By Lisa Cossey, LCSW – Nov. 12, 2019

With Fall officially here and Halloween already past, Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. It is nice to look forward to time with family and friends and to participate in ongoing family traditions.

A family tradition is something that is recreated, year after year, enhancing family involvement and strengthening family bonds. My family has planned fall camping trips two years in a row now; perhaps this will turn into a yearly tradition for us.

Another tradition in my family that I look forward to every year is gathering in my mother’s kitchen to bake pies and other desserts for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. A good time with much laughter is always had. Now that my children are older, they are officially part of the family baking team as well.

Families that share in their own traditions provide a sense of comfort and security to their families, especially the children involved. Children love routine and consistency; a family tradition provides this year after year. It also helps the children manage the changes in the year and gives them something to look forward to.

In addition, family traditions enhance family and personal well-being and can also add to the family identity. Strong family bonds are created and reinforced with traditions that are upheld and maintained.

As children grow and mature, traditions can also be altered or changed to accommodate each family’s needs. For example, perhaps a family with young children has a tradition of singing Christmas carols around their Christmas tree. As the children age, their tradition could evolve into caroling around their neighborhood.

In recent years my family has added time to make video calls with our relatives after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We call our family members who may not have been able to travel in for the holidays or are stationed out of state or overseas due to military commitments. It gives us all a chance to stay connected as a family, even if we physically can’t be together for the holiday.

Family traditions don’t have to be formal, fancy, or cost money. They don’t even have to revolve around the holidays – you can share in a family tradition any day or time of the year.

My family enjoys baking together to prepare for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays; perhaps your family opts to take a walk every Christmas morning or enjoys exchanging white elephant gifts during your celebrations. Traditions are what you want to make them.

Other ideas to create family traditions include:

  • Reading a book, such as “The Night Before Christmas,” aloud prior to opening Christmas gifts
  • Weekly or monthly family movie nights
  • Yearly family talent shows
  • Creating crafts together
  • Making candy or preparing meals together
  • Annual family camping trips
  • Family sporting tournaments with a traveling trophy to be awarded to the winning family each year

No matter what your family tradition is or what your family chooses to create, just having something for all family members to look forward to each year is important. Traditions help create warm, positive memories that can be recalled fondly and draw family members back to one another year after year.

By Heather Miller, LCSW – Nov. 5, 2019

Parents of a child with special needs have many to-do lists that involve various types of therapies and appointments throughout the week. With life already busy, the extra time commitment chips away at any free time that could be available. This not only impacts the parents but can equally impact the siblings of children with special needs. 

Typically children are quick to note anything they feel is unfair. A sibling who notices that a parent is often with the child with special needs may feel jealousy and resentment. For a parent already trying to balance so much, this additional reaction from a child can be difficult to process. 

Following are some suggestions for helping a sibling of a child with special needs understand the reasons behind what they may feel is unfair:

  • Educate the siblings about their brother or sister’s special needs using a strengths-based perspective. Focus on what the child can do and explain the idea that everyone is unique.  The age of the sibling needs to be taken into account when deciding how much information to share. Keep it age-appropriate and explain in a manner the child can understand.
  • Include the sibling in helping the child with special needs as they want to. Children are often the best teachers for each other. Giving the sibling a task to help their brother or sister complete will give them a sense of accomplishment and positive interaction with their sibling.
  • Look for common ground.  Search for activities that both children can enjoy. Even a short activity can be a great bonding experience for everyone.
  • Ensure the sibling has opportunities to do what they want to do.  Making a special effort to have time for the sibling to participate in an activity (solo or with friends) is important.  This allows them time to be their own person and develop their own interests. 
  • Validate the feelings of the sibling. According to Michigan Medicine, some common emotions a sibling may feel include embarrassment, guilt, jealousy, anger, and fear. Check in regularly with your child. Encourage your child to talk honestly about their feelings with you. Validating and normalizing these emotions will allow the conversation to then focus on coping skills for these emotions.

Siblings of children with special needs learn a lot from their sibling and vice versa. This relationship builds compassion, service, and problem-solving. No parent has the ability to split time perfectly even between children. Ensuring siblings feel appreciated, included, and equally special will continue to build this relationship.

If you have additional questions or concerns about a sibling of a child with special needs, reach out to your school’s Youth First School Social Worker or school counselor for additional resources and support.

By Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW – October 29, 2019

Over the summer I participated in a free online class offered by Yale University called, “The Science of Well-Being.” It is taught by Dr. Laurie Santos. 

