Youth First, Camp Memories

By Callie Sanders, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Did you know that children experience grief differently than adults? Most children are aware of death even if they do not understand it fully. Experiencing grief firsthand can be very confusing to children at any age. They may go from upset and crying one minute, to play and positivity the next. Encouraging the child to express their feelings nurtures positive coping skills that facilitate healthy grieving.

One way to help is to be aware of the age of the child when discussing death and loss.  According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, “Children understand that death is bad, but the concept of ‘forever’ is just not present.” Younger children may regress to behaviors such as bed wetting or having accidents after potty training. They may also become anxious and clingy after the loss of a loved one.

Be selective about how much information you share with the child. Be direct and do not use euphemisms such as a loved one “went to sleep.” This not only makes a child scared of bedtime, but it can also interfere with healthy coping strategies.

Teenagers experience grief differently than adults as well. They may feel waves of grief and begin to withdraw from family and activities they enjoy. Providing children of all ages with patience and stability will help develop healthy coping strategies.

It is important to remember that children are not always able to express their emotions verbally. Other useful outlets include appropriate play, drawing pictures, creating a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, and storytelling. Draw a picture of memories of the individual who was lost. Create a scrapbook of the deceased loved one so the child will have a special creation to look back on when they are sad. Allow the child to journal so they can express their thoughts and feelings about the loss.

Giving a child several outlets encourages them to work through their grieving process. It is also important to stick to a routine. Even if it is difficult, make sure some of their usual routines happen. For instance, allow the child time to play with friends or attend an extracurricular activity. This will give the child a sense of stability and comfort.

Lastly, let children work through their grief in their own way while keeping in mind they may not be ready to open up about it. Grieving is not linear. Be supportive and leave the door open for children to share their thoughts and feelings about loss whenever it feels right.

Most importantly, remember you are not alone. If you feel your child needs additional guidance while grieving a loss, reach out to your school’s Youth First Mental Health Professional or contact your pediatrician. Also, Youth First offers a bereavement program called Camp Memories for children ages 6-18 who have experienced the death of a family member or loved one. Visit to learn more about Camp Memories.

By Valorie Dassel, MSW, LCSW, LCAC, Youth First, Inc.

In the era of social media, we’ve probably all watched a viral video of an adult throwing a temper tantrum in public. Imagine if the people in those videos had the skills to calm themselves down before expressing a reaction.

If they were able express their emotions in a healthy way, imagine how different and more in-control of themselves they’d feel. Imagine how much stronger their relationships could be if they possessed emotional regulation skills.

The benefits of having quality emotional regulation skills are boundless. Being able to regulate emotions allows a person to identify their feelings and choose an appropriate reaction that will not result in negative consequences.

As an adult and a parent, being able to regulate my emotions helps me be the calm in my child’s storm. It’s hard to help someone else regulate when you’re not regulated yourself. For children, having self-regulation skills will allow them to feel more confident, respond better to conflict, and build healthier friendships.

Now we know why these skills are important, how can we learn to consistently model self-regulation skills? First, let’s note that not all emotional dysregulation looks like fit throwing. According to Psych Central, it can also look like crying spells, binge eating, self-harm, and poor frustration tolerance. When we notice these symptoms in ourselves or our children it is important to move in the direction of regaining control of the emotions and responding appropriately.

Becoming dysregulated is a limbic system reaction. Calming yourself with sensory input can be a great first step when feeling dysregulated. Ideas for sensory input include a tight hug, petting a pet, holding ice cubes, or listening to calming music.

Grounding techniques can also be very helpful in bringing a dysregulated person back to the present. Grounding techniques look like identifying things outside of you in the moment (five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel or touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.) Using all five senses can have a quick calming effect.

Once the work has been done to calm the initial reaction, take time to acknowledge what the feeling really is. Maybe it is anger, or maybe it is frustration, jealousy, disappointment, or fear.

The next step is to identify that actions can be taken to move through this moment. If you’re helping your child manage these emotions, you might also have to help them identify the natural consequences that could come with decisions they make.

If you have a child who is struggling with emotional regulation the best place to start is by ensuring you’re modeling healthy regulation skills yourself. It is always okay to seek professional assistance if you feel it is needed for you or your child.

