By Brandi McCord, Youth First, Inc.

As parents, we always strive to provide for our kids and guide them to become successful adults. During adolescence, the brain grows at a rapid rate and continues to mature until the age of 25. In that time, there are factors that can help brain growth and others that can hinder development.

Let’s dive into some steps we can take as parents to support our teens’ healthy brain development.

  1. Build a balanced home life. Just like outside environmental factors, the home environment can highly affect a teen’s well-being. As parents, we should be loving and supportive to our kids. This includes providing rules and instilling moral behaviors.
  1. Provide healthy experiences. Getting teens involved with a range of activities, hobbies, and experiences can also positively impact brain development. This could include suggesting your teen try out a new sport, having them create some artwork, or even encouraging them to join a club at school.
  1. Establish good sleep habits. Did you know that teens need more sleep than children and adults? Yes, you heard that right. Melatonin levels increase later in the night and drop early in the morning for teens. This explains why teens want to stay up late and then struggle to get up out of bed the next morning. Teens need an average of 9-10 hours of sleep a night. Try and stick with a routine to help unwind from the day. Taking electronics, such as the cell phone, out of their room can also help your teen get more sleep. They may not be happy about it, but just remember it is to help them grow!
  1. Encourage an active lifestyle.  Most of us know that exercise provides many benefits and additional energy! You can use physical activity to bond with your teen by taking a family walk or helping them find physical hobbies they enjoy.
  1. Offer healthy options. Brains need nourishment from a healthy, balanced diet. Try to help your teen avoid junk food and increase their intake of healthy foods like fruits and veggies. These nutrients help the brain thrive and develop.
  1. Develop a plan to manage stress. When your brain gets stressed, it does not develop appropriately. Work with your teen on developing a stress plan to keep the stress levels at a minimum. It’s helpful to find a plan that works for you too! Relaxation techniques such as yoga and mindfulness, along with healthy outlets like reading and writing can help reduce stress levels.
  1. Protect the brain from injury. Safety and protection are key for a brain to grow and mature. Encourage helmet safety and the use of seatbelt, along with discouraging use of harmful substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.). Teens are always looking for guidance and will look to you to help them. This is a great opportunity to model healthy behaviors.

By Julie Hoon, Youth First, Inc. – Updated 12/7/2022

The busy holiday season brings many priorities, and our mental health does not always earn a spot at the top of the list. However, gratitude and giving can have a direct link to improved health, increased happiness, and infinite joy…especially this time of year.

As a fundraiser for Youth First, I hear story after story about the joy that comes from giving. Our donors experience feelings of connectedness, wellness, and life satisfaction when they donate to Youth First, because they are giving to a cause they care about. They are helping kids thrive and are positively impacting the future of their community.

In fact, gratitude and giving are contagious, as I was recently reminded by Youth First donors James and Diane VanCleave. James and Diane have a heartfelt Christmas gift for one another that impacts kids and avoids the hectic hustle and bustle of the holiday rush: they each make a donation to Youth First in honor of their spouse.

“There was nothing material we could give each other that we didn’t have,” says Diane about their Christmas ritual, “so one year, James said he was making a donation to Youth First for Christmas on my behalf. I immediately said that I would like to do the same.” Years later, their gifts to Youth First have become a holiday tradition. James makes the first donation in honor of Diane, and then Diane makes her donation in honor of James.

James, an Evansville Police Department officer who worked as a school liaison officer for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation after retirement, says he saw firsthand the value of Youth First Social Workers as an intervention for students to talk to rather than a police officer getting involved. Diane, a Youth First Social Worker who worked with Youth First founder Dr. Bill Wooten at the Mulberry Center early in her career, says social workers and teachers are making a change for kids and influencing lives. She says, “It just makes sense to support this work.”

Gratitude and giving can cause delightful spillover effects. When donating to a cause you love, you might see the ripple effect in your life from family, to friends, to work, and to yourself. Giving brings about a sense of gratitude for what we’ve been blessed with, along with happiness and joy in knowing you are helping others. Studies highlight an association with well-being and gratitude, resulting in fewer doctor’s visits, taking better care of self, and improved relationships. With giving, many people experience greater satisfaction in life, reduced stress, and a healthier outlook in general, both physically and mentally. 

Perhaps this season your holiday list may include giving to a charity you love? If so, I can assure you that joy and happiness will follow. Our community thrives and so does your mental health. James and Diane certainly agree that their Christmas gifts of giving to Youth First are a natural extension from their hearts to give back to their community. “Plus, it’s the perfect gift,” adds James. “It always fits and you will never have to return it!” 