I have recently learned that Dr. Santos will be starting a podcast called “The Happiness Lab,” which I am looking forward to listening to this fall and recommend you check out as well. 

Happiness has always seemed like an unattainable achievement in our society. We are often plagued with the messages that society sends us about happiness. 

It turns out that many of the things we think we want in life do not actually bring us happiness. In her class, Dr. Santos talks about the myths we believe about happiness and what science tells us actually does bring happiness. 

What does society tell us is supposed to make us happy?  According to Dr. Santos’ research the most common myths include: true love, having the perfect body, owning expensive possessions, getting good grades, having money, and having a good job. 

Dr. Santos uses the psychological term of “hedonic adaptation” to explain why these things do not make us happy. In simple terms, this means that we become used to whatever it is we have.

For example, if someone won the lottery, at first it would bring increased levels of happiness.  But eventually they would become used to being rich and yearn for more, more, and more.  Hedonic adaption means that any level of happiness does not last for long. 

People have the general tendency to return to a stable level of happiness. The good part of this is that even if we have a negative life event we will eventually return to this stable level of happiness. 

So what are some practices that we can do to increase our levels of happiness and mood?  Luckily for us, these practices are free and easy to use. According to Dr. Santos, the secrets of happiness are:

  • Meditation – a practice to help someone become present in the moment and tune out distractions.
  • Savoring – the simple act of appreciating and being present in the moment.
  • Gratitude – taking time to appreciate the blessings in your life.
  • Kindness – acts of kindness toward other people.
  • Social Connection – having friends and being part of a community can make you more likely to survive fatal illness and less likely to die prematurely.
  • Exercise – 30 minutes a day can boost moods and happiness levels.
  • Sleep – at least seven hours a night for adults and nine hours a night for teens.

So now that you know the secrets of happiness, start using these practices daily. It may just help you live a better life!

By Diane Braun, Project Manager – Oct. 22, 2019

Red Ribbon Week is the oldest and largest drug prevention program in the nation, reaching millions of young people each year.  This year’s event will take place October 23-31.

According to the Red Ribbon Week website, this event is an ideal way for people and communities to unite and take a visible stand against drugs. 

Red Ribbon Week was started when drug traffickers in Mexico City murdered DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985.  This began the continuing tradition of displaying red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward the use of drugs.  The mission of the Red Ribbon Campaign is to present a unified and visible commitment towards the creation of a Drug-Free America.

National Family Partnership is the sponsor of this annual celebration. They are helping citizens across the country come together to keep children, families and communities safe, healthy and drug-free, through parent training, networking and sponsoring events.

With over thirty annual events having taken place, you might ask, “Is Red Ribbon Week effective?”  According to Peggy Sapp, President of National Family Partnership, consider the following:

  • Red Ribbon Week is an environmental strategy, which means it doesn’t just affect a small group but usually goes beyond schools, churches and other groups into the broader community.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be an awareness campaign that gets information to the general public about the dangers of drug use.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to get people talking to other people and working on activities that will help rebuild a sense of community and common purpose.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to help parents and schools deliver an effective drug prevention curriculum.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to create critical mass, which is necessary to reduce destructive social norms/behaviors and promote positive social norms/behaviors.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be positive and fun, two things necessary to maintain good mental health.

Schools can benefit from curriculum available on the official Red Ribbon Week website, www.redribbon.org.  Incorporating substance use prevention education into daily classes such as health is an ideal way to bring awareness to students and promote prevention.

Parents should also access the website for great ideas about talking to children of any age about the dangers of substance use.  Children of parents who talk to their teens regularly about drugs are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those who don’t; however, only 25 percent of teens report having these conversations.

Alcohol and other forms of drug abuse in this country have reached epidemic stages, and it is imperative that visible, unified prevention education efforts by community members be launched to eliminate the demand for drugs.

Please join Youth First this week as we promote the importance of prevention and educating our children, families and communities about the dangers of substance use.

By Grace Wilson, Program Coordinator – Oct. 15, 2019

The conversation around marijuana is a hot topic in our society these days.  Most folks seem to choose one side or the other and not many fall in the middle.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the United States with 36.7 million users (youth and adult) in the past year. This number is alarming because not everyone is aware of the physical and mental health risks, especially for our youth.

In a 2014 study, it was reported by Lancet Psychiatry that teens who smoke marijuana daily are 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school or college than those who never use. They were also seven times more likely to attempt suicide.

A human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. When marijuana use is started at an early age, there will be damaging effects to the long term cognitive abilities of that individual.

