By Krissy Melhiser, LSW – May 26, 2022 –

What does it take to see our children grow to be strong and healthy? Is it everyone’s responsibility?

Parenting can be so difficult at times. It seems like an endless pursuit, and you wonder if the tireless chase will result in a positive outcome. As a school social worker, I hear countless stories of the hardships parents face with their kids. Through the ups and downs, I often wonder as each generation faces the same foundational issues, what does it take to produce a healthy generation?

Since being in high school myself, I have seen an increase in anxiety and depression in young people. A world that is constantly transforming provides a multitude of reasons for this increase in mental health challenges. How can we ensure the next generation isn’t forced to grapple with more issues than the previous generation?

So what is needed? Change! A word like “change” can be so simple to understand, yet it may be one of the most difficult to put into action.

Change requires looking beyond our circumstances to find the root of the issues younger generations face. Most of us would find it is easy to change our laundry detergent or perhaps make small changes in our routine, but deep-rooted change takes more time and commitment.

So what can we do as parents, guardians, and youth advocates who have an influence on younger generations?

First we must turn inward, observe, and recognize what we need to own up to. As parents, we are not given an instruction manual. Much of what we know is learned from our own parents. Recognize that not everything we are taught is good or healthy. Therefore, it’s important for all of us to be introspective and make changes where they are necessary.

The definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If we do the same things over and over, how can we expect change to occur for ourselves and those around us? Lead by example! Envision yourself looking into a mirror, but on the other side is not your reflection; it’s your child’s reflection instead. With every movement, word, attitude, and deed they mirror you. Are you okay with the reflection you see?

To create change, sometimes generational bonds of negative unhealthy habits need to be broken. As human beings we have proven that we can and have evolved. Therefore, we know that change can happen if we commit to seeing it through.

My challenge is this: Ask yourself what you need to own up to. You and your kids will be better for it. The negative generational cycle can and needs to be broken, not only for your own mental health and well-being, but also for the benefit of your family, community, and society as a whole.

It’s our responsibility to produce a generation that can take on the future without unnecessary hurdles. Our actions have a ripple effect on so much more than we realize. May the ripples you produce be healthy and good ones.

By Ashley Hale, LCSW – May 25, 2022 –

Most parents have experienced a time where their child fell and hit their head. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether you should take them to the emergency room for an evaluation.

How do you know if your child has a serious head injury? Let’s take a look at what can happen as the result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Psychiatric symptoms and disorders are frequent after a traumatic brain injury. A TBI is usually the result of a violent blow or jolt to the head. A mild TBI can affect your brain cells temporarily. A more serious TBI can result in long-term complications.

Although there are many ways to acquire a TBI, the most common ways are falls, vehicle collisions, violence, sports injuries, and explosive blasts. Sports injuries are particularly common in youth. TBI can cause physical symptoms, sensory symptoms, and cognitive/behavioral/mental symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, traumatic brain injuries have wide-ranging psychological effects. Some of the signs and symptoms may appear immediately, while others can emerge days or weeks later. 

Common TBI symptoms are listed below.

  1. Loss of consciousness for a few seconds to a few minutes
  2. Feeling dazed, confused, or disoriented
  3. Memory or concentration problems
  4. Mood changes or swings
  5. Feeling depressed or anxious
  6. Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  7. Thoughts of suicide
  8. Agitation, combativeness, or other unusual behavior

Infant and young children’s symptoms are harder to communicate but may present in the following ways.

  • Change in eating or nursing habits
  • Unusual or easy irritability
  • Persistent crying and inability to be consoled
  • Change in ability to pay attention
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of interest in favorite toys or activities

A brain injury can change the way people are able to feel or express their emotions. Some may begin to experience emotions more intensely. Some describe the experience as an “emotional rollercoaster.”

Why does this happen? Mood swings are often caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls emotions and behavior. Often there is no specific trigger, which can be confusing for the patient and family. In some cases, you may see sudden episodes of crying or laughing, and usually the emotional expression does not match the situation.

