By Valorie Dassel, LCSW, LCAC – May 19, 2020 –

All of our lives have changed with the pandemic, guidelines for social distancing and stay-at-home orders. We have been challenged to find new routines and a new normal during these unprecedented times.

While many of us have met the challenge with positive adjustments, some have also been challenged with bad habits easing their way into our routines.   

Drinking alcohol is definitely one activity that has increased during the stay-at-home order. According to the University of Southern California News, alcohol sales have increased by 55 percent in late March 2020 in comparison to sales for the same time period in 2019.

The challenges of staying at home during the pandemic include heightened fear of illness, increased stress and boredom. Some people may cope by drinking more alcohol. When we look on social media it is evident that many have turned occasional social drinking into an “every day is Saturday” mentality.

Recognizing why we are drinking more and becoming aware of our increased use of alcohol will prompt many people to pull back to a healthier normal. Unfortunately, this realization is not the case for all. Individuals in recovery from alcoholism must meet each day as a new challenge.

Dr. Stephen Wyatt, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Atrium Health, shares an analogy of how the disease of alcoholism causes neurobiological changes in the brain. He relates the normal brain’s need for oxygen as something an individual doesn’t process and think about, but rather just automatically fights for air to breathe.

In a similar manner, the individual whose brain structure has been changed due to alcoholism fights for the alcohol automatically to provide what it senses the body needs. With therapy and medication, just as in many other diseases, this brain response can be changed to allow the person to move into recovery from alcoholism. 

We must all be sensitive to the challenges that face each person in recovery. In addition, their families have also suffered through the process or, in fact, are dealing with a family member in the middle of active alcoholism.

For many of us not personally affected by alcoholism, someone who is drunk (or something they did while drinking) may be something to joke about. Unfortunately, alcohol use is never funny to the family members of the alcoholic; rather, it is often embarrassing or shameful. To the recovered alcoholic who nearly lost family or may have actually lost a relationship due to their alcoholism, an incident such as this may bring them back to those feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Additionally, someone in recovery makes a choice every day to stay sober. A comment or social media post mean to poke fun at ourselves – making light of drinking excessively, day drinking, or any normalizing of alcohol use during the pandemic – may potentially be a trigger to someone in recovery.

This is a time for us to support our families and community. Most of us know someone who has been affected by alcoholism, and we definitely celebrate those who have conquered and found themselves in recovery. Be mindful of how we can support them, and empathize with just how difficult it may be to be exposed to unintentional comments that may trigger old habits.

For information about Alcoholics Anonymous and to locate a meeting near you, please visit www.aa.org.

By Jordan Beach, LSW – May 12, 2020 –

It’s not pleasant to think about, but unfortunately many children are abused or neglected every day, sometimes by their parents or guardians.

In most states teachers are mandated reporters of child abuse or neglect. In some states, including Indiana, every single person is considered a mandated reporter. That means any person who has reason to believe a child is a victim of abuse or neglect must report it to the proper authorities.

With school buildings closed, Youth First wants to remind all adults that if you see something, it’s important to say something. We can all help care for kids.

With school letting out suddenly in March, many things needed to happen quickly to ensure the success of our students. People came together to make sure students had materials necessary to complete work and meal service was coordinated for students who needed it.

One thing that has gotten far less attention, however, is the safety of students now that they don’t have a safe haven in their schools. This brings up a huge concern regarding increased incidents of abuse and neglect going undetected and therefore not being reported to the appropriate authorities.

During the school day students come in contact with teachers, nurses, counselors, social workers and other key school personnel who have been trained to identify warning signs of abuse and neglect. When students are out of school these warning signs can go unseen or be overlooked. Now it is time to call on the community to help us ensure the safety and well-being of our children.

