By Jana Pritchett, Communications Manager -November 11, 2020-

We’re entering the peak season for family traditions. Some that I recall from my childhood include enjoying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while cooking the turkey and trimmings, sharing reasons to be thankful around the dinner table, playing board games with family after a large holiday meal, and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” after attending Christmas Eve services.

Many of our fondest memories are centered on family traditions, activities or patterns of behavior that help us bond with our families. Often these traditions are a link to past and future generations. 

As a young child, I remember my grandparents taking my family to dinner at Helen’s Restaurant on Evansville’s west side every Sunday. They often shared stories from my father’s childhood. This was precious time spent with them, creating special memories I can call up now that they’ve passed on.   

Even though today’s family looks a lot different than families of a generation or two ago, traditions are still an important part of family life and the foundation of strong family ties. This year’s traditions may look a little different due to the risk of gathering with members outside of your household, but it’s still important to fit in simple traditions that help children and teens establish a sense of belonging.   

Denise Witmer offers five reasons to observe family traditions on About.com – Parenting Teens:

  1. Family traditions create good feelings and special moments. They create positive emotions and memories that will last a lifetime. It’s always a sweet moment when an older child remembers a wonderful time shared when they were younger.
  2. Family traditions give every member of the family a stronger sense of belonging. Time spent together strengthens the bonds between family members.
  3. Family traditions help your child or teen with his/her identity. When teens are trying to figure out who they are, it helps to know that they belong. Teens need encouragement to be a part of something bigger when they’re searching and defining their sense of self.
  4. Family traditions help parents impart life skills and family values to their children. Spending more time together helps parents and grandparents model these family values and provides more opportunities to talk about serious issues. Having fun together helps keep the conversation light and encourages kids to open up.
  5. Family traditions offer your child or teen a sense of security. Teens, especially, face some difficult issues in today’s world. Knowing they are secure and have a family to turn to is a powerful tool to use when confronting negative peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, college and career choices, etc. 

Even as your child grows older, family traditions are still important.  Find a way to carry out the rituals that help define your family. Often teens will insist on sticking with tradition even when you find it difficult to fit these moments into your routine.

My grown children, ages 29 and 25, still insist on finding the hidden pickle in the tree to see who will open the first gift on Christmas Eve. As they leave the family nest and everything in their world seems to be changing, busy young adults stay connected through family traditions.

If your existing traditions don’t seem to have the same appeal, create new ones. Do what works for your family. Cooking dinner together, taking a hike at a local park, driving through the countryside to see Christmas lights, or even eating a special food one night a week will create memories that your children will pass on to their own families and remember for a lifetime. 

By Laura Keys, Vice President of Social Work & Programs -November 3, 2020-

Well, here we are – still in the midst of a pandemic, mostly back in school, mostly back at work, but not quite back to normal.

Most Hoosier children returned to school by Labor Day. Some schools have had to close intermittently because of staff and students testing positive for COVID-19, but all of them are trying very hard to stay open.

It’s no question that students benefit from in-person learning. Schools also recognize that some students do not have the support and consistency in food, nurturing, and shelter at home. Youth First partners with over 90 schools across the state of Indiana, and I am here to tell you, educators are focusing on two things right now: 1) making the most of the days school buildings are open, and 2) engaging with and checking on the students who aren’t showing up.

Educators are teaching at a rapid pace, and the worry over potential school building closures is taking its toll on teachers, students, and parents. It’s also affecting student achievement. School personnel know only too well about the “summer slide,” that time when students are out for a couple months and not being challenged with the rigor of steady schoolwork.

Well, the pandemic has essentially doubled the “summer slide.” From March to August 2020, there was not a structured rigor of academics that kept our students fresh and ready to learn. I’ve heard from countless parents and teachers that students who were making A’s and B’s are now making C’s and sometimes D’s. Most students did not return to school ready to learn.

One may assume I’m mentioning this decline to recommend applying extra pressure on students in order to meet the academic standards that were lost over the past few months. Shouldn’t we push them to do just a little more so that they don’t continue to lose language arts and math skills?

