By Niki Walls, LSW – June 25, 2019

Death is a part of life, and grief comes along with it. Helping a child grieve and understand death can be very difficult.

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains, “Children understand that death is bad, and they don’t like separation, but the concept of “forever” is just not present.” Children often have a hard time wrapping their brains around the concept of death and do not always have the coping skills they need to handle it.

 If you are helping a child through the grieving process, here are some important tips to remember:

When breaking the news about death, be clear.  Do not use terms that a child may take literally, as a child may then become fearful of “going to sleep” if that is what they think happened to their loved one who passed. Do not volunteer too much information or go into details that could cause confusion or fear in the child. However, do be honest and answer their questions the best you can.

Each child grieves differently, just like adults.  The child’s moods may fluctuate and be inconsistent. This does not mean the child is grieving inappropriately; it just means they are processing in different ways. Sometimes the child’s action could reflect a defense mechanism they are tapping into as a way of coping. The child may feel many different emotions (such as anger or guilt) toward the person that has died, depending on their understanding of the situation.

Allow your child to express a variety of emotions.  It is good practice for everyone to be able to express the emotions they are feeling, especially grieving kids. Help your child understand their emotions and utilize a safe way of expressing these emotions. It may not be easy for your child to express them in an appropriate manner. If that is the case, encourage them to do things like writing, drawing, or role playing a memory of the person they have lost.

Understand your own grief.  Aside from helping your child grieve, you will likely be grieving yourself. Your child’s grief will likely reflect your own. It is important to allow your child to see safe emotion expression. Please do not project your grief onto the child. Do not make the child feel as though they need to be the caretaker in the situation or escalate it so it is emotionally harder for them.

Be consistent.  Kids crave consistency. They want a routine and a sense of normalcy. This is true in the calm of their lives and also in the chaos.

Practice coping skills.  Children can often struggle with self-regulation and managing their emotions. By practicing coping skills with the child, they will likely have an easier time containing extreme emotional outbursts. Coping skills can include a variety of things like listening to music, making a memory collage, journaling, etc.

Preparation.  It is important to prepare your child for what to expect from a funeral, burial, or any other death ritual that might take place so it does not come as a shock when they are in the moment. Your child may have questions about life after death, so it is important that your beliefs and others’ beliefs are discussed with them.While all of these practices are helpful to a child during the time of a loss, it important to monitor that the child is able to cope with grief and recover from loss in a healthy manner. If your child does not seem to be doing so, it is important to talk to a doctor or seek out a therapist.

By Brandy Terrell, LCSW – June 18, 2019

It is the strength and originality in a person’s nature that defines their character, according to Google Dictionary. Character is also made up of the mental or moral qualities that are distinctive to each of us.

I often wonder how my role as a mother contributes to the character development of my children.  Most days I feel like I’m still trying to build my own character. There may be no real end to such an endeavor.

To me, character building is about understanding the “why” in every teachable moment and creating the ability to think critically about the “why” in every situation. It’s more than the “Do as I say, not as I do” adage.

Maybe it’s about turning the “why” around and looking inward in hopes of figuring out what type of person we all want to be; maybe it’s leading by example. It’s most likely leading without the realization that you are the example and your behaviors are being absorbed by others.

As parents, we get wrapped up in the everyday struggle to meet the material demands of raising children. We worry about providing a safe home, the latest technology or gaming system, joining sports teams, the drama club or any other social activity.

Sometimes we get lost in the rush of it all. We should strive to give our children as many opportunities as possible, within reason of course. Sometimes we equate “things,” activities and the latest trends as our way of developing character.

Maybe we expect our children to “act right” simply because they had a stable outward foundation and have “no real problems to worry about.”  When our children fall short in behavior, pick on another child, disrespect an adult or act entitled, we are left wondering what went wrong. Why did my child not “know better?”  