Per the Department of Child Services (DCS) website, in the months of March and April 2019, there were 42,067 child abuse or neglect reports made to DCS in Indiana. Fast forward to 2020, and during those same months only 30,860 reports were made. That is a difference of 11,207 reports. In a perfect world we could imagine there are just far less reports to be made, but the reality is that without the supervision of school personnel, a lot of these incidents are going unnoticed.

As a reminder, Indiana is a mandated reporting state. This means that any adult who knows of or suspects child abuse or neglect is mandated by the state to report this information to DCS. I understand that the thought of making a report can be unnerving. However, these children are waiting on a caring adult to step in and make the call to help them.

Typically, reports are called in by people who support students daily at school; with school buildings closed right now, these same students are waiting for their community to support them. If you suspect abuse or neglect, it is your responsibility to make the call. It is DCS’s responsibility to decide if the child is in fact in danger.

To make a child abuse or neglect report you will need to call the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556. You will be connected with a person from the statewide call center. You will give them the information you have and answer a series of questions. You may not know all of the answers to these questions, and that is fine. At the end of the call they will let you know if they are going to screen this call out or pass the information on to the county office in which the child resides.

In an ideal world, DCS calls wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. Kids are vulnerable. We are asking everyone to work together to ensure the safety of our children. If you see something, please say something. Report it to the proper authorities.

By Grace Wilson – May 12, 2020 –

Have you talked with your kids about the dangers of underage drinking? It can certainly be a difficult topic to navigate.

You may ask yourself all sorts of questions: When is the right time to have the conversation? How will it go? Will they think I’m accusing them of drinking alcohol? And here’s the big question: Will they even listen?

The truth is, our kids are hearing us whether they show us active listening skills or not.

Right now many of us are staying home and spending more time with our families during the pandemic. Parents have more opportunities to have a conversation about underage drinking with their kids. 

“Talk. They Hear You.” is an underage drinking prevention campaign developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  Approximately 88,000 Americans die from an alcohol-attributed cause each year. This makes alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

The goal of this campaign is to provide parents and caregivers with the resources to discuss the hard topics such as underage drinking and substance misuse. As parents, we play a very significant role in whether or not our children will experiment with drugs and alcohol. If we are equipped with the resources to tackle these tough conversations, we are helping set our children up to be drug and alcohol free.

Even if you have young children, it is never too early to start the conversation around alcohol and other substances. Simple, short conversations, not one that is long and drawn out, can be very helpful in keeping your child engaged and not tuning you out.

Remember, a conversation goes both ways, so make sure to give your child a chance to talk as well. These little talks can happen in the car, while watching TV, or at dinner. You should keep these conversations going as your child moves through the stages of adolescence and adapt the conversation to your child’s age. A conversation at the age of 8 will and should be different than when they are 16. It is also important to clearly state your rules and expectations around alcohol and other substances during these talks.

You can find more information about “Talk. They Hear You.” on the Youth First website at youthfirstinc.org. You will find information about the campaign, tips on having the conversation, different messages and ads about “Talk. They Hear You.”, and a link to the SAMSHA website for even more resources. It is important to take time and research the facts before you start talking with your child about substance use. In doing this, you will be better prepared for any questions they may ask.

Make the most of this time at home with your children and start the conversation about underage drinking.  

By Jordan Beach, LSW – May 5, 2020 –

As I am writing this I am following our state’s stay-at-home orders by practicing social distancing and working from home. For a lot of us this means working with children and spouses also in the home.

It’s not necessarily the most ideal work environment, but we make the best of what we have, and personally I feel blessed to have the opportunity to continue working. Even though I’m checking in with my gratitude, it can still take a toll on my mental health. It definitely creates new stress when trying to work and meet deadlines while also trying to meet the needs of our children.

With the goal of completing our own work and ensuring our children have enriching experiences at the same time, we’re going to look for activities you can set up for them at home. Obviously it is impossible to have activities that will keep all age groups busy, so if you have a home with differing abilities like my own, you might need to have a couple of different activities going for this to work.

