4 Tips for Talking with Children and Teens After a School Shooting

Following the events at Santa Fe High School that occurred last week, parents are curious about what to say or how to address this tragedy with their children and teens. As a school counselor and psychotherapist, I know firsthand the amount of emotional turmoil these events can reek havoc on the family and school settings.

There is much advice on the internet about how to address this; however, if you keep these tips in mind you will be able to navigate through this conversation in an effective manner:

1.       Ask Questions and Discuss What Your Child is Seeing on Social Media

Most children and teens utilize smartphones to access the majority of their information regarding current events. As an adult, it is easier to decipher between “fake news” and evidence based information regarding the tragedy. If you have not already, sit down with your child or teen and ask what type of information they have gathered regarding the shooting and ask them to show you where the found it. Ask them how they know the information is credible. If they struggle to understand, take this as a teachable moment and show your son or daughter how to look up news articles, teaching them which resources are most credible and which ones are not (think Wikipedia, friends sharing social media posts). As a rule of thumb, if it didn’t come from a news source it’s important to fact check.

2.  Don’t Tell Someone in an Emotional State “Just Calm Down”

It can be challenging figuring out how to help your child or teen emotionally regulate after a traumatic event. Many times our own distress and frustration can get in the way of helping us information gather, rather than put a band aid on the presenting problem. How many times as parents have we used the overstated, “Just calm down already!” in high emotional situations. This statement invalidates the feelings your child is experiencing. Instead try something like “Yes, this is a scary situation and I understand your emotion. How can I help you through these feelings right now?”

3.       Don’t Sugar Coat It

A majority of advice I see on the internet states the importance of reiterating the safety in our schools and enforcing that the likelihood of a shooting happening in THEIR school is minimal. I tend to discourage sugar coating this issue. The reality is school shootings are becoming a “new normal” for this generation. Students in school today have more active shooter drills than fire drills, and are very aware that there is a possibility a shooting can occur. Instead normalize their feelings of fear and anxiety, discuss safeguards in place at their specific school, and rehearse the plan provided by your child or teens school.

4.       Assess for PTSD Symptoms Early

Sometime after the trauma has occurred, it is important to assess exactly what your child experienced especially if they were a victim or in the school during the time of the shooting. When your child is ready, ask them what they saw, experienced, and their involvement with the incident. If you notice symptoms such as avoiding school, recurrent distressing dreams, or persistent negative emotional states that last for more than a month than it is time to seek treatment. Your child may have early signs of PTSD which is a mental illness that cannot resolve itself without mental health professional intervention.

If you or someone you love is looking for therapeutic services in the Palm Beach Gardens area contact Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI at 405-323-1786 for a free 30 minute phone consultation to see if I would be the right fit for you today!

The Importance of Mothers (and Other Parental Figures)

This weekend we celebrated all the hard-working, dedicated, and loving mothers and mother figures for Mother’s Day. This week’s blog post is dedicated to all the wonderful mothers (and parental figures) out there!

Harry Harlow, a psychologist in the 1960’s understood the importance of parental figures to the social-emotional development of humans. Prior to his study with monkeys, many people believed babies and children depended on their mother’s due to their need for a food source and survival.

Harlow thought different, he felt the comfort provided by caretakers was also a factor to development, and he was right!

Harlow studied the effect of monkeys on two different types of “mother figures”. One “mother figure” made of wire only had the monkey food, the other had no monkey food but was covered in a comforting terry cloth. Harlow was fascinated when he noticed the monkeys would spend the majority of time with the terry cloth mother, running only to the wire mother just long enough to fill up on milk. Harlow founded the importance of love, compassion, and validation to our development thanks to this intriguing psychological study.

For humans, the same is true. It has been proven time and time again that children with secure attachments to their parental figures have the best chances at healthy physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development. Love, encouragement, and compassion given by parental figures is vital to effective growth and sends the message that our children can trust in us to meet their needs.

A recent study even linked parent-child communication to children’s successes. The study founded that quality conversations were a key factor in successful development. These imperative interactions foster connectedness to our families. Warm and positive communication with purpose help children more accurately understand family values, morals, appropriate communication skills, and increases confidence and self-esteem.

