By Sarah Roth, MSW, LSW

Although the holidays bring much joy and excitement, they are also a very difficult time for families who have experienced loss. Children are no exception. Feelings of grief may increase or present differently as the holiday season approaches.

So, what can we do to help grieving children?

  1. Understand that everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some may find comfort in talking, reminiscing, and doing things to honor the loss they have experienced. For others, these things may not bring comfort at all. Additionally, grief has no distinct timeline or roadmap. Family members may be at different stages of the grieving process. Remember that each family member’s journey is their own.
  2. Be honest with your children about your emotional experiences. As parents, we often feel we must shield our children from seeing our emotions so we do not further damage or worry them. While we do need to use discretion about what and how we share with our kids, it is also important that we are honest with them. This is especially important in times of loss. Our children are learning from our behavior. Hiding our feelings from our kids can lead to them feeling isolated and confused, as it may send a message that how they are feeling is abnormal. Demonstrating that it is okay to have feelings surrounding the loss is important and vital to everyone’s healing.
  3. Check in with your kid about their feelings. In addition to communicating with your child about your feelings, it is also important that you check in with your child about their feelings surrounding the loss. This helps you learn how to help them cope with the many emotions that may surface. It is important to relay the message to your children that even though they may be seeing each family member grieve in different ways, you’re all in this together. Encourage them to come to you if they have questions or feelings they do not know how to manage.
  4. Allow this year to be different while still providing consistency. There is an inherent change that occurs when loss happens. This is especially true during the holidays. Have an open discussion that traditions may look different than they did prior to the loss. Acknowledge that this is okay. It may provide comfort to all involved as opposed to moving through the holiday season as though nothing has happened. You can say things such as, “This holiday might look different because we don’t have ___ spending it here with us anymore. Is there a new tradition you would like to start or a way we could remember __ as we celebrate this year?” You could also ask, “Is there a tradition that we did with ___ that you would like to make sure we continue to do each year?” Providing a good balance of flexibility while not completely stripping the season of its routine is crucial. Working together to find what works for your family is an important way to ensure you are all providing each other with needed support.
  5. Know when to reach out to a mental health professional. If your child is struggling intensely during this time, it may be time to reach out for professional help. If you notice drastic changes in your child, seeking professional help may be the next step. Inability to complete daily tasks for a prolonged period, participating in risky/dangerous behaviors, or disconnecting emotionally are a few signs that seeking help may be beneficial. For some families this may only last a short period, but for others more long-term treatment may be necessary. Checking with your child’s school to see if there are mental health professionals in the building is a good place to start. The child’s family physician may also be able to connect your family with other resources to provide additional support.

By Leah Lottes, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Many thoughts fill our brains each day. Some of those thoughts can be positive and some can be negative. This applies to children as well as adults. If children are experiencing more negative thoughts than positive thoughts, it can really affect their self-worth and overall well-being.

Expressing gratitude, identifying the negative thoughts, and reframing the negative thoughts into positive thoughts are just a few ways to help manage that negative self-talk.

Expressing gratitude is a great way to retrain our brains to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. When meeting with students who are struggling with negative self-talk, I often recommend that they start a gratitude journal and encourage them to write down things they are thankful for every day. This practice can help you to get into the habit of focusing on the good in your life.

Helping students identify their negative thoughts is another step toward helping them eliminate those thoughts. Some don’t recognize how frequently they are thinking and expressing these thoughts. If you hear students being self-critical, you can gently point it out to them and help them navigate why they may be feeling that way. Encourage them to be kind to themselves and to give themselves some grace.

Teach your kids to reframe their negative thoughts into positive thoughts. One activity I often like to do with students is a handout where we discuss different types of negative thoughts. We then identify the negative thoughts they are currently experiencing and reframe those into positive thoughts.

