By Rachel Haug, LCSW – April 19, 2022

Adolescence is a time of rapid brain and body development through the onset of puberty, which will begin to influence both your child’s physical and mental health. During this time, a young person can begin to develop symptoms that may support a mental health diagnosis, especially if paired with genetic, environmental or situational factors.

Some of the most common psychiatric disorders seen in adolescence include mood disorders, like depressive disorder, adjustment disorder, or borderline personality disorder; anxiety disorder, both generalized and social anxiety; disruptive behavior disorders, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. If symptoms of one of these disorders are combined with drug or alcohol use, a co-occurring disorder could develop over time.

A co-occurring disorder is known as the presence of both a mental health diagnosis and a substance abuse disorder. There is a lot speculation about which comes first, the substance abuse disorder or the mental health concern; however, there is strong evidence that shows individuals struggling with an undiagnosed mental health problem often turn to self-medicating through the use of drugs or alcohol. Studies have shown that the younger a person is when they begin using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted to the substance later in life.

As a parent it is important to be aware of the signs your child may show if experiencing an onset of a mental health or substance abuse disorder. First, it’s important to know your family’s medical history. For example, if you or your child’s other parent have experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety or have struggled with substance abuse or addiction, it is likely your child may experience similar symptoms or become prone to addiction if they begin using drugs or alcohol.

It is also important to make sure an open line of communication with your child is maintained to ensure symptoms are being addressed as they present themselves. If you notice a change in your child’s mood or behavior, ask them about it and allow them a space to speak freely without judgment. Some of the most common risk factors for an anxiety or mood disorder in adolescence include parental history of anxiety, mood disorder or other mental health disorder, an increase in academic or social pressures, stressful family environments, early or significant losses (parental death, divorce, termination of a relationship), chronic illness, history of being bullied (in person or cyberbullying), or history of neglect or abuse.

Treating your child’s symptoms is vital and services are readily available. Treatment could include outpatient individual or group-based therapies, psychiatric medication management, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy, along with other behavioral therapies, could provide some insight into your child’s mental health concerns and ease your child’s ability to navigate what could be a difficult time.

The best place to start would be consulting with your child’s Youth First Social Worker or pediatrician to discuss best treatment options for their specific needs. Early intervention is key! Your child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and academic performance. There is a community of mental health professionals available to rally around you and your child, so don’t hesitate to reach out for support! You and your child are never alone.

By Megan Shake, LSW – April 19, 2022

Childhood trauma is defined as adverse childhood experiences that are emotionally painful or distressful. Trauma can be caused by a multitude of things, including but not limited to, physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, separation from a family member, poverty, serious medical conditions, accidents, disasters, domestic violence, a parent with a mental illness, substance abuse within a family, and incarceration of a family member. Ultimately, there are an unlimited number of things that can be classified as traumatic.

What the definition of trauma does not tell you is that trauma actually changes the brain. It overwhelms your thoughts, emotions, and body. When you experience something that overwhelms you, it can rewire your brain and body.

According to a report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, not only does trauma cause neurological changes, but it can also cause immune system and hormone level changes. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 who are exposed to trauma may have difficulty learning in school, be unable to trust others or make friends, show poor skill development, lack self-confidence, and may be more likely to experience stomach aches or headaches.

When looking at parts of the brain, studies have shown trauma effects the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Trauma can cause the amygdala to be hyperactive. That means even when danger is not present, the amygdala still might activate a “fight or flight” response in a person. The result may be a panic attack, a flood of emotion, feelings of aggression, or constant stress.

Another part of the brain affected is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Trauma can weaken the prefrontal cortex, causing difficulty concentrating or zoning out. Lastly, trauma affects the hippocampus as well. The hippocampus helps store memories. For some people, the hippocampus can have difficulty preserving other memories while retaining the traumatic event as clear as day. For others, the hippocampus blocks out part of the traumatic memory, or all of it.

So what can we do to help children who have experienced trauma? One of the most helpful things is for the child to have a caring, supportive, stable caregiver who can help regulate these changes and help the child better cope with adversity as they grow up. Just one caring and supportive adult can greatly benefit and positively impact a child throughout their life.

It is also important to seek help from a trained professional when needed, whether that be through outpatient therapy or even your school’s Youth First Social Worker. Remember, despite what these kids have been through, one caring adult to provide support can make a world of difference.  

By Jayme Waddell, LSW – April 12, 2022

As a parent, my goal is always to help my children succeed. However, I have realized that kids actually need help learning how to fail. When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and eventually succeed. This isn’t necessarily a new idea but one that I now understand better as a parent.

