Health Features

Big Support for Young Minds

While childhood and adolescence are often exciting, carefree times, they can come with growing pains as well, both physical and emotional. Kids and teens can experience just as much stress and anxiety as adults, and they may need a little extra support to deal with it. Local experts share what parents can do to provide proper guidance.

behavioral health
If you suspect your child is struggling with their emotional, social or psychological well-being, there are many services in place to help. “One of the most important things is to get rid of the stigma around mental and behavioral health issues,” says Chris Noll, director of admissions for Great Circle and a licensed social worker. “Everyone has a moment when they need extra assistance.” Noll says families can reach out directly to Great Circle. The nonprofit offers a spectrum of services to support people through some of life’s toughest challenges, including an alternative school, counseling, parenting support and autism services. Your child’s pediatrician and school also can offer assistance, he adds. “If something seems off, there should be no hesitation to ask questions and start the process of getting help,” he notes. “The worst thing that could happen is you are pointed in another direction to find a solution.”

signs your child or teen might be struggling:
mood changes: Intense feelings like anger or fear for no apparent reason; mood swings; lack of motivation
difficulty concentrating: A change in school performance, like struggling with subjects he or she once performed well in; inability to sit still
behavior changes: Odd sleeping hours or difficulty sleeping; change in appetite or eating habits; withdrawal from activities he or she previously enjoyed; dangerous or risky behaviors
substance abuse: Using drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms
self-harm: Behaviors like cutting or burning; suicidal thoughts or actions

mainstreaming
Placing students in special schools can raise questions of when or if it’s appropriate to reintroduce them into the general education population. “The end goal is always to return them to a less restrictive environment,” Noll says. “We want to teach them coping mechanisms so they can function in everyday life.” He explains that at Great Circle, the decision most often is determined by the team who has worked with the students. “We want them to be actively engaging in therapy and ready to talk about what’s going on,” he notes, adding that some students choose to stay at Great Circle for their entire academic career.

While they may have been evaluated as ready to mainstream into regular school, Noll says parents still can provide important support to their children. “With any transition, there can be a lot of anxiety, and this is no exception,” he explains. “They might be worried about bullying or exposure to what triggered the issues initially.” He suggests maintaining open communication and letting them know that their feelings are normal and valid. “Don’t just tell them they’re OK or to get over it,” he says. “If it’s true anxiety, it needs to be talked about.”

gun violence  
Mass shootings, especially in schools, seem to be shockingly prevalent in today’s society, and the news media bring the tragedy directly into our homes. When is the best time to start talking to kids about firearm safety and acts of violence? “Parents are the best experts on their own kids,” says Dr. Ken Haller, a SLUCare pediatrician. “Being attuned to their emotional state is important. You’re going to know best when these topics are weighing on their minds.”

elementary school
Reassurance. Haller says one of the most important things to note when talking to younger children is that these acts of violence are rare and unusual. “Younger children especially may worry that it will happen at their school, so it’s important to reassure them that adults are going to take care of them,” adds Dr. Kyle John, a psychiatrist with Mercy Kids. “Put it in perspective for them because you don’t want unnecessary worrying.”
Response Plan. Have an emergency plan for gun violence like you do for fires and other emergencies, and practice it with your children. “Let them know if something happens, there is a plan to help keep them safe,” John says.
Monitor Media. Haller suggests restricting younger children’s access to the news as you would other inappropriate media. “It would be ideal if it was a thoughtful conversation about what’s going on, but the reality is, news media are created by organizations that want to draw in viewers,” he says. “It’s important for parents to keep that in mind when letting their kids watch.”
Firm Boundaries. When it comes to teaching your children about firearms, John says you should take a ‘stranger danger’ approach. “At the developmental level, they’re not going to understand the issues, so make it more of a hard stop,” he says. “You should establish that guns are dangerous, and if they find one, they should not touch it and should go find an adult.”

middle school
Smartphone Warning. Media intake is harder to manage for middle- and high-schoolers, especially once smartphones are introduced into the equation. John suggests talking with your kids about general safety before giving them their own phones.
Start the Conversation. As children get older, they may be more hesitant to start a conversation about their fears and concerns, according to Haller. Acting quieter and being reluctant to talk are signs that something is really bothering them, and it could be a major source of anxiety. He suggests broaching the topic yourself by talking about your own feelings. “Knowing that they aren’t alone with their emotional responses is important,” he says.
Deeper Discussion. The ‘stranger danger’ approach isn’t as effective now. Address them on a more cognitive level and explain why guns are dangerous, John says. “As they get older, the conversation can evolve,” he explains.

high school
Take Action. Haller says that as students get older, learning about violence, especially in schools, may incite a desire to advocate for gun control. Help them get involved with visiting and writing local legislators. “Advocacy gives kids a sense of power,” he explains. “It allows them to help make the world a better place.”
Safety First. Instead of a zero-tolerance approach to firearms, high-schoolers can be taught gun safety. “Teenagers often aren’t thinking about consequences, but they also want to experiment more,” John says. “You should keep talking to them and include more education about the topic, especially if they have any access to guns through activities like hunting.”

what should be in your child’s backpack this winter
▪ tissues: Runny noses, sneezes and coughs are unavoidable this time of year. Help stop the spread of germs with a pack of Kleenex.
hand sanitizer: The CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective for killing flu viruses, and other varieties can help stop the spread of other cold- weather germs.
lip balm:  Colder weather can leave kiddos’ lips chapped, dry and cracked. Make sure they have something on hand to soothe them.
▪ fresh fruit: Swap out processed, sugary snacks in your child’s lunch for apples, oranges or strawberries for an immune system boost.

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