We usually start with a generic negative thought that many kids have said expressed before such as, “We have nothing to eat at home.” Then we take that thought and turn it into a positive thought and say, “We have plenty of food. It just might not be something I like.” Then we start discussing deeper negative thoughts such as, “I am dumb.” We can turn that into a positive thought by saying, “I might sometimes make mistakes, but I am not dumb.”

Another example of a negative thought a student might express is, “I’m not good enough. I always get bad grades.” Then we change the negative into a positive by saying, “That’s not true. Tests do not measure my self-worth.” When students practice turning their negative thoughts into positive thoughts they begin to form the habit, a skill they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

It is normal for kids to be hard on themselves from time to time. Hearing students talk negatively about themselves can be difficult, but there are tools and strategies to help turn those negative thoughts around. If your child is persistently experiencing negative self-talk and you feel as though it is causing a shift in their mood or behavior, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Being kind to others is always important, but being kind to ourselves is just as important.

By Jordyn Bryant, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Having stress or anxiety as a child can be hard. Children often hear, “You are too young to have stress” or other statements that dismiss their feelings.

Recognizing that children can have negative emotions regarding what seems “small” or “trivial” to adults can help validate the child’s feelings so they can begin to cope. By using coping mechanisms, kids are able to regulate their emotions and feelings more quickly.

One healthy coping mechanism is mindfulness. According to the website, practicing mindfulness can ease feelings of stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the moment, which helps children and adults identify how they are feeling right then and how they can adjust to a more neutral thought or feeling. Often when we are thinking of something, we tend to think of how it played out in the past or how it can play out in the future. When we stay in the moment, we can focus on what can help now instead of what hurt us in the past or what might go wrong in the future.

A big part of mindfulness is focusing on your breathing. When your thoughts begin to go elsewhere, you can focus on how your breathing feels to bring you back into the present. When children learn this, they are better able to practice self-control and strengthen their resiliency. According to the website, studies show that the benefits of mindfulness for children are:

  1. Increased focus
  2. Improved academic performance
  3. Decreased levels of stress

Improving on these things can improve a child’s confidence, emotional regulation, and overall mental health and well-being.

As adults, the more we practice mindfulness ourselves, the more we can help our children learn. It is important to recognize the feelings in our children and ourselves. Recognizing that having feelings is okay – even the ones that do not feel so good – is a way to have a healthy emotional balance. Being mentally and emotionally healthy can create positive changes in life, including our physical health, creating stronger families, and having positive social skills. You can practice being mindful in everyday life even when you do not have time for 20-30 minutes of breathing and yoga. Some examples are:

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Checking in with your body
  • Utilizing your five senses
  • Focusing on your breathing
  • Practicing active listening.

Practicing mindfulness and helping children practice mindfulness sets us up for success in different aspects of life. You will be amazed to recognize the changes that come with being in the “here and now” versus thinking about the unknowns and the “should haves.”

By Ashley Underwood, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Many of us are all too familiar with stress and anxiety, along with all the baggage it brings. Have you ever sat down and thought about how much of what you are worrying about is within your control? Are you stressing over things that you cannot change? Think of it like this – can we control the weather? No. But can we control how we react to the weather? Yes.

This concept is known as the circle of control. It was introduced by Stephen R. Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The purpose of this concept is to help people focus on the things in life they have control over, rather than being stuck trying to change things they can’t control. It is a visual representation that is useful for both adults and children as a guide to cope with difficult situations. I have used this with the students I meet with as well as with school staff.

There are three rings that make up this concept and visual representation. The outermost ring is called the circle of concern, the middle ring is called the circle of influence, and the innermost ring is called the circle of control.

Circle of Concern – This circle contains the things that you cannot control like the weather, other people, violence, etc. When focusing on the circle of concern, people can feel overwhelmed and stressed because they are worrying about what they have no power over.

Circle of Influence – Within this circle are things that you have some influence over like relationships, friendships, or how other people feel about you. Focusing on our power to influence can be beneficial for certain relationships, but keep in mind that there is still no way to control others in the situation.

