a few months old. When they were very little, I would hear comments from other people about how I was crazy for traveling with them. Sure, we had our share of fits, meltdowns, and embarrassing moments, but the benefits have definitely outweighed the inconveniences. Here are some examples:

Exposure to Different Cultures. Our children visited Europe for the first time this summer. We traveled to Italy, Ireland, Greece, France, and Canada, along with some domestic stops along the way. Each country has its own culture, norms, food, and customs. 

Our children first learned, for example, that not all countries have free refills and ice. We had to remind them of this several times when they ordered a soft drink and wanted a refill. They also learned that in Europe it is not customary for hotels, homes, or businesses to be air-conditioned, teaching them adaptability.

Our children have visited some islands in the Caribbean, where most families have a different standard of living than average Americans. They observed kids expressing appreciation and thankfulness for what little they have, and this was an important reminder to them. During our visit to Alaska this year we came across a homeless shelter, and our children had some questions about it. It is important for children to have a basic understanding and compassion for families living in poverty.

Our kids also learned that in most countries around the world, eating out is a several-hour event and not a quick drive through. As Americans, we are used to having quick and efficient service and had to adopt a slower pace. In many cultures, fast meal service is considered rude and makes the customer feel like they are being rushed. 

Different Languages. Traveling to unique places exposes you to different languages and dialects, other elements of culture. Although many countries in the world speak English (such as Ireland), the accent and words can mean different things.

Europe is a melting pot, and unlike Americans, most Europeans know multiple languages. It was amazing to see how easily Europeans would go back and forth between languages. Our children learned a few phrases in Italian, French, and Greek, which they thought was a lot of fun. 

Kids do not have to travel out of the country to experience different cultures. Most schools offer language instruction. Our home school district has an entire program for children who speak English as a second language. It is important for kids to be exposed to others who are different, which teaches tolerance.

Learning Patience. Travel teaches patience to both children and adults. I would often remind my children to pack their “patience pants” on airplanes, trains, and waiting in lines. Europe had a huge travel boom this summer, and the crowds certainly confirmed this.

Patience is an important life skill that our children learn in school daily. Children must raise their hand, wait their turn, sit quietly, and share with other children. Children are not born with these skills.

Adventure and Mental Well Being. A few years ago, I took a free class from Yale University on the Secret of Happiness from Dr. Laurie Santos, who has spent her life’s work studying the psychology of happiness. One of the lessons that affected me most was about how we spend our money in relation to happiness. Dr. Santos noted that capitalism has contributed to people thinking that buying the latest car, phone, house, clothes, etc. will make them happy. Many of us are chasing that American Dream of consumerism and left feeling empty.

Dr. Santos discovered that what makes us happiest are experiences. Experiences can be as simple as going to the movie, going to the playground, swimming at the pool, or taking a vacation. Her conclusion was that families should spend expendable income on life experiences. 

My family decided to prioritize travel in our budget several years ago. Most American families take one or two trips each year. Many enjoy the beach, visiting family out of town, taking road trips, cruises, or visiting amusement parks or large cities. Everyone has a different budget, and you can incorporate travel and experiences at any budget. Some low-cost ideas could be taking your child to the local playground, swimming pool, the zoo, or a splash pad. Families can find fun activities to enjoy together on any budget.