By Abby Betz, LSW – January 28, 2020

With high profile acts of violence on the rise, particularly in schools, it is important that parents and caregivers talk with children about these types of incidents and teach them ways to protect themselves. 

Schools have been working to prevent violence and make schools safer places for our children.  Not only do staff and faculty play a vital role in promoting school safety, it is imperative that parents also help reassure children that schools are generally safe places. 

Creating a safe atmosphere for students helps establish a sense of normalcy and security. It is essential students feel comfortable talking about their fears, as mental health concerns also continue to be on the rise.

Schools can promote a safe school environment by providing support from social workers and counselors and fostering positive interventions and school-wide behavioral expectations. It is also important that children take part in maintaining a safe school climate by participating in safety planning and drills. 

Frequently reminding children of the importance of school rules and requesting that they report potentially hazardous situations to school personnel can help reduce the instances of violence. The presence of school resource officers, security guards, and/or local police partnerships also plays a large role in keeping schools safe. It is important for staff and faculty to remain a visible, welcoming presence at school by greeting students and visitors to the building.

At home, parents and caregivers can reassure their children they are in a safe place. It is important to validate feelings children have and explain it is normal to feel scared or worried when tragedies such as school violence occur. Letting children talk about their feelings helps in processing these fears, puts them into perspective, and assists them in expressing these feelings in an appropriate way.

Making the time to talk with children is extremely important. Look for clues they may want or need to talk. Also keep in mind that some children may be able to express themselves more freely while coloring, drawing, or engaging in other artistic activities.

It is important to keep conversations appropriate for the child’s developmental stage. Early elementary school-aged children need simple, concise explanations coupled with reassurance that their school is a safe place. Upper elementary and middle school-aged children can be more verbal in asking questions about school safety.

For high school students, it is important to emphasize their role in fostering a safe school environment by reporting threats and communicating safety concerns to school personnel. For children of all ages, it is essential for parents and caregivers to look for changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep. Providing assistance to help children separate real-life from fantasy is also very important.

Monitoring and limiting what children are viewing on the internet and television can help lessen their fears. Maintaining a normal routine is also crucial to the healthy development of all children and gives them a sense of safety and security.

If a parent or caregiver has any concerns for their child, they should reach out to their child’s school and also seek the assistance of mental health professionals.

By Leah Lottes , LSW – Jan. 21, 2020

For many, the recent holidays reminded us to be thankful no matter what our circumstances are, focusing on being thankful for what we have rather than what we don’t have. The holidays are a great time to express gratitude. However, expressing gratitude every day is even better!

Gratitude is beneficial for your mental and physical health, so why not express gratitude every day?

As listed by Amy Morin on the website psychologytoday.com, here are some of the ways gratitude can benefit you:

Gratitude can improve your physical health. People who express gratitude tend to experience fewer aches and pains. These individuals are also more likely to take care of their health by attending regular doctor visits and maintaining a healthy diet with exercise.

Gratitude can help you sleep better. If you express gratitude at the end of the day by writing down a few things you are thankful for, you increase your chances of having a better night of sleep.

Gratitude can help boost your self-esteem. When you are thankful, you are more likely to appreciate your positive life experiences rather than focus on the negative ones. You are also less likely to compare yourself to others which can help you appreciate the accomplishments of others. Gratitude is also likely to increase your overall happiness.

Gratitude can help foster resiliency. Expressing gratitude is a great way to cope with stress and trauma at any time in your life. 

One of the best things about gratitude is that you can express it at any age. Because gratitude has been proven to have so many benefits, the younger you teach children about it, the better.

According to Dr. Kevin Solomons’ website borntobeworthless.com, there are many ways you can express gratitude throughout the day. The easiest way is by simply saying thank you to people when they help you out. Thanking someone for their help not only makes that person feel good but also makes you feel good, which encourages you to keep saying thank you.

When adults say thank you to others, this encourages kids and adolescents to do the same. Parents and teachers can model this behavior every day to students at home and in the classroom.  

Another way to express gratitude is to send thank you notes. This is a very good way to encourage kids and adolescents to say thank you. When you instill the habit in them when they are younger they are more likely to continue the habit throughout their lives.

It’s also important to teach kids that writing thank you notes isn’t just for gifts. A nice hand-written note can be sent to show appreciation when someone does something special for them.

