By Jennifer Bouchie, MSW, LSW, Youth First Inc.

Goal setting is important at all stages of our lives. Whether we are talking about our kids or ourselves, knowing how to set obtainable goals is key to finding fulfillment.

The struggle with goal setting is that sometimes we see the big picture but have a hard time visualizing all the small steps it takes to get to the desired outcome. So how do we set realistic goals?

One of the most popular acronyms for goal setting is SMART goals. This stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Once you have a big picture goal, setting up steps in a SMART goal system helps you break it down into bite-sized pieces. This helps make the goal more obtainable and helps you see success along the way.

First, clearly define a specific goal. Write it down or put it on a dream board. Be sure to remind yourself frequently of what you are trying to accomplish. If your goal is to save money, identify how much you need to save each pay period to reach your final savings goal. It’s also important to know why you’re setting a goal. Are you saving for a vacation or a down payment on a house? This can help you determine what savings amount is reasonable for you. 

Second, be sure the goal is measurable. If you’re keeping the same goal of improving your budget, this is easy to measure. You will be able to tell each pay period if you were able to stick to your goal of moving over the desired amount into savings.

Third, you need to make sure the goals are achievable. If you’re like me, when you set goals you want to reach them as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the best way to reach your desired outcome. If you make your goals unobtainable, you set yourself up for failure, which can result in giving up on the goal altogether.

Fourth, are your goals realistic? Maybe the issue is not that you can’t save the money, but maybe you’re asking too much of yourself too quickly. It’s okay to reevaluate and change your savings timeframe. If you decide to put less money back each pay period, you will still reach your savings goal even if it takes more time than anticipated. Being realistic is crucial.

Fifth, be sure your goals are timely. If you have a big picture goal, make sure not to lose sight of the baby steps that are going to get you there.

As humans, we are always trying to grow and learn. These skills can be used for adult tasks such as budgeting but also for tasks with our kids such as improving grades, learning to play an instrument, or developing athletic skills. Setting SMART goals is a great way to move yourself forward to achieve your dreams!

By Diane Walton, MSW, LSW, Youth First Inc.

Family meal times are such a valuable experience, with a wide variety of benefits for both children and parents. More shared meals together correlate to greater benefits seen; however, children will benefit from as little as three family meals each week. Shared meals promote healthier eating habits, better grades, and a decrease in rates of depression, substance abuse, and early teenage pregnancy.

Teens who have fewer than three family meals per week are at higher risk of using marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco. Today, only about 30 percent of families have regular family mealtimes. Imagine the benefits we would see if we made family mealtimes a priority three or four times each week!

As a working mom with active children, I understand that planning family meals can feel overwhelming, especially when we have school, sports, and work commitments scheduled throughout the week. Eating together as a family can work with outside commitments and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult. A simple plan and easy recipes can make family meals doable, fun, and something to look forward to.

Ask your children to pick their favorite meals and add these items to the grocery list. They should choose an entrée, side, and vegetable for their meal. It can be as simple as chicken nuggets, green beans, and applesauce for dinner. Another easy option is “breakfast for supper,” which includes fried eggs, toast, sausage or bacon and fruit. 

Worried because not all members of the family are present on any given evening?  Think outside the box! If it is a challenge to have dinner with the whole family throughout the week, try regular breakfasts on Saturday or brunch every Sunday. Keep in mind that if at least one parent and one child are at home for mealtime, it can be a family meal.

Conversation is an important aspect of family mealtimes. The goal is to be warm and engaging, saving criticisms and deep conversations for another time. Use open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with one word such as “yes,” “no,” or “fine.”

Have fun with silly questions such as, “What is the one superpower you would love to have and why?” Mix in questions that give a little insight into your child’s day like, “Tell me about the best thing that happened to you today” or “What was something that happened today that made you sad or frustrated?” 

Parents also benefit from regular family meals. Fathers who are present at meal times have a lower stress index, exhibit greater self-esteem, and are less likely to describe depressive symptoms. Family meals also allow parents to monitor their children’s moods, behavior, and activities in a relaxed, screen-free environment.

