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.

By Megan Shake, LSW – April 19, 2022

Childhood trauma is defined as adverse childhood experiences that are emotionally painful or distressful. Trauma can be caused by a multitude of things, including but not limited to, physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, separation from a family member, poverty, serious medical conditions, accidents, disasters, domestic violence, a parent with a mental illness, substance abuse within a family, and incarceration of a family member. Ultimately, there are an unlimited number of things that can be classified as traumatic.

What the definition of trauma does not tell you is that trauma actually changes the brain. It overwhelms your thoughts, emotions, and body. When you experience something that overwhelms you, it can rewire your brain and body.

According to a report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, not only does trauma cause neurological changes, but it can also cause immune system and hormone level changes. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 who are exposed to trauma may have difficulty learning in school, be unable to trust others or make friends, show poor skill development, lack self-confidence, and may be more likely to experience stomach aches or headaches.

When looking at parts of the brain, studies have shown trauma effects the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Trauma can cause the amygdala to be hyperactive. That means even when danger is not present, the amygdala still might activate a “fight or flight” response in a person. The result may be a panic attack, a flood of emotion, feelings of aggression, or constant stress.

Another part of the brain affected is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Trauma can weaken the prefrontal cortex, causing difficulty concentrating or zoning out. Lastly, trauma affects the hippocampus as well. The hippocampus helps store memories. For some people, the hippocampus can have difficulty preserving other memories while retaining the traumatic event as clear as day. For others, the hippocampus blocks out part of the traumatic memory, or all of it.

So what can we do to help children who have experienced trauma? One of the most helpful things is for the child to have a caring, supportive, stable caregiver who can help regulate these changes and help the child better cope with adversity as they grow up. Just one caring and supportive adult can greatly benefit and positively impact a child throughout their life.

It is also important to seek help from a trained professional when needed, whether that be through outpatient therapy or even your school’s Youth First Social Worker. Remember, despite what these kids have been through, one caring adult to provide support can make a world of difference.  

By Jayme Waddell, LSW – April 12, 2022

As a parent, my goal is always to help my children succeed. However, I have realized that kids actually need help learning how to fail. When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and eventually succeed. This isn’t necessarily a new idea but one that I now understand better as a parent.

Failure is inevitable. If kids don’t learn how to tolerate failure, it can leave them vulnerable to anxiety and stress, which often results in meltdowns, regardless of age. It may also lead kids to give up altogether. Acquiring the skills necessary to cope with failure is a crucial part of success.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”  – Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes in the world, has spent decades speaking about failure. He has discussed the importance of perseverance and resilience, both on and off the court. His legendary accomplishments and hard work have turned him into one of the most impactful basketball players of all time. Was he born a champion? No. Did he have a raw talent for the game? No. He was relentless and never gave up. He accepted failure as part of his success.

As the pressure to win increases, we see more kids getting distraught over the smallest error. Therefore, it is increasingly more important for kids to learn how to tolerate imperfection. I would argue that learning how to cope with these mistakes may be even more important than whatever lesson or skill they were working on at the time the mistake was made. Learning how to fail is a necessary part of accomplishing any goal. It is an important life skill for kids to master to become more independent and thrive in the future.

Teaching kids how to fail is a process that starts with empathy. Saying, “it’s okay,” “nice try,” or “you’ll do better next time” can invalidate the child’s feelings, which could lead to more frustration and disappointment. Try changing the approach to be more empathetic: “I can see that you are upset. I know you wanted to do better.”

Modeling how to handle your own disappointment can also be impactful. Sharing your failures and explaining that failure is part of life can help normalize setbacks. Children are not always exposed to the reality that we, as adults, make mistakes and experience failures. It’s important to teach our children that it is okay when things don’t always go according to plan.

Make failure a teachable moment. When a child fails, there is a great opportunity for parents to teach critical thinking skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, and open mindedness. Try helping your child figure out what could be done next time for potential success. This is all about balance – we want to build distress tolerance skills by accepting that the situation “is what it is” while also recognizing what we learned or what we can do differently next time.

Watching your child fail can be difficult, but learning how to handle mistakes can only be done through exposure. When we hover or try to protect our children from every misstep, we rob them of the very experiences that require problem-solving. We take away the opportunity for them to experience resiliency and build the confidence necessary to take on new challenges.

Learning how to fail can be a painful experience, but success can only be achieved after we have learned the skills necessary to cope with any obstacles life throws in our path.

Join us for a Youth First Give Back at Azzip Pizza on Tuesday, April 12. Use this coupon, and 20% of your purchases, including gift cards, comes back to Youth First to provide vital support to Indiana students and families.