An additional way to express daily gratitude is by keeping a journal. This can be something as simple as writing one thing you’re thankful for each day. Getting into a routine of adding to your journal allows you to train your brain to be thankful every day.Teachers can incorporate gratitude into their days by taking having students write down what they are thankful for or allow them to share their gratitude out loud. Parents can also do this activity together with their kids to show what they are thankful for and how it is important to their lives.

Expressing gratitude has many benefits. It may seem like a small task, but it’s the little things that can make such a big difference. Gratitude positively affects your mindset and your lifestyle, and that in itself is a reason to be thankful.  

By Dawn Tedrow, LCSW – January 14, 2020

Many teens struggle with forgetting daily assignments and losing their homework, or they become overwhelmed thinking about the amount of work that needs to be completed. Being unorganized creates tremendous stress for people. 

It is important to teach our students good organizational skills to not only reduce stress at school but to help them continue to be successful throughout life.  I have some useful tips for helping your teen become more organized.

First and foremost, get them in the habit of using an agenda book. Most school bookstores sell them to students for a small fee. If they aren’t already in the habit of using an agenda book, I recommend reminding them daily and rewarding them with praise until they have gotten used to carrying it to every class and filling it out. 

I also recommend that students write in the book even if they don’t have an assignment due, by simply noting, “No homework.”  This will help them get into the habit of using the book during every class. If they forget to use it, simply remind them to start again. 

You can easily see if it is being used by sitting down with your teen at a designated time to review what homework needs to be completed each day.  Using positive and encouraging statements will help them view this as a pleasant task rather than you “nagging” at them.

Try to find ways to make the agenda book more interesting by purchasing different color ink pens or stickers.  I use different colors of sticky notes to put extra notes in my planner.  I find most agenda books to be too small for all of my tasks. If your teen runs into this problem, you might consider purchasing a planner with larger spaces for notes. 

One of my favorite planners is the Panda Planner, which can be purchased at www.pandaplanner.com.  The spaces are larger, allowing for more room to write necessary details about assignments to be completed.  They also break down according to the week and help teach the individual how to plan their month, week, and day. I easily plan my week and identify the top priority for each day.

Another simple tool for teens is what I refer to as a “homework folder.”  This is such a simple tool to keep homework assignments in a place that is easy to find so they don’t get lost.  I get a red folder with 3 clasps and place sheet protectors inside. 

There should be a sheet protector for each class (even gym) and then an extra one for documents that are sent home for parents, such as picture day or emergency contact forms to be completed.  I use colorful labels to identify each class. The folder is carried to every class. Students are instructed to place homework to be completed inside the appropriately labeled sheet protector. 

Once they have completed the assignment, they place it back in the sheet protector until they turn it in to their teacher. Graded assignments do not go back into the homework folder. They are placed in separate folders for the class. This is a quick and easy way to avoid lost homework.

Supplying your teenager with these simple tools will help them to stay organized and reduce school-related stress and anxiety.

By Valorie Dassel, LCSW – January 7, 2020

Parenting in this era can be overwhelming. There are many opinions and parenting styles that can be argued. 

However, when we are facing drug and alcohol use among our teenagers, there must be an “all hands on deck” approach. It is a community issue that requires parents and adult mentors to communicate clearly with our teens while understanding both sides of the coin.

There are clearly reasons why our teens engage in risky behaviors, and it is important to acknowledge this while at the same time educating them on the severity of the risks. Visit websites such as drugfree.org and youthfirstinc.org to educate yourself on how to talk to your teen about drug and alcohol use. 

The following are some tips to guide substance use conversations with your teen:

  1. Ask your teen open-ended questions about the dangers of vaping, drinking and drug use. Use this conversation to guide discussion around the consequences about the things they care about in the “here and now.” Points to bring up include how substance use may affect their relationships and reputation. These are things they do not feel invincible about. They may do something that is embarrassing and have to deal with the social consequences at school on Monday morning. They may do something that they regret and consequently hurt a relationship or friendship. It is also helpful to aid in connecting their athletics and academics to substance abuse. If they are tired and hungover on the weekends, they will not feel like studying or practicing. 
  2. Be open with them about substance abuse issues in their family. According to the Genetics Science Learning Center of Utah, scientists estimate that a person’s genetics account for 40-60% of their risk of developing an addiction. Sharing family history and stories aids in the development of decision-making based on risks specific to them.
  3. In addition to genetics, individuals who suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc. are at a higher risk to abuse substances. The website dualdiagnosis.com is a good resource to help teens connect their emotional struggles to how they may self medicate with substance use.
  4. Clearly share your expectations and the consequences they will receive at home if they are found to be drinking, vaping, smoking or using drugs. It is important to create a relationship that allows the teen to share their struggles or experiences while also being aware of the consequences if caught using.