Marijuana has many damaging effects on the brain. It can affect the parts of your brain responsible for memory, learning, decision making, emotions, reaction times, and attention. These effects could look different in each person. Different factors can come into play, including the potency of the marijuana, how often it is used, if other substances were used along with it, and at what age the individual began using marijuana.

Many people believe marijuana use can calm anxiety and relax an individual, but frequent and heavy use can actually bring on more feelings of anxiety or paranoia.

What are some of the other risks of using marijuana?  First, marijuana is addictive.  According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. That number rises to 1 in 6 if they began using before the age of 18.

Some signs of addiction can include unsuccessful efforts to quit using, giving up activities with friends or family because of marijuana, and continuing to use even though it has caused problems with work, school, and home.

Marijuana also elevates the heart rate, causing it to work even harder. This is especially the case if other substances are used along with marijuana. It can also cause respiratory problems, including chronic cough. While marijuana use has not been found as a direct link to cancer, many marijuana smokers also use cigarettes, which do cause cancer.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 71 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana use as being harmful, but 64.7 percent say they disapprove of regular marijuana use. Now is the time to start the conversation with your child around marijuana.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  1. Do your research on the topic and know how marijuana will affect your child’s health.
  2. Find a comfortable setting to have the conversation.
  3. Keep an open mind. Your child will be less receptive if they feel judged.
  4. Stay positive and don’t use scare tactics, as they are counter-productive.
  5. Don’t lecture; keep the conversation flowing freely between the two of you.

Stay involved in your children’s lives by keeping the conversation open, and let them know they can come to you without fear or judgment. This can make a world of difference when having a discussion with them about marijuana.

By Salita Brown, Project Manager – Oct. 8, 2019

Addiction…overdose…death…all of these serious consequences have become synonymous with opioid use.

Opioids are very powerful drugs that have received a lot of news coverage lately. However, through all of the coverage the reason opioids have become so addictive has gotten lost.

So, what exactly is an opioid?  Why are people addicted to them?  According to the Mayo Clinic website, mayoclinic.org, an opioid is a broad group of pain-relieving drugs that work by interacting with the opioid receptors in your brain cells, meaning an opioid can temporarily control your brain.

Opioids trigger the brain to release a signal that lessons your perception of pain and increases your feeling of pleasure. This feeling of pleasure, though temporary, has led to repeated overdoses. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) currently reports 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses.

This crisis is one that everyone can help combat, even if you think it does not affect you directly. One of the easiest methods to combat this problem is proper disposal of unused medications.  All unused/expired medications become quite dangerous when found by the wrong person. This is especially dangerous when medications find their way into the hands of a child.

In order to help prevent this issue it’s best to get those medications out of your home. You might think you need to go to your medicine cabinet and flush those unused pills down the toilet or maybe throw them directly into the trash. You are not entirely wrong, but both of those disposal methods require a couple more steps in order to be effective.

So, what exactly is the proper means for disposing of your expired or unused prescriptions? One option is to bring the unwanted medications to an authorized collector.  An authorized collector will simply take the medications, with no questions asked, and properly dispose of them for you. To find an authorized collector near you, please call the DEA Office of Diversion Control at 1-800-882-9539.

Another option is to flush your unused medications down the toilet. However, before you rush to flush all of your medications, please be advised that not all medicines are recommended for flushing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of medicines approved for flushing that can be found by checking their website at www.fda.gov.  If your medication is not on the approved list, you can always take it to an authorized collector or utilize the next option.

The Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative (RALI) is now providing Indiana fire departments with safe drug disposal pouches to distribute across the state. Drugs can be emptied into the pouch, and when water is added, chemicals in the pouch dissolve the medications safely. Contact your local fire department to request a safe drug disposal pouch to dispose of medications properly.

The final disposal option is to throw the medications in the trash. Proper trash disposal requires that the medication be mixed, not crushed, with an inedible substance and closed firmly in a container or plastic bag. If you choose to dispose of the medication in its original pill bottle, it is recommended to scratch off or remove any identifying labels.

Now that you know the proper method for disposing those unused prescriptions, take time to rid your home of them in a safe manner.  Proper prescription medication disposal may not solve the opioid crisis, but it certainly will not worsen it. If anything, safe-proofing your home for your loved ones is an excellent reason to properly dispose of unused/expired medications.

By Diane Braun, Project Manager – Oct. 1, 2019

The month of October brings Red Ribbon Week, an event supported by the National Family Partnership as an anti-drug campaign.  Since 1986, this campaign has brought awareness to the general public about the dangers of drug abuse, including alcohol, prescription drugs and marijuana.