Check out the Family Dinner Project at, which is a great FREE resource featuring easy recipes, games, and conversation starters to help bring your family back to the table.

By Melinda Johnson, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

“I’m really anxious.” 

“My anxiety is so high.” 

“I can’t do that; my anxiety is getting worse.”

As a Youth First Social Worker working with junior high and high school students throughout the school year, I often hear these statements. Students visit me struggling with an emotional response they identify as anxiety.

Are they wrong? Not necessarily. Anxiety is a common emotion that we all experience because life is stressful. Stress and anxiety are terms used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. 

So, what is the difference? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is defined as the physical or mental response to an external cause. Stress could include an upcoming school or work project, having an unexpected illness, or experiencing conflict with a family member or friend. It’s a more focused response to a clearly identified event.

Anxiety is our body’s response to stress. The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as the persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Individuals with anxiety disorders usually have unwanted thoughts or concerns of future events and experience long-term symptoms. Anxiety can cause people to seek avoidance, while stress can often motivate people to reach goals or solve the problem.

Stress and anxiety can manifest in similar ways. Both can cause disruption of sleep, increased worry, or feelings of unease or tension. Like anxiety, stress can make an individual feel more irritable, cause a change in appetite and difficulty concentrating. Though, whether it’s acute stress or chronic anxiety, it’s important you’re aware of the symptoms and address them appropriately. 

There are many ways to manage stress and anxiety-related symptoms. Practicing sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to combat unwanted worries. Talk to your friends, family, or trusted supporters. Engage in healthy coping skills, whether it is spending time outside, journaling, exercising, or including meditation in your routine. Prioritize time getting organized and addressing the things you can control.

If you’re a parent with a worried child, help your child identify the difference between what they can problem solve and what they may need help with. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by stressors, which can cause an increase in anxiety-related symptoms or a decrease in daily functioning. 

Remember, not all distress symptoms equal a mental health disorder. However, if symptoms persist, you have a change in your level of functioning or a major life disruption due to symptoms, it is important to follow up with your primary care provider to discuss what treatment options may be best for you.

By Lisa Cossey, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

In a perfect world, all marriages would have the “happily ever after” promised in fairy tales. Unfortunately, in the real world, some marriages end in divorce. For families in this situation, the divorce may end the marriage, but it does not end the need for interaction to continue raising children together.

Some couples have no issues co-parenting beyond divorce. Others have great challenges. For couples who are struggling, there are several things to consider when determining the best ways to communicate with each other.

First, and most importantly, it is helpful to remember to love your child more than you may dislike your former spouse. As young children grow, there are birthday parties, holidays, graduations, weddings, and the birth of children of their own someday. On all of these occasions, you will most likely have to interact with your former spouse, so why not set a good foundation for communication.

In addition to making your life smoother, parents who communicate and interact well with one another set a good example of teamwork and collaboration. It is also helpful to remember you are modeling appropriate communication and behavior for your children; therefore, respectful interactions are key.

Keep your communication focused on the children and set a matter-of-fact tone utilizing appropriate language. Make requests of your former spouse rather than demands. In addition to being respectful to one another in front of the children, make sure you are being respectful when the other parent is not around.

Negativity or complaining does no good, as it only hurts children. The two parents may no longer love each other, but the children love both parents. Placing them in the middle, listening to negatives about either parent, will only cause more harm and hurt for the child. Avoid making your child the messenger. This only puts unnecessary stress and pressure on the child.

If communicating in person is something that cannot be managed, e-mail or texting are other options to consider. Remember to keep the tone professional here as well and stick to the topic that needs to be addressed. If you receive an emotional or heated e-mail or text, give yourself a calming period prior to responding. Wait at least an hour, if not more, before responding. This time allows you to compose your thoughts and rationally respond.

For those parents who absolutely cannot communicate without a breakdown occurring, there are resources available to make necessary communication with each other easier and tolerable. There are specific websites, such as and, which cater to divorced families and their interactions. At, families can create their own family calendars to manage visitation, scheduling of events, and communication between the parents.