Get to know the parents of your teen’s friends. Share with them your values and that you do not approve of them drinking, smoking/vaping or using drugs. There are parents who mistakenly feel they are protecting teens by allowing them to drink or use substances under their supervision, as they feel it is a safer alternative.

Developmentally, teens are beginning to individuate from their parents, which gives them the sense that they can make their own decisions and act independently. Educate yourself and others that this concept inadvertently gives them permission to drink/vape/drug on their own.

Remember that we as parents can educate and guide, but our teens will be the ones who make the decisions. It is our responsibility to keep them as safe and as educated as possible.  Most importantly, be there when they fall and help them back up.

By Katherine Baker, LCSW – Dec. 31, 2019

As the year closes and a new one begins, many people focus on improving their health and well-being. Being human in a world filled with drama and losses can be exhausting. 

All too often human sleep patterns are out of sync, causing many of us to be exhausted, grumpy, and on edge.  Not only are children and teenagers affected by the lack of sleep; it has become a human condition affecting everyone. 

Most people can thrive, however, by following these basic tips to help in their day-to-day functioning:

1.  Remember to focus on a sleep routine. Have a set bedtime for yourself and try to stick with it as much as possible. Your brain and body will thank you.

2.  Remember to set limits on social media. Take a social media break from all of your devices one or two times a month. Try it for two hours and work your way up to longer periods of time.  Again, your brain and body will thank you. Besides lack of sleep, the use of social media and the stress and anxiety it is causing impacts our society in numerous negative ways. Think about how your life is affected by your use of social media.

3.  Remember, you are responsible for your day.  You are responsible for how you feel and what you do; nobody else is.  You are in charge of your life!

4.  Remember, everybody doesn’t have to love you or even like you.  If someone does not approve of you, it will still be okay.

5.  Remember, it is important to try.  Even when faced with difficult tasks, it is better to try than to avoid them. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. Find your talents.

6.  Remember that you can be flexible. There is more than one way to do something.  Everybody has ideas that are worthwhile. Some may make more sense to you than others, but everyone’s ideas are important. Listen and consider the options.

7.  Remember, other people are capable.  You can’t solve other people’s problems as if they were your own. They are capable and can solve their own problems. You can show care and concern and be of some help, but you can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything for them. 

Start the new year by getting enough sleep, taking charge of your day, demonstrating flexibility and giving your best. Only take on what you are capable of handling. You will soon see a difference in your outlook and stress levels!

By Jennifer Kurtz, LCSW – Dec. 24, 2019

Prior to coming to Youth First as a school social worker, I worked with the homeless for 7 years.  Many of the men, women, and children I worked with were staying in a car or in an unfamiliar shelter, maybe living in a hotel, or staying with family or friends in an overcrowded home. 

While this is not healthy for an adult, it can have an even bigger impact on the mind of a young child. When I mention childhood trauma you may think of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse to a child. But there are other traumatic things children experience:  witnessing violence between adults, being separated from a loved adult due to alcohol or drug use, mental illness of a family member, incarceration of a parent, illness of a loved one that pulls family away, lack of food for the entire family, or witnessing a shooting or devastation left by a natural disaster (either in person or on television). 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that more than two thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 exposed to trauma may have difficulty focusing or learning in school, may be unable to trust others or make friends, may show poor skill development, may lack self-confidence, and may experience stomach aches or headaches. These difficulties in elementary school have the potential to affect children into their teen and adult years, repeating the cycle onto their own children.

How can we help our children as parents and caregivers?  The Child Mind Institute encourages the following tips to help children after a traumatic event:

  1. Remain calm
  2. Allow children to ask questions
  3. Listen well
  4. Acknowledge how the child is feeling
  5. Share information about what happened
  6. Encourage children to be children (to play and do activities)
  7. Understand children may cope in different ways
  8. Help children relax in breathing exercises
  9. Watch for signs of trauma
  10. Know when to seek help 
  11. Take care of yourself

The National Survey of Children’s Health found that children who have family help them build resilience respond well to stress.  Resilience can be built through having caregivers who believe in a child’s future, teaching children to calm themselves and regulate their emotions, being involved in the community and having social connections.

There is a video on YouTube about a heartwarming IKEA ad in Spain entitled, “IKEA The Other Letter.”  The children are asked to write a letter to The Three Kings (the equivalent of Santa in Spain) asking for things they want for Christmas. Most ask for material items. They are then asked to write a letter to their parents. From their parents they ask for experiences such as eating dinner as a family, reading a story together, playing soccer together, playing cowboys together, and just spending quality time together in general. 