I have seen students with TBI become very anxious, lack focus, and appear unorganized. I have also seen students who displayed no psychiatric symptoms prior to their TBI verbalize suicidal thoughts.  

Always seek emergency medical care if you or your child has received a head injury. Fortunately, mild concussion symptoms often improve after the first few months. It’s important to speak with a doctor if you are having problems controlling emotions after a TBI.

Counseling can be reassuring and allow the patient and family to cope better daily.  There are also medications that can help improve or stabilize moods. Family members can help by trying to remain calm during emotional outbursts rather than reacting negatively. Acknowledge their feelings and give them a chance to safely share them. Take them to a quiet place to help them regain control or gently redirect them. 

By Callie Sanders, LSW – May 23, 2022 –

With the demands of 21st century life such as work, parenting, endless emails, texts, social media, etc., people wear overstimulation like a badge of honor.

There seems to be a kind of confusion in our culture where people feel the need to be anxious and always “on the go” to be effective. I’m just as guilty of this.

With that being said, we find ourselves in a mindfulness revolution. It’s prominent everywhere. From hospitals to corporations, 33% of Americans said they had used alternative health practices, including meditation (National Institutes of Health).

Mindfulness practice embraces the beauty of monotasking. The way I describe mindfulness to the students I work with is simply “paying attention on purpose.”  

By incorporating mindfulness practice at my schools this year, the students that are willing to give it a try leave my office feeling less stressed. Most ask to repeat the practice during additional visits. Let’s face it, kids are stressed out too.

There aren’t any prizes handed out for being the greatest at mindfulness. It is about connecting to our experiences in a different way and giving ourselves a chance to pay attention in the present without adding more stuff to our plate.

If you’ve used phrases like, “My mind just works too fast” or “I’ve tried it and failed,” or my favorite, “I don’t have time for that,” you’re exactly the kind of person who needs mindfulness most. Mindfulness is a lifelong journey, not an all-or-nothing mentality, and it’s free.

According to a study conducted in 2013 by the University of Southern California, most Americans spend 13-plus hours a day consumed by media. No wonder everyone is stressed out.

I was skeptical when the term mindfulness was first introduced to me. But when I decided to give it a chance, I was surprised how simple it was and what I felt.

Practicing mindfulness can happen anywhere. I like to practice in my vegetable garden or out in my yard. When I take a second to sniff a fresh tomato after I pull it off the vine or listen to the birds singing in the background, I feel better.

For just that one second I was present; I noticed nature. What a powerful feeling! I encourage you to try this with your family at home. After you take a second for yourself and enjoy nature, be grateful.

Lastly, I want to leave you with some tips for your workday, especially in the afternoon when the “two o’clock yawns” kick in.

When you can take a break, don’t go straight to your phone for at least one of the breaks. A 2014 study found that being able to see a cellphone hinders the ability to focus on tough tasks.

If you can, go for a short walk and try not to ruminate on work. I realize this can be difficult, but don’t be afraid to give it a try. Ignoring your phone is a great way to practice mindfulness during the walk.

Also, do someone a favor. Not only does this help you connect to others, it aids in recovering from stress.  

Most importantly, start small. Remember, no rewards are given for being the best at mindfulness. I encourage you to put your phone down during dinner this evening and engage in conversation.  You will feel better being present.       

By Abby Betz, LSW – May 18, 2022 –

For most teens, the adolescent years are a time of rapid growth and development, both physically and emotionally. Life skills are learned and put into practice. Newfound independence is established and boundaries are tested. Additionally, teens begin to find themselves facing different stressors and pressures, exploring new identities, discovering who they are, and uncovering their future possibilities.

With this time of continuous change and excitement also comes uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Teenagers may start to imagine what life will be like once they are away from their parents. The thought of living on their own can seem like an exhilarating thrill to some, but for others, it can be a scary time full of lots of questions and “what ifs.”