No, quite the opposite! At the beginning of the school closures in March, we stressed that parents should give themselves some grace while trying to juggle at-home learning along with many other stressors. We need to extend the same grace to students right now.

The toll that this pandemic has taken on children’s mental health has been well-documented. Separation from friends and family, disruption in routine, and the fact that there is no clear end in sight all impact the mental wellness of students.

Those pressures, combined with the doubled “summer slide,” should give us a pretty clear indication of why students may be behind. Take it from a mother and a mental health professional, your kids will catch up. Students will gain ground once the ground beneath them is steadier.

Although schoolwork is important, it is not the most important thing. Caring, nurturing environments for kids are the most important thing right now. In my opinion, children need to be allowed to skip some beats on schoolwork and teachers need to be allowed to let them. We really need to take care of everyone right now, not put more pressure on them.

Kids are resilient and capable, and as long as they feel loved at the end of the day, especially with some extra grace sprinkled in there, they will turn out just fine.

By Grace Wilson, Program Coordinator – October 28, 2020-

The conversation around marijuana is a hot topic in our society these days.  Most folks seem to choose one side or the other and not many fall in the middle.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the United States with 36.7 million users (youth and adult) in 2018. This number is alarming because not everyone is aware of the physical and mental health risks, especially for our youth.

In a 2014 study, it was reported by Lancet Psychiatry that teens who smoke marijuana daily are 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school or college than those who never use. They were also seven times more likely to attempt suicide.

A human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. When marijuana use is started at an early age, there will be damaging effects to the long term cognitive abilities of that individual.

Marijuana has many damaging effects on the brain. It can affect the parts of your brain responsible for memory, learning, decision making, emotions, reaction times, and attention. These effects could look different in each person. Different factors can come into play, including the potency of the marijuana, how often it is used, if other substances were used along with it, and at what age the individual began using marijuana.

Many people believe marijuana use can calm anxiety and relax an individual, but frequent and heavy use can actually bring on more feelings of anxiety or paranoia.

What are some of the other risks of using marijuana? First, marijuana is addictive. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. That number rises to 1 in 6 if they began using before the age of 18.

Some signs of addiction can include unsuccessful efforts to quit using, giving up activities with friends or family because of marijuana, and continuing to use even though it has caused problems with work, school, and home.

Marijuana also elevates the heart rate, causing it to work even harder. This is especially the case if other substances are used along with marijuana. It can also cause respiratory problems, including chronic cough. While marijuana use has not been found as a direct link to cancer, many marijuana smokers also use cigarettes, which do cause cancer.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 71 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana use as being harmful, but 64.7 percent say they disapprove of regular marijuana use. Now is the time to start the conversation with your child around marijuana.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  1. Do your research on the topic and know how marijuana will affect your child’s health.
  2. Find a comfortable setting to have the conversation.
  3. Keep an open mind. Your child will be less receptive if they feel judged.
  4. Stay positive and don’t use scare tactics, as they are counter-productive.
  5. Don’t lecture; keep the conversation flowing freely between the two of you.

Stay involved in your children’s lives by keeping the conversation open, and let them know they can come to you without fear or judgment. This can make a world of difference when having a discussion with them about marijuana.

This column is written by Grace Wilson, Program Coordinator for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 64 Master’s level social workers to 90 schools in 11 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 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 Salita Brown, Project Manager -October 22, 2020-

Addiction… overdose… death… serious consequences that have become synonymous with opioid use.

Opioids are very powerful drugs that have received significant media attention in the past years. However, through all of the coverage the reason opioids have become so addictive has gotten lost.

So, what exactly is an opioid?  Why are people addicted to them?  According to the Mayo Clinic website, mayoclinic.org, an opioid is a broad group of pain-relieving drugs that work by interacting with the opioid receptors in your brain cells, meaning an opioid can temporarily control your brain.

Opioids trigger the brain to release a signal that lessons your perception of pain and increases your feeling of pleasure. This feeling of pleasure, though temporary, has led to repeated overdoses. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) currently reports 128 Americans die every day from opioid-related overdoses.

