* Striking a Balance – Time Management for a New School Year

By Lisa Cossey, LCSW, Courier & Press, August 29, 2017 –

With most children already back at school for a new year, many families will find themselves in a struggle for the ages: wants versus needs.

Many families have difficulty finding a balance between work and play.  But what if the struggle is between your child’s academics and their extracurricular activities?

It would be hard to find a parent who would say academics aren’t important, but at times it seems academics are in direct competition with having fun.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for kids to have fun.  They need active and sensory experiences to help them grow and develop.  Extracurricular activities can also be a great way to develop skills.

But if your child’s academics are suffering or your child is upset, tearful, moody or more anxious than normal, it’s time to take a hard look at your family’s schedule.  And if you’re spending more time in the car than you do in your home together as a family, it’s definitely time to step back and reassess your priorities.

 What is your child doing? Do they have one activity, or two, three or four?  How many hours a day are they away from home?  How many nights a week is your family away from home?  Is your child getting enough sleep at night?

A healthy balance is needed between school and extracurricular activities.  At this point in the year, your family will soon have a good idea of how much homework your student is going to receive daily.  Evaluate what your child and family can handle.

For reference, according to Dorothy Sluss, President of the U.S. Chapter of International Play Association, for every week of intensive activity, three weeks of less structured time and activity are needed to maintain a healthy balance for children.

If your child’s grades are not what they used to be, or if they are having more incomplete or missing work, it may be necessary to back off the wants and focus on the needs.  It is OK to drop an activity due to falling grades or place a limit on how many activities your child is able to join to keep a healthy balance.  Putting academics ahead of sports, scouts  and dance is OK too.

We have a culture that encourages and supports many sports and other activities.  Encouragement is great.  The issue is when children feel pressured to commit and join.  It is OK to say no.  It is OK to put your family’s needs first.  It is OK to limit the number of activities your family is involved in.

If you have concerns for your child or need further ideas on how to strike the right balance for your family, please feel free to reach out to your child’s teacher or to the Youth First School Social Worker at their school. We are here to help.

* Encouraging a Positive Body Image

By Brooke Skipper, LCSW, Courier & Press, August 22, 2017 –

The word “FAT” …we’ve all said it about ourselves.  We eat a big meal or try on an outfit and declare, “I feel so FAT!”

Like all things we say and do, our children pick up on this “feeling” of being fat.  They watch us pinch and poke and criticize our bodies in the mirror; then they model that same behavior.

The end result is a new generation of kids with negative body images and all the consequences that come with it.

Young people with a positive body image feel more comfortable and confident in their ability to succeed in life.  They don’t obsess about calorie intake or their weight.  They understand that eating is about fueling their body to enjoy physical activity and remain healthy.  They see their body as beautiful for the things it accomplishes, not its outward appearance.

On the other hand, when children have a negative body image, they feel more self-conscious, anxious  and depressed.  They are at greater risk for developing eating disorders and unhealthy habits in general.