Circle of Control – This circle is where your thoughts, reactions, and boundaries fall. You can control these things. Focus on the items within your circle of control to reap the biggest benefit for your mental health.

Get out of the habit of focusing on the circle of concern by practicing mindfulness. Be aware of your worries and work to identify which circle they fall into. Practicing mindfulness skills through meditation or guided breathing exercises can help with help bring your awareness back to the area that you can control.

As time goes on, you will notice that your circle of concern will get less attention from you while your circle of control gets more of your focus and energy. Using this technique is a great way to prioritize what’s important without getting caught up in details beyond our control.

By Jenna Kruse-Pauli, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

As parents and caregivers, our first instinct is always to protect our children. Unfortunately, one thing that we can never protect them from is loss. We can, however, support them and have positive discussions with them to help them cope with grief.

November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month, which highlights the importance of supporting bereaved children through difficult times. Grief looks different for every person at every age, but there is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

After experiencing a loss, a child can experience very difficult emotions that can change drastically and quickly. No matter what those feelings are, they are all part of the grieving process. It is normal for children to experience anger, sadness, guilt, or anxiety. Very young children may even experience a regression and begin baby talk or bed wetting once again.

While you cannot take the hurt away, providing a safe place for children to express their feelings is a healthy way of encouraging positive coping. Reading books about loss, allowing students to draw pictures, or sharing pictures and memories is another way to work through the difficult emotions they are experiencing. You may also incorporate discussion around lost family members in prayer if that is a part of your family values.

In addition, sticking to routines will naturally help regulate your child’s emotions, allowing them to take comfort in familiar tasks or traditions. This will help children recognize that while some things have changed, many things will still be the same.

When talking to your student about death, be developmentally appropriate. Listen and provide answers to their questions instead of offering up too much information. Be clear and honest in your answers. If you cannot answer everything, just being available to listen and provide support will be the best thing you can offer your child. Be direct with your child when discussing death. Using verbiage like “they went to sleep” can make your child fearful of bedtime. 

Deciding whether your child should attend the funeral is a big decision. Funerals can provide closure but can also be very difficult for children. If your child is old enough, allow them to decide if they want to attend the funeral. Never force your child to attend a funeral if they do not feel comfortable. If your child does want to attend, prepare them for what they will see. 

Often parents are so worried about supporting their child, that they do not process the grief they are experiencing. Modeling healthy coping skills and communication is a great way for children to understand that it is acceptable to have these difficult feelings and learn appropriate ways to handle them. If you ignore your own grief, your child will do the same.

Remember that the best support you can give your child at this time is a listening ear. If your child is having difficulty coping in a healthy way, reach out to your school’s Youth First Social Worker, who can provide more resources to help you at home as well as support your student at school.

By Brooklyn Wells, MSW, Youth First, Inc.

The importance of regular school attendance cannot be overstated. Each school day is an opportunity for growth, and consistent attendance ensures your child does not fall behind. When students skip school, they miss valuable opportunities to acquire knowledge, develop essential skills, and build a strong foundation for their future.

One of the primary reasons regular school attendance is crucial is that it allows students to keep up with their lessons. When students miss school, they risk falling behind in their studies, making it more challenging to catch up later. Consistent attendance also helps students establish good learning habits and discipline. By coming to school every day, students develop routines that promote responsibility and time management. These skills are not only essential for academic success, but also for success in life beyond school.

Attending school allows students to engage in social interactions and build relationships with their peers. These relationships provide opportunities to develop empathy and learn cooperation. Students gain social skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution, and effective communication by interacting with their classmates. Missing school means missing out on these valuable experiences, which can hinder social and emotional development.

Let’s face it, getting your kiddo to school can be challenging at times. Establishing a routine, setting a bedtime, and organizing backpacks and homework the night before can help better prepare your child for school the following day. Make mornings pleasant and stress-free by maintaining a calm and positive atmosphere and avoiding morning arguments and tension.