If you’re having trouble finding time to have conversations with your child, take the car ride to and from school or doctor’s appointments as an opportunity. Ask your child or teen open ended questions to get them talking about their feelings and day. Instead of “What did you do at school today?” Try something like “What was your favorite part of your day?” This question warrants a little more pondering and also cannot be answered with the overused “It was good, Mom!”. Not only will it help foster your child’s development, but it will increase the quality of your parent-child relationship and encourage healthy relationships in your child’s future.

Whether you are a mother, father, or parental figure you are appreciated! No one works longer, more strenuous hours, or a more important job than parents!

If you or someone you know is struggling with parent-child communication, self-care and work/life balance, or other mental health issues and would like to set up an appointment for psychotherapy please contact Michelle Smith, RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786 for a FREE 15 phone consultation!

Benefits of Therapy for Children During the Summer

The countdown is on! Days are getting longer, sun is getting warmer, and the last school bell is right around the corner (35 days away if your counting!).

For many children, summertime is a break with less responsibilities, more freedom, and less stress. Due to increased time for free play, promoting independence, and strengthening interpersonal relationships it may be a great time to start thinking about taking some of the availability in schedule to address certain symptoms you may have noticed your child demonstrating during the school year.

Before the School Year Ends

Take time to schedule parent-teacher conferences, follow up with guidance counselors, 504 contacts, and coaches to get a clear picture on how your child has adjusted throughout the school year. It is unlikely children will “grow” out of certain mood, impulse, behavior, or social struggles in a matter of months without support. In my clinical experience, abatement of school year stressors are likely to return, in more severe forms during the next school year if not addressed.

Availability to Focus on Home Based Challenges

If your child or teen struggles with behavior problems at home and in school, summer can be a great opportunity to hone in on improving skills in the home environment. Therapists can work with your child and family on identifying mood disturbances, increasing problem solving skills, planning and organization, and increasing positive communication in the family system. During the school year hustle and grind, it can be easy to allow these important goals fall to the wayside. Summer is a great time to tune up our emotional growth inside the family system (where change is most likely to stick!)

Structure

Change in routine can be wonderful, but also can cause uncertainty in the lives of school aged children and teens who are hardwired to schedules. Adding weekly therapy appointments provides routine and structure to the laid back feel of the summertime. Keeping children on consistent schedules has been proven to increase sense of security, positive self-image, and control in numerous environments.

Increase Your Family Tool Bank

Therapy provides an opportunity to learn and develop healthy coping strategies in a safe environment, but the benefits extend past changes in your teen or child. By engaging in this collaborative effort you are letting your child know the family is working to improve together, and it is a priority to the family to be the best you can! Benefits such as improved communication, reflection of feelings, and increased emotional connection are only some of the wonderful outcomes of investing in you and your child’s mental and emotional health this summer!

For more information on booking an appointment or consultation for your child, teen, or family contact Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

405-323-1786

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety. We all know the feeling. An all-encompassing emotional response to a real or perceived threat. Right now with FSA testing happening in school districts across the state, anxiety levels are sky-rocketed for students, parents, and teachers alike. During times of increased stress you may notice changes in your child’s behavior such as irritability, rigidity, outbursts, and attempting to gain control of the world around them. Although anxiety is a normal emotional response, it can become detrimental especially if ruminating thoughts regarding what “might” happen take over.

During high emotional times such as state testing, you may notice your own anxiety increasing more than normal. Anxiety, like many emotions, is contagious and just being in a setting with high anxiety can increase another’s feelings of anxiety. So how can parents “weather the storm” of testing anxiety season and support and also encourage our students to be the best they can be?

Encourage and Validate

Parents, teachers, and adults sometimes struggle to validate children who are dealing with anxiety because it may not make any rational sense. For instance, maybe you have an honor role student who consistently performs well on standardized tests; however, they are feeling an overwhelming sense of dread the morning of the test. You may feel challenged to validate your child without agreeing or dismissing their feelings. Validate and encourage your child or teen’s feelings anyways, note how difficult it must be to feel so out of control at times. Use statements like these below:

“It makes sense that you are nervous about your test, and I know you will do your best and make it through anyways!”

“I can tell you are worried about the test coming up, especially because you have been picking your nails more lately. Is there anything we can do to help you feel better about it?”