By Brooke Skipper, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

If you have a perfectionist child, you most likely already know it. You’ve witnessed the crying episodes, self-doubt, and meltdowns. Perfectionist children set unrealistic goals and then place enormous pressure on themselves to reach those goals.

While it’s good for kids to hold high expectations of themselves, those seeking perfection will never be satisfied with their performance. To a perfectionist child, a 99% on a test is often a failure.

Additional warning signs of a child with perfectionist tendencies can include high anxiety surrounding failure, trouble making decisions or procrastinating to avoid tasks, or difficulty completing tasks because the work is “never good enough.” You may also notice that your child is overly self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed.

Perfectionist children seek our reassurance constantly, but this is only a band-aid. It does not necessarily change their all-or-nothing thinking. When we meet our child’s feelings of anxiety, frustration, and failure by saying “You’re okay,” or “It will be fine,” it creates a disconnect between their emotions and our response.

Perfectionist children genuinely do not feel they are okay or that it will be fine. A more helpful response is to meet our child where they are and connect with the emotion they are presenting. You can do this by helping them label the emotion they are feeling. Say something like, “I can see you are feeling anxious about making a mistake.”

Other steps we can use to help change our child’s perfectionist thinking include the following:

Make a point to monitor our own expectations for our child. Are we fueling their perfectionist tendencies by setting unrealistic goals?

  1. Praise the effort instead of the outcome. When we focus on the process rather than the result, we help our children build grit and perseverance. This can look as simple as saying, “I love seeing you practicing your math problems,” instead of, “Great job getting an A on your math test!”
  2. Universalize making mistakes and model healthy ways to handle them. Is your own inner voice too critical? Acknowledging our own mistakes to our children goes a long way in helping them feel less pressure to be perfect.
  3. Teach healthy coping skills. Although failure is uncomfortable, it’s not intolerable. Teach your child how to deal with disappointment, rejection, and mistakes in a healthy way. Talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or drawing a picture are just a few coping skills that could help them deal with their feelings.
  4. Whether your child is melting down on the athletic field after a missed play or spending hours critiquing their image, the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism can be damaging to their quality of life.

Perfectionists may be at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Paying attention to your child’s behavior and supporting them through their perfectionist thinking is a helpful way to ensure a strong and healthy future.

By Abby Betz, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Now that our youngest children are back in school, it is time to start thinking about college-aged students returning to campus. We spend lots of time preparing our youngsters for going “back to school,” but what about our college students? Are we preparing our young adults for what lies ahead of them in the real world?

Not only is it important for these students to prepare themselves for the responsibilities of living independently, but it is also important for college-aged students to think about protecting their emotional well-being before they even set foot on campus.

Many college students have thought of the necessities needed for school – computers, mini fridges, parking passes, and other supplies. But have these students and their parents considered what tools they may need to support themselves on an emotional level?

In a 2017 survey by WebMD and the JED Foundation, 40 percent of over 700 guardians and parents said they did not discuss the potential for developing either anxiety or depression with their children getting ready to attend college. Additionally, most parents reported access to on-campus mental health services was not a factor in choosing a school for their child.

Unfortunately, many teenage and college-aged students struggle with their mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 high school students have experienced feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. 

These problems do not seem to go away once they arrive on campus. Continued studies are showing a decline in mental health across the country among college students. Experts recommend that parents and students take the necessary steps to ensure they have a plan to address mental health issues if they arise.

It is vital for a student with already existing mental health disorders to connect with a counselor prior to arriving on campus. However, it could be beneficial for any student to contact the counseling center and become educated on services provided if needed. It is also important to be aware of other supportive services being offered, such as tutoring, academic advising, student activities, and career services.

Extracurricular activities and clubs also help students connect with others and create a sense of belonging to help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. Students should also be mindful of how they eat, sleep, and socialize. If basic needs are neglected, this can make developing a healthy lifestyle more difficult and lead to a decline in mental health.

Discussing alcohol consumption and setting healthy boundaries is another important conversation that parents need to have with their college-aged children to help them be mentally prepared for new situations.