Did you know the greatest influence on young people’s decision to begin drinking alcohol is the world they live in?  This includes their families, friends, schools, the larger community and society as a whole.  Alcohol use by young people is often made possible by adults.  After all, teens can’t legally buy alcohol on their own.

Alcohol is the most used and abused drug among teenagers in America.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 31.5 percent of all high school students in America report they have engaged in “binge drinking,” which is when someone consumes five or more drinks in one sitting. 

On average 11,318 American youth ages 12-20 try alcohol for the first time every day.  Youth who began drinking alcohol by the 7th grade are more likely to have academic problems along with substance use and delinquent behavior in both middle and high school.  By the time they reach adulthood, it will often lead to criminal activity and violent crimes.

Youth who drink make this choice because they want to take risks or engage in risky behaviors that are taking place among their peer groups.  They might have less connection to their parents and more independence to use alcohol.  Alcohol might be a stress-reliever or they might simply have a lack of information about the dangers of alcohol.

The risks associated with underage drinking range from physical effects (such as hangovers) to death from alcohol poisoning. Major risks include exercising poor judgment to drive while impaired and engaging in risky behaviors. 

Most importantly, a growing brain can be harmed by alcohol use. With the brain continuing to develop into the 20’s, damage done by alcohol can cause major problems.

What can a community do to change this?  If we create friendly, alcohol-free places where youth can gather, the pressure to use alcohol will diminish.  Providing programs, including volunteer work, where young people can grow, explore their options, succeed and feel good about activities without alcohol are proven to prevent use.

Educating young people on the dangers of “doing drugs” and showing what healthy choices can do to impact their lives is essential.  Providing resources to youth who are involved with underage drinking helps by letting them know that it’s never too late to stop the abuse and start making smarter choices.

Encourage young people to become involved in athletics and after-school activities such as clubs.  Create opportunities for older teens that have made the commitment to be drug-free to become mentors to younger students, showing by example how to make smart choices. 

Parents, know your teen’s peer group.  Who are they spending time with?  What are they doing?

By focusing on the positives of prevention rather than scare tactics, youth will make decisions that will benefit them long-term without experiencing the effects of alcohol abuse.

By, Amber Russell, LCSW – Sept. 24, 2019

Our brains are powerful things! They are wired to alert us to danger, to think, to learn new things, to retain memories, and to find solutions to problems we face every day. 

Occasionally there may be times where you want to question what message your brain is telling you. Over time you may have developed some faulty connections called cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us.  They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.  There are many types of cognitive distortions. The following are some of the common ones your brain might use to trick you:

  • Mind Reading – Assuming you know what people are thinking without having evidence or proof of their thoughts:  “He thinks I am unqualified.”
  • Catastrophizing – Believing what might happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it: “If I make a bad grade I will never get into college.”
  • Negative Filter and/or Discounting Positives – Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives.  When you do notice a positive about yourself or others you discount it as if it does not matter.
  • Overgeneralizing – Perceiving the likelihood of a negative outcome based on a past single incident: “He is never on time.”
  • Polarized Thinking – Viewing events or people in all or nothing terms: “We have to be perfect or we are failures.”  
  • Personalizing – Attributing most of the blame on you when negative events happen and failing to see that some situations can’t be avoided or that others could be equally responsible:  “It was my fault my group got a bad grade.”
  • Blaming – Focusing on others as the source of your negative feelings or problems and failing to take responsibility. “My teacher hates me which is why I am failing her class.” 

Now that you know what some of these cognitive distortions look like, here are some things you can do to control them:

  • Identify your possible cognitive distortions – Create a list of troublesome or thoughts to examine and match up with a list of cognitive distortions to see which thought processes you tend to lean toward.
  • Examine the evidence – Examine your experiences that could be the basis of your distorted thinking.  Try to identify other situations where you had success or that proves the thought is not true.  For example, if I am being critical and thinking “Billy is always late” I would examine the thought and likely think of at least one time Billy was on time.  
  • Evaluate in a different way – Instead of thinking in an all or nothing way try to gauge the situation on a scale of 1-10.  When something does not go right evaluate it as a partial success.  Focus on what I did go right and perhaps rate it as a 6/10.
  • Define terms – Define terms to examine what they mean.  Examining global labels will help you see a specific behavior associated with the label and not a person as a whole. If you think you always fail, then define the term failure. Think about what actions made you think you were a failure and if the definition truly fits you as a person.
  • Survey a trusted friend – When in doubt, ask a friend.  If you think you might be blowing something out of proportion, check with a trusted friend. Ask them if they think your feelings are justified.