When validating remember anxiety feels REAL whether it is a perceived or imaginable threat. Try to take a trip down memory lane to your middle school or high school years and connect to your experience with anxiety. Allow your child to vent if necessary, and reward them for taking steps towards their future.

Model Healthy Coping Strategies

The history of anxiety comes from our caveman ancestors who were driven by fear to escape life threatening situations such as being chased by a bear. In 2018, anxiety comes from worry thoughts that trigger the same “fight or flight response”. The problem comes when there is nothing to run away from, then you or your child can be left with symptoms such as rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating, or trembling. You can help encourage your teen to begin utilizing healthy coping strategies in times without high emotion, so it is easier for them to practice the skills during anxiety.

Breathing Exercises

Teaching simple 4 count breathing in through the nose, and out through the nose is a wonderful tool to teach children at a young age. When our mind is on overdrive, we can calm the body which sends a message to calm the mind. Deep breathing helps bring our body to a relaxed state and out of the “fight or flight” response. Bring your teen or child to a free community yoga or meditation class, make a date of it to tune in and focus on your breathe.

Get Into Logical Mind

Many times when anxiety becomes paralyzing, we can make a shift in mood by engaging our logical mind, or the part of the mind that focuses on logic versus emotion. To engage this part of the brain help your child focus on a number game, count backwards, or engage in a writing exercise. This takes attention off the emotion and brings the body back to an equilibrium state. Sudoku, meditative coloring, even math problems can help in times of intense emotion. Engage with your child and model these behaviors for most effective practices.

Acceptance

Although your child or teens emotions may be more intense in the next couple weeks than normal, it’s important to remember anxiety is a part of life that your child can and will learn to manage to live a fulfilled life.

It may be easier to minimize or dismiss your child’s anxiety, taking the time to acknowledge it may be the difference between learning how to cope and manage these feelings or burning out. And remember… testing season will pass!

 

For more information on anxiety, mental health services for your child or teen, or psychoeducation for families contact Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI and Middle School Guidance Counselor at 405-323-1786 for a consultation.

Why Knowing Your Child’s School Counselor Is So Important

Let’s face it. School brings out another side of our children that maybe parents do not get to see at home. Our children spend the majority of the hours in the day at school. Children spend more time at school than they do spending time with family, participating in extracurricular activities, and even sleeping! As a middle school counselor, I have had the privilege of serving over 500 middle school students this past school year, and I would encourage each and every parent to establish a close relationship with your child’s school counselor. Here’s why:

Not All Counselors are Created Equal

School counselors wear many hats in school. Likely they are the ones encouraging your child’s academic success, helping students apply for high school and college, and providing social-emotional support as well as juggling other administrative tasks. My personal background is mental health focused. My goal this year was to increase student’s understanding of self, and increase their coping skills to navigate life challenges academically, socially, and emotionally. At my school, both guidance counselors have a mental health lens and provide support to the entire school from this perspective. I believe this is vital for many students and families.

It may surprise you that many school counselors have no or little understanding of counseling whatsoever. Some school counselors hold teaching certifications and were “promoted” to this role through effective work in the classroom. Unfortunately effective classroom management does not mean this individual is ready to handle the reality of the real life issues that come about in the guidance offices such as suicidal ideations, family conflict, low-self-esteem, broken families, poverty and more. I have seen many school counselors push these extremely important issues to the side, just because they were not trained on how to effectively provide support to a student or family.

School Counselors Are Busy

Establishing a good rapport with your child’s counselor opens the door for future communication regarding your child’s academic success, behavior, and changes that are noticed in the school. Working in a smaller charter school, I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to know my students on a very personal level. In larger schools, counselors may not have the time or ability to do this. A recent study by the American School Counselor’s Association (ASCA), suggests that the average guidance counselor spends about 38 minutes with your student in an entire school year! If you are present and send the message you are engaged in your child’s schooling, the counselor may be more likely to give you vital information happening at school such as conflict between peers or teachers, concerning drawings or messages, or just a sudden change in mood or affect. This is important information parents need to know so that you can follow up at home and to create a bridge between school and home life. If you haven’t yet, make an appointment with your child’s guidance counselor to introduce yourself. Face to face communication goes a long way!