The transition from high school to college can be life changing and challenging. Students and parents must work together to create a plan that best fits the needs of each student. This plan should include a mental health checklist to protect the emotional well-being of the student. Prioritizing mental health should be something we all strive to achieve.

By Heather Miller, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Sometimes anxiety happens without much warning. One minute everything is fine. The next minute, “what- ifs” can become all consuming. 

Typically, teens and adults have a smartphone readily accessible. It may be feasible to grab your phone and try the following tips to help manage anxiety.

  1. Set reminders. For an individual who has anxious thoughts, being proactive is nearly as important as being reactive. Set reminders on your phone with positive self-affirmations. The frequency can be determined by how often they are needed. has suggested affirmations to help get started, such as “I inhale peace and exhale worry.” Using your phone’s calendar app, set up positive self-affirmations to pop up as notifications throughout the day.
  1. Use a timer. Studies show that anxiety typically peaks 10 minutes into an episode. Within 20 minutes, the most intense anxiety symptoms have passed. Amid the emotion, time can feel like it is standing still. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes. During this time, give yourself permission to feel anxious while practicing deep breathing, positive self-talk, or other healthy coping skills. Remind yourself that this feeling is not permanent and it will pass. Once the timer goes off, take a few more deep breaths and move forward with the day.
  1. Write down your worries. Anxiety has the power to distort rational thinking. Often, anxiety leads to fearing dismal outcomes for everyday situations. When a worry pops up, take a minute to document it on a Notes page. Write down the worry and feared outcome. At the end of the day, review the list. How many turned out to be true? Typically, not very many at all. Use this as proof that most anxiety distortions are not cemented in truth.
  1. Distract yourself. Often worries are rooted in fear of what cannot be controlled. There may not be a single thing that can change our inability to control an outcome. Rather than sitting in fear, play a game on your phone to serve as a distraction. Our brains are not wired to truly multi-task. If we focus on a game or another distraction that makes us think, our brains will turn off the task of worrying, at least temporarily.

Anxiety is a natural part of life and serves a purpose. However, if anxiety becomes too frequent or intense, working with a mental health professional may be helpful. If you feel as though you or your child are experiencing frequent and intense anxiety, please reach out to your school’s Youth First Social Worker. They can help link you with resources for learning to manage anxiety as well as assist in supporting your child.

By Lisa Glahn, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

From time to time, we all have the need to burn off energy; some more than others. Personally, I tend to click my pens, bounce my legs, and tap my feet. Sometimes I am not even aware that I am fidgeting until someone calls my attention to it. This can be distracting to my coworkers in the room but helps me focus and concentrate. In a school setting these tendencies can be particularly distracting for a student’s classmates.

Recently while working with a student, I suggested a fidget to help him regulate his emotions. He declined because he didn’t want a toy. While some of these fidgets look like toys, they are actually therapeutic devices. Fidgets are handheld devices that help with self-regulation and focus and allow people to better cope with feelings of boredom, anxiety, and agitation. Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may find that fidgets can distract them from the symptoms of their condition.

Fidgets come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They can be popped, stretched, squeezed, spun, snapped, etc. Teens may prefer fidgets that are discreet, small enough to be held in one hand or in the student’s pocket. They even make stainless steel options for teens who don’t want a childish looking fidget. I have students who wear fidget jewelry such as bracelets, rings, and necklaces with a variety of sensory inputs that look very stylish and can be made in metals that don’t turn the skin green.

There are so many different fidget devices, and you will want to try different types. You don’t have to spend a lot of money either. You can order from Amazon or even find them at Dollar Tree. Just keep in mind that it needs to be therapeutic for your child and not negatively affect their attention. 

In addition, the devices must not be disruptive to the classroom or to fellow classmates. I have found mixed reviews in the research on fidgets, but I think that if you find something that works for your child, talk to the teacher to see if they will allow it in the classroom.  

My students have named me the “Fidget Master,” and I am quite proud of that title. As a school social worker for Youth First, I use a variety of these devices with students in my sessions with them. I am always on the lookout for the newest and the latest versions and rotate them so the students won’t get bored. I play with a fidget in sessions, too. Using the fidgets alongside the student shows them it’s a safe place to try them and that adults use them too.

