By Jenna Kruse, LSW, Youth First, Inc.

Over the last decade, there has been a boom in technology advancement and an increase in screen time for both adults and children. As a result, there has also been a noticeable increase in stress, anxiety, and depression.

According to The Very Well Family, the average amount of time American children spend on a device is four to six hours per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour a day for children ages two to five and no screen time for children under eighteen months.

The benefits of limiting screen time for your child would include, but are not limited to: improved sleep habits, better focus and brain function, increased academic success, decrease in obesity, better vision, and lower risk of anxiety and depression.

As we all know, limiting screen time is easier said than done in a society where we are so connected on social media, Zoom, and FaceTime. Beyond communication, we also use our devices frequently for entertainment.

The following are specific strategies for setting screen time limits at home:

  1. Set your daily limit and stick to it. Doing this establishes clear rules for your child. This will be difficult at first, but after a short time your child will learn what to expect. Try your best not to give in to bargaining and tantrums from your child, as this will become a learned skill to acquire more time on their device.
  1. Do not allow your child to have any electronic devices in their bedroom. Children who have devices in their bedroom get less quality sleep and are more tempted to use their device. Set a “bedtime” for your child’s device each night. Have your children plug their device into the charger in a designated space outside their bedroom at a specific time. Set clear boundaries and expectations.
  1. Monitor the content your child is taking in and sending out. Children are impulsive and can click on links that allow access to information they should not be receiving. Your child’s device is your device. Monitor the texts they are sending and receiving; this will allow for teachable moments and discussions as needed.
  1. Create “phone free spaces.” This boundary ensures that balance is found and that time on a device is not taking away from personal connections. This could look like setting all devices on airplane mode during family dinner or family game night.

Studies show that new habits generally take a week to a month to form, but once changes are made, it does not take long to notice improvements. Your child’s healthy future will be worth every tantrum, bargaining session, or disagreement over your new boundaries to decrease screen time.

Technology can be a very positive thing as it allows for learning and connection. Allowing your child to use a device is okay, but help your child find a healthy balance.

By Ashley Hale, LCSW

“Nobody likes me.”  “I hate school.” “Something is wrong with me.”  “I don’t care about anything.”

As a school social worker, these are common sentiments I hear when talking with students. I think it is safe to say we all sometimes struggle with negative thoughts, but these thoughts are becoming more prevalent in our homes and schools, especially with teens. 

The teen years can be difficult, as a lot of changes, new responsibilities, and expectations emerge. Helping our teens navigate these changes and emotions is challenging, but vital.   

How can we positively influence how teens feel about themselves without so much pushback? It’s important to understand that teens desire privacy, space, and independence as a normal part of their development. This makes it more challenging for parents and caregivers to get them to open up to have genuine conversations. 

Here are some tips to help facilitate meaningful conversations with your teen and promote a positive self-image:

  1. Be authentic. Teens can detect when someone is not being authentic, and this is the key to creating the respect and rapport necessary to build a positive relationship. I highly encourage you to learn about the teenage brain. This will help you gain insight into their thought processes and empathize with their experiences.  
  1. Let them know you care by listening. Sometimes we worry so much about what we are going to say that we forget to open our ears. Listen to your teen while also showing positive regard. Be present in conversations and follow through with your commitments. Put your phone down, nod, and make eye contact. Most teens are more likely to share when they feel less pressure for details and are more in control of the conversation. Watch their mood and body language. Verbalize that you can see this is a hard situation for them. Let them know they don’t have to explain everything right now, but you are there for them when they’re ready. Tell them you love them and show physical affection with hugs if they are okay with that.  
  1. Ask them what they need. Most often, teens don’t want a lecture, they want to be heard. Active listening will open the door. Ask them regularly about their day with specific questions that you change up. Examples: “What was the hardest part of your day?” “What is your favorite class right now and why?” Point out specific skills and strengths. Focus more on providing praise than criticism.  
  1. Don’t avoid the hard conversations. Conversations about sexual health, gender, relationships, consent, drugs and alcohol, and other challenging conversations are hard, but they are essential.  
  1. Take a deep breath before you respond. It’s not uncommon for the things teens share with you to trigger worry, anxiety, and the desire to fix it for them. This often causes us to over respond. Responding with a lecture is likely to shut the conversation down. Note your internal thoughts, take a deep breath, and think about what you needed when you were their age. It is okay to say something like, “I love you. I don’t quite understand this right now, but we can figure it out together. What can I do to help right now?”

Remember, teens will make mistakes. It’s how they learn. Talking to teens can be challenging and takes a lot of patience, but it is worth the effort. You will build a strong rapport and will help them create a positive self-image during the process.  