Sensory play is a great way to keep your littles busy for extended periods of time. This can be something prepared before it is needed (like the night before) and used for multiple days. It doesn’t need to be more difficult than necessary. Use items or ingredients you have around your house that are safe for babies and toddlers. We like to use cooked noodles (you can dye them if you’d like). Other easy ideas that are baby safe are dried cereals, Kool-Aid playdough or do-it-yourself moon sand (2 cups of flour and ¼ cup oil). You could separate the dry cereal and moon sand for older children and hide small toys in them.

When sensory play gets old, and it will, I suggest scavenger hunts for older children. This does not need to be something extravagant. I write alphabet letters on paint samples and hide them around the house. If age-appropriate, your children can work together to find all of the letters. This activity keeps them busy because they not only need to find the letters; they have to keep track of what letters they’ve found and still need.

I also like swapping out toys. This one takes a little more forethought. Keep some toys put back so your children don’t have access to them all of the time. When you bring out the toys they haven’t had access to for a while they will think it is awesome. These “new toys” will keep them more occupied than the ones they have regular access to.

Even with distraction plans, working from home with your kids underfoot is not simple. Hopefully some of these small tips will help keep them busy just long enough for you to check some more things off your to-do list.

By Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW – April 21, 2020 –

COVID-19 has led us into uncharted territory. Never before have schools across the country closed because of a pandemic. 

As adults we may be worried about the future. How long will schools and businesses remain closed? We may also be worried about how closures will affect our monthly bills, paychecks, and childcare. 

Children are worried too, but they worry about different things. Children are concerned about missing school, completing virtual assignments, and missed play time with friends. My 5-year old has been asking when she can go back to school to be with friends.

As adults, we don’t know the answers to a lot of these questions, but there are some things we can do to help manage our children’s fears. Below are some tips for parents and caregivers.

  • First, manage your own anxiety about the situation.  As parents we are naturally anxious about this situation. This is a good opportunity to help our child co-regulate.  If we can manage our own emotions, then our children will see positive coping skills in action.
  • Let your child know it’s okay to talk through their emotions.   Allow them to ask questions, but don’t feel like you must have an answer to all of their questions.  Listening is powerful. Sometimes all we can do is say, “I can understand why you feel that way.” Children need to feel heard and validated.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to news. This is also helpful for adults.  In the 24-hour news cycle it can be tempting to watch the news all day. It is important to stay informed but not oversaturated. Watching too much news can instill fear and anxiety in children. 
  • Keep a schedule. Many parents are being forced to either work from home or find emergency daycare placement with family or friends during this time. Kids thrive on a schedule, and their usual routine has been disrupted. Kids of all ages – and even adults – do not do as well when they are off of their normal schedule. So create a new schedule, and try to organize your child’s day during typical school hours. You can find free examples of schedules online. 
  • Make sure you limit digital time.  Although students have virtual learning built into their day, make sure you weave in play time and non-digital time throughout the day.  Excessive use of electronics can increase anxiety, so make sure your child takes breaks from electronics during the day. 
  • Encourage outdoor play. Kids are used to outdoor recess. Even if the weather forecast is not ideal, encourage kids to go outdoors in between the rain showers. They need to be able to run around and play to release energy and stress.
  • Teach your kids coping skills. Exercise, belly breathing, and talking about their feelings are going to be really important during this time.  Also encourage your children (especially teenagers) to reach out to their friends by phone and text.  For teenagers, relationships with peers are very important. 
  • Lastly, use this time to reconnect as a family. Normally our busy schedules leave us little quality time with family. Use this time to play board games, have family meals, and connect.

By Laura Keys, LCSW – April 15, 2020 –

I have been a parent for more than a couple of decades. I’ve scolded, hugged, corrected, and loved two wonderful boys.

When they were very young their father died from cancer, which left me to sail the ship on my own. In all those years of being a single mom I learned a few lessons that I would like to impart to parents trying to raise their children in the midst of the current pandemic.