By Lori Powell, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

As I prepared for my school day on August 10, 2022, the sun was shining and the temperature was warm. I was excited to greet students with the last names starting with K-Z at Vogel Elementary School in Evansville, IN. It felt like a normal first day of school, but it would turn out to be anything but normal. That afternoon we suddenly heard a loud boom, which caused the entire school building to shake.

Some of the staff thought the sound was a car crash or a tree falling. I could see smoke coming from the west but did not know the location. After a short time, the scary noise was determined to be a house explosion in the 1000 block of Weinbach Avenue in Evansville. This location is only a few blocks from Vogel Elementary School. Sadly, three people did not survive the tragedy.

I immediately experienced multiple thoughts and feelings; however, I knew that my primary focus was to help the Vogel students, parents, and staff feel safe by being there to answer their questions and concerns.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.” These situations can include natural disasters, death, abuse, or accidents. Student, parent, and staff reactions to the explosion last year ranged from shock to anxiety, sadness, and fear. Many people cried, and several parents picked up their children from school early to comfort them and ensure their safety.

I personally felt terrified and worried, because my mother lives very close to the house that exploded. My brain was stuck in these two emotions for the remainder of the day. I knew what I was experiencing was trauma, but at the time I was only functioning moment by moment.

When I drive on Weinbach or Hercules Avenue, I can still see the devastation from the explosion. My mother’s house still needs a few repairs, but it is mostly completed. The good news is that she was able to stay in her home.

Even though time has moved forward and we are now in a new school year, the explosion continues to affect people’s lives. Many of the students at Vogel are still processing feelings related to this traumatic event. When these difficult experiences happen, it is very important to utilize positive coping skills, even if time has passed since the traumatic event.

Good ways to cope with trauma include talking about your feelings, continuing healthy routines and behaviors, and seeking out professional mental health resources and care if needed. Some positive coping skills that can be useful are deep breathing, positive self-talk, eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting the correct amount of sleep.

If you feel like your child has experienced unresolved issues related to trauma, you can seek out a Youth First Social Worker at their school or contact your primary care physician to determine the best way to address their needs. 

By Camryn Cater, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Emotional communication is a key component in our lives. It helps us form relationships and make connections with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. As children learn to emotionally connect and communicate with others, they are building emotional skillsets that will help them develop relationships for the rest of their lives.

Families with healthy emotional communication practices allow children to develop better coping mechanisms to overcome communication challenges. However, when families unconsciously or consciously dismiss their child’s emotions, they invalidate their child’s needs and thoughts. This parenting practice can lead to children developing less emotional intelligence and pave the way to mental health issues, including increased chances of anxiety, depression, and lack of empathy.

As easy as it is to ignore, downplay, or get frustrated with your child’s emotions, grownups must understand that children have thoughts, dreams, frustrations, and worries that need to be heard. From an adult’s perspective these feelings may seem small, but to a child, they are immense. Talk to your child about their emotions and use the conversation as an opportunity to grow your parent/child relationship.

Grownups can introduce positive emotional communication practices to kids by using emotional language such as “I feel” messages. Using this type of language encourages kids to follow your lead and learn to communicate their needs effectively. Another simple way to introduce emotional communication is through reading books or watching videos with characters who model positive emotional communication. Visuals with scales of emotions can also help your child clearly pinpoint what range of emotion they are feeling when it may be too difficult to describe in words.

Another good way to help kids express themselves is by facilitating dialogue about how certain activities, people, places, foods, etc. make them feel. For example, you could ask your child, “How did it make you feel when you were on stage for your program today?” This type of open-ended question allows time for your child to identify and process their own feelings and opinions. Making this a routine at the end of each day creates a space where your child knows they feel safe and understood.

These simple tasks carried out in your home can ultimately improve your relationship with your child and give you a sense of what you can do to meet your child’s emotional needs. This can boost your child’s mental health, decrease behavioral issues, and promote emotional empathy.