Although these types of feelings are completely normal, including mood changes and some incidences of acting out, a teenager suffering from depression is different. It is important as parents and caregivers to be able to recognize these signs and ready to provide assistance.

When thinking of the clinical presentation of depression, symptoms such as overwhelming sadness, exhaustion, loss of interest, poor sleep, and decreased appetite probably come to mind. However, for adolescents, it is vital to understand that depression can also present itself as rage, anger, and irritability more than pervasive sadness.

If you suspect your teen is showing signs of depression, open the line of communication by listening. It is important not to judge, criticize, lecture, or punish them for the way they feel, but rather provide a safe space for them to express their feelings. Negative reactions quickly shut down communication and push your teen further away.

If your teen is not opening up, try discussing something light-hearted to get the conversation going and build the rapport needed for talking about topics that are more serious. Be present and let your teenager know that you are there and ready to listen.

Additionally, it is important for your teenager to know you do not find their feelings to be irrational or unrealistic. Taking all feelings and emotions seriously is essential to building a strong relationship with your teen. Acknowledge their emotions, and then reassuringly point out facts and realities that validate your teen’s feelings.

Depression is a real illness and may require the help of a professional. It is important to involve your teenager in the process of seeking professional help. Your teen will get the most out of treatment if they feel involved, motivated, and engaged. 

Some adolescents may resist seeking treatment, but as a parent or caregiver it is vital to provide support and encouragement. Reinforce that seeking help is a sign of courage and strength and that strong people are capable and deserving of feeling better.

Lastly, if your teen talks about, threatens, or even jokes about suicide, you must take it seriously. Never assume someone talking about suicide is just merely “attention-seeking.” If your teen is trying to get your attention, give it. Adolescents dealing with depression can be at higher risk for suicide. Seek professional help immediately if your teen or anyone you know shows signs of concern. 

If urgent help is needed, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

By Krissy Melhiser, LCSW – May 16, 2022 –

While living in Colorado for 11 years, I had access to vast beautiful landscapes and often found myself at great peace and wholeness when in nature.

What is it about nature that is so alluring and healing to the mind, body, and soul? Is it the beautiful landscapes and life in the flowers, plants, and trees? Is it the sounds of waves crashing, birds singing, and crickets chirping? Is it the smells of fresh cut grass, summer rain, and fall leaves?

There is a great deal of research to prove that exercise is extremely beneficial for a person’s mental health. Participating in outdoor activities often involves some level of exercise, but choosing to take a walk outside instead of inside on a treadmill also does so much more for the soul.

Wilderness Therapy (WT) is a fairly new concept in psychotherapy, but it is a term rarely heard in the Midwest. WT uses traditional therapeutic interventions, but it is not confined to a therapist’s office.

As the name explains, WT takes place in the wilderness where nature provides its own holistic healing. Being in the wilderness naturally brings out our survival instincts; it breaks down barriers, removes us from everyday norms, and creates an environment that doesn’t allow us to avoid certain problems.

With very few WT programs in the Midwest, how can we approach this concept? It’s as simple as you think…just go outside!

In a world where teens are spending an average of six hours a day consuming social media, time away from electronics is necessary. Mental health issues are on the rise in adolescents because teens are not able to cope with the pressures of social media or process the level of information they receive online.

I suggest you plan quiet time, slow life down a little, and stop to smell the roses (literally). Being out in nature has a way of slowing us down and removing our daily norms. It provides the break we all need, especially adolescents who are learning how to cope with the world.

Nature offers us the opportunity to reconnect our families and our relationships. More importantly, it provides a much needed mental break for all of us.

Whether you go walking, swimming, camping, hiking, or kayaking, go outside together. Spend that time reconnecting by teaching your children how to fish, change a tire, or plant flowers.

The point is to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer. One of the best parts of nature is that it’s free; you don’t have to pay, you simply walk out your door.

I leave you with this challenge: Take at least one hour this week to go outside with your family. Increase the amount of time you spend outside each week and create new adventures.

Instead of pushing activities on your kids, give them several options so they feel less like they are being forced to do something and more like they are making the choice of what to do.

