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.

By, Diane Braun

We all know that sitting for long periods of time isn’t good for your body, but what does sitting in front of the television do to your brain?

A recent conversation with a colleague made me curious about this phenomenon called “binge-watching.”

Binge-watching is defined as watching between two and six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. A recent Netflix survey found that 61 percent of about 1500 on-line respondents say they binge-watch regularly.

Why do we do it?  According to Robert F. Potter, PhD., director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University, we do it for a few reasons:

  • Production companies encourage us by offering up the next episode as soon as the previous one ends.
  • Writers structure dramas with cliffhangers at the end of every episode.
  • We want to keep watching. Television captures our attention in more ways than one.  Plots, subplots and dialogue require us to pay close attention to scene changes.  Our brain is hard-wired to monitor changes in our environment as a survival mechanism, so it’s hard for us to tear our eyes away.  As long as something’s moving onscreen, we’re watching.

Sitting still for long periods of time slows one’s circulation and metabolism, resulting in sluggishness.  At the same time, great TV shows with complicated storylines and complex characters can wear you out emotionally and mentally. Excessive TV watching has long been associated with health problems such as obesity and diabetes as well as mental health problems like depression.

Cliffhangers, on the other hand, leave us with a heightened sense of excitement.  If something positive happens afterward, the excitement may carry over into your real life and make it more intense.

Your emotional state at the end of a show is also affected by how you felt when you started it up.  Research shows that people who tried to forget about their anxieties by watching television had a 4 percent increased risk of developing insomnia. 

This is similar to any addictive behavior, Potter says.  If you use something to help you escape from problems you almost always feel worse later.  Research shows that the longer you stay in the world of a TV show, the more it influences the way you see the real world.  A better strategy is to use TV as a reward for confronting and dealing with an issue.

Want to break the binge addiction? If you are addicted to hour-long dramas, watch one episode and then just 20 minutes of the next episode.  That will likely resolve the previous episode’s cliffhanger but won’t draw you in for the entire hour.

As this behavior continues to be a part of our culture, just remember to exercise some caution once one episode concludes and resist the urge to click that “next” button.

By Valorie Dassel, LCSW, LCAC – April 9, 2019

Organizational skills are important, whether we are professionals in the work force, parents, teenagers or children. 

Mastering this life skill will be valuable in every phase of our lives.  It is never too late to evaluate how your child is doing in enhancing this skill and help them develop the necessary strategies to be successful.  

When it comes to be organized, I firmly believe we all have the best of intentions.  I have yet to meet a student who wants to fail or be the student who doesn’t turn in their homework.  Just like with adults, children’s good intentions may not always yield good results.    

Parents can start with children as young as 2 or 3 years old.  Developing organizational skills is much like learning to ride a bike.  We don’t just sit our children on the seat of a bike and let them go.  We hold the seat of their bike until they seem sturdy.  Even then, we often run beside them to catch them if they lose their balance.  

The same strategy should be used in teaching our children organizational skills.  In the beginning of the process a parent should be very involved.  As they are ready for more independence, children can be given more responsibility and the parent can become more of a monitor. 

The academic setting is the perfect place to begin teaching these life skills that can be carried over throughout a lifetime.  A key component is allowing a child to develop an organizational system that makes sense to them.  What may seem to make the most sense to you may not be what makes sense to your child.  Therefore, allow your child to have ownership as you guide them by gently pointing out suggestions and potential pitfalls of their plan. 

Here are some tips to help you as the teacher and role model of organizational skills:

  1. Begin with consistency at home.  Having a set study time after school will provide a consistent routine that promotes good time management.
  2. Aid your child in organizing their backpack and binder to provide a system that prevents papers from being shoved into books, etc. 
  3. Strongly support your child using his/her agenda.  Developing the habit of writing down assignments/tests/events in the agenda as soon as the teacher assigns it in class will set them up for success.  This habit will lead to independent success in the academic years to follow.  This task is often overlooked by students as they get busy or distracted and forget to write things down.  This step is extremely important, so you may consider a reward system in the initial phase of developing this strategy that supports creating the habit.
  4. Create a to-do list and break down big projects into smaller tasks.  In a different color ink, fill in extra-curricular plans to help your child plan in advance to avoid evenings which will not allow enough time to accomplish the necessary tasks. 

As Donna Goldberg from the NYU Child Study Center emphasizes the importance of these skills, she clarifies the need for students with special needs in particular.  Children with attention difficulties often miss details and find organization difficult.  Those with executive functioning issues often have trouble with prioritizing and sequencing.  Children with auditory processing difficulties often don’t take in everything that is being taught.  Recognizing your child’s individual needs and teaching them how to compensate with organizational skills will be a lesson leading to success for a lifetime.

By Sophia Blaha, LSW – April 2, 2019

For most parents, talking about boundaries begins with simple statements such as “No hitting,” “Don’t push,” and “Ask before taking things from someone else.”  