If being cooped up in a house or apartment while managing a child’s education, living with the anxiety of a health scare, conducting Zoom meetings while working from home or heading to work under uncertain conditions so you have a paycheck to cover the grocery bill all seems a bit overwhelming…that’s because it is.

I’ve listened to, cried with, and given advice to a lot of very stressed-out parents in the past few weeks. If you are one of them, you are not alone. Despite what your Facebook or Instagram feed may tell you, everyone is struggling.

Positive self-talk and advice from elders got me through parenting two very wonderful, yet imperfect humans in the midst of what some would call hardship. I hope these words of wisdom help you the way they’ve helped me.

  1. TV moms June Cleaver, Carol Brady and Clair Huxtable are fictional parents. So is Peggy Bundy. Scrolling through others’ filtered social media posts can make you feel inadequate as a parent. Remember, the “social media highlight reel” is not exactly a fair representation of a person’s life. Some days you may be Carol Brady and others you’re Peggy Bundy. No one is perfect, so why should you expect to be?
  2. EVERY parent has lost patience with their child. These days I think we are all more aware of how trauma can affect a child. It speaks to the evolving knowledge we have about the developing brain and what we’ve learned about raising our children. I also think, however, that it puts a lot of pressure on parents to do everything perfectly. We can’t raise our children in a bubble. We can’t always be fair or democratic. That certainly doesn’t raise a prepared human. If you mute yourself and snap at your child because they have been whining for 30 minutes while you are trying to finish a phone conference, you have not damaged your child. Beating yourself up over small parenting “fails” only brings your self-worth down; it doesn’t lift your child up. Give yourself a break.
  3. If you don’t get everything done it’s not the end of the world. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t get this done?” If the answer is, “It just won’t get done,” then give yourself permission to let it go. The expectations we put on ourselves are often much higher than the expectations of others. Be honest with yourself about what you are capable of and stick to that. Parents are told they can have it all. While I certainly think we can have careers and families and do both well, it’s okay to acknowledge that we need help sometimes – especially when you’re trying to “have it all” under one roof during a pandemic. 
  4. Lastly, give yourself and your child a little grace. Now is not the time to expect more from them – or from yourself. It’s ok to just get through the day sometimes. If you put your kids in front of a movie so you can get some work done, it’s okay. Watching Disney every day is not going to stop them from getting into a good college.

We mustn’t judge our parenting abilities by what we do to get by during a pandemic. As long as you can laugh with your kids and make them feel loved, the rest will be forgiven, I promise. Take it from a mom who made plenty of mistakes with her children. They are resilient and capable, and as long as they feel loved at the end of the day they will turn out just fine.

By Jordan Beach, LSW – April 14, 2020 –

With the current global health crisis, it seems like we are surrounded by doom-and-gloom information at all times. It’s easy to find negative news everywhere we look – on TV, on social media, and in written news.

More than ever, it is very important for us to be mindful and intentional about the information we consume. Being informed is important, but not more important than your mental health. We are going to discuss some ways to help make your mental health a priority while also being in the know about current events.

Currently some media outlets are heavily focused on the negative things happening around us. The pandemic information is scary, but it’s very compelling. This is the type of news that sucks people in, but it can also have a very negative impact on your mental health.

One thing experts suggest is getting information directly from the source instead of from news outlets seeking increased ratings. For example, with COVID-19, a good place to get information would be from the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website.

It is important to have a general understanding of what is going on in the world so you know which guidelines to follow to keep you and your family safe, but it is not necessary to have a constant influx of this information.

Actually, research conducted by Health Psychology suggests that seeing too much negativity can be harmful to your mental health. Being bombarded with negative news can increase your own risk of developing depression and/or anxiety. Research done at the University of California Irvine states that during a time of crisis people who seek repetitive negative news can be affected for up to three years after the event.