Healthy marriages and family life are what we all strive for. However, for those whom “happily ever after” did not work out, consider these options when communicating and building your family life post-divorce.

By Diana Diaz, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

There are many advantages to learning a second language. According to the U.S. Department of Education, babies raised in bilingual households demonstrate better impulse control, show increased abilities to block out irrelevant information, and have a better understanding of math concepts, critical thinking skills, and decision-making skills.

Here are 11 quick tips on how to support your child learning a second language at home:

  1. Prior to learning another language, ensure their home language is the foundation during their first year of life. A strong foundation in children’s home languages enables other language learning later in childhood.
  1. Speak only in the language you are attempting to teach while at home. Immersing your child will help them more easily recognize the language and give them confidence to try new words and phrases.
  1. Watch movies or TV shows in both languages. Many people around the world use second-language media content to help put the language they are learning into a visual and cultural context.
  1. Schedule play dates with families or relatives who speak both languages. Forming positive relationships with others is one of the best ways to learn a language.
  1. Mango Language Learning, Duolingo, and other apps are great resources for kids old enough to read. Many of these services also include movies and audio content in other languages.
  1. Have culturally and linguistically appropriate reading material available in the home and read together at least once each day. 
  1. Listen to music and sing songs in both languages. Songs are easy to remember and can help children with pronunciation and syntax.
  1. Attend cultural festivals and concerts and meet other families who speak the language of interest. Making connections between language, events, and popular culture can help both you and your child form new traditions.
  1. What you value, your children will learn to value. Help them learn the value and importance of learning another language. If the language you are attempting to teach aligns with your heritage, encourage your child to retell family stories and share your heritage with their teacher, friends, and others.
  1. Continue using the language of interest even if your children respond in English so you keep your lines of communication open.
  1. Find innovative ways to help your child maintain interest in the language by using virtual reality games such as Mondly to practice the language in life-like settings and receive real-time feedback on pronunciation.

By Ellen Dippel, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

It’s summertime! The days are longer and the air is warmer. This time of year, it’s much easier to toss routines out the window. Who needs a bedtime when there are fireflies to catch and s’mores to roast?

It’s okay to loosen your schedule when summer comes, but we shouldn’t completely throw away all the time spent during the school year establishing a healthy routine for your family.

Your daily schedule may look more relaxed in the summer. You might not need to wake up quite as early and be rushed out the door to the bus stop. However, keeping an earlier wakeup time and not allowing your kids to get in a habit of sleeping until noon will make your back-to-school season smoother when the time comes.

Start your day discussing your plans and goals. This is a great time to get your family’s input on what they might want to accomplish for the day. It is also a good time to front- load them with any information they might not want to hear. If there is an unpopular activity (like a dentist or doctor appointment) that day, you will want them to have a heads up about this activity.

Eating meals and snacks at regular times is important for maintaining routines as well. Sometimes kids get busy playing and forget to eat. Creating set times and space for snacks and meals helps ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need during the summer months. Get creative during this time. This is the perfect opportunity to invite your kids to help you plan their meals and make their snacks.

Be sure to keep bedtime routines the same. This includes keeping a consistent time, which is not only good for their health but will also help tremendously with creating a healthy back-to-school routine. It can also prevent your child from becoming overly tired with the more strenuous activities they may be involved in during the summer months. 

Plan for fun! Kids need a good combination of structured time and creative free play. Mixing planned time with down time, when your kids pick their own activity and play independently, are both very important. Parents sometimes feel a need to create never-ending magic, which turns into overscheduling and exhausting your kids. Letting their imaginations thrive is a great use of their time as well. 

Having structure doesn’t have to mean no fun. Kids need structure and consistency to feel secure. By providing routine, you’re giving them a sense of security that will help ease their anxiety and give them a sense of safety. With the consistency and structure of a well-established routine, there will be plenty of time for catching fireflies and roasting marshmallows, but you will also be able to enjoy the comfort of predictability.