If ordering online, use code GIVEBACK04. Azzip locations participating include Evansville East, North and West.

By Jenna Bieker, Youth First Social Work Intern – March 31, 2022 –

It can be overwhelming to think about all the tasks we try to accomplish in a single day. Twenty-four hours does not seem to stretch far enough to cover time spent in school, sports, and other extra-curricular activities. When planning out how to spend time, sleep often gets pushed to the back burner. Unfortunately for kids, not getting enough sleep can lead to serious consequences.

Children need more sleep than adults because they are still growing. A child that is between one and two years old needs 11-14 hours of sleep each night. For three to five-year-olds, the suggestion drops to 10-13 hours. Youth between the age of six and thirteen need at least 9 hours and up to 11 hours snoozing nightly. Teenagers need up to 9.5 hours of sleep.

Most students start their school day around 8:00 in the morning. If wake up time is approximately an hour and a half before that at 6:30 am, even high school students need to be heading to bed at 9:00 pm. Some readers will think this is an unrealistic bedtime, but research indicates that consistent lack of sleep has multiple negative impacts.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritability, forgetfulness, increased stress, and an inability to concentrate. Over a longer period, not getting adequate sleep can contribute to severe health concerns like depression, anxiety, inflated blood pressure, and inflammation. The good news is that there are many ways to ensure your child is getting proper sleep.

To make sure youth in your life are sleeping well for the necessary number of hours, it is important to develop habits conducive to restful sleep. One tip is to try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Have your child go to bed and get up around the same time each day. This consistent sleep schedule will allow the body to get sleepy and wake up at the correct times. Additionally, for older children, limit daytime naps to twenty minutes or less to avoid nighttime sleep disruptions. Limiting electronic use before bed is also essential to sleeping well.

Putting away your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime will prevent blue light given off by electronics from tricking your brain into thinking it is time to stay awake. For parents, having your kids charge and store their devices outside of their bedrooms can provide an effective way to reduce their temptation to use electronics when they should be sleeping. Kids should not engage in physical activity or drink caffeine right before bedtime. Lastly, if children are struggling to sleep, they should try getting up to read or listen to calming music until they feel ready to rest again. Moving to a different room as opposed to staying in your bed can help get them back to sleep faster.

By ensuring our youth get the appropriate amount of sleep using these guidelines and tips, we can raise happier, healthier kids!

By Niki Walls, LSW – March 24, 2022 –

Boundaries are something many of us struggle with. We all need to set boundaries to function and have successful relationships. As parents and caregivers, it is just as important to give our children boundaries. It is a parent’s job to know what their child is doing, where they are, who they talk to, and to ensure they are safe.

As much as kids need boundaries, they also hate them. Kids will test and push grown-ups to get as much freedom as they possibly can. While it may seem annoying and burdensome that children are pushing back, this behavior is actually essential to their development. Parents also want their children to grow to be independent and mature, but they cannot do that without learning through trial and error.

Parents need to be mindful of the line between healthy boundaries and smothering or controlling their children. Allowing room for failure and accepting it with grace is a huge piece of building trust and respect in the boundary-setting process. Parents should not be so strict in their rules or so harsh in their punishments that kids are afraid to be truthful with them.

When children do break the rules or push the boundaries, it is important that adults are able to keep their own emotions in check. If parents or caregivers are reacting to the extreme, children will get better at hiding things from them in order to avoid the harsh reaction. One of the most crucial steps parents can take is to build trust with their children and emphasize that they are human beings who will mess up.

With a warm and loving relationship established, parents can begin setting rules concerning their child’s safety. Children will begin to see that the rules are there for the ultimate purpose of keeping them safe. Along with safety rules comes society’s rules. Children will have more respect for the rules they see others following.

While it is important to set clear rules, it is also important to talk to your teens about them. As adults, it is important to teach kids how to be self-advocates and voice their needs. If children feel their opinion matters, they will be more likely to buy into the rest of the rules.

For example, let’s say that your child has a curfew of 9pm every night. Your child might come to you occasionally and ask for an hour extension on their curfew to watch a movie premiere or the end of a game. If you can be flexible and negotiate with them, they will have more respect for you and will be less likely to sneak out later or blatantly miss curfew. Especially as your children grow older and earn your trust, it is important to ensure your rules and expectations are reflecting your trust and respect in them.

By establishing a loving relationship and age-appropriate expectations, parents can feel confident that their children will grow up to be respectable members of society. Starting children off with a firm and supportive foundation will allow them the opportunity to grow into the best versions of themselves.