CenterPoint Energy Foundation is investing in Indiana youth. The organization has awarded $100,000 to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the mental health and well-being of students at Delaware Elementary School and Glenwood Leadership Academy in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC).

This significant gift from CenterPoint Energy Foundation, along with funding from other sources, will enable Youth First to provide school-based social work services and prevention programs at Delaware and Glenwood.

Speaking at a check presentation at Glenwood on October 6, Amanda Schmitt, CenterPoint Foundation President, stated: “This gift is part of our commitment to seeing communities thrive and seeing students reach their potential. As you all know, the last two years have been really difficult and I am so honored to partner with organizations like Youth First to ensure the last two years don’t define the next ten years. We want to make sure our students at Delaware and Glenwood continue to succeed and learn.”

Dr. David Smith, Superintendent of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, remarked, “CenterPoint is investing in the communities they serve so we can write our own future, rather than being defined by the past. There’s nothing more noble or worthy than investing in our youth to help them have a better life.”

Glenwood Principal Angela Oliver said, “Here at Glenwood, we believe in growing the whole child. We’re very committed to making sure our students are socially, emotionally and mentally healthy. We know our students can’t learn on the academic front until all of those other needs are met, so it’s a high priority for us. Youth First Social Worker Tiffany Austin has been here for 10 years and has created relationships and trust with our families. When they need something, they know our school is the hub of the community and they can call the office and ask to speak to Mrs. Austin to help meet some of those extra needs beyond academics. She is the face of GLA (Glenwood Leadership Academy).”

Youth First is addressing the growing need for mental health support in school buildings, partnering 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.

By Leah Lottes, LSW

There is no denying it. Students face a lot of change and stress as they navigate their high school years. Seniors, in particular, face an overwhelming amount of stress and decisions about the future. As soon as you become a senior, the questions begin and people start asking, “What are your plans after high school?” “Do you plan on going to college?” “What are you going to study in college?”

These questions are great conversation starters and a way to get to know someone better, but they can also be very overwhelming for a high school senior. It’s hard to know what you want to do with your life when you’re just 18 years old.

There are many ways to help support kids throughout their senior year. Helping students identify positive coping skills can be beneficial when they are experiencing stress. We spend a lot of time preparing students for their academic futures, but we also want to prepare them emotionally and socially. Building on emotional regulation and distress tolerance strengthens skills they can carry into adulthood.

Another way to help seniors navigate the last year of high school is to encourage the pursuit of interests and talents. Parents and educators can invite professionals in different fields of study to discuss the possibility of job shadowing or interning, and they can help students establish realistic career goals.

One of the biggest ways to show support for seniors is to encourage them every step of the way. When I meet with high school students who are unsure about what to do after graduation, I always reassure them it is okay be undecided about the future. I encounter some students who are not interested in going to college. I often remind these students that all jobs are important and necessary.

Personally, I started college as an undecided major, and I think it was the best choice for me. It eventually led me to discover the field of social work. I would always panic a little when one of my friends announced their plans for after graduation while I was still unsure about what college to attend or which major to choose. I think it’s good to remind seniors that it’s okay to take extra time when making important decisions.

A lot of pressure is put on seniors to figure out their career paths, and I believe the best way to guide them is to support their career choices and encourage them to do what they think feels right (while being realistic). Overall, helping students navigate their senior year is not always an easy task, but having support systems in place and encouragement from family and friends is a step in the right direction.

By Emily Bernhardt, LSW

Divorce impacts both parents and children within a family. Depending on a child’s age when divorce occurs, it can affect a child’s behavior in different ways. Learning the most common effects of divorce can guide parents through difficult interactions and can also help lessen the stress your child may be feeling.
             

While infants and toddlers may not fully understand what is happening when it comes to divorce, they can sense when there is tension between their parents. This can cause irritability and could cause your child to become clingy and insecure. This can also lead to regression that may look like a developmental delay.  

When it comes to the infant and toddler age range, it is best to provide as much consistency as possible so your child can feel familiarity and stability. Your child may also need extra attention and reassurance. If your child is a toddler, it is a good idea to explain the divorce to them using words they can easily understand.
             

Preschoolers and kindergarteners will often feel confused about their parents’ divorce and may even feel responsible. It is important to explain the divorce in simple, concrete ways, such as where the child will stay, how often they will see each parent, etc.  

Parents should be prepared for their child to ask plenty of questions and should also make sure to answer each question as best as they can. Anger, anxiety, sadness, or even uncertainty of how to feel are all very common ways for children at this age to express themselves in this situation.
             

Children between the ages of 7 and 11 will be able to grasp the concept of divorce better at this age. Older children will also have a better understanding of their own emotions, which will likely cause them to be more affected by their parents’ separation. It is common for children to feel a sense of abandonment, causing them to attempt to stop the separation from happening.  