Now go outside and have some fun!

By Vicki Kirkman, LCSW, LCAC – May 13, 2022 –

Stress is a natural part of life and something that everyone experiences.  It can be positive or negative and affect your daily life greatly if not managed appropriately. In some situations, stress can motivate us to do better or work toward hard-to-reach goals. Other circumstances can leave someone feeling overwhelmed, anxious and out of control. 

Children and teens are affected by stress in several ways. Parents need to remember that all children respond to situations and experiences differently. What causes stress for one child or teen might not affect another one. However, some stressors are common for children and teens. These stressors include pressure at school, being involved in too many after school activities or conflict with friends and family. 

Other big and complicated issues like divorce, death of a loved one, drug use, and financial problems at home contribute to stress. Medical illnesses and world events like natural disasters or war and conflict can also be sources of stress.

It’s important for parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress in their children and help them manage it in a healthy manner. Young children who are stressed may complain of stomach aches, headaches or say they just don’t feel well. 

They may try to avoid attending school or visit the school nurse frequently. They may also be more tearful than normal, have trouble sleeping, wet the bed or not eat as much at meals. Some children experience nightmares or have acting-out behaviors such as outbursts or tantrums.

Teenagers can experience many physical reactions to stress, including digestive problems, headaches, tense muscles, racing heart, frequent colds and fatigue. Teens might also feel overly emotional, irritable, depressed and experience mood swings. 

Mentally, teens with stress overload may feel forgetful, lack concentration and have a negative attitude. Both children and teens often withdraw from activities they enjoy and isolate themselves from friends if they experience too much stress.

Parents can play a key role in helping their children and teens manage stress. Most importantly, parents can model good coping skills and stress management in their own lives. If children see their parents deal with stress in a healthy and positive manner, they are more likely to apply that to their own life. 

Other ways parents can help their children are listed below. 

  • Teach your kids how to identify their body’s cues for stress overload. Pay attention to headaches, upset stomach, tearfulness or tense muscles.
  • Limit extra-curricular activities. Too many evenings participating in sports, extra lessons, or just running errands can cause kids and teens to become tired and pressed for time to do homework or just relax.
  • Prepare ahead of time to avoid extra hassles. Lay out the next day’s clothes, pack lunches, put homework and bags in an easy place to grab, etc.
  • Monitor and limit exposure to television, social media and cell phone. Phones should be put away at night so kids can sleep and not be tempted to text friends or surf the internet.
  • Encourage relaxation and leisurely activities with friends and family.
  • Get plenty of rest and eat a healthy diet.
  • Teach communication skills like problem solving, good decision making and sharing feelings and thoughts with others.
  • Recognize when stress is too big to tackle alone. Don’t hesitate to speak to a Youth First Social Worker in your child’s school, counselor or doctor for extra support and help.

Stress management is crucial in life and best handled with the guidance of parents and supportive adults. By helping children and teens manage stress, they can be better prepared for life’s challenges.  

By Krissy Melhiser, LCSW – May 11, 2022 –

The year was 2020 and a life altering phenomenon occurred across the world. It was a pandemic that no one saw coming and few were prepared for. Most of us were at a loss at how to respond to such a devastating event. We found ourselves glued to the television or social media, trying to wrap our minds around what was happening in the world and in our very own back yard.

Although the pandemic has left its mark and many of its long-term impacts have yet to be revealed, many of us inadvertently learned to practice mindfulness. We all paused and worried about our neighbor, people across the globe, and loved ones more than we ever had. As the world stopped, we were forced to take a breath and rearrange our lives in more simple ways.

Aside from the rush on toilet paper and cleaning supplies, outdoor recreational equipment flew off shelves as people began spending more time outside and finding simple things to do at home to occupy their time. We came back to a place of rest that many of us truly needed. Our society doesn’t give much room for being mindful throughout our lives unless we make it a priority.