Show enthusiasm for your child’s education by demonstrating interest in their schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Discuss what they learned at school and engage in their learning process. Encourage your child to take responsibility for their attendance by setting alarms, checking schedules, and communicating with teachers or school staff when they have concerns. Lastly, show your child the importance of commitment and responsibility by modeling good attendance habits in your own life.

In the long term, regular school attendance is closely linked to future opportunities and success. Completing a high school education is often a prerequisite for pursuing higher education or securing well-paying jobs.

Remember that consistent school attendance is a collaborative effort between parents, guardians, schools, and the community. By working together and implementing these tips, you can help ensure that your child gets the most out of their education and sets a strong foundation for their future success.

By Niki Walls, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

With so much uncertainty the past few years, many young people have not been in the habit of sticking to a normal daily routine. Research proves that routines support early childhood emotional development. Familiar patterns and activities can provide comfort to children during uncertain times.

Children with regular home routines usually have better self-regulation skills, which means they are better at identifying their feelings and are less likely to become overwhelmed. Children can be more confident and secure when their day-to-day activities are predictable.

Routines are important for children of any age, as they are crucial to a healthy functioning family unit. When children can engage consistently with the same adults and children, they are able to develop relationships with others. This promotes strong social skills, allows them to gain a sense of belonging, and raises their confidence in interacting with others.

Routines do not have to be complex; it is important to keep it simple, especially with younger children. A good way to start is by breaking down the scheduled tasks that naturally occur to create a routine. For example, everyone wakes up in the morning. To create a morning wake-up routine, parents can set a specific time and choose an appropriate method for their children to wake up.

Parents should make sure they review the schedule every morning (and throughout the day) so their child can prepare for what is next on the agenda. The entire day does not have to fall apart if the routine gets off track, but it is important to stick to the same schedule as much as possible.

Parents can start implementing routines into the family’s daily life in various ways. Ensuring the routine is repeated continuously is a way to ensure it sticks. Parents can also use visuals by writing out the schedule for older kids or using pictures for younger children. If possible, it is important for adults to make the children aware in advance if there will be any changes to the schedule.

Routines give children a sense of stability and safety. If children know what to expect, they do not have to be on edge and can be more true to their authentic self. It is important for parents to remember that routines can’t be established overnight. A routine needs to be repeated often for it to become a natural habit.

Children who develop self-regulation through routine will build healthier mental health habits and typically handle unexpected stressors more effectively than their peers. Establishing a few new routines for your family is a great way to provide support and stability amidst the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life.

By Youth First Staff, Youth First, Inc.

Red Ribbon Week is the oldest and largest drug use prevention campaign in the nation, reaching millions of young people each year. This event takes place annually from October 23 – October 31. According to Red Ribbon Week’s official website, this event is an ideal way for communities to unite and take a visible stand against drug misuse.

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 event sponsorship.

You might ask, “Is Red Ribbon Week effective?” According to Peggy Sapp, President and CEO of National Family Partnership, Red Ribbon Week has endured for over thirty years due to the following factors:

  • Red Ribbon Week is an environmental strategy, which means it doesn’t just affect a small group but reaches 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 public about the dangers of drug use.
  • Red Ribbon Week facilitates conversations about activities that will help rebuild a sense of community and common purpose.
  • Red Ribbon Week helps parents and schools deliver an effective drug prevention curriculum.
  • Red Ribbon Week is positive and fun, two things necessary to maintain good mental health.

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

Parents can access the website for great ideas about talking to children of any age about the dangers of substance use. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “children really hear their parents’ concerns, which is why it’s important that parents discuss the risks of using alcohol and other drugs.”

Drug misuse in this country has 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 Red Ribbon Week as we promote the importance of educating our children, families, and communities about the dangers of substance misuse.

By Dawn L. Tedrow, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Does your child refuse to go to bed on time? My children are grown now, but I remember arguments and crying when it was time for them to shut the lights off and go to sleep. I tried several techniques over the years from letting them run around the house to “burn off energy,” to providing a bedtime snack while watching a favorite cartoon until they fell asleep.