So often we want to give our children material items, thinking “things” will make them happy.  Although kids do want toys and materials items, quality time is even more valued and needed by them, especially when there has been a traumatic event. Spend time together this holiday season, and help your kids build resiliency that will see them through many of life’s disappointments and sorrows.

By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – Dec. 17, 2019

Imagine this scenario: you have a busy and stressful day at work and at the end of the day you get in your car and drive home. The next thing you know, you are parked in your driveway. You made it home, but you don’t remember the process of getting there; the stops, the turns, the motions. You get so used to the usual route home that little thought or focus has to go into the process of driving.

This is an example of being on autopilot. Many of us often live in this state, where actions and words are said and done without thought or focus. When we function on autopilot, we are more likely to say or do things that can be harmful to others.

Why does this impact how we parent our children?

Children need their parents to be the best versions of themselves, thinking through their responses rather than reacting to them. When parents act on autopilot they are not present in the moment and are more likely to react to children impulsively than responding to them with thought.

Some examples of parent reactions might be yelling, cursing, screaming, slamming things, etc. These types of reactions can create an atmosphere of stress between children and parents, as children often feel attacked for things they do. Responding to children requires us to be aware of what is happening, what we are thinking and what we are feeling. That is difficult to do when we are on autopilot.

How can we decrease reacting and increase responding to our children?

One tool that can reduce living on autopilot and increase being more present in the moment is mindful awareness. When being mindfully aware of what is happening in the moment and what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, we are more likely to provide our children with responses rather than reactions.

This also helps model the type of behavior we want from our children. We want them to think through their choices and pick the best one before acting impulsively. The stress of everyday life can make it difficult to live in the moment though, which is why practicing mindful awareness daily is key for mastering this tool.

What are ways to practice mindful awareness?

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction practice), “mindfulness or mindful awareness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  This awareness can be practiced in a variety of daily activities including eating, showering, walking, brushing your teeth, etc.

The key to it though is rather than just going through the motions of these activities – we are paying attention to our senses (what we see, taste, feel, hear, and smell) and we are describing those things without judgments, only the facts. Mindful awareness can also be practiced through meditation, yoga, tai-chi, dance, music, and so much more.

For a more extensive list of mindfulness activities please visit https://www.rachaelkable.com/blog/50-easy-and-fun-ways-to-practice-mindfulness.

Ashley Hale, LCSW – Dec. 10, 2019

Encouraging regular school attendance is one of the most powerful ways you can prepare your child for success in school and in life.   An estimated 5 to 7.5 million students miss 18 or more days of a school year, which averages two days per month. 

Some challenges are unavoidable, such as illness or family emergencies.  However, it’s important to be aware of the impact absences from school can have, especially if they are frequent.  

Having good attendance sets your child up for a strong future by assisting them with better grades, healthier life habits, the ability to avoid dangerous behaviors, feeling more connected to the community, developing important social skills and friendships, and giving them a better chance for graduation.

You can help your child prepare for a lifetime of success by teaching them to make school attendance a priority.  If your child is struggling to attend school, the first step is to understand the depth of the problem, whether physical or emotional. 

There are many common reasons children do not want to go to school, such as academic struggles, trouble with bullies, family separation anxiety, and family challenges at home. It can be difficult to understand why some children avoid school or do not want to leave home.

The following are some ways you can help eliminate chronic absenteeism:

  • Make getting to school on time every day a high priority. Make it an expectation. Talk with your child about the importance of showing up to school every day as well as the negative effects of too many absences.
  • Create a safe space for your child to share what is keeping them from participating in school on a regular basis. Find out if your child feels engaged in their classes and feels safe while at school. Be aware of their social contacts. Peer pressure can often lead to skipping school, while students without many friends may feel isolated. 
  • Have a back-up plan for getting your child to school when there are difficulties with transportation, family illness, or other challenges.
  • Schedule doctor and other appointments for after-school hours whenever possible.   Don’t let your child stay home unless truly sick. Common occurrences of headache or stomach ache may be a sign of anxiety.
  • Monitor your child’s school attendance to make sure they are in class every day. 
  • Contact your child’s school to discuss support services that can help them maintain regular school attendance. Know the school’s attendance policy. Talk to their teachers if you notice sudden changes in behavior and ask them to contact you if they notice changes. 
  • Encourage your child to participate in afterschool activities, including sports and clubs. Being involved in extra-curricular activities is a great way to feel more involved in the school and to make new friends.