Julie Hoon is the Vice President of Philanthropy for Youth First. If you would like to find out more about how to make a donation to Youth First, please contact Julie at jhoon@youthfirstinc.org. Youth First, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families, provides 83 Master’s level social workers to 110 schools in 12 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year are served by Youth First’s school social work and after school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org or call 812-421-8336.

By Nolan Miller, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Throughout the school year, kids are constantly learning new material and building upon their strengths. Even after the first day jitters dissipate and students settle into a routine, new academic and social stressors can emerge that cause anxiety for students. As a parent you want the best for your child, and the teacher wants the best for their student.

Teachers can’t always perceive when a student is having a rough day or is struggling with something socially. Parents are more likely to notice if their child is coming home upset or just seems off. The only way to help fix the situation is with communication. This could be as simple as talking to your child at home to see what is going on and reaching out to their teacher to express your concerns.

Communication between the school and parents is vital to a child’s success. If a student is struggling with a subject, a teacher can relay that information to their parent to start a plan towards improvement. If a student is stressed and upset about something going on at home, letting their teacher know they are having a rough day can allow the teacher to be on the lookout. Building that trust with the teacher, as well as the school, can allow your child to find success.

Good communication starts from day one on Meet the Teacher Night. It is important to understand how to contact your child’s teacher and to be aware of the expectations your child will have in the classroom. Make sure the school always has up-to-date contact information for you. This is vital, not only to keep you as a parent in the loop, but to keep your child safe if emergencies occur.

Another way to keep communication flowing is to volunteer when you can. Many schools allow parents to come in and tutor or help a teacher with extra work that needs to be completed. This will allow you to be a part of your child’s life while they are going to school and help you understand what goes on from day to day.

One of the last ways that you can get involved at your child’s school would be to join the PTO. Parent Teacher Organizations can serve as extensions of the staff and help strengthen the bond between parents, teachers, administration, and your community as a whole. 

Understanding what your child does on a day-to-day basis avoids any miscommunication between schools and parents. Working as a team is best and will help our students find success.

Giving Tuesday is a day of global generosity. Whether it is time, money, or advocacy, Giving Tuesday inspires us to give back to the causes close to our hearts.

What a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Youth First’s programs and services and the positive impact they have on over 50,000 students across Indiana!

Learn more about Giving Tuesday at givingtuesday.org. You can make a donation to Youth First at our Donate Page at youthfirstinc.org/donate.

By Beth Greene, MSW, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Teens often use social media to socialize. Although the internet is an amazing tool for our children, that reality is that it can also negatively affect their mental health and safety.

It is very important that parents stay up to date on the apps their child is using, set clear expectations for internet usage, and be aware of who their children are socializing with on social media.

Over the past five years, Snapchat has emerged as a platform ripe for bullying and online predators. Bullies will create groups or make stories on their profile to display embarrassing photos, make fun of, degrade, spread rumors, and threaten their victims.

Pictures and messages directly sent to a user immediately disappear after the message is viewed, and if someone posts on his or her story, it only stays up for only 24 hours. This can make it very difficult to gather evidence when students report issues to adults.

Although pictures and messages appear to vanish, they never actually go away within the app. It should be noted that if a crime has taken place, such as death threats or potential contact with a sexual predator, law enforcement can gain access to Snapchat accounts with a warrant.

Another concerning Snapchat feature is the “Snap Map,” which displays a user’s location to their snapchat contacts. To disable this feature, an account user must go into settings to “ghost” themselves so their friends cannot see their location. If you do not “ghost” yourself, anyone on your friends list can always see your exact location. When you get into a car and drive, Snapchat will even show your friends your movements in real time.

If a Snapchat account is not private, that account can receive messages and pictures from any stranger. Even if the account is private, Snapchat has a points system set up to give more points to users with the most friends, along with other creative ways to earn points. This encourages children to accept friend requests from strangers to gain points.

Because of these features, children become victims of unsolicited inappropriate images from child predators who have easy access to our children through this app. These predators can create an online relationship with a child to exploit them and gain access to their location.

Recently Snapchat has added its first parental control called “Family Center.” To use this feature, both parent and child must have a Snapchat account and both users must accept the request to use the Family Center feature. This feature allows parents to see who is on their child’s friend list, see whom they have communicated with most often in the past seven days, and it allows parents to report concerning accounts to Snapchat’s Safety Team.

Overall, Snapchat is currently one of the most used social media apps by teens, but it continues to maintain unsafe features. Inform your children that what they post on Snapchat never goes away and that law enforcement can get a warrant for other users’ accounts if your child falls victim to an online crime. Set clear expectations for internet/social media use and talk to your child about internet safety.