This crisis is one that everyone can help combat, even if you think it does not affect you directly. One of the easiest methods to prevent addiction is proper disposal of unused medications.  All unused/expired medications become quite dangerous when found by the wrong person. This is especially dangerous when medications find their way into the hands of a child.

In order to help prevent this issue it’s best to get these medications out of your home. You might think you need to go to your medicine cabinet and flush those unused pills down the toilet or maybe throw them directly into the trash. You are not entirely wrong, but both of those disposal methods require a couple more steps to be safe and effective.

So, what exactly is the proper means for disposing of your expired or unused prescriptions? One option is to bring the unwanted medications to an authorized collector.  An authorized collector will simply take the medications, with no questions asked, and properly dispose of them for you. To find an authorized collector near you, please call the DEA Office of Diversion Control at 1-800-882-9539.

Another option is to flush your unused medications down the toilet. Before you rush to flush all of your medications, please be advised that not all medicines are recommended for flushing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of medicines approved for flushing that can be found by checking their website at www.fda.gov. If your medication is not on the approved list, it can be taken to an authorized collector or properly disposed in the trash.

By Diane Braun- October 15, 2020-

Red Ribbon Week is the oldest and largest drug prevention program in the nation, reaching millions of young people each year.  This year’s event will take place October 23-31.

According to the Red Ribbon Week website, this event is an ideal way for people and communities to unite and take a visible stand against drugs. 

Red Ribbon Week was started when drug traffickers in Mexico City murdered DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985. This began the continuing tradition of displaying red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward the use of drugs. The mission of the Red Ribbon Campaign is to present a unified and visible commitment towards the creation of a Drug-Free America.

National Family Partnership is the sponsor of this annual celebration. They are helping citizens across the country come together to keep children, families and communities safe, healthy and drug-free, through parent training, networking, and sponsoring events.

With over thirty annual events having taken place, you might ask, “Is Red Ribbon Week effective?”  According to Peggy Sapp, President of National Family Partnership, consider the following:

  • Red Ribbon Week is an environmental strategy, which means it doesn’t just affect a small group but usually goes beyond schools, churches and other groups into the broader community.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be an awareness campaign that gets information to the general public about the dangers of drug use.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to get people talking to other people and working on activities that will help rebuild a sense of community and common purpose.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to help parents and schools deliver an effective drug prevention curriculum.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to create critical mass, which is necessary to reduce destructive social norms/behaviors and promote positive social norms/behaviors.
  • Red Ribbon Week is designed to be positive and fun, two things necessary to maintain good mental health.

Schools can benefit from curriculum available on the official Red Ribbon Week website, www.redribbon.org.  Incorporating substance use prevention education into daily classes such as health is an ideal way to bring awareness to students and promote prevention.

Parents should also access the website for great ideas about talking to children of any age about the dangers of substance use. Children of parents who talk to their teens regularly about drugs are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those who don’t; however, only 25 percent of teens report having these conversations.

Alcohol and other forms of drug abuse in this country have reached epidemic stages, and it is imperative that visible, unified prevention education efforts by community members be launched to eliminate the demand for drugs.

Please join Youth First this week as we promote the importance of prevention and educating our children, families and communities about the dangers of substance use.

By Abby Betz, LSW- October 7, 2020-

During difficult times in our lives, specifically a global pandemic, we can easily become overwhelmed with simply trying to take care of ourselves. With multitudes of websites and books on self-care and countless “how-to” guides, it can be tough to decide what works best.

The purpose of practicing self-care is to find the best method to manage our mental well-being in a constructive way without adding more stress to our already busy lives. In a time when we are asked to limit contact with others as much as possible, we need to step back and revisit the basics so we can best care for ourselves and our loved ones.  

As a school social worker, my job is to help students learn positive coping skills to manage their feelings. Simply put, coping skills are what we think and do to help get us through difficult situations.