Failure is inevitable. If kids don’t learn how to tolerate failure, it can leave them vulnerable to anxiety and stress, which often results in meltdowns, regardless of age. It may also lead kids to give up altogether. Acquiring the skills necessary to cope with failure is a crucial part of success.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”  – Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes in the world, has spent decades speaking about failure. He has discussed the importance of perseverance and resilience, both on and off the court. His legendary accomplishments and hard work have turned him into one of the most impactful basketball players of all time. Was he born a champion? No. Did he have a raw talent for the game? No. He was relentless and never gave up. He accepted failure as part of his success.

As the pressure to win increases, we see more kids getting distraught over the smallest error. Therefore, it is increasingly more important for kids to learn how to tolerate imperfection. I would argue that learning how to cope with these mistakes may be even more important than whatever lesson or skill they were working on at the time the mistake was made. Learning how to fail is a necessary part of accomplishing any goal. It is an important life skill for kids to master to become more independent and thrive in the future.

Teaching kids how to fail is a process that starts with empathy. Saying, “it’s okay,” “nice try,” or “you’ll do better next time” can invalidate the child’s feelings, which could lead to more frustration and disappointment. Try changing the approach to be more empathetic: “I can see that you are upset. I know you wanted to do better.”

Modeling how to handle your own disappointment can also be impactful. Sharing your failures and explaining that failure is part of life can help normalize setbacks. Children are not always exposed to the reality that we, as adults, make mistakes and experience failures. It’s important to teach our children that it is okay when things don’t always go according to plan.

Make failure a teachable moment. When a child fails, there is a great opportunity for parents to teach critical thinking skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, and open mindedness. Try helping your child figure out what could be done next time for potential success. This is all about balance – we want to build distress tolerance skills by accepting that the situation “is what it is” while also recognizing what we learned or what we can do differently next time.

Watching your child fail can be difficult, but learning how to handle mistakes can only be done through exposure. When we hover or try to protect our children from every misstep, we rob them of the very experiences that require problem-solving. We take away the opportunity for them to experience resiliency and build the confidence necessary to take on new challenges.

Learning how to fail can be a painful experience, but success can only be achieved after we have learned the skills necessary to cope with any obstacles life throws in our path.

Join us for a Youth First Give Back at Azzip Pizza on Tuesday, April 12. Use this coupon, and 20% of your purchases, including gift cards, comes back to Youth First to provide vital support to Indiana students and families.

If ordering online, use code GIVEBACK04. Azzip locations participating include Evansville East, North and West.

By Jenna Bieker, Youth First Social Work Intern – March 31, 2022 –

It can be overwhelming to think about all the tasks we try to accomplish in a single day. Twenty-four hours does not seem to stretch far enough to cover time spent in school, sports, and other extra-curricular activities. When planning out how to spend time, sleep often gets pushed to the back burner. Unfortunately for kids, not getting enough sleep can lead to serious consequences.

Children need more sleep than adults because they are still growing. A child that is between one and two years old needs 11-14 hours of sleep each night. For three to five-year-olds, the suggestion drops to 10-13 hours. Youth between the age of six and thirteen need at least 9 hours and up to 11 hours snoozing nightly. Teenagers need up to 9.5 hours of sleep.

Most students start their school day around 8:00 in the morning. If wake up time is approximately an hour and a half before that at 6:30 am, even high school students need to be heading to bed at 9:00 pm. Some readers will think this is an unrealistic bedtime, but research indicates that consistent lack of sleep has multiple negative impacts.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritability, forgetfulness, increased stress, and an inability to concentrate. Over a longer period, not getting adequate sleep can contribute to severe health concerns like depression, anxiety, inflated blood pressure, and inflammation. The good news is that there are many ways to ensure your child is getting proper sleep.

To make sure youth in your life are sleeping well for the necessary number of hours, it is important to develop habits conducive to restful sleep. One tip is to try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Have your child go to bed and get up around the same time each day. This consistent sleep schedule will allow the body to get sleepy and wake up at the correct times. Additionally, for older children, limit daytime naps to twenty minutes or less to avoid nighttime sleep disruptions. Limiting electronic use before bed is also essential to sleeping well.