As older children age, it can be common for them to place blame on one parent or take sides. Therefore, it is important to make sure the parents are engaging in clear communication and avoiding placing blame on one another.
             

Preteens and teenagers are more likely than younger children to place blame on someone. They may place blame on one or both parents, or they may even blame themselves. Teens and preteens may also begin to question the authority of the parents, especially the parent they do not live with on a regular basis. Anxiety, anger, sadness, and even acting out are common responses to divorce. It is best to have open communication with your child and to try and connect with them even more than before.
             

It is so important to be aware of the common effects divorce can have on children, so you can do your best to lessen the stress your child is feeling. Be aware, communicate with your child regularly, and give them the space to express how they are feeling. Creating positive interactions with your child through this change can make all the difference. 

By Kelsey Weber, LCSW

The 2022-2023 school year is in session and many teachers are witnessing the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on learning. With students returning to in-person learning, teachers are noticing a large learning gap.

According to the Horace Mann Educators Corporation, teachers are reporting significant learning loss for many students, both academically, socially, and emotionally. Data from the CDC is also showing that virtual learning presents more risks than in-person learning related to parent and child mental and emotional health. Teachers have estimated their students are behind by more than three months. 

A separate study by McKinsey & Company found similar results that revealed virtual learning was a poor substitute for in-person learning. Some teachers reported the overall effectiveness of virtual learning only slightly better than skipping school completely. Educators in schools with higher percentages of low-income families found that virtual learning was ineffective and students struggled more. This is particularly true among black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities.

One of the biggest obstacles teachers faced when they returned to teaching in-person was the gap between high-performing students and those who struggle academically. So, where do we go from here? As teachers, what can we do to help our students succeed?

1.)   Listen to your students’ concerns. It is essential as educators to demonstrate understanding as well as empathy. Offer one-on-one conversations with your students to show you care, want to listen, and help.

2.)   Check in with your students often. Some may need more time to complete a task or to understand an assignment. When working in the classroom, provide students with opportunities to take breaks, move around, and talk with their peers.

3.)   Watch for changes in behaviors. If you notice changes, check in with that student and seek additional support from your school counselor or social worker. For example, if a student is coming to class each day crying, have a conversation about why they are upset. Providing extra support and watching for these signs can help bridge the gap.

4.)   Offer after school support for students. Offering an afterschool program or meeting time can be beneficial for students who are falling behind. This will allow one-on-one time with your student and time to ask questions, catch up on work, and work at their own pace.

5.)   Stay connected with your students and families. If you notice a student is struggling, reach out to the student and their family. More than likely, if they are showing signs of stress at school they are showing signs at home as well.

6.)   Take care of yourself. Working in education has its own challenges, but more so post-pandemic. Be sure to know your limits, maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits, rest, exercise, connect with friends and family, and seek support when you need it.

By Katherine Baker, LCSW, LCAC

Most people are looking for ways to be more confident in their daily lives. But what exactly is self-confidence? According to Webster’s Dictionary, “Self-Confidence is defined as confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.”  

A lot of people do not realize that manners and self-confidence are closely related. Combine these qualities with self-esteem, and you have the building blocks to becoming a healthy and productive human being. Parents have the responsibility of role modeling good manners and self-confidence for their children. Children learn how to function as a human being by what they observe from the caregivers in their lives.

When you know the proper way to act, you show respect for yourself and others.  People are always watching each other. Adults should be a positive role model for those around them. As adults, you are teaching young people how to respond to daily situations. I would encourage you to do your best and always try to do the right thing. Show love, support, and encouragement to build others up versus tearing them down with negative words and actions.  

What are basic good manners?  This basic list includes the following:

1.  Be thoughtful.

2.  Be cheerful.

3.  Be generous. 

4.  Be cooperative. 

5.  Be helpful.

6.  Don’t be bossy. 

7.  Don’t put people down or say rude things. 

8.  Respect the privacy of others. 

9.  Be on time for appointments.

10.  Be honest.

Implementing and practicing these 10 positive manners can lead one to feel more in control, feel better about yourself (self-respect), reduce stress, and allow for a general sense of peace.

Keep in mind that all of these factors are intertwined, and some days are easier than others. Give yourself grace if you do the wrong thing. Apologize genuinely and say you are sorry for your behavior if you do something to negatively impact others. Make it a priority not to repeat harmful actions.

It is important that you practice being a good human being, as well as role modeling for others the good and not the bad. Remember that your kind words may be that person’s only “pick-me up” or encouragement received that day. It costs nothing to say “hello” and smile at others as you walk by them.