There are several coping skills that anyone can learn in order to overcome stress, anxiety, and depression. The key is to not overthink it, which just adds more unwarranted stress!

Counting to 10 is a great coping skill for anxiety and anger. It gives you time to calm down before responding to a stressful situation. During this time when you are slowing your thought process, you can decide to make better choices.

Taking three deep breaths is similar to counting to 10, as it is also a great skill to use when battling anxiety. The key is to take slow, deep, breaths and focus on breathing IN through your nose and OUT through your mouth. You can repeat this exercise until you have returned to a resting, calm state.

Finding a positive distraction is also a good way to help alleviate stress. Squeezing a stress ball can help relieve tension as well as improve concentration and focus.

Coloring and drawing are other constructive distractions that enable you to use creativity to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Any type of artistic activity is a wonderful way to cope with stress because it lets you be creative and anyone can do it – no matter your skill level.

Taking care of your body is also extremely important and can be as simple as drinking plenty of water. Eating healthy and being active are also vital components to our emotional and physical well-being and can help decrease stress. An example I like to use with my students to show the importance of eating a healthy meal is to imagine they are a car and breakfast is the fuel for the car. If students don’t have enough fuel for their morning classes, they could run out before lunch and will lose focus and motivation.

Another great way of promoting positive thinking is to imagine a happy place or think about your favorite memory. It may be at the beach, at your grandma’s house baking cookies, or at school playing with friends. Thinking positive thoughts can replace negative thoughts, which makes this coping skill a great tool to have. 

At the end of the day, if things just seem too overwhelming – ask for help.  Reaching out to loved ones or someone we trust is an important coping skill that all of us should use. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; in fact, asking for help is a powerful sign of strength and self-awareness.

If you or someone you know is in need of help – please do not be afraid to reach out.  Youth First is here for you! We will get through this difficult time together.

By Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW -October 1, 2020-

This time last year, no one dreamed 2020 would bring a worldwide pandemic. We were forced to adjust very quickly to quarantines, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, travel restrictions, working remotely and masks. Who knew a year ago we would be using terms like “social distancing” and “face masks” in our everyday conversations?

Anxiety, depression, and suicide have all been on the rise. Unemployment and economic numbers are worse than during the Great Depression. Everyone is on edge. 

As adults the coronavirus pandemic is scary enough, but what if we are also parents? How do we take care of ourselves while also providing comfort and stability to our children? 

As a parent of two young children myself, working from home at the start of the pandemic was a challenge. Parents have always struggled with work/home life balance, but stay-at-home orders and working remotely were something new. We also had the challenge of not only being a parent but also our child’s teacher.  I think all of us now have a greater appreciation for teachers and the work they do. 

Stay-at-home orders have ended, and many of us are gradually returning to work and school. As we adjust to a new normal, however, many parents are struggling to find time for their own self-care.

Self-care is the practice of intentionally taking care of your own needs. Self-care is important for everyone, especially parents and caregivers. Some may find that certain activities they used to enjoy as part of their own self-care, such as going to the gym, vacationing, going to the movies, and eating out may be more difficult with COVID-19 restrictions or closures. 

Here are some practical self-care ideas for parents:

  1. Avoid overexposure to the news. I personally found that when I was watching the national news I was more anxious and worried. Spend time watching television that is enjoyable and gives you an escape from reality for a bit.   
     
  2. Spend quiet time alone. It could be on your commute to work or after your children go to bed. It’s important to have time to process the day and enjoy calm.
  3. Spend time enjoying hobbies. Some pandemic-friendly ideas include listening to podcasts, reading, going for a drive, or talking to friends or family on the phone. I’ve recently discovered audio books and love being able to “read” while driving to work or taking a walk outside.
     
  4. Exercise.  Maybe you still feel uncomfortable going to the gym, but fall is a beautiful time for the family to enjoy outdoor walks. Exercise is also a natural stress reliever. 
  5. Practice mindfulness or meditation. There are several apps you can download for free mindfulness exercise, such as CALM, Stop Breathe and Think, and Headspace. Some of the apps have both a free and paid version with additional content. Research links meditation to increased levels of happiness.
     