As a parent I know I say these statements often, but I also try to instill a deeper understanding of boundaries in my own children as well as the kids at the school where I work. I try to provide an understanding of why we have these boundaries and discuss how someone might feel if their boundaries have not been respected. This is an important step towards building empathetic individuals.  

For younger kids, a concept that may be difficult to grasp is physical boundaries or space. For example, my daughter recently met a new friend. After playing together my daughter ran up and gave her a tight, lovable hug (at least that is what she thought she was doing).  

I watched the girl’s expression and noticed she seemed a bit uncomfortable with that type of physical contact. On the way home I took the opportunity to have a casual conversation about that moment with my daughter. I mentioned that I noticed that she may have surprised her new friend when she gave her a hug. I made a reference to a time when another friend of hers hugged her when she did not want to.

We talked about what we could do next time, and together we were able come up with a solution to respect her new friend’s personal space and boundaries.

We also discussed paying attending to body language. This is a harder concept for smaller children to grasp but one that I feel it’s never too early to start to talk about. 

A simple way to do this: While watching a show or reading a book, point out a character and ask your child how the character is feeling. I like to then have my daughter match the feeling with her face by saying, “Can you show me what sad looks like on your face?”      

A common lesson that parents teach young children is, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but we often forget to continue the lesson as children grow older. What I’ve witnessed for school-aged children (and some adults) is a blurred line of relationship building from a stranger to a close peer. 

I’ve talked with several students who talk about a peer who turned out to be unhealthy and has used shared personal details against them. Unfortunately, when we have an unhealthy emotional boundary with other individuals, we may inadvertently share more than we should when getting to know someone. 

Simply put, it is unhealthy to share our life story and our secrets with someone we are just getting to know. As parents, it is important to discuss with our kids healthy conversation topics when getting to know someone. Explain that although we hope our new friends have the best intentions, it’s important to take time to get to know someone.

Teachable moments happen every day all around us.  I encourage you to take these opportunities to build boundaries and foster empathy. It is essential that adults and parents model healthy boundaries. Remember that children do as they see.  

By Kelsey Weber, LSW – March 26, 2019

Middle school students are faced with challenges each and every day.  Whether these challenges come from home, school, friends, or other environmental factors, stress can overwhelm kids.

Stress is an uncomfortable feeling someone develops when they’re scared, angry, worried, or frustrated, which affects their mood and body in many different ways. What’s important to remember is that children and adolescents experience stress the same way adults do.

Middle school students can be very susceptible to stress because of the immense changes they’re experiencing physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually during these years.

A middle school student may be experiencing stressors such as homework load, a busy schedule, peer pressure, test anxiety, grades, image concerns, lack of support, and changes in routine. This does not include any stressors occurring at home or other out-of-school environments.

So what should parents look for as warning signs that their child is experiencing stress? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many students who are feeling overwhelmed and stressed may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Frequent stomach aches and/or headaches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Chronic worrying
  • Nail biting
  • Changes in mood/mood swings
  • Fatigue and increased desire to sleep
  • Sadness/depression
  • Retreating to bedroom/withdrawn
  • Self-harm
  • “Checking out” from responsibilities
  • Frequent absences
  • Physical aggression
  • Quick temper
  • Frequent crying
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lying to teachers/parents
  • Failing grades
  • Substance abuse

Although many middle school students experience stress, there are healthy ways for parents and students to develop coping strategies to manage it. Parents can help their children by teaching them time management skills; ensuring they aren’t overscheduled; encouraging sleep, exercise, and healthy eating; monitoring parental pressure, encouraging outdoor play, and allowing the child to have fun.

Parents can also assist in identifying stressors their children may be experiencing by asking questions and beginning a conversation.  A parent could say, “I’ve noticed something has been bothering you” or “You mentioned you have a lot of homework lately; how are you feeling about that?” to get the conversation flowing. Just helping pinpoint the stressor will give your child a sense of relief.

By identifying the stressor(s), students can avoid the situations that cause them stress. Examples would be avoiding people who might be a bad influence, staying away from places where they’re likely to get in trouble, and avoiding things that may upset them. When they know their stressors, students can choose to not be around those people, places, and things.

Lastly, taking care of your body plays a very important role in managing stress. As mentioned above, exercise, active relaxation, eating healthy and sleep are vital for lowering stress levels in middle schoolers.  

Exercise is the most important part of a stress management plan. Many people do not see the need for exercise nor have the time for it, but when you are stressed you need exercise the most. After you exercise and use up stress hormones, you think better and are able to focus and learn more.

Active relaxation is important because your body can only use the relaxed OR emergency nervous system, not both. This 4-8 deep breathing technique helps aid in relaxation:

  • Sit or lie down and place your hands on your belly. Take a deep breath, trying to expand your belly pulling your hands apart. Take a full breath counting to 4, hold your breath counting to 8, and then slowly let out counting to 8. Try this technique 10 times, focusing on your breathing and giving your full concentration.

