Ask the Expert

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Gail Cormier - August 2021

Question: “How does a parent prepare their child with school anxiety to return to school full-time after extended time at home during the pandemic?”

Answer: As the NFSTAC Project Director, I usually ask one of our many family leaders with lived experience from across the country to answer our “Ask the Expert” question each month, but because the idea of school anxiety strikes at the heart of my family and my own personal experience, it is this very question that I feel the most experienced to answer.

As a parent, a professional in the field for 30 years, and as someone who was so debilitated by school anxiety myself during my adolescence, I understand the energy and support a child needs to muster to attend school each day and the tools and supports parents need to help their child/ren. 

As those August nights get closer to the start of school, that fear intensifies. For me just thinking about it now as I write makes my heart skip a beat. For parents, we begin to prepare ourselves for that mid-summer storm that is coming as the days get shorter and school draws near. For our children, here comes those sleepless nights, crying fits, headaches, and stomach aches. The storm will be upon us soon.

As parents, we often try to reassure our children, but our children are smart, and they will see through saying 'It's going to be fine.'  This is not going to help a nervous child. When children begin to exhibit signs of worry and anxiety, parents can use this as an opportunity to have more dialogue to determine what is making them anxious. The more information you have the better job you can do to make a child more comfortable with school. A word of caution: I have found the worse thing I could ask my child was “what was the worst thing that could happen?”, because she could tell me and then focus on that for the rest of the evening.

 

For my daughter and me what has worked is keeping a consistent schedule of daily activities and evening rituals. Getting plenty of rest during the weeks before school begins is also helpful. My daughter also finds eating healthful foods and exercising very important to keep up, especially as the start of school nears.

As a parent, it is important to be positive about the activities your child enjoys at school and that they will be able to resume once school begins. A parent can help the child to look forward to the positive activities that happen in school. For example, my daughter loved band in high school which was very fortunate because band practice starts before the school year begins. This gave her time to gradually get back into the school environment.

Focusing on the fun activities that interest your child can ground them in the reality of what does happen in school that is positive. This shifts the thoughts away from all the anxiety-ridden possibilities children can create in their minds.

 

Although my daughter is now a college graduate, we both still struggle with school anxiety (and starting new adventures and transitions), but we have learned to employ tricks to keep us moving forward during those anxious times.

 

As parents, we can hug and reassure our children that everyone worries sometimes, and that they are not alone. There will always be anxious times but if you’re a parent whose child struggles with school anxiety, you are not alone.

Lisa Lambert - July 2021

Question: “Why should parents encourage their child(ren) to attend and be an active member of their IEP, Wraparound, and/or PCP team?”

Answer: Children gain many benefits by participating in their own team meetings. Youth gain many skills by doing something, not just reading or hearing about it. By being part of a team meeting, they learn more about creating plans and goals and how to reach them. They observe how group decisions are made. Just as importantly, youth learn about being part of a team which requires good communication, respect for others and often, patience and tolerance. Team meetings should create goals and care plans with your child, not just for them. When those goals and plans are implemented, we know that our youth will feel more engaged than when they feel they don’t have a choice.

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Unfortunately, research indicates that few young people participate meaningfully in their team meetings or creating care plans. To make the experience more successful for your child, a parent can do a little prep work by letting their child know who will be there, what topics will be discussed and that it’s okay to both chime in or simply listen. Teach them to talk about what works for them and what doesn’t, since this is their area of expertise.

Children watch us. In my family, we say “advocacy is the family business” just as other families may own a store where their children work at increasingly responsible jobs or everyone goes into the same line of work. Children learn by watching us in team meetings as we offer information, insist on something we know works and most of all, advocate for our child. Team meetings can be a place where they learn those skills.

Lastly, teaching our youth is part of being family driven. When a journey (or team meeting) follows the guidelines of being family driven, the parent/caregiver chooses the path forward, the route to get there and the values that guide them. Sure, we consult experts on the journey and value their input. Then the day comes when we turn the lead over to our child. The decisions now become theirs, but we can help ensure they have skills and experience to draw on.

Learn more about Lisa and the Parent Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) here. Find additional information and resources about youth and young adult engagement in mental health services for caregivers and families as well as professionals and the family peer support workforce below.

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Susan Nyamora - June 2021

Question: “Why is it important for parents to provide input on the types of supports needed for the recovery community?”

Answer: Parents are in recovery too! As a parent I cannot express how important my voice is in the recovery movement. I know that I have been the most important influential person in my children’s life. I have had to be a champion for my children when they most needed me.