Also, be sure that if you are spending time on social media you are not using it as your main source of information about what is going on in the world. Limit your time spent online, especially on social media sites. This is also a good time to clean out the people and businesses you follow on social media. If there are people filling your feed with negativity or outlets posting only doom and gloom news stories, this would be the perfect time to filter your access to them. In exchange, look for some positive accounts to follow. In this time when we’re seeing so much negativity, there are also a lot of people working hard to fill the world with light and positivity.

This is also a good time for you and your family to work together to spread kindness within your own home and neighborhood. Write positive notes to your neighbors with sidewalk chalk and send thank-you notes to essential workers.

There is so much good happening in the world today, but choosing to focus on the negative can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. For the well-being of you and your family, it is important to be informed but not overstimulated with negativity. Right now it is best to follow guidelines, stay home and do positive things.

By Mary Ruth Branstetter – April 7, 2020 –

Many years ago a friend gave me a beautifully framed quote that reads, “Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace within the storm.” 

Over the last couple of weeks we have all found ourselves within the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for children and parents of school-aged children.

Our children have had to switch gears from going to school to being at home 24 hours a day/7 days per week. Parents have had to shift gears also, possibly working from home and adding the title of “teacher” to their parental resume. 

This shift creates additional work and stress for both parents and children. However, children often do not know how to put words to their feelings. Because children may not have words such as worry, fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, and even depression to describe their stressful feelings, they act out. 

Acting out may look like excessive clinginess, tearfulness, emotional meltdowns, aggressiveness, or regression in other behaviors. Children may also suffer from more physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, a racing heart, dizziness, interruption in sleep patterns, etc.

As a parent, grandparent or caregiver, you have the challenge of helping your child learn to express and deal with their complicated feelings in a healthy, appropriate manner. This is no easy task, as you may be experiencing many of the same feelings yourself. However, you have to remember that you are your child’s “safe place” in what may seem like an unsafe world at present. 

Children are usually at their best when they feel safe, connected to others and have structure and organization in their lives; in other words, a sense of predictability and normalcy. You can be this fortress of safety and normalcy by trying some of the following strategies.

Learn/teach how to properly practice deep, relaxing breathing. You can do this in innovative, fun ways such as lying on the floor with your child while each of you puts a stuffed animal on your stomach. As you breathe in through your nose for a count of 3 or 4 and out through your mouth for a count of 3 or 4, you should see the animal sink and rise on your belly. This means you are doing deep, relaxing diaphragm breathing.

Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system. In simple language, it helps decrease sensations of fear or distress and increases a sense of calm. This would be an excellent way to start your at-home school days along with a discussion of what the day’s routine is going to be, which again conveys a sense of safety to children.

Try to take a break every 20-30 minutes, depending on age and attention span of your child. During these breaks, dance, sing, hum, and encourage movement, as these types of activities help to naturally promote a sense of calmness and/or positive mood. 

If you notice your child is starting to become frustrated or upset during an assignment, try to interrupt the frustration before it becomes a full-blown meltdown.  Suggest they splash cold water on their face, put a cool rag to the back of their neck, or give them a piece of sugar-free candy or gum to chew. 

You could also try a 5-minute “blanket break.” Wrap the upset child in a blanket for 5 minutes, have them close their eyes if they’re comfortable doing so, take 3-4 deep breaths and think about a family vacation, memory or activity that makes them happy.

End your home school/homework time with a discussion of what the next day’s tentative schedule is going to be and one thing they have learned or are grateful for from their day.  Again, this promotes predictability and a positive attitude. Also, in ending your school/homework time with your children, give them time to ask questions or talk about something that is on their mind or important to them. 

Even if you only have 5 or 10 minutes to do this, try to really listen, empathize if needed, answer questions truthfully with age-appropriate facts…and try not to be judgmental. Just like you, children are trying to understand and come to terms with the current chaos and unknown of the “new normal” – in what is not their normal world.

Please check out the Youth First website at youthfirstinc.org/selmaterial for additional suggestions, activities, and exercises to help strengthen families and youth through this stressful time in our lives.