While we continue to provide on a material level, we also need to provide on an emotional level with the same or more gusto. We need to teach our children that all the material things we have are sort of like “extras” and what makes the character of a person is how we treat other people, not all the material things that we have.

We must teach a child that our outward behavior is a representation of the type of person that we really are deep inside. Each of us needs to decide what type of person we want to become. Character building starts with parent/child emotional interactions and conversations from a very young age. Perhaps we should also talk about privilege/entitlement each time we bestow some form of material object or privilege on our children.

So, what have I learned 25 years and three children later? Often I can see my explanations of the “why” and the character talks come to life in my children.

Each moment of kindness, humility and respect they display to others is a small emotional win for me. Each time another adult tells me how thoughtful and well-mannered my children are I’m filled with pride. (I’m usually also thinking that at least they have enough sense to act right in public!) So my advice to parents or others trying to build character in a child is, “Hang in there and don’t give up!” Most importantly, take time to focus on the “why” as much as possible, because kids are watching, listening and absorbing.

By Heather Miller, LCSW – June 11, 2019

“Why do we have to read every day?  It’s summer!” protests my son.  Amidst moans and groans, the steadfast rule remains – 20 minutes of reading out loud daily.  I grow tired of giving my list of explanations and often want to just give in, but the importance of helping my children learn to read and do well is too important to negotiate. 

I like to equate reading time to brushing teeth, a preventative measure to help ensure issues later on in life (like cavities) are less likely to occur.  My oldest struggles to be at grade level in reading, making it much more important for me to continue encouraging – and at times insisting – that reading practice happens.

According to the National Institute for Direct Instruction, poor reading performance in children may lead to anxiety, depression, inattentiveness, frustration, anti-social behaviors, and even aggression.  Furthermore, by secondary grades, most children are aware of their difficulties in reading, thus adding low self-esteem and low motivation to the list of issues that may result from poor reading performance.

The following five ideas may assist parents or caregivers with helping their child improve reading skills:

  1. Make reading a scheduled part of your family’s day.  Placing the same level of importance on reading (to your child as well as having your child read to you) as eating dinner will help ensure reading time is completed daily.  After a few weeks, reading time will be simply part of your family’s day without thinking about it.
  • Many books are now movies.  Before watching the movie, have your child read the book if possible.  If your child wants to watch the Star Wars movies, check out the large selection of Star Wars books available at local libraries first.  Paddington is a great selection for younger children.  There are many books about Paddington that can be followed by the movie.
  • Check out Pinterest for ideas.  There are many activities and resources to assist with encouraging literacy during childhood.  Simple games such as Candyland can be adapted to teach sight words to school-aged children.
  • Make receiving a new book a treat.  For Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Easter, birthdays or as rewards, pick up a book to give as a gift.  There are many books at dollar stores that provide an economical way to promote reading.  Helping children associate books and reading with excitement will help engage them in the process of becoming a reader.
  • Be a good model.  In this case, it is important to “practice what you preach.”  Allow your children to visibly see you spending time reading.  Demonstrate the importance of reading over checking Facebook or watching TV.  This will provide legitimacy when you encourage your children to make similar choices.

If you believe your child is struggling to read, contact your child’s teacher to voice any concerns and get ideas on how to help.  If you are concerned that your child is having behavioral issues or low self-esteem due to reading concerns, your school’s Youth First Social Worker will be equipped to help you address these issues. 

By Amanda Jo Haney, MSW – June 4, 2019

In our modern society, social media is one of the most common ways we communicate with one another. This is true for adults and children.

With summer break starting, many children will find even more time than usual to spend on their phones, tablets, or computers. Often times they are communicating through social media apps. Do we know who they are talking to? Do they really know?

As parents, our main goal is to keep our children safe and healthy. This applies to both physical and emotional health.

One important way to help them stay safe while using social media is to monitor their usage. Just like when our children spend time with their friends in real life, we need to know what they are doing and who they are talking to through social media platforms.  