As a parent, you are on the front line of an attendance problem. The good news is that it is possible to change things for the better and increase the chances for success. 

By Jaclyn Durnil, MSW – Dec. 3, 2019

“If you can learn to love yourself and all the flaws, you can love other people so much better. And that makes you so happy.” – Kristen Chenowith

Why is it so difficult to love ourselves? Basically, the short answer to this question is that we were raised in a society that didn’t teach us about self-love. This may not seem very important to some, but self-love is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Loving yourself provides you with self-confidence, self-worth, and in general, you feel more positive. If you can learn to love yourself, you will feel happier and will learn to take better care of yourself.

Looking in the mirror, most of us see a lot of different flaws and remember too many past experiences and failings to love ourselves. The less you love yourself, listen to yourself, and understand yourself, the more confused, upset, and frustrated you will be in life. When you begin to love yourself and continue to love yourself more and more each day, things slowly will be a little bit better in every way possible.

Unfortunately, self-love isn’t always easy. 

Accepting the pain and allowing yourself to be honest with who you are is a big step to loving yourself. Forgive yourself for past actions and things you are ashamed of doing.

Carrying a lot of negative emotions like jealousy, disgust, and rage can have a negative impact. We need to learn how to accept not only the emotions that create love, joy, and happiness but also the ones that cause fear, insecurity, and anger in our lives.

While we need to learn how to acknowledge and accept the pain with the love, another step is reconciling with a cold and unopened heart. Asking yourself if you fully love yourself can be very difficult because you must accept your flaws and faults.

Love is something we choose, the same way we choose anger, hate, or sadness. We have the power to forgive someone who has hurt us in the past. We can learn to finally heal from something when we can forgive. We can always choose love.

Learning to love yourself leads to better self-care. Examples of this could be taking a break from time to time and accepting that no one is perfect and things happen.

Another example could be saying no to others when you really don’t have the time or energy to say yes. We often do too much for other people because we want to please everyone. We can forget to look after ourselves and then we become overwhelmed.

Today is the day you can love yourself completely with no expectations. Making the choice right now to choose your own love is the most powerful healing force you have.

Amy Steele, LCSW, RPT – Nov. 29, 2019

In any sport, there are a number of skills that one must learn to be successful. The skill of being a good loser will take kids far in life, whether they play sports for one season or make it as a professional athlete. It is a skill that is used throughout all of life when disappointing things happen.

 A good loser accepts the loss in a way that shows respect for one’s self, both teams, the coaches and all of the other people involved. The seven tips below will help you improve your child’s ability to be a good loser and a good winner.

  • Start young.  Play board games with kids when they are little. Teach them that everyone wins and loses sometimes. End games by having everyone shake hands or do “Good Game” high fives to practice positive outcomes. 
  • When your child is upset about losing (at any age,) acknowledge that you understand it is disappointing to lose. You may have a child that is such a sore loser that you avoid games or anything competitive with them at all. While this may make it easier at the moment and avoid a tantrum, avoiding it would take away a great learning opportunity. Teaching your child to persevere through what they may see as a failure shows them they can get through hard things and that you will be with them as they do. You are building character, and each time you do this it will become easier for the child to handle it the next time.
  • Observe your own behavior to see if you and other adults in your child’s life are modeling good sportsmanship. The adults closest to a child (in particular the same-sex parent) are the people they look to the most as a model for their behavior. Do you make excuses for your own difficulties or when things don’t go your way?  Blame your boss when something goes wrong?  Yell at the coach or referees? Criticize your kid’s teacher in front of them?  How do you react when your team loses or your child doesn’t make a team? Decide what you can do to be a better example of a good loser for your child.
  • Expect your child to be responsible for their own actions and remind them that everyone has bad days and everyone makes mistakes – even coaches, referees, and teammates. Make your child accountable every time they have a bad attitude such as making excuses, blaming others, booing, or criticizing someone.
  • Encourage your child to watch how others act when they lose and use it as a teachable moment.
  • Teach your child to encourage their teammates and look for the positives.  Good sports and good teammates support and encourage each other.
  • Help your child bounce back from disappointments in games and sports, as this is good preparation for real life. 

As your child grows they will have the skills in place to help them handle many different kinds of loss, such as the loss of a job or a relationship.   It is likely they will turn to those who helped them handle a loss previously when they need help again. Be that person for them when they are young.