So what does it mean to be mindful? We live out our days ruminating over our schedules, kids, appointments, responsibilities, tasks, etc. How much time do you spend daily being aware of your five senses? Do you notice the smell of fresh bread as you pass a bakery? Do you listen to the birds chirping? How often do you simply just sit in silence without any distractions? Do you listen to your body when it tells you it needs rest?

Being mindful is being aware of what is around you and what’s within you. If you do this you might notice the person in your office having a bad day. You’ll hear the joy of people laughing. You will see a person in need and your heart will feel compassion for them. The key is that you must pause long enough to notice what is happening around you.

There are people, things, places, and moments that carry such beauty, hope, love, joy, and peace. These things can fill your life with happiness and instill compassion, not only for others, but for yourself. Be brave, be wild, and push back against the daily worries that prevent you from observing life happening around you.

Try not to go on autopilot so you can recognize the silver linings that each day holds for you. The pandemic forced a lot of us to be mindful, so don’t lose sight of this. Stop and smell the roses, literally!

By Abby Betz, LSW – May 5, 2022 –

As a parent or caregiver, it goes without saying that the task of taking care of our children is an important one, as well as a great responsibility. Parents may be able to easily identify and address a child’s basic needs by providing them with nutritious foods, a comfortable and inviting home, and instilling a reasonable bedtime routine. However, a child’s mental health needs may not be quite as obvious. A child’s physical and mental health are equally as important.

Ensuring that your child has good mental health will help them develop new social skills, boost their self-confidence, and instill a positive outlook on life. Basic needs for meeting a child’s physical health include maintaining a well-balanced diet, staying up-to-date on immunizations, and having an adequate sleep environment as well as opportunities for exercise.

Meeting a child’s basic needs for emotional and mental health include providing unconditional love, giving appropriate guidance and discipline, instilling self-confidence and high self-esteem, and surrounding the child with positive peers, teachers, and other caregivers to help foster positive conditions of self-worth.

Providing your child with unconditional love should be central to family life. It is important for your child to know that your love does not depend on their achievements. Nurturing your child’s self-confidence and self-esteem is instrumental in developing their ability to learn new skills and feel safe exploring their environment. Teaching and encouraging your children to try their best, but also to embrace failure, fosters a sense of self-reliance and builds their esteem. Setting realistic goals that match their ambitions with abilities is also important when building confidence.

Encouraging play is another important aspect of a child’s mental health. Play fosters creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-control. Learning how to get along with other children and developing a sense of belonging are key components of play that are helpful in learning about their own strengths and weaknesses. TV and use of devices can be helpful for educational purposes, but should always be monitored and limited.

Appropriate guidance and discipline are essential in helping a child learn that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that the child is responsible for their actions.  Offer discipline that is fair and consistent and be firm but realistic with expectations.  If you must, criticize the behavior, not the child. Avoid threats and bribery. Instead, talk about the reasons for disciplining your child and the potential consequences for breaking established rules. It is also important to talk to your child about your feelings. Apologizing for losing your temper models the appropriate response to difficult situations. 

As parents, we must also heed signs that there may be a problem which requires help from a professional. Some warning signs may include regular worry or anxiety, persistent nightmares, disobedience or aggression, frequent temper tantrums, depression, irritability, hyperactivity, and decline in school performance. If you suspect a problem, talk with your child’s teacher, caregiver, or Youth First Social Worker in their school. You may also want to consult with your pediatrician or contact a mental health professional.      

By Taylor Dore, Youth First Social Work Intern – 04/28/2022

Building a secure attachment between you and your child begins when they are born. Your baby cries to express a need and you, as the caregiver, respond by meeting that need. By doing this consistently, your child learns that they can trust you to meet their needs and keep them safe.

This is essential to healthy mental, physical, social, and emotional development. Having a secure attachment with a caregiver increases a child’s self-awareness, self-soothing skills, empathy, and creative problem-solving skills.

The secure attachment that begins at birth continues to develop throughout childhood. Below are four ways that you can work to promote a secure attachment with your child.