While it is important to give our children some freedom, we still need to know that they are being safe and following the social media rules we set for them. Giving them clear rules and consequences for their misuse will help them continue to use social media in a positive manner.

Teach them social media safety habits. While it is ideal to share this information with them before they get on social media for the first time, that might be difficult. These rules and safety measures will be valuable at any time.

According to www.connectsafely.org/social-web-tips-for-teens/, some of the things children (of any age) can do to stay safe online are as follows:

1. Be your own person. Never pretend to be someone that you are not. Be who you really are and you will attract the people who will become your real friends.

2. Be nice. Don’t say mean things just because you can hide behind a screen. Your words hurt the same as if you would say them to the person’s face.

3. Think about what you post. Remember that once it is out there it is out there for everyone!

4. Do not add people you don’t know on social media accounts. Having friends and followers is fun but can be dangerous when they are strangers.

5. Never send inappropriate pictures or engage in sexual conversations with peers or strangers. Never. Never. Never.

ALSO – NEVER GIVE OUT YOUR ADDRESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA! Don’t even tell anyone you don’t know what city you live in or what school you go to. Don’t post photos that show your school or give any information about where you live. Try to be as vague as possible about where you live.

If we stress the importance of these rules and safety habits and reinforce them with a consistent reward/consequence system, we can help our children stay safe online. This also will give us some peace of mind when trusting our kids with the responsibility and privilege of using social media.

By Jordan Beach, LSW – May 28, 2019

Summer vacation is here! If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to start planning summer activities for your children.

We perceive summer to be a laid back, more relaxed time, but parents know this is actually a time that requires a lot of forethought. With more hours of the day becoming your responsibility, the pressure to find fun, enriching activities is definitely on.

Have you resolved to limit your child’s screen time this summer? If so, great!  But now how will you fill their time? You don’t have to be a Pinterest-perfect parent to create a memorable summer for your children.

Summer camps are the obvious first option, but they can be pricey. There are summer camps and programs offered all over the area that range in price and provide children with ample opportunity to have new experiences.

Camps are also helpful for working parents. However, keep in mind that this option comes with a price tag that might not be reasonable for your family.

There are a lot of ways to have fun and create memories for your children at home without spending a lot of money. If you’re looking to have more of a “Do-it-Yourself” summer with your children, there are a lot of options to spark their creativity and nurture their imaginations in your own backyard.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Build a fort. A fort can be left up for days. All you need is chairs, blankets and a little imagination. This can be used as a reading nook or expanded into imaginative play for younger children.
  • Create a breakout session in your house. There are many ideas online that can help you design an escape room for your kids. This is a good way to mix in some academics with the fun. Topics range from math to conflict resolution. Your options are really limitless.
  • Put all of those Amazon boxes to good use. Cardboard boxes are gold in the world of imaginative play. You can create a living room “drive-in” where your kids sit in the cars they’ve designed while watching a movie or reading a book. You can make instruments using cardboard and rubber bands. Also, free drawing on boxes with markers or paint always seems to be a good time for little ones.
  • Help your kids expand their culinary skills. Let them pick out recipes and help you shop for the ingredients. This is a great activity to help your child become creative in the kitchen while also teaching them planning and budgeting.
  • Go for the classics – water balloon fights, running through the sprinkler, washing the car. It gets hot in Indiana during the summer months, so cool off in fun ways!

This is in no way an exhaustive list of summer activities. A little creativity and planning can really help you and your children stay busy while bonding this summer.

By Heather Hudson, LCSW – May 21, 2019

One of the things we can all count on in life is that it does not remain constant and change is inevitable.  Many of us struggle with change, either a little or a lot. Most of us have learned how to navigate life changes through our previous life experiences. 

As children we were often guided by our parents, and as we grew we also received guidance from friends and mentors. Sometimes we can get so preoccupied with the changes we are going through that we forget those around us are also experiencing change. As adults, this can include our children.