Putting away your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime will prevent blue light given off by electronics from tricking your brain into thinking it is time to stay awake. For parents, having your kids charge and store their devices outside of their bedrooms can provide an effective way to reduce their temptation to use electronics when they should be sleeping. Kids should not engage in physical activity or drink caffeine right before bedtime. Lastly, if children are struggling to sleep, they should try getting up to read or listen to calming music until they feel ready to rest again. Moving to a different room as opposed to staying in your bed can help get them back to sleep faster.

By ensuring our youth get the appropriate amount of sleep using these guidelines and tips, we can raise happier, healthier kids!

By Niki Walls, LSW – March 24, 2022 –

Boundaries are something many of us struggle with. We all need to set boundaries to function and have successful relationships. As parents and caregivers, it is just as important to give our children boundaries. It is a parent’s job to know what their child is doing, where they are, who they talk to, and to ensure they are safe.

As much as kids need boundaries, they also hate them. Kids will test and push grown-ups to get as much freedom as they possibly can. While it may seem annoying and burdensome that children are pushing back, this behavior is actually essential to their development. Parents also want their children to grow to be independent and mature, but they cannot do that without learning through trial and error.

Parents need to be mindful of the line between healthy boundaries and smothering or controlling their children. Allowing room for failure and accepting it with grace is a huge piece of building trust and respect in the boundary-setting process. Parents should not be so strict in their rules or so harsh in their punishments that kids are afraid to be truthful with them.

When children do break the rules or push the boundaries, it is important that adults are able to keep their own emotions in check. If parents or caregivers are reacting to the extreme, children will get better at hiding things from them in order to avoid the harsh reaction. One of the most crucial steps parents can take is to build trust with their children and emphasize that they are human beings who will mess up.

With a warm and loving relationship established, parents can begin setting rules concerning their child’s safety. Children will begin to see that the rules are there for the ultimate purpose of keeping them safe. Along with safety rules comes society’s rules. Children will have more respect for the rules they see others following.

While it is important to set clear rules, it is also important to talk to your teens about them. As adults, it is important to teach kids how to be self-advocates and voice their needs. If children feel their opinion matters, they will be more likely to buy into the rest of the rules.

For example, let’s say that your child has a curfew of 9pm every night. Your child might come to you occasionally and ask for an hour extension on their curfew to watch a movie premiere or the end of a game. If you can be flexible and negotiate with them, they will have more respect for you and will be less likely to sneak out later or blatantly miss curfew. Especially as your children grow older and earn your trust, it is important to ensure your rules and expectations are reflecting your trust and respect in them.

By establishing a loving relationship and age-appropriate expectations, parents can feel confident that their children will grow up to be respectable members of society. Starting children off with a firm and supportive foundation will allow them the opportunity to grow into the best versions of themselves.

By Jordan Beach, LCSW – March 16, 2022 –

If you spend any time on social media, you have probably heard the term “gentle parenting.” The quick response to this concept is that it’s “soft” or that we’re not punishing our kids enough and creating a generation that doesn’t respect authority, etc.

A lot of times we hear the word gentle in terms of parenting and assume this means there are no consequences when children misbehave. I implore you to look deeper.  Just stick with me and we can navigate gentle parenting together.

First, the concept of gentle parenting is not new. In fact, a lot of you were probably raised this way, or you are raising your own children this way without knowing it had a name. At its core, gentle parenting is simply creating an environment of respect and empathy for your children to grow in. Gentle parenting is not allowing your child to misbehave with no consequences. It is trying to understand your child’s emotions and behaviors and help them work through them.

Children who grow up in calmer environments are better prepared to handle adverse emotions in adulthood. By meeting your child’s emotional needs with empathy instead of judgement, you are teaching them that their feelings are okay and they can trust you to help them navigate hardships.

This is crucial in helping your child develop healthy coping skills. A dysregulated child is not going to be able to take deep breaths on their own. They are going to need a calm adult to help them regulate, or co-regulate, with them.

If your child has a behavior that needs to be corrected, by all means, correct it! The gentle parenting method of correcting misbehavior would be to provide them with a redirection. Be specific and make sure your child knows what they can do instead.

Maybe you’re thinking, “My kid already knows what they can and can’t do, so if they do something wrong it’s because they choose to.” If this is the case, it is important to consider why your child is making an intentional choice to break an established boundary. Are they stressed out and don’t know how to tell you? Are they over- stimulated and don’t know how to regulate? The first question to them is, “What can I help you with?”

In a world where people insist that “kids should be kids,” sometimes we forget that our children’s brains are constantly developing. Children are not mini-adults. Even if we feel a child is overreacting, they’re not. They’re expressing themselves in the best way they know.