  6. Find a babysitter for the night and enjoy some time with friends or your significant other. It is important to have adult time away from your children. 
  7. Spend time planning upcoming experiences. Dr. Laura Santo from Yale University’s work on the secret of happiness has found that spending money on experiences is linked to increased levels of happiness versus spending money on material possessions. For many, this could be planning a trip. I was reading in a travel magazine that the act of planning a vacation can actually lead to more happiness than the vacation itself. If you had a trip cancelled this year, plan for something exciting in 2021. You don’t necessarily have to leave town; you could plan a local experience such as a trip to the zoo or a walk by the river.
     
  8. Enjoy time together as a family. Have a game night or order carry-out and have a backyard picnic.   
     
  9. Socialize. I think one of the tragedies of COVID-19 is the loss of human connection.  Isolation can lead to depression. People have been told to stay away from others and maintain distance, but this does not mean we have to isolate. Plan to FaceTime a friend or have an outdoor get-together with chairs spaced 6 feet apart.
     
  10. Order carry-out food (or dine in if you feel comfortable) and support a local business.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, be sure to make self-care a priority during the pandemic. Taking care of yourself ensures that you will be able to give your best when taking care of others. 

By Jenna Kruse, LSW – September 23, 2020 –

Being a parent of a teenager is difficult enough without adding the stress of navigating a pandemic. After being stuck at home for several months, most teens are ready to stay in school, see their friends, and return to any sense of normalcy.

As guidelines continue to change, here are ways you can safely support your teen during these trying times.

It’s safe to say that teen and adult worries are very different. “I’d look stupid in a mask” and “I need to see my friends” might not be thoughts that cross your mind as an adult, but understand these concerns are vital pieces of a teen’s social development.

It is important to remind yourself that your teen is living in a socially distant society as they are attempting to establish their own identity and independence. Have a clear list of your expectations instead of reciting government-issued mandates that they may not understand and are likely to ignore.

Empathize and validate your teen’s worry and anger. Teenagers are likely to feel the weight heavily; it feels unfair that the pandemic has happened, that it is still happening, and that life cannot yet return to normal.

By validating your teenager’s feelings, you grant them the opportunity to be open and expressive with their feelings. Try phrases such as, “You are right, this is unfair” or “I feel that too, but it’s important that we do what we can to keep others safe.” Validating a teenager’s feelings will make them more accepting of whatever you say next.

Your teen may feel frustrated that they have new restrictions placed on them when they have not been directly affected by this virus. Help teens make the connection by outlining the increased danger for older family and friends. This helps students understand that your fears aren’t far-fetched, and that what we do now makes a big difference down the road. You may also use the mask mandate and current restrictions as a way to teach compassion and the importance of keeping ourselves safe so we can keep others safe.

If your student is going out with friends, incentivize them to comply with safety measures. Let them know if they are willing to take safety precautions seriously, they will have more freedom to spend time with friends.

Make safety fun by practicing what talking to a friend from 6 feet apart looks like. Allow them to pick out a cool mask in which they can express themselves, and sit down with your teen to create a list of outdoor places where they could safely spend time with friends. Remind your student that your family rules may be different than their friends’ rules, but they are still the rules they must follow.

During these trying times, it is important to remind your teen (and yourself) that even though we are in the middle of a difficult time, this pandemic, like other difficult times, will pass. Work as a team and keep communication open, factual, and honest with your student. Remember, what we do now will determine what will happen next.

By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – September 16, 2020 –

Hi. Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Oi.

Each one of these greetings, along with many others, is the gateway for social interaction. Social interaction with others helps create a culture of inclusion and acceptance.

According to Ferris State University, inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is recognized. 

Why is inclusion important in our schools and communities?