There are changes that happen to most children, like beginning a new school year, making new friends, growing up, and bodily changes like puberty. There are general ways to handle those common changes, but the emotions of each child should be taken into consideration.

There are some changes that not everyone experiences in childhood such as moving, the death of a loved one, the birth of a sibling, or parental divorce. These life changes need to be handled very personally with as much conversation and openness as possible.

While a life change may even be a positive one, it is still a change and requires adaptation. Transitional periods are often times when children and teenagers may experiment with risky behaviors to cope with their emotions. Recognizing and guiding our children through these life changes can help them successfully navigate these changes and adapt positively while avoiding risky behaviors. 

The following are some ways to help your child deal with changes:

  • Encourage open dialogue. Try to talk to your child about their feelings and validate them. Say things such as, “I know this must be a scary/hard/confusing/sad time for you. I would like to know how you feel.” Let your child know that you are there to listen. Recognize that some of their negative feelings may be directed toward you, but do not take this personally. Allow your child to express his or her feelings without judgment; this will help your child’s trust in you grow. 
  • Set aside one-on-one time to be with your child. Showing your child that you are interested in them as an individual and what is going on in their life makes your child feel important. It also shows your child that you are paying attention, regardless of what changes are happening. 
  • Allow your child to be involved with decisions about the change. Children often feel out of control over decisions in their life. Allowing them to be involved in some of the decision-making allows them to feel they have a sense of control. If you are moving, let your child decorate their rooms and pick out new things for the home. Ultimately, you as the parent have the final say in decision making, but listen to your child and involve them in the process. 
  • Care for yourself and model this for your child. Allow your child to see you taking care of yourself in times of change, whether it is eating well and exercising or reaching our for support.  

Your child takes cues on how to navigate the world around them from you. If you are honest about your feelings but express a positive attitude, your child is likely to adopt that attitude. It’s acceptable and appropriate for you to admit you are scared or sad or worried, but remind yourself and your child that this situation is temporary and there will be better days ahead. Make sure you are doing the necessary things to care for yourself to assure better days ahead. 

By Deena Bodine, LCSW – May 14, 2019

Life can place many demands on us: work obligations, financial pressures, health issues…the list goes on. These life stressors can make it difficult to be at our best as parents, especially when we feel overwhelmed, frustrated, discouraged, or defeated.

During this time, we may even begin second-guessing our parenting decisions. But like so many other parenting moments, we have an opportunity to turn our stress into a teachable moment for our children. 

We know that kids learn from watching us even more than they learn from listening to us. This reinforces the idea that in order to be the best teacher for our children, we must learn to better regulate our own emotions and set a better example for our children.  

One important step in teaching emotional regulation is acknowledging our own emotions.  Acknowledgment teaches our children that not only do adults also experience big emotions, but we can respond to these emotions in a healthy manner.

Acknowledgment of emotions can be as simple as identifying the feeling. For example, “I am feeling overwhelmed because I can’t find my keys and I need to leave for a meeting.” When we label the feeling, we not only teach our children that adults experience frustration, but they are also primed to watch for our response to the situation.

Our children watch and learn from us, and if we respond to anger or frustration by losing our cool, we lose the teachable moment and send the wrong message on how to manage our anger effectively.  Instead, take a moment, take a breath, and then focus on finding those keys calmly. 

As we work to manage our emotions it is important to recognize the core of our emotions and the beliefs that drive them. Have you ever wondered why certain people get very worked up about something that seems very insignificant to you?  It is due to the beliefs they have attached to the event that is stressing them.

Perhaps we attach certain meanings to a name we were teased about as a child, and when we hear that name as an adult it releases a flood of emotions and memories that linger years later. Trying to gain insight behind our emotions is no easy task, but understanding those beliefs can be a game changer.  