 

Being a part of my children’s journey into adulthood has made me recognize the importance of good recovery supports. Being a part of the recovery movement has strengthened our family in the moments when we needed it the most.  

 

“We have cried together, we have had sleepless nights together, we have been in fear together, but most importantly, we are in recovery together!” So why not include the family in our conversation about supports needed in the recovery community when families need the supports too! 

Learn more about Susan and the South Florida Wellness Network here.

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Molly Bobeck - May 2021

Question: If I find myself wondering if my child may be using substances, but I am not sure, what should I do?

Answer: Many parents feel a profound worry and deep fear when wondering about their child’s substance use. We encourage you to be present with your child, and pay attention to any observable behaviors or comments that might alert you that they are struggling. Your relationship with them is your most important resource as you navigate these worries.

 

In addition, try to take a step back and remember that behaviors make sense and occur in important contexts. When preparing to speak to your child about your worries, reflect on your past interactions and approach towards your child – what has worked in the past in terms of relating to your child, and what hasn’t been so helpful?

You can model positive communication skills for your child; you are more likely to have a productive conversation this way, and they can always use your behavior as an example.

 

You can ask:

  • What is your child thinking and feeling?

  • What is your child hopeful about or worried about?

  • What does your child think is good about using drugs?

  • Is there anything your child worries about related to drugs, or about risks of the behavior?

  • What does your child believe that you do not properly understand or value?

 

We know that engaging in these conversations can be very difficult, so you shouldn’t be hesitant to seek support, or be discouraged if at first it doesn’t feel successful when you aim to engage in a more skillful conversation with your child. Reach out to a network of support (professionals who can help you understand and make meaning of your child’s needs). Think of ways to stay connected to your child in addition to (positive) verbal communication; make plans to spend time together, express physical affection, take an interest in their life and what they enjoy or excel at.

 

Throughout all the worry as a parent/caregiver, don’t forget to take care of yourself and honor your identity outside of your role as a parent. Remain attuned to your own internal experience and emotional life; what are your needs, how are you feeling, what triggers you, and so forth. Make sure to prioritize connection with other parents, friends, or a support community. Above all, stay focused on the positive relationship with your child and your lifelong bond with them, and offer compassion and love. It is truly the most important thing and has the biggest healthy influence on their behavior.

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Sue Badeau - April 2021

Question: Our families are reporting feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic as they try to balance work and financial commitments while navigating their children through virtual and hybrid learning environments. Families report feelings of stress, exhaustion, and isolation as they attempt to support their children’s social and emotional health.

 

What advice do you have for these parents/caregivers regarding strategies to ensure that they are practicing self-care?

Answer: Life for parents in today’s world can be overwhelming in the best of times. If one or more of the children in the family has special needs, parents have stressful jobs, parents are also caring for their own parents, or coping with their own health or mental health issues, the stress level rises exponentially. In the past year, the impact of a global pandemic, political upheaval, and heightened racial unrest, along with weather, social and economic challenges have pushed the stress level off the charts into new and uncharted territory. In such circumstances the call to “take care of yourself” is almost laughable to some and offensive to others. What is a parent to do?

I’d like to share three strategies I consider most important and also most manageable in times like these:

 

1. Hold space for and acknowledge the hard feelings. Give yourself grace and space, to be sad, angry, frustrated, exhausted, or overwhelmed. Don’t beat yourself up over the hard feelings. Don’t try to deny or push past them. Give them some space in your life, and then use a moment of joy, laughter or gratitude to bring yourself back into balance. In other words, give voice to the hard feelings, but don’t stay stuck in them.​

2. Connect every day. Preventing, managing, surviving and recovering well from stress, loss and trauma is all about relationships.  Start each day with two questions - (a) Can I name ONE person who I know I can turn to for support today if needed and (b) Who is ONE person I will reach out to today for connection, friendship and support? Starting your day with these two questions is one of the best self-care habits you can develop.

 

3. Simplify - but don’t neglect - your self-care plan.

  • Focus on the basics: nourish, hydrate, sleep

  • Take simple, small breaks throughout the day – a few minutes of listening to a favorite piece of music, taking a 5-minute walk, watching something that makes you laugh, breathing in a scent that steeps you in calm, drinking a cup of tea, writing in your journal, or calling a friend. None of these things need take more than a couple of minutes but when practiced throughout the day – engaging all of your senses and all domains of your being (body, mind, heart, soul) you will be revitalized and refreshed for the next hour of your day.