It is our job as the trusted adults in their lives to help kids navigate difficult feelings, learn and develop healthy coping skills, and provide them with boundaries and guidance. When we can do this with compassion starting at a young age, we are setting the groundwork for well-regulated teenagers and young adults.

Heidi Mikac, LSW, Youth First Social Worker at Paul Hadley Middle School in Morgan County

Q:What called you to become a social worker? 

A: The reason why I became a social worker was to learn more about suicide prevention.  I’ve had three important people in my life take their own life.  I wanted to learn about the signs and symptoms of depression so I could help prevent suicide.    

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

The most rewarding part of my job is when a parent or a teacher tells me that they’ve noticed a positive change in the student I’m helping.  

Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students? 

I would say coping skills and the Tween Series presentations have had the most impact on students at my school.  I’ve had a few kids tell me that they were worried about a friend who was considering suicide and I was able to make mental health referrals. Teaching kids what to do when they notice signs and symptoms of depression in their friends is so important.  I’m forever grateful for Tween Series.    

In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected youth mental health? 

Unfortunately, Covid-19 increased students’ anxiety and suicidal behaviors.

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Vicki Kirkman, LCSW, LCAC – Youth First Social Worker at Gibson Southern High School in Gibson County

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: A few of the most rewarding parts of my job are getting to meet so many students and being part of their high school career. I really enjoy working with families and teachers to help students recognize and achieve their goals. I love being a part of their support circle and experience “aha” moments with them. It is exciting when former students reach out and share how they are doing years later!

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: I think some mental health strategies that are most impactful and effective for students include stress and time management skills, being able to identify supportive people in their life, and mood management skills.  I also encourage students to practice gratitude and set goals to work toward, which can create a sense of purpose and direction. 

Q: How has social work influenced the way you view younger generations?

A: Social work has influenced how I look at the younger generation in a positive way.  Every day, I am amazed at how resilient and determined the students I work with are.  They have a way of looking at the world and challenges with a fresh set of eyes and come up with such creative ways to tackle those issues!

Nolan Miller, LSW – Youth First Social Worker at Elberfeld Elementary School and Lynnville Elementary School in Vanderburgh County

Q: What called you to become a social worker?

A: I have a passion to be the voice for people who are not being heard. I understand that me being a white, Christian, man makes it where I do not face discrimination. I have seen through this profession, as well as through friends and family, that we are not all treated equally. Joining this field and becoming a social worker meant that I could be the person who helps advocate for people who face such harsh realities.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: The most rewarding part of my job is that I get to help someone be themselves and find their voice. We all have those walls that we put up in certain aspects of our lives. I find it rewarding when I can see those walls come down and the person feels safe enough to tell me how they truly feel about what is going on around them.

Q: What does mental health mean to you?

A: To me, mental health means that you feel comfortable in your own skin. Meaning that when you are struggling or facing hardship, it takes us out of the life we want to live. Anxiety, depression, grief, etc. are things many of us deal with on different levels. When we are facing those difficulties and not feeling like ourselves, reaching out for help can be so beneficial. I think being mentally healthy is understanding that we do not have to face challenges alone and can find the strength to reach out for help. Most of the people that meet with a therapist are just taking that first step, which shows how resilient they really are.

Q: How has social work influenced the way you view younger generations?

A: Always come at any situation with an open mind. The way I would react to something is not the way a younger or even older person would react. That is perfectly fine, we are all going through life with different lenses. My way is not always the right way and being able to understand that someone sees a situation differently can bring more people together.

Q: Which mental health tools/strategies do you think are the most impactful or effective for students?

A: My number one rule for many situations in life is to take a break from it. You’re never going to solve a problem if you are stressing out and stewing on the situation. Taking a mindfulness walk or doing a breathing exercise then coming back to the problem can help with solving it. Many difficulties that my students face are caused by racing thoughts or feeling the weight of passing a test or quiz on top of what they might be dealing with outside of school. Understanding that this is not forever and that they are more resilient than they give themselves credit for can be very effective.

Q: In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected youth mental health?

A: I think the biggest impact is the uncertainty. They have not had a normal year in a while and with many of us facing hardship from grief to financial burdens our youth see the struggle. They struggle with how to deal with the anxiety of the new world we are living in. It also can be very confusing to them when things go back and forth so much. They don’t know if they should feel safe or unsafe regarding the pandemic. I think that is why as social workers, teachers, and parents, it’s important to show them we can be resilient through the struggle. It  gives them the reassurance that they can get through what they are going through.