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, LCSW – March 31, 2020 –

America has found itself in a medical crisis that most people didn’t see coming. There have been a lot of sudden changes in our lives that we weren’t anticipating. One of the most significant changes is the sudden break from school. Some school corporations have announced they will not resume school this year.  

It is crucial that we help provide our children with sense of comfort during this time. What are some things we can do to help provide our children with comfort and routine during a time that seems to be anything BUT routine? 

First, take care of your own mental health. If you’re feeling anxious about current events it is very important to minimize your own anxiety. Your children will be able to tell that you’re anxious, and this could create some anxiety in them as well.  

Strategies for managing your anxiety might include meditation, exercise, yoga, and reading. It is important that you have an outlet during this time. Be sure conversations you’re having about your own fears are not happening in front of your children.  

Your kids are probably spending a lot more time at home than they’re used to. It is important to provide them with some normalcy during this time. If you have assignments for them to complete, set aside time daily for them to do this work. This time should be structured and quiet, much like their school day.  

If you do not have assignments your children are working on at this time, I strongly suggest creating structured time in their day where they read quietly or work on age-appropriate math and language arts activities. There are a lot of websites providing free services at this time due to so many schools being closed. Keeping some structured time is important; when they return to school it will help lessen the shock.  

Once you have your structured time planned, it is also important to build in fun. I know it seems more difficult to have fun when you’re stuck in your house. This is a perfect time to dust off those old board games, have some killer dance parties, try a new recipe together and remember what it’s like to enjoy each other’s company without deadlines and schedules hanging over your head.  

Times are difficult and confusing right now, but we can absolutely make the best of it. Take this time to enjoy togetherness with those you love most.  

By Jordan Beach, LSW – March 24, 2020 –

Let’s take some time to talk about one of those dreaded “F” words…failure.

A lot of times we think of failure as the worst-case scenario. Failure is viewed as the thing that happens when you weren’t prepared or you didn’t try hard enough.

Take a moment and think of a time you failed. Try to remember what you were doing, where you were, and who was there. Now, focus on the feelings you had.

Personally, a knot immediately forms in my stomach when I feel I’ve failed. For most of us it brings up uncomfortable, unpleasant feelings that we try to prevent, not only for ourselves but also for those we love. We become so fixated on the unpleasant feelings immediately after our failure that we lose sight of the good things that can happen.

Preventing failure doesn’t automatically lead to success. Failure is an essential part of growth.

What happens when we prevent failure? Well, on the surface everyone is happier. We feel a sense of accomplishment, success, and we get to avoid those negative feelings that settle into the pit of our stomach.

Most importantly, though, we get to feel comfortable. As parents we feel like we’ve helped our kids get a taste of success when we help them avoid failure. As individuals we are able to avoid feelings of discomfort, shame, and embarrassment.

There is a lot more at play when we prevent failure from happening, though. To start, when we strive to make things easier for our kids to prevent them from failing, we are telling them we don’t believe they can do it on their own. When children are taught to associate failure with something negative, we are teaching them to avoid risks. They start to develop a fixed frame of mind in which they think, “If I might fail, I won’t even try.”

Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, what happens when we embrace failure? Looking back to that moment when you failed, what could have made that moment different for you? What kind of support could you have used in that moment that would have changed your outlook?

If we stop looking at failure as a time our children did something wrong and start looking at it as a time they experienced growth, we can encourage them to take more chances and be more adventurous with their lives. It’s time to start talking about failure as something that happens to everyone.

When talking to your kids about the successes of their day, also discuss the things that didn’t go well. Help them pick out the positive things that happened or could have happened because of their struggles or moments of defeat.

Teaching our children to put forth their best effort and to be okay when things don’t work out in their favor is a huge step toward creating more resilient children. They will learn that failing at something doesn’t make them a failure. Use moments of failure as stepping stones to growth, and your kids will become more successful adults.