By Ashley Manship, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle staying in a routine and making summertime with my kids as meaningful as it can be. Join me this summer in planning while also not being afraid to be a “spur of the moment” parent!  Here are just a few ideas you can use to plan out a summer of fun in advance.

1.     Create a monthly calendar for your summer schedule. Put it on the fridge or somewhere visible, listing all the activities scheduled for each month. Kids can see what is coming up and feel a sense of order.

2.     Stick to a daily routine during summer break. Kids crave parameters. The great thing is if you go off schedule occasionally, it’s okay because it’s summer break! Many kids love spontaneity and fun, so if you decide to have a beach day instead of the scheduled “clean your room day,” they will roll with it.

3.     Establish summertime chores and responsibilities. Agreeing on daily chores during the summer can help children foster a sense of responsibility. This can be part of their morning routine. Create tasks that are age appropriate and explain to kids that they earn their screen time, ice cream, or other rewards by completing chores accurately and without complaint.

4.     Give each day of the week a theme. “Movie Monday” or “Whacky Wednesday” are great ways to give the kids something to look forward to! Enroll kids in summer camps when available. This is a great way to break up a long summer.

5.     Go outside and play. Having some scheduled daily outdoor time is a great way to get some Vitamin D for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Don’t forget to help your children apply sunscreen for outdoor fun!

6.     Manage screen time with screen slips. It’s easy for kids to waste summer away staring at screens. Screens are addictive and kids cannot monitor their screen usage themselves. Screen slips can help motivate kids to accomplish important tasks each day before they log on to an iPad or watch TV.

7.     Keep a summer adventure bag in the car. Pack a bag with stuff you will need for an impromptu adventure. Sunscreen, bug spray, towels, hats, extra clothes, etc., are essential items that won’t leave you scrambling to prep things for every outing.

Summer can often feel as if it’s over in the blink of an eye for both students and parents. Use these tips to make the most of summer break, maximize additional family time, and create long lasting memories with your kids.

By Kelsey Crago, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

During adolescence, it’s normal for your child to want more independence, test boundaries, and make decisions you don’t understand. According to Stanford Medicine, it’s developmentally appropriate for a teenager’s focus to shift from family relationships to peer relationships. When you combine this change in priorities with the myriad of physical and emotional changes during the teen years, it’s easy to feel lost, like you don’t even know your child anymore.

Your relationship with your child will look different during each stage of their life, from infancy to adulthood. As your child’s needs change, it can be beneficial to take steps to refresh your relationship. Let’s look at some strategies to help maintain a healthy relationship with your teen.

1. Spend time together. Positive parent relationships are important for healthy development. Prioritize spending time with your teen. If you have tried and they

don’t seem interested, consider letting them choose what you do together. Let your teen teach you about their interests.

2. Model healthy behaviors. Modeling remains an effective form of education into the teen and adult years. Let your teen see you taking steps to manage your physical health, mental health, and day-to-day responsibilities. Show accountability for missteps along the way.

3. Encourage independence. Empower your child to make their own decisions – what to wear, which elective classes to take, and which extracurricular activities to participate in. Your teen is working to develop a sense of identity. Allowing them to make decisions (with guidance) helps them develop positive self-esteem, judgment and problem-solving skills.

4. Set boundaries with your teen. Although you have a young adult in the house, you are still the main adult. Teens thrive when given structure and boundaries, even if they grumble about it along the way. Allow space for autonomy and choice, but know you provide the ultimate say in situations.

5. Show that you care. With limited time together, it’s easy to get right to the business of grades, chores, and responsibilities with your teen. Take time to focus on the positive, too. Try small acts like leaving a note in their lunchbox or on their mirror, sending a text to ask how their big test went, or verbally expressing how much they mean to you. A few words go a long way!

6. Keep communication open. Check in with your teen to see how they are doing and really listen. It’s tempting to dive into advice giving, correction, or discipline mode, but try just being there as a listening ear. Teens are more likely to come to you in times of need when they know you’ll listen and not just lecture.