By Haley Droste, MSW, LCSW

We’ve all heard it at some point: “That child needs to be spanked,” or “My parents did (insert punishment here), and I turned out fine.” Each generation has made significant changes in parenting style for a couple of reasons. One, when you know better, you should do better. Two, the world has changed, not only for adults, but also for children.

We’re navigating a completely different world now than our grandparents or even our parents did. I’ll be the first to say there are some “old school” parenting techniques that should be here to stay. Family dinners are a great example of a tried-and-true way to connect with your loved ones, but even those are drastically different than the ones our parents sat through with their parents. Gone are the days of “children should be seen and not heard,” making way for the dining room table being a place to connect with all family members discussing the highs and lows of the day.

At the core of parenting is a deep desire to raise happy, healthy, well-balanced children. At times, the power struggle between parents and their children can seem overwhelming. There must be a delicate balance between fostering an environment that allows children to feel and express their emotions while also establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.

The most important things parents can do is model healthy boundaries and take care of their own mental health. Teach your children it’s okay to take a deep breath and have a minute to themselves instead of responding while angry.

A good way to model this is handling your child calmly when they throw a fit. Instead of yelling at them and sending them to their room, explain that they need to go to their room until they’re able to communicate their needs without yelling at you. It isn’t a punishment, there isn’t a time limit involved, and they’re able to take time to decide when they’re back in control of their emotions. You’re also teaching them that speaking to someone in a disrespectful manner is unacceptable behavior.

Parenting in a gentle or respectful manner gets a reputation of not providing adequate boundaries and allowing children to run wild with their words and actions. This could not be further from the truth. When done correctly, this style of parenting sets firm boundaries about what is allowed and what is not.

Raising resilient children starts with respecting their feelings and teaching them how to communicate in a healthy way. Respecting our children’s boundaries teaches them how to respect others. In short, setting clear, respectful boundaries with your kids sets them up for success in the future. It allows them the time and the space to explore their emotions and grow in their relationships. There is nothing weak about choosing growth.

Sometimes it feels unnatural to talk about our feelings or discuss our mistakes when handling situations with our children, but in doing this we can confidently send them into the world as more well-rounded, loving individuals.

By Jennifer Kramer, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

I once had a student say to me, “I thought death only happens to people when they get old.” What a world that would be, where everyone got to live long, happy lives.

The reality is that loss is very much part of life. Grief is an experience all people will have, and it is something we all must learn. 

I think about my own life before the age of 18. I lost a great-grandmother at age six as well as our next-door neighbor. In middle school, my grandmother passed from cancer in my home. A friend my age passed away in high school in a car accident. As a school social worker, I realize these experiences shaped so much of how I help students handle loss. As much as we would like to shield kids from the heartbreak of grief, our goal should be to help them move through it.

Sometimes we forget that our children are exposed to the concept of death at a very young age. Many Disney movies center on the loss of an important family member: Coco, Encanto, Frozen, The Lion King, and Moana, just to name a few.

These movies all show different ways individuals and families heal after a loss. Watching these movies and starting conversations with your children about loss (even if your family hasn’t experienced this) can help them understand loss and be empathetic to others who may be experiencing feelings of grief.

We hear a lot about the stages of grief, but what are they? The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is no order in which a person should grieve. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person to be in one stage for a moment, move to another, and back again. Children go through the same stages of grief that adults do, but it may look different. It is not uncommon for a child to go from crying to playing in a matter of minutes. 

Where children move through the same stages as adults, they will most likely express themselves in very different ways. The website verywellfamily.com discusses different ways a child may grieve, including new academic problems, anxiety, behavioral reactions, changes in play, clinginess, developmental regression, difficulty concentrating, feelings of abandonment, guilt, or sleeping problems.

Changes in play may look like action figures, dolls or stuffed animals dying during play and then coming back to life. Your child may also blame themselves for the death of the loved one. Young children can sense the feelings of their parents and may become more irritable, and slightly older elementary age children may revert to crawling or baby talk. 

It is important to talk to children on their level. Answer the questions they ask, but don’t divulge too much information.   

Be understanding that these behaviors are normal. Be supportive of your children. Show them love and give them the space and time to feel their feelings. It is also a good idea to ask for help if you feel you need it yourself.

J

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation is investing in mental health support for Indiana youth. The organization has awarded a gift of $100,000 per year for three years to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the mental health and well-being of Indiana students.

The award was celebrated with a check presentation on Monday, October 24, during the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation’s School Board meeting. Representatives from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation and Youth First were in attendance, as well as EVSC Superintendent Dr. David Smith and the EVSC School Board.

This significant gift from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, along with funding from other sources, will enable Youth First to provide school-based social work services and prevention programs in their 12-county footprint, which includes Daviess, Dubois, Gibson, Lawrence, Martin, Morgan, Orange, Perry, Pike, Posey, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties.