 So, what can we do as parents to help promote a healthy, positive body image in our children?  Here are five ways you can instill this in your child.
  1. First and foremost, we need to check our own body image issues.  Our children think we are beautiful. If they hear us constantly putting ourselves down or expressing a desire to change the way we look, they will begin to question their view of their own bodies.  Pay attention to how you talk about food and weight.  Model positive body imaging in all you do.
  2. Talk in terms of what is healthy, not in terms of weight.  Never use words like fat or skinny.  Use the words healthy and unhealthy.  (i.e.- It is healthy for us to eat nutritious meals every day to fuel our body for the energy we need to do our day-to-day tasks.  It is healthy for us to be physically active and keep our body functioning at its best.  It is unhealthy to restrict calories or starve ourselves.  Make eating healthy, balanced meals and getting exercise part of everyday life so it becomes routine habit, not just a way to lose weight.)
  3. Eliminate the myth of the picture-perfect body.  Children are inundated with media images constantly.  In television, movies  and magazines, they see unrealistic bodies and believe those images are what they need to attain.  Beyond the Photoshop world of standard media, children have a steady stream of social media on their electronic devices.  This makes it so easy to compare their body type to that of their peers and to obsess over the perfect selfie angles and filters to achieve the look that will garner the most “likes.”  Remind your child that beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
  4. Be holistic in your compliments to your child.  Particularly with girls, it is habit to compliment their appearance.  Instead, use compliments that address your child’s skills, strengths and personal qualities.  Remind your child there is so much more to her than the way she looks.
  5. Be aware of body changes at puberty  and avoid commenting on size or shape of body parts.  Children’s bodies can change dramatically at puberty, leading some children to feel insecure about their bodies.  Puberty also happens at different times for children, so lack of change can lead to your child feeling insecure as well.  It is important to talk to children about the normal changes to expect at puberty to help prepare them.  Being sensitive to these changes helps your child feel more comfortable with their body and you.
Remember, boys are just as susceptible to developing a negative body image as girls.  It is important to apply these tips to all children.  Like most things in parenting, a healthy, happy, body-positive child starts with you!

* It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, August 15, 2017 –

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb seems to be even more relevant in 2017, with working parents and single parents (and the accompanying family “busyness” that has become the norm) trying to raise a family.

And yet, even though it seems that the support of a “village” is so desperately needed, it often seems like this concept has somewhat disappeared from our society.

Raising children is a difficult task for which no one is ever completely prepared.  There are situations where support from others is not only warranted but also desired by the parent.

Often in our individualistic society, offering support to a fellow parent is considered improper and viewed as “stepping on toes.”  However, this mindset can lead to lonely, stressed parents, which then leads to stressed children.

Often risk factors are examined to explain why some children are more likely than others to “be successful” and overcome challenges.  Coupled with risk factors are protective factors, which can help the child take steps toward success.

According to the National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, protective factors “are conditions in families and communities that, when present, increase the health and well-being of children and families.”  Examples of protective factors include social connections for parents as well as concrete supports for parents.

Offering support to a fellow parent does not have to be time-consuming or overly personal.  Following are simple ways in which support can be given:

  • Invite the family to a social function you are planning to attend such as a church event or neighborhood picnic.  Such events give adults the ability to connect with one another and form friendships that can lead to additional support.
  • Offer a kind word and a smile to a parent that has a child having a meltdown at the store, park or other place.  An empathetic response and assurance that every parent has experienced a public meltdown by a child is likely to be appreciated.
  • Focus on the big picture by recognizing that people parent in different ways but the ultimate goal is to raise happy, healthy children.  Getting hung up on differences such as appropriate consequences can lead to additional division rather than support.  No two parents will likely agree about how to handle every situation involving a child, but accepting that there are numerous ways to parent is important.
  • If you know the family and feel comfortable, offer to set up a carpool system or swap babysitting services.  Thirty minutes of child-free house cleaning can be a huge support to a parent and not overly burdensome for you.

* Helping Your Child Transition to High School

By Valorie Dassel, LCSW, LCAC, Courier & Press, August 8, 2017 –

The transition from elementary or middle school to high school can come with a wave of emotions for both students and parents.

Often times, there is excitement surrounding the new environment, both socially and academically.  Anxiety is commonly experienced among incoming freshmen.  These anxieties often stem from social and academic changes.

The opportunities for change can increase a  sense of self and positively affect academics.  As parents, it is important to nurture our teenager’s development during this transition.

In a retrospective research study conducted by Akos and Galassi (2004), adolescents identify homework and grades as the most difficult aspect of transitioning to high school.  Often times, high school courses demand more studying and homework outside of the classroom.

Parents should talk with their teen about academic expectations.  Discussions should include preparing them to increase organizational strategies, time management and good study habits.

If elementary or middle school has been easy for a teen, they may begin high school with a relaxed attitude toward grades.  If high school proves to be more academically challenging for them, the teen may have a difficult transition.