By Diane VanCleave, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Some say, “If parenting does not feel like white knuckle time, you’re not doing it right.” Parenting has its complexities and challenges, and a parent or caretaker needs to provide age-appropriate guidance.

A child’s growth progresses through executive function efficiency. Executive function (EF) is the interconnection and coordination of brain activity skills, which is crucial to human development. Both parents and teachers need to be working toward a child’s healthy executive functioning.

The skill sets of executive function include development in clear thinking, negotiation in living with others, task accomplishment, managing emotions, self-initiation, completing goals through steps, understanding patterns in organization, gauging time, being able to switch from one task to another, and sustained attention and memory.

There is sufficient evidence that starting at birth, the precursor patterns and sequences needed for EF evolve as the cortex develops. Researchers speak of scaffolding as the necessary building block of function. Scaffolding involves integrating earlier skill sets that help in critical thinking and integrating.

Parents need to be observing and nurturing to recognize early precursors that will eventually add to academic, social, and economic success. A mastery in EF requires a child to engage in continued strengthening and practice. Without the practiced moments, parents may see meltdowns when tasks do not go effortlessly. These meltdowns can happen when children do not have the scaffolds that help them persist through failures and mistakes.

In teens, scaffolding activities scheduled by parents might look like time to listen and talk. A teen’s complex scaffolding would follow their own interests, focusing on what they want to accomplish and how they would accomplish that task themselves. In younger children, scaffolding looks like heavier reliance on direction. Scaffolding might include identifying colors or articulating a dialogue with the child on what they might do if they lose a toy or make a mistake.

With toddlers, EF develops when the caregiver provides toys or household items to explore. Sometimes the greatest learning experience for a toddler can even be the introduction of a cardboard box. Infants begin their EF skill sets with hand clapping, mimicry, and caregiver facial affirmation.

The parents/teacher/caregiver can use modeling and reflection from their own lived experience to nurture and support. In the modern age, executive functioning requires worthy exploration to help the child develop to their full potential. The parent or caregiver has a role to play in helping their child negotiate EF throughout their lives.

By Kelly McClarnon, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Since I began working in a school setting, I’ve noticed increasing rates of mental health concerns among adolescents. It’s not just my personal experience; a quick Google search will pull multiple articles about a “mental health crisis” within this population.

There are many factors that contribute to the rise in mental health problems, but none are exclusively to blame. Some of the identified reasons are decreases in hours of sleep, decreased activity levels, and fewer face-to-face interactions. Other factors include an increase in academic and sports performance expectations, cyberbullying, higher rates of exposure to violence, barriers to mental health care, and even the chemicals in the food we eat.

Studies show that since 2010, mental health issues in adolescents have been steadily rising, and organizations such as WHO (World Health Organization) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) are researching ways to address these issues. These community mental health concerns need to be addressed on a macro level, but there are steps individuals and families can take to support their child’s mental and emotional well-being.

If your child had a broken leg, you would take them to the doctor and follow the prescribed treatment to heal the break. If a child is struggling mentally or emotionally, the first step I generally recommend to parents is to start having conversations that provide a safe and judgement-free space for their child to open up and talk about their concerns.

Restricting the number of activities your child is involved with outside the home can provide the necessary time to have important conversations regarding mental health and well-being. Children need down time to recover and relax from their day. They need to have quiet activities they enjoy at home such as drawing, reading, playing with their pets, and spending time with loved ones.

Encourage healthy technology habits by limiting screen time and monitoring online content. Overuse of technology for many reasons has contributed to rising rates of mental health problems among adolescents. This is an easy fix as long as parents stay consistent and intentional about overseeing screen time.

Encourage good sleep hygiene. Not getting enough sleep can affect a person’s mood, memory, and executive functioning. Sleep is an important factor in maintaining good mental health.

Make sure your child is eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise. Taking care of their physical health is important for promoting positive mental health.

Lastly, if you feel you’ve taken steps at home to support your child and things are not improving, start by talking with their pediatrician, who can provide referrals for counseling and/or medication management. You can also seek support from mental health professionals, like a Youth First Social Worker at your child’s school, to provide direction in getting mental health treatment.

Just as you would care for a physical illness, mental health problems should be addressed. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.