Heartland Community College has created the HEIP (Heartland Equity and Inclusion Project), which identified the following reasons that inclusion is important:

  1. Inclusion molds the values of the next generation of children.
    • Students see a person first and the person’s disability second.
    • Students learn to practice empathy and appreciate the value of diversity.
  2. Inclusion provides opportunities for friendships.
    • The development of friendships requires close proximity and a common experience. Keeping children together encourages both objectives.
    • Students develop a comfortable way to interact with students with disabilities.
    • Children with disabilities attend the same school as their neighborhood friends.
  3. Inclusion prepares individuals for adult life in the community.
    • Today’s classmates are tomorrow’s employers and co-workers.
    • Community life includes people of all abilities.
  4. Inclusion helps create family-like social structures outside of the home.
    • Siblings can be educated together at the same school.
    • Parents are not stretched between two or more school settings.
  5. Inclusion cultivates an enriched learning environment.
    • Additional resources (therapists, special educators, etc.) in the classroom benefit all children.
    • Diversified teaching strategies and the common use of modifications and adaptations ensure everyone can be part of the learning process.
    • Children with disabilities learn from typically developing peers who can act as role models, making them more likely to develop appropriate social and communication skills.

What is the opposite of inclusion and why is it important? Social isolation is a feeling or sense of not belonging. It is overwhelming and in many cases debilitating to a person’s functioning. When feeling isolated from others, loneliness and invisibility can consume a person’s thoughts and behaviors, causing a significant increase in self-harm or harm of others.

To decrease the negative impacts of social isolation, the Sandy Hook Promise has created a campaign to increase social interaction and inclusion among students. This campaign began after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December of 2012. Each fall, schools around the world are asked to participate in the campaign called “Start With Hello” Week. The scheduled date for this year’s “Start With Hello Week is September 21-25, 2020.

Start With Hello Week raises awareness about social isolation and educates students and the community on how to prevent it through various trainings, awareness, activities, public proclamations, media events, student contests and school awards – all provided by the Sandy Hook Promise campaign. You can find the “Start With Hello Week planning guide along with the registration submission for your school or agency to participate in this event at https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/startwithhelloweek.

Let’s all join together in this movement to show our children that everyone should be valued, to bring awareness to social isolation, and to increase empathy and inclusion all around! Just remember, it can be as simple as starting with “hello.”

By Holly Parod, LSCW – September 9, 2020 –

In the wake of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, many of us have felt the weight of additional stress and uncertainty in our daily lives. These are feelings that we can unknowingly pass on to our children as they sense our fear and feelings of worry.

Rather than watching the national news or discussing headlines in the local paper, what if we all took time to be grateful for the new world we have discovered as a part of quarantine or working from home?  What if we paused to appreciate the opportunities we’ve been granted to re-establish old traditions and spend more time together?

Over the past few months, jigsaw puzzles, bikes, free weights, and board games have sold out of stores as people have taken time to work on personal fitness, create together, and explore together.  Rather than rushing off to baseball games and work meetings, we cooked dinner together, tried new dessert recipes, and enjoyed movie nights with our families.

In this time of quiet, we took walks down our streets, reconnected with our neighbors, and sat outside reading books or looking at stars. We taught grandparents and older family members how to Zoom or FaceTime so that we could maintain our close relationships while staying safely apart.

We were no longer too busy to color, paint, and mail birthday cards or handwritten notes to friends and family. Some of us explored new hobbies and talents, while others called long-distance friends on the phone instead of texting.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, gratitude is thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside them.

As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Instead of focusing on the negativity of this pandemic, perhaps we all need to take time to be grateful for what we have gained after being forced to slow down and spend time with those who are most important to us. 

We are hearing over and over again from students and educators about how happy kids are to be back in school for in-person learning.  We are seeing an increased appreciation for the work teachers do every day, most importantly from the children sitting in desks spaced six-feet apart.

Just as we have embraced the importance of family cookouts, birthday parties, graduation events, and weddings, we have a newfound appreciation for everything schools and teachers provide every day.

Tonight at dinner as you discuss the events of the day, challenge each person at the table to share one aspect of the day he or she is grateful for.  Then ask what COVID-19 has taught them to appreciate.  You will be surprised how much there is to be grateful for, even in the midst of a pandemic.