Parenting a teen is no easy task – neither is being a teen. A healthy relationship takes time and effort. These quick, easy methods support a positive relationship and healthy adolescent brain development. Show your teen you care and don’t hesitate to reach out to your Youth First Social Worker for support.

By Alicia Slaton, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

In today’s fast-paced world, it is easy for parents to get caught up in work, household chores, and other responsibilities, leaving little time for children to play. However, research has shown that play is an essential part of a child’s development and parents need to make time for it.

Play is not just about having fun; it is also about learning and development. Through play, children develop their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills. They learn problem-solving, creativity, and imagination. They also develop their language, communication, and social skills as they interact with others.

Unfortunately, many parents today are so busy that they do not prioritize playtime for their children. They may feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids but fail to realize that playtime is just as important as any other activity. In fact, it should be an essential part of every child’s daily routine.

Parents need to understand that playtime does not have to be elaborate or expensive. It can be as simple as playing in the park, building blocks at home, or even reading a story together. The key is to set aside time for it and make it a priority.

One way to make time for play is to schedule it into the day. Just as parents schedule time for work and other activities, they should also schedule time for play. This could be as little as 20 minutes a day or as much as an hour, depending on the child’s age and interests.

Another way to make time for play is to involve the whole family and make it a family activity. This not only strengthens the bond between parent and child but also provides an opportunity for children to learn from their parents and develop new skills.

Parents should also encourage unstructured playtime, where children are free to explore and create on their own. This type of play promotes creativity and imagination, which are essential for a child’s development.

Finally, parents should limit screen time and encourage outdoor play. It is easy for children to get caught up in technology, but it is essential for them to spend time outdoors and engage in physical activities. Outdoor play promotes physical fitness and helps children develop gross motor skills.

In conclusion, play is an essential part of a child’s development. By scheduling playtime, involving the whole family, encouraging unstructured play, and limiting screen time, parents can ensure that their children can learn, grow, and have fun. So, let’s make playtime a priority, and give our children the gift of play!

By Rachel Haug, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Adolescence represents a critical period of self-exploration. The teen years are when many factors contributing to lifelong well-being are developed. As a parent, it is important to be aware of what is affecting your child’s well-being and know how to direct them to a positive sense of purpose and self-respect.

Well-being refers to a person’s state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. A person’s well-being shapes their quality of life; it is where they find value and what they ultimately see as good. In adolescence, happiness is often learned and can be linked to three key categories: connecting with others, getting active, and giving back. As a parent, you can play an active role in your child’s well-being by encouraging them to take action in each of the following categories.


Adolescents will always seek connection on some level, no matter how big or small in scale, and the way they connect with others influences their sense of well-being. It is vitally important for our children to be mindful of the types of connections they are making. “We become like the people we surround ourselves with” is a quote I often use with students to help them think about the influence their friendships have on their lives.

You can also play a part in your child’s connection with others through having conversations about the importance of positive connections and modeling what it looks like to have healthy relationships with others.

Getting Active

Our bodies are designed to move and move they must! Studies suggest that moderate exercise is not just good for the body but improves mental health as well. Researchers concluded that 45 minutes of exercise a week could show signs of mental health improvements. The activities that showed the most substantial improvements in adolescents were team sports, cycling and aerobics, or other gym activities. You can help your child get active by encouraging them to join a sports team or after school program or starting a running or exercise club with their friends. This could promote mental wellness and assist them in forming more positive connections with others.

Giving Back

We want our children to cultivate a drive to contribute to their community. Beyond that, when adolescents are raised to care about giving, they are also more likely to have fulfilling lives. There are opportunities in every community to serve. Many opportunities to give back exist in daily life and are not just connected to formal programs. Your adolescent’s school may also be a great place to start. Examples include tutoring students in need or joining a club to improve the school environment.

As we raise our adolescents to improve the world, we will build stronger communities where people care for and about each other. Our children in turn develop a more positive sense of well-being and their opportunities to make impactful change, both personally and among others, are endless.