The final step in emotion regulation is remaining in control of your response. This can be done through deep breaths, closing your eyes to remain calm, and taking a few seconds or minutes to pause. This can help change our perspective or at least prevent us from acting on an emotional impulse. Saying or doing something we will regret certainly sends the wrong message to our children in those teachable moments.  

While it is a challenge to be at our parenting best when we are struggling to manage our own emotions, the reward of healthy emotion regulation can be great.  We are in the best position to teach our children how to handle life stressors every single day.  We owe it to our children and ourselves to be the best versions of ourselves we can be.

By Sarah Laury, LCSW – May 7

Growing up, one of my favorite parts of summer was going away to summer camp. I counted down the days until school was out and I could start packing for camp. I loved meeting new friends, singing camp songs, learning about nature, and all of the camp games and activities.

I enjoyed returning summer after summer to see the friends that I had met the previous year and the camp counselors that I had gotten to know over the years. As a kid, I loved camp because of the friendships and experiences it offered. I had no idea that I was gaining important life skills that would benefit me throughout my adolescence and into adulthood. 

Most kids today spend around 180 days a year in a structured school environment. Many schools offer 20 minutes or less of recess per day, and most middle schools don’t offer recess at all. Kids are going home to a heavy workload of homework and then sitting in front of the television or playing video games.

According to a study by Common Sense Media, kids between the ages of 8 and 12 spend nearly 6 hours a day on some type of technology. In contrast, the average kid spends only 4-7 minutes playing outside. These numbers show a dramatic shift from the way time was spent by kids a couple of decades ago. 

The number of kids diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD has skyrocketed over the past couple of decades. Some experts believe that there is a correlation between the amount of screen time that kids are exposed to as well as lack of time spent playing outside and the rising rates of mental health issues among kids today.

Kids are stimulated by nature in ways that can never be replicated with screen time or video games. In nature, kids are generally more active and are using their imagination to engage in creative play and exploration.   

Another benefit of summer camp is the opportunity to be part of a community and develop social skills and relationships. In our society, much “socializing” among adolescents and teens is done over social media. At camp, kids are forming relationships and practicing social skills with their peers face-to-face in a community setting.

Most camps focus heavily on relationship building through ice breakers and team building activities. These activities allow kids to develop social skills, work cooperatively with their peers, feel a sense of belonging, and increase self-esteem.

As parents, we have to decide how much freedom we are going to give our kids to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Decision making and problem-solving skills are both invaluable life skills.

At camp, children are presented with many decisions every day. Most importantly, kids are also exposed to the consequences of the decisions they make. For instance, if they choose to wear their wet socks from yesterday instead of the clean socks in their duffle bag, their feet will probably hurt. Do they try the high ropes course that they have repeatedly fallen off of one more time or do they give up? 

Trying new things (and trying again when they don’t succeed) is what builds resiliency and self-confidence in kids.  Summer camp is the perfect venue for developing these important life skills.   

By Laura Arrick, LCSW – April 30, 2019

It is a very busy time of year in local schools. ISTEP and ILEARN have taken over the past couple of months. Finals and end-of-year exams will closely follow. These tests can bring about a lot of pressure and stress for our students.

Learning how to manage that stress is important as students face these testing demands from year to year. These tests often heighten anxiety, which we know is something that affects children on a regular basis.

When we look at test anxiety in particular it’s not all bad. We want our children to have some anxiety and nervousness that will push them to perform and take testing seriously. But for some kids, their fears kick in and overwhelm them, which can lead to irrational thinking and powerful physical symptoms of anxiety.

“Anxiety has the potential to shut you down,” explains neuropsychologist Ken Schuster. “When kids are having test anxiety they can’t think clearly, they can’t judge things the way they could if they weren’t anxious.  All of your other abilities get clouded up by anxiety.”

Your overall ability to perform and think clearly when the test is in front of you is diminished. Add on the time restraint of a test, and you have a recipe for feeling out of control and helpless.