Teamwork Between Families and School

Many times when I contact families to provide referral for therapy, resources for food or clothing donations, or insight into their child’s behavior I receive resistance. One thing parents and guardians need to know is that school administration wants to work as a team with you and your family. When school administration contacts you with information regarding your child, it is for your benefit and understanding. The intention is never to place blame, but to work as a team to provide consistency throughout the child’s life at school and at home. Remember that school is a whole different setting for your child, and it may bring out another side you have not seen yet. Trust in your school administration that they have your best interest at heart!

Michelle Smith

RMHCI, MS

Middle School Counselor

What Parents Need to Know About the Social Media Children and Teens are Consuming

It would be an understatement to say that social media govern the lives of our youth at any given moment. A recent study reports that tweens ages 8-12 spend an average of 6 hours in front of a screen a day, for teenagers 13 and above that number increases to 9 hours a day. Our youth are spending more time online than they are sleeping, in school, or doing any other activity.  As a parent, it can be confusing and concerning navigating the waves of the technological boom and deciphering an appropriate boundary when it comes to social media.

The internet is a vast plethora of 7.4 million people’s imaginations. The information shared can be dangerous, violent, sexually exploited and worse. Our children’s minds are not fully developed to consume this content and distinguish the validity or even make decisions about it. Even adults at times have trouble distinguishing this content, can we expect our children and teens to be able to decipher it without support or knowledge from a caring adult?

You may be thinking “Well my child is advanced enough to understand it”. Unfortunately, science says otherwise. The prefrontal cortex, the area which covers the front part of the brain, controls planning, complex thoughts and behaviors, decision making, personality expression, and moderates our social behavior. Essentially, it governs our executive functioning. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25, many of our children do not have the ability YET to carry out the critical thinking necessary to be safe online.

In addition, studies have also shown that social media can be addicting. In fact, app developers are actually working to make these apps addicting so they increase their revenues, spending thousands of dollars on studies of the brain to market and reel in our vulnerable youth. Scientists have found that teenagers can even experience withdrawal symptoms from social media. You may have seen witnessed some of these in your own children such as panic attacks when electronics get taken away, anxiety about being away from electronics or wifi, anger, and temper tantrums. We wonder why our children’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The media they are consuming is a large contribution.

Consistent social media usage also leads to low self esteem, cyber bullying, and can increase suicidal ideations for teenagers already struggling with depression. Bullying no longer stops when your child gets in the car to go home from school. Now harassment follows them home on their devices, preventing the opportunity for children to recharge and engage in self care.

If you haven’t downloaded and looked at some of the things your child is consuming online, you are living in parenting La La Land. Teens post nude photos, suicide ideas and plans, gang related or violent material, and drugs and alcohol. 30% of teens have reported in a recent study that they believe their parents know “nothing” or “a little” about what they do online.

Last week I spent a lot of my time providing support to a family who recently found out their 14 year old son was sending sexually explicit content and sharing homicidal ideations with an active plan to friends on an app called Hangouts.  This app is accessed through Gmail accounts, and friends can message back and forth in group chats. It broke my heart to watch a loving and caring mother begin to see the reality of what is happening on her child’s social media. For this family, early intervention is no longer an option. They are now playing catch up trying to provide the support needed for this young man.

Be proactive when it comes to restricting media content from your children. Taking away electronics if they have already had unlimited access will be harder than setting firm and clear boundaries in the beginning. Provide regular restrictions on the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Encourage them to engage in their own imagination and be mindful in the moment instead of SnapChatting it. Look for signs of social media addiction such as anger and anxiety from being away from electronics, being up all day/night in front of a screen, and being secretive regarding their social media usage. Make sure you know your teen’s phone and computer passwords, Apple ID, and the multiple accounts they may have.

Parents are responsible to protect their children. Social media provides a false security because we do not see the danger in the moment. It is our responsibility to research and discuss the dangers of social media with our children. Provide incentives for them to be without social media until 16 years old, when the brain is more capable to consume such confusing messages. When you do allow social media, track it on a regular basis using apps like Onward, Onpact, and Life360. There is an effective way to parent in the world of technology and social media!

If your teen is engaging in alarming content or you see signs of internet addiction it may be time to talk to a professional. For a free consultation for therapeutic services contact Michelle Smith RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786