“The Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation strives to improve the health of humanity by addressing health inequalities and strengthening communities across Indiana. We continue to work with our local community partners across Indiana, including Youth First, to provide meaningful solutions to achieve better health and to advance health equity,” said Ginny France, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Community Relations Representative. “We are grateful to have worked with Youth First for many years supporting local youth through a variety of programs, and once again we are honored to come together to expand resources to support the mental health and well-being of Indiana students.”

Youth First President & CEO Parri Black stated, “Our kids and families are dealing with greater stress and more challenges than ever. That’s why it’s so important to have easily accessed, skilled mental health support in school buildings, where students, parents and teachers can take full advantage of it. We are grateful for the multi-year partnership with Anthem to prevent addiction and strengthen lives.”

Youth First partners with 110 schools across 12 Indiana counties to embed skilled social workers, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. Youth First Social Workers build caring relationships, promote healthy choices, foster readiness for positive change, and boost resiliency along with other valuable life skills. There are 32 Youth First Social Workers serving 32 schools in the EVSC.

By Amy Steele, MSW, LCSW, LAC, RPT

Telling children “no” can be a difficult task for parents and caregivers. Many parents shy away from saying no, and some will do anything to keep a child from becoming upset. When adults fail to set consistent limits, children miss out on developing the important mental health and life skills they need to succeed.

Children who don’t have rules tend to feel out of control and experience anxiety.  Kids are comforted knowing adults are taking care of things and helping them stay in control. Boundaries and limits help children feel more secure, and following rules makes their lives more predictable, especially when they know what the outcome will be when they follow the rules.

Experiencing consequences when rules are broken lets kids know that the adults in their lives are not going to allow certain behaviors. This can build trust and shows children that you are reliable, you mean what you say, and you will follow through on your word. Using consistency when limit setting indicates you will also be consistent in other areas where they depend on you, lessening their anxieties.

Avoiding limits to prevent a tantrum or an argument sets our kids up for failure in the long run. If children don’t learn how to feel and cope with feelings at a young age, they will spend their life trying to avoid these feelings. If they learn at an early age that feelings are okay, even ones we don’t like, then they learn coping skills that help them make choices that result in more positive outcomes.

Children need parents to set limits on what is appropriate to keep them safe, healthy, and rested. This allows them to be prepared to achieve their goals in life and become happy, healthy, contributing members of their community. Parents must decide to teach and model positive and healthy ways to handle negative feelings, otherwise life (society, social media, video games, peers) will teach them instead.

What a gift it is to teach a child that life is full of choices. If they make a choice that isn’t the right one there are consequences, but with love and guidance, life goes on and they can do better next time.

By Abby Betz, LSW, Youth First Inc.

“I hear congratulations are in order!” If you are currently expecting or recently had a baby, you are most likely still experiencing the joys of welcoming a new child to your life.

Although bringing home a new baby is a joyous time, it can also be a challenge for parents. Adding another child to the family is a big transition. The dynamic of the entire family changes when a new baby arrives, which can cause stress and be traumatic for some kids. 

For some children, the integration of a new baby into the family can trigger some big feelings and emotional crises. A child’s transition to becoming an older sibling must be handled with compassion and empathy to preserve the child’s sense of security and self-worth. It is key for parents to provide reassurance and love to all of their children.

It is completely normal for children to feel jealous toward a new baby. Children are being asked to adjust to the shift in the amount of attention they receive from parents, and this may also trigger feelings of grief or loss. That child is no longer the center of mom or dad’s attention and affection, and these feelings can be difficult for some children to navigate.

It is important to address any feelings of abandonment a child may feel by letting them be part of the process. For example, it would be beneficial to explain to young children when and why Mommy will be away at the hospital so it is easier for them to accept when it is time for the baby to come home.  

It is best to start preparing children for the new arrival of a baby before the arrival. The goal is to help children feel a sense of connection with the baby and to become enthusiastic about its arrival. Some strategies that may be helpful include validating your child’s feelings, whether the feelings are happy or unhappy, about a new baby. If you acknowledge their frustration, children will not feel the need to suppress their feelings, which can cause problematic behaviors.

Offering children one-on-one time with each parent is vital for helping them feel special and valued. Enlisting help from other family members or friends your children have a special bond with can also be helpful. Focus on things that have not changed within the family and maintain traditions that have already been established to help strengthen your child’s sense of belonging.

Moreover, if your child does not automatically bond with a new baby, it is important not to pressure the child into a relationship and let this happen organically. By doing so, the relationship which is fostered between your child and the new sibling will be one of genuine love.