When thinking about how to best help your child it’s important to listen. You don’t want to dismiss their fears and worries by saying things like, “It’s not that big of a deal” or “Quit worrying.” Instead, spend time with them and help them rationalize a plan to feel more in control.

Tips for students:

  • Control what you can control. Spend your time learning how to manage your physical symptoms, practicing positive self-talk, and preparing to the best of your ability.
  • Manage your physical symptoms. Anxiety often manifests through physical symptoms, and we know the body and mind are connected. Identify what physical symptoms you experience and work to calm your body through deep breathing and visualization techniques. Practice this at home before you start studying. Close your eyes, focus on concentrating on your breath, and feel your body relax and your physical symptoms slow down.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Your attitude will reflect your performance. If the words you are preparing with are, “I’m a failure,” “I might as well not even try,” or “I can’t do anything right,” your performance will match that. Work on developing new habits around how you talk to yourself. Replace those thoughts with things like, “I am prepared for this,” “I will do my best,” and “I am in control.”
  • Prepare and study. When you know you have a test coming up, spend time each day studying a little bit at a time. It is not effective to cram the night before and expect the information to stay in your memory. Spending time mastering sections in small doses will definitely aid in the comprehension of the material and not just memorizing. Also, think about the test format the teacher uses and study with that in mind. Make practice tests or flashcards that match that style. 

Talk to your kids about how they can be at their best when taking a test. Test anxiety is real, but it can be managed and controlled by using the above tips.

Teresa Mercer, LCSW, LCAC – April 23, 2019

Upholding Values in Today’s Society
By Teresa Mercer, Youth First, Inc.

I have worked with people of all ages, and that has given me the unique experience of learning about the different value systems of many people. It has been very interesting to listen to every person’s story and what is important in their life, whether they are 6 or 60 years old.

Values reflect our sense of right and wrong. They help us grow and develop. They help us create the future we want. The decisions we make every day are a reflection of our values.

We learn most of our values from our parents and extended families. Our family values stem from our social and cultural values. Sometimes new life experiences may change values we previously held.

Individual values reflect how we live our life and what we consider important for our own self-interests. Individual values include enthusiasm, creativity, humility and personal fulfillment.

Relationship values reflect how we relate to other people in our life, such as friends, family, teachers, managers, etc. Relationship values include openness, trust, generosity and caring.

Social values reflect how we relate to society. Social values include justice, freedom, respect, community, and responsibility.

In today’s world, it may seem our society doesn’t practice many values. We have a rise in discrimination, abuse of power, greed, etc. What are we leaving behind for our future generations? Maybe it’s time society takes a hard look at its values.

Here are some things I feel our society needs more of:

  • Empathy – Empathy is defined as understanding and sharing the feelings of another. People need to understand who others are and accept who they are.  Focusing on how we can grow together should be our ultimate goal.
  • Respect – Mutual respect is needed for all of us. This is what makes us human. Having respect for everyone, despite the differences between us, is vital in order for a society to function well.
  • Love – Having love in our hearts keeps us from feeling the need to harm others. Love helps us acknowledge the similarities we all share rather than the differences of color, religion or sexual orientation.
  • Loyalty – Loyalty is a value that binds us to a person, thing or sentiment. With loyalty, we do not betray. If we all shared loyalty, it would help us build the strength needed to stand up against something that would harm our society.
  • Honesty – One form of honesty in society is accepting yourself. With honesty, you can admit your flaws and take the necessary steps to improve yourself. When we can admit to our flaws it can help someone else admit theirs. Ultimately, we can all help each other become better people.

Values can be contagious; if you practice them, many others will also, including our children. Hopefully more practice from all of us will leave the world a better place for future generations.

This column is written by Teresa Mercer, LCSW, LCAC, school social worker for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 55 Master’s level social workers to 76 schools in 10 Indiana counties. Over 38,000 youth and families per year have access to Youth First’s school social work and afterschool programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.