These methods didn’t work. Little did I know that I was over-stimulating their brains and prolonging the amount of time it took for them to fall asleep. We live and learn. Now I am passing along some helpful, effective tips to parents and caregivers who are struggling to tame the “bedtime dragon.”

First, decide on a bedtime and stick to it. If you plan to have them in bed and the lights out at 8:00pm, then you want to begin winding down about 2 hours earlier (6:00pm). I know it seems like a long time, but trust me, it will make adjusting to a new bedtime routine so much easier and less stressful in the long run.

Depending on the age of your children, this could cause some arguing in the beginning. However, things will settle down after a few days of staying in a routine. Simply state that all electronics are to be turned off at 6:00pm. No video games, tv, or anything. We are giving our brains a break.

This is the perfect time to start taking baths and brushing teeth. Lay out clothes and backpacks for school the next day. Begin turning off lights around the home or dimming them and keeping voices calm. About an hour before bedtime, you can turn on some calming music. Classical music at low volume is a great option. Encourage your child to use their “walking feet” to reduce bursts of energy and running around the house.

When everyone has taken their baths, brushed their teeth, and prepared clothes and backpacks for the next morning, it’s time to read. Allow your child to lay in bed and look at a book or read to them as they settle in for the night. All books should be put away and lights should be out by 8:00pm. 

If they get out of bed, then quietly guide them back to bed. It will take a little while for this new routine to begin working, but things will get easier and less stressful. If your child has difficulty turning off electronics at the designated time, they might benefit from a visual timer that begins about 10 minutes earlier. This will help them prepare for putting things away without a tantrum.

Although bedtime can be a challenge for parents, prioritizing sleep is essential to your child’s physical and mental health. Instilling positive bedtime routines early in life will help your child develop a healthier relationship with sleep as they grow into young adults.

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “the days are long, but the years are short.” Nothing makes that feel more true than when preparing your youngest to fly the coop. Looking back on my years of parenting there is a lot I have learned, trial by fire and all.

My role as a mental health professional gives me a unique view of parenthood, but no amount of education prepared me for all the curveballs life would throw along the way. My primary goal as a parent has always been to raise strong, independent children. I want them to feel confident when they enter the world. So how do we do this? How do we prepare our children for adulthood while still letting them be kids?

The first step is always being their biggest cheerleader. Make sure from the earliest stages of life they know you support them in their successes and their failures. Encourage them to take risks and support them when they’re scared. Being there to provide the emotional support they need will help them feel more confident in their ability to take life on as they mature.

Allow your kids to find their voice. Let them question decisions and walk them through why you make the choices you make. One thing we often get wrong in life is that confrontation means fighting. Healthy confrontation allows for growth and open, honest communication. Your child questioning your decisions doesn’t have to mean disrespect; rather, it can be a learning moment for everyone involved. It also allows you to help walk your child through their emotions, communicate clearly, and find healthy coping skills when things don’t go as expected.

I attended a training course a few years ago by renowned pediatrician Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, and one analogy stuck with me. It explained that as parents, our roles are to be the edges of life’s puzzle. Our kids have the job of filling in the rest of the pieces. They’re going to make mistakes and might try to put pieces in the wrong spots from time to time. We’re just providing the boundaries in which they work.

This analogy is beautiful to me and really speaks to the importance of providing guidance to our children. Life will hand them plenty of natural consequences when they put the pieces in the wrong place, and we will support them through those struggles. We’re giving them the opportunities to take on new roles and responsibilities within their lives.

It’s also important to remember that as kids grow, we need to give them more responsibilities and space to make their own decisions. Let them make their own appointments and phone calls when needed. Age-appropriate responsibilities as our babies turn into young adults will help them feel confident when advocating for themselves as adults. As much as we want them to be, they won’t be babies forever, so let’s teach them the skills they need to be self-sufficient, happy adults.