Priorities for a teenager can often be difficult to navigate. Students may want to do well academically, but new social opportunities may interfere with academic success.  During this developmental stage, friends become just as important to the teen as their family, and they also want instant gratification.

When they are faced with the choice of doing their homework or hanging out with friends, they may opt for the more immediate and “fun” reward of socializing.  Parents can lend support by encouraging set study times and monitoring assignments being turned in on time through the school’s website.

High school includes social adjustments as well.  Typically, the high school student is coming from a social network where they knew exactly where they fit in to an unknown social environment in a new and larger student body.  This change offers exciting opportunities for most.  For the student who has desired different or more friendships in elementary or middle school, it offers the opportunity to reinvent and develop many more relationships.

Throughout freshman year, social groups tend to go through many transitions.  Often times, new friends are added to established groups of friends.  Sports and extra-curricular interests involve an increased amount of time spent together and new friendships are formed.

With a larger student body, there is greater opportunity to find friends who share similar interests and values.  Parents should encourage involvement in activities to promote social connectedness and the protective factors provided.  Spending time constructively makes it less likely the teen will be involved in negative social behaviors.

If the social adjustment is not what your teen expected, they could be struggling with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression.  Open communication at this time is crucial.

Communicate understanding and brainstorm peers they have something in common with.  They often lack the social awareness to build friendships.  Work with them on how to initiate conversations and suggest non-intimidating ways to “hang out” outside of school to nurture friendships.  This will give them the skills necessary to work through their social difficulties.

The transition to high school offers many exciting opportunities.  There are also going to be difficulties on this journey.  Maintaining an open and positive relationship and communication between parent and teen will make it easier on the entire family.

*Create a Sense of Purpose for Youth

By Wendy Lynch, MSW, Courier & Press, August 1, 2017 –

After a busy day helping kids as a school social worker, I often come home from work feeling the need to decompress.  Many days I find myself trying to process the daily struggles of my students.

My husband and I regularly discuss what it means to help a child in need.  How can I serve all the kids I meet with effectively?

There are many directions this conversation can go, but one concept we often discuss is the necessity for  youth  to feel a part of something — a need for connection, a sense of belonging  or perhaps best said, a sense of purpose.

Research shows that teens and young adults that seek purpose have higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness.  While recognizing these needs is important, the more challenging component is to how best connect  youth  to this sense of purpose.

When I recently listened to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg give an eloquent commencement speech to Harvard University graduates, I was impassioned by his message of “purpose,” because it was so reflective of many of my interactions with the kids I serve through  Youth  First.  Mr. Zuckerberg’s thesis was that “finding your purpose isn’t enough; the challenge is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”  (You can find Zuckerberg’s speech on You Tube.)

 With this in mind, I often find my conversations with distressed  youth  gravitating toward  the things in life they care about — people, ideas, and dreams — and how I can best point them toward  these  connections.  So how might one do this?  Zuckerberg offers three concepts that can help you lead your child towards a sense of connection, belonging and purpose:

  1. Encourage participation in something bigger than yourself.  Examples include community service, sports, drama, music  or clubs.
  2. Try to create the feeling or environment where the child is needed.
  3. Help facilitate an environment, attitudes  and goals where there is always something better ahead to work towards.

In my experience, I believe it is productive to help your child see a bright future and focus on what is to come rather than what is in the past.  According to William Damon, author of “The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life,” benefits can include living longer and healthier; valuing humility, gratitude and integrity; being more academically engaged; being more pro-socially oriented and engaged; being interested in how their actions affect others  and more.

The teen years are a time to explore one’s inner and outer world and seek new experiences.  Hopefully, these experiences will also create time for self-reflection so that teens can discover what gives their life purpose and meaning – what makes them feel alive.  Parents can set an example for their teen by modeling a sense of purpose in their own lives.

Guide your teen toward finding their purpose in life.  Help them break down their purpose into achievable goals and take action to support them until they’ve achieved their goals.  Pride in what they accomplish and service to others can build a capacity for a greater purpose that endures into their life well beyond the teen years.