Life is difficult. You do not know what trials in daily living others are going through.   To say the least, these past two years have been stressful for everyone. Be nice and support your fellow human beings.

By Amanda Haney, LSW

According to the CDC, electronic cigarettes or vapes have been the most used tobacco product by youths since 2014. Many teens believe that partaking in e-cigarettes or vapes is “no big deal.” Due to this perception, the use of e-cigarettes or vapes amongst teens is rising.

Vape products work by heating a liquid until it becomes a vapor, which is then inhaled. The liquid that is being inhaled can contain oils, marijuana, and most commonly, nicotine. In 2021, the CDC reported that one out of 35 middle school students and one out of every nine high school students reported using an e-cigarette or vape in the past 30 days.

According to childmind.org, addiction is different for teens. This is due to the way a teenage brain develops, which makes teens more susceptible to addiction and poor decision making. Nicotine found in vape products can harm the developing adolescent brain.

Many e-cigarette smokers and vape users believe the use of vaping products is a safer alternative to other forms of tobacco use and will help them quit using tobacco. However, the use of e-cigarettes or vaping products is highly addictive, and some studies have shown they can be more difficult to quit than traditional cigarettes. This is due to the increased amount of nicotine in the e-cigarette or vape.

There are many factors that can lead to a teen’s decision to use an e-cigarette or vape. They may see loved ones or friends using. Companies tend to design packaging to enhance the appeal of vaping for teens with different flavors and varieties. Additionally, vaping products are cheaper and easier to acquire than traditional tobacco products. Vaping is also easier to hide from authority figures than traditional cigarettes.

There are several health risks that have been attributed to the use of e-cigarettes or vapes. Some of these are addiction, anxiety and depression, acid reflux, sleep problems, increase in thirst due to dehydration of the mouth and throat, chronic cough, nosebleeds, exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, chronic bronchitis, and lung damage that can be life threatening.

Additionally, the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products is known to increase heart rate and blood pressure, leading to increased circulatory problems. The long-term effects of e-cigarettes and vapes are still being studied.

The main action parents can take to prevent nicotine addiction is to communicate with teens about why e-cigarettes and vapes are dangerous. Provide a safe space for your child to discuss their feelings when it comes to their use of these products. Give them language to combat peer pressure and help them say, “No thank you” when offered.

Help your child understand their triggers when it comes to vape use and talk about alternative coping skills your teen can use when they are feeling stressed or having cravings. Provide them with the support and help they may need to prevent or overcome nicotine dependence and address other mental health needs.

By Angel Wagner, LSW

Whether we remember them fondly or not, many of us would agree that our teenage years had their share of challenging moments. While teenagers are going through the adventure of figuring out who they are and who they want to become, their bodies are going through physical changes that can be overwhelming for some teens. 

Teenagers regularly compare themselves to others to try to fit in. Therefore, they are often social media’s best “customers.” Constant comparison to their peers and social media influencers can create insecurities as teens try to attain the “perfect” body or the “perfect” lifestyle. This lowers a teen’s self-esteem exponentially and can lead to drastic habits like extreme diets and overexercising. You can help your teen practice body positivity to help them realize the “perfect body” is the body they live in now.

As stated before, teenagers practically live on social media. One of the more popular platforms for this age group is Instagram, which consists of individuals posting pictures and sharing their life online. Many of these photos can be photoshopped and tagged with lines such as #beachbody, #skinnylegend, or #thinspiration.

There are dark sides to many social media websites where eating disorders such as anorexia are depicted as something to strive for. However, many social media platforms have lighter sides too. There are many influencers who don’t photoshop themselves to fit the mold of what an influencer is supposed to look like. They proudly show who they are with tags such as #bodypositivity, #beautifullife, and #anti-diet. These influencers strive to show others there is much more to life than a perfect beach body.

The influence of media isn’t just in our phones. It’s everywhere. When in line at the grocery store there are magazines detailing how celebrities drop weight for a role in a movie, or how influencers use supplements to look “perfect” for the red carpet. Be conscious of what your teen is reading and encourage them to read body positive content.

Whether you realize it or not, you are your teen’s biggest influence. Growing up in a home filled with negative self-talk will have your teen looking at themselves in an unflattering light. Use body positivity yourself to model for your teen. Help them focus on the great qualities and talents they possess instead of dwelling on the negative messages of social media and Hollywood.

And finally, make a point to tell your teen how proud you are of them and the person they are becoming. Help them realize that extreme change isn’t needed. Who they already are is perfect.

Support Youth First by purchasing half pot raffle tickets now! The winner will be drawn on September 5, 2021. Raffle tickets can be purchased from Youth First staff and board members, at the Youth First office Monday through Friday 8am to 12pm, or by filling out the contact form here.