  1. Use touch and eye contact. The “love hormone” is released in both a parent and child’s brain while you are holding them and looking into their eyes. This builds a strong connection in your child’s brain and generates feelings of safety. This can be done through hugging, reading a book together in a rocking chair, or by gently touching your child’s shoulder while you walk past them.
  1. Practice emotional attunement. This refers to reassuring and comforting your child during tough times. Children learn how to handle their emotions through observation. When they come to you with a problem, make sure to remain calm and reassuring while you listen. This helps them better understand their own emotions and gives them an opportunity to internalize reassuring words. Sometimes it can be hard to come up with the perfect advice for your young ones, but simply listening and showing you care about your child’s feelings can be enough.
  1. Create a secure environment. Children should not have to worry about adult matters like bills, whether they are going to eat, or relationship problems between their parents. For healthy development, they need to feel safe with their caregivers and trust that their needs are going to be met. When exposed to a chaotic and turbulent lifestyle, children become anxious and struggle with a sense of security. While these life issues can be stressful and unavoidable, be mindful of what it is age-appropriate to share with your children.
  1. Share play and fun with your child. Just like touch and eye contact, shared play and fun release opioids in both you and your child’s brain, which brings you closer together. Children who play with their parents are happier and more securely attached. As an adult, you may not want to play with Barbies or Legos for hours after a long day at work, which is understandable. Instead, strive to find a mutually enjoyable activity that you can genuinely enjoy, such as going on a nature walk, playing a sport, or watching a favorite movie. Sometimes even chores or cooking a meal can turn into a shared pleasure, so get creative!

By Rachel Haug, LCSW – April 19, 2022

Adolescence is a time of rapid brain and body development through the onset of puberty, which will begin to influence both your child’s physical and mental health. During this time, a young person can begin to develop symptoms that may support a mental health diagnosis, especially if paired with genetic, environmental or situational factors.

Some of the most common psychiatric disorders seen in adolescence include mood disorders, like depressive disorder, adjustment disorder, or borderline personality disorder; anxiety disorder, both generalized and social anxiety; disruptive behavior disorders, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. If symptoms of one of these disorders are combined with drug or alcohol use, a co-occurring disorder could develop over time.

A co-occurring disorder is known as the presence of both a mental health diagnosis and a substance abuse disorder. There is a lot speculation about which comes first, the substance abuse disorder or the mental health concern; however, there is strong evidence that shows individuals struggling with an undiagnosed mental health problem often turn to self-medicating through the use of drugs or alcohol. Studies have shown that the younger a person is when they begin using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted to the substance later in life.

As a parent it is important to be aware of the signs your child may show if experiencing an onset of a mental health or substance abuse disorder. First, it’s important to know your family’s medical history. For example, if you or your child’s other parent have experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety or have struggled with substance abuse or addiction, it is likely your child may experience similar symptoms or become prone to addiction if they begin using drugs or alcohol.

It is also important to make sure an open line of communication with your child is maintained to ensure symptoms are being addressed as they present themselves. If you notice a change in your child’s mood or behavior, ask them about it and allow them a space to speak freely without judgment. Some of the most common risk factors for an anxiety or mood disorder in adolescence include parental history of anxiety, mood disorder or other mental health disorder, an increase in academic or social pressures, stressful family environments, early or significant losses (parental death, divorce, termination of a relationship), chronic illness, history of being bullied (in person or cyberbullying), or history of neglect or abuse.

Treating your child’s symptoms is vital and services are readily available. Treatment could include outpatient individual or group-based therapies, psychiatric medication management, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy, along with other behavioral therapies, could provide some insight into your child’s mental health concerns and ease your child’s ability to navigate what could be a difficult time.

The best place to start would be consulting with your child’s Youth First Social Worker or pediatrician to discuss best treatment options for their specific needs. Early intervention is key! Your child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and academic performance. There is a community of mental health professionals available to rally around you and your child, so don’t hesitate to reach out for support! You and your child are never alone.