Eating healthy will help keep students alert throughout the day and their mood steady. People who eat mainly junk food often have highs and lows in their energy levels, which create more stress on their bodies. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet will aid in stress management.

Sleep aids in thinking clearly and mood management. When students are tired, they can’t learn as well and will often be impatient and irritable. Students can improve their sleep by going to sleep at the same time each night, taking a hot shower one hour before bedtime to relax, putting away all electronics one hour before bed, and allowing some wind-down time before lying in bed. 

Creating and following a stress management plan will help students lower their stress levels and deal with the daily challenges they are faced with. One of the best ways to be happy and successful is to manage stress well.

By Kristen Melhiser, MSW, March 19, 2019 –

While living in Colorado for 11 years, I had access to vast beautiful landscapes and often found myself at great peace and wholeness when in nature.

What is it about nature that is so alluring and healing to the mind, body, and soul? Is it the beautiful landscapes and life in the flowers, plants, and trees? Is it the sounds of waves crashing, birds singing, and crickets chirping? Is it the smells of fresh cut grass, summer rain, and fall leaves?

There is a great deal of research to prove that exercise is extremely beneficial for a person’s mental health. Participating in outdoor activities often involves some level of exercise, but choosing to take a walk outside instead of inside on a treadmill also does so much more for the soul.

Wilderness Therapy (WT) is a fairly new concept in psychotherapy, but it is a term rarely heard in the Midwest. WT uses traditional therapeutic interventions, but it is not confined to a therapist’s office.

As the name explains, WT takes place in the wilderness where nature provides its own holistic healing. Being in the wilderness naturally brings out our survival instincts; it breaks down barriers, removes us from everyday norms, and creates an environment that doesn’t allow us to avoid certain problems.

With very few WT programs in the Midwest how can we approach this concept? It’s as simple as you think…just go outside!

In a world where teens are spending an average of six hours a day consuming social media, time away from electronics is necessary. Mental health issues are on the rise in adolescents because they are not able to cope with the pressures of social media or process the level of information they receive online.

I suggest you plan quiet time, slow life down a little, and stop to smell the roses (literally). Being out in nature has a way of slowing us down and removing our daily norms. It provides the break we all need, especially adolescents who are learning how to cope with the world.

Nature offers us the opportunity to reconnect our families and our relationships. More importantly, it provides a much needed mental break for all of us.

Whether you go walking, swimming, camping, hiking, or kayaking, go outside together. Spend that time reconnecting by teaching your children how to fish, change a tire, or plant flowers.

The point is to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer. One of the best parts of nature is that it’s free; you don’t have to pay, you simply walk out your door.

I leave you with this challenge: Take at least one hour this week to go outside with your family. Increase the amount of time you spend outside each week and create new adventures.

Instead of pushing activities on your kids, give them several options so they feel less like they are being forced to do something and more like they are making the choice of what to do.

Now go outside and have some fun!

By Kaitlyn Meredith, MSW, Youth First, Inc. – March 12, 2019

Healthy Friendships
By Kaitlyn Meredith, Youth First, Inc.

When you think of friendship, what comes to mind? Is it someone that you do homework with? Is it someone that is there for you when the going gets tough? Maybe it’s that person who cheers you up and can joke around but also be serious when it’s time to be.

Friendship can come in a variety of forms. You could have a large close group of friends or a small group. You could see them every day, once a week, live close to each other or on opposite sides of the country. With today’s technology, keeping in touch is easy and distance doesn’t matter so much.   

But how do you tell if the friendship is healthy?

Here are some ingredients to a healthy friendship:

  • Trust is one of the vital parts of any relationship. You need to be able to trust that a friend will not cause any physical or emotional harm. This includes trusting that they will not try to poison other friendships. Another level of trust is that we can trust them to keep their word and to keep our secrets.
  • Talking and listening are very important. Everyone needs someone they can talk to, whether it is a casual conversation or more serious. When you talk with a good friend, you are able to talk about whatever is on your mind, no matter how deep or shallow it may be. They will give advice if that’s what is needed, or they will listen to you rant and let you cry.
  • Supporting each other in all ways possible makes for strong friendships. When you are younger it is easy to think that everyone is heading in the same direction. But as life progresses, each person has their own course; if the course heads in a different direction, the parties in a healthy friendship will continue to support each other.
  • Understanding and supporting each other’s goals adds a lot of strength to a friendship. As a friend, you should encourage each other to continue towards your individual goals.
  • Having mutual understanding, respect, and appreciation for each other is crucial in a healthy friendship. There must be equal give and take. Friendship should not be one-sided.

If you feel that you may be in an unhealthy friendship, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel good about myself when I am with them?
  • Do we do things that we both want to do?
  • Can I trust them with my secrets or to give me solid advice?

If you are answering no or questioning the friendship, it may be time to create some distance. Ending any relationship is never easy, but by putting some space between you and your friend it will allow you to see if the friendship is truly right for you.