The more you get used to controlling the cognitive distortions, the less faulty connections you’ll have to worry about. Take control of your powerful brain and use it for good!

By Brandy Terrell, LCSW – September 17, 2019

We all have connections to family, friends, faith, and community, to name a few. These connections are vital to our health and well-being. We know that being connected to other people provides an increased sense of belonging and support, which in turn creates protective factors that help us overcome struggles and build resilience.

However, there is much more to our connections. Our bonds run deep and are often weaved into the fiber of our existence. This type of connection is our karass! The word karass, coined by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. refers to a network or group of people that, unknown to them, are linked, specifically to fulfill the will of God.

It is in these experiences where true beauty and wonder lies, even in our unawareness.

The extraordinary thing about karass is that we don’t always realize when we are an important connection for someone else. It is as if we are placed in the path of others by some force; perhaps it’s God, Buddha, Karma or any other name we have assigned to something that we may not fully comprehend.

Have you ever felt that you were placed in a particular situation for a reason? The reason may be unknown at the time but the power or pull that you feel is unmistakable. You just know that you need to be right where you are at that exact moment. Maybe you need to be there for your own sake, or maybe you need to be there for someone else.  I think this is what karass means, but you can decide for yourself.  

What I do know for sure is that small acts of random kindness matter. Maybe there really isn’t such a thing as “random” anyway.

Maybe holding a door open, donating money and time, calling up an old friend in their time of need, helping your neighbor put up hay or bring in the crops are all part of connections. Showing graciousness to strangers, being at the right place at the right time to help change a flat tire, call 911 or any other random act is probably karass and the people involved are also your karass.

I challenge you to be a connection for someone. Enlarge your karass. Be a pleasant memory for someone. Live each day to reach out and express kindness, a gentle word, or lend a hand to someone.

I also challenge you to think about all of the people who have supported you, who have never given up on you, who have given you the hard truth or who have simply listened without judgement, for they have had a hand in creating who you are today. They are your karass!

By Beth Greene, MSW – September 10, 2019

More grandparents than ever are stepping up to take care of and raise their grandchildren. There are many different reasons grandparents are assuming the role of caretaker.

It may be due to the death or absence of the children’s parents, the financial situation of the parents, or because of an unsafe home due to physical abuse or drug/alcohol abuse.

Raising grandchildren brings many rewards, including giving the children a sense of security, developing a deeper relationship with them, and being able to keep them with their family instead of possibly going into foster care. However, this can also be a very difficult venture in a grandparent’s life.

One big obstacle that grandparents often face is how it affects them financially, especially if there is only one person raising the children. Of the 2.7 million grandparents raising their grandchildren in the US, 1 million of them are being raised by a single grandmother.

Another obstacle grandparents face is finding access to proper resources for the children and for themselves. Children being raised by grandparents have unique needs that may require the use of therapists, school counselors and health care providers. Grandparents and grandchildren may benefit from support groups and individual or family therapy to share their feelings and gain support.

One event that has greatly contributed to the spike in so many grandparents raising grandchildren is the opioid epidemic. Parental substance use is the reason 40% of grandchildren go to live with a grandparent.

Children coming from homes where drug use is present are often exposed to traumatic events, abuse and neglect. This exposure often leads to behavioral issues in children. Statistics show that on average, children whose grandparents have custody of them are more likely to have behavioral and emotional difficulties than those being raised by their parents.

It is very important that grandparents raising grandchildren take care of themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually, as it is vital to their overall health and their ability to raise healthy children. It is also important to acknowledge and accept all feelings, both positive and negative.

It’s difficult to admit feelings such as resentment, guilt, fear, or doubt. It’s natural to have a mixture of feelings when unexpected responsibilities arise in life, but it doesn’t take away from the feelings of love for the grandchildren. It is also important to remember that the grandchildren will have mixed feelings too.

If you are a grandparent struggling to find support in your community, you can go to www.aarp.org. AARP’s website offers a comprehensive “Grandfamilies” guide with specific information on legal documents, finances, health insurance, education, childcare, and many other things you will need to know to protect your rights and maximize assistance in caring for your grandkids. Other helpful websites include:

If you are unsure what local therapists or support groups are available for you or your grandchildren, ask  a Youth First Social Worker at your child’s school (list at youthfirstinc.org) or your primary care physician. Support makes all the difference!