Helping Teens Navigate the Perilous Landscape of Good Decision-Making

The human brain does not reach full development until the early to mid-twenties. The last part to fully mature is the frontal lobe, which controls decision-making. As with any skill, there are ways that parents can help their child develop positive decision-making skills, particularly when addressing topics such as sex, drug and alcohol use, and relationships.

Your teen’s physical development and exposure to adult situations generally arrive a dozen years before their brain is ready to maturely address them.

Even at a young age, it is important for children to begin to understand how actions have consequences – both good and bad. Allowing a child to experience a bad repercussion (one that is obviously not dangerous to their wellbeing) is key to helping him understand that he should avoid risky behaviors and learn from his mistakes.

When children enter adolescence, they are faced with difficult decisions, some of which can have life-altering and long-term negative consequences. Since we can’t shelter our kids forever and expect them to become well-adjusted, productive members of society, adolescence is the perfect time to begin setting expectations.

“Kids are going to have questions and they will be faced with difficult decisions. If a child is not secure in themselves and are unaware of the serious repercussions and potential consequences for something like drinking or sex, they can be more likely to give in to peer pressure,” said Stephanie Moses, Outpatient Therapist for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “If you get angry or dodge questions when your child brings up a sensitive topic, they will likely stop coming to you. They are going to seek out information and you want to be part of what they are learning so you can also help them understand the potential consequences, as well as your own expectations for them on the topic.”

Responding angrily or accusingly if your teen broaches sensitive subjects like sex and drugs, can shut down communication at a time when they need your support and guidance the most.

Helping your child envision the “big picture” for their lives is also helpful in steering them toward positive choices. Ask what is important to them – sports, friends, grades, going to college? Showing them how certain activities or peer groups can affect or hinder them from “their success” can help to sway them from participating in risky behavior. This can also help you gain an understanding about how well your child understands the potential consequences of such activities.

Modeling positive behavior is also critical in aiding a child’s decision-making process, particularly in friendships and relationships. Children begin to pick up behaviors from their parents at an early age. What example are you setting? Does your child see positive conflict resolution in your relationships? Do they see inclusion and compassion in your friendships? These lessons, while they may be somewhat influenced by peers, begin at home.

Parents need to remember their own teen years and share their experience with their child. Were there decisions you wish you made differently? Were there consequences you or maybe your peers experienced that were life-altering? Share these memories with your child to show why you want them to avoid certain behaviors, but also understand, they may not always heed your advice. Make sure, regardless of the decisions your child makes, you keep the lines of communication open and remind them you are always there.

Your teen may find it difficult to believe you faced some of the same challenges as a teen. Sharing some of your own struggles and the consequences of your actions, can help them understand that you can relate to their problems and have the benefit of life experiences they can apply to their own situation.

“One of the most dangerous things that can happen is when a child finds themselves in a bad situation and is afraid to tell their parents and ask for help,” said Moses. “When you begin to have these conversations with your kids, ask them what they know about drugs, alcohol and even sex and casually find out if they or any of their friends have tried these activities.”

Father and sonMoses reiterates if a child admits to having been involved in risky behavior, try not to overreact but instead thank them for being honest. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, but be aware of how you react. Getting angry can quickly close down communication. Talk openly about all the potential consequences (addiction, pregnancy, overdose, disease, injury, etc.), and ask your child how they felt about the experience. This can also be a great time to discuss an “out” or safe word. If your child finds him/herself in a situation they aren’t comfortable with, they can use a safe word to discreetly let you know they need help. This allows them to save face with peers and safely gets them out of the situation.

When helping your teens set high standards for their decision-making and behavior, make sure they know that even if they stumble, you will be there for them to provide love and support.

Bad decisions are often made in the midst of stressful situations, pressure from peers (and sometimes adults) and when seeking acceptance. Moments of heightened emotion are when teens may act more impulsively or reactively to a situation. Having discussions early and encouraging your child to stop and think before speaking or acting can help them to make better decisions in general, not just about risky behavior. Understanding your child’s feelings and evaluating risk/reward is key to good decision-making and staying safe.

While we shouldn’t make all decisions for our kids, we can lay a foundation for good decision-making skills that can be built on. Be sure your child knows that even if he/she makes a bad decision that you are still in their corner and, while disappointed, will love them regardless.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 2.33.45 PMNow, there’s an app for that. Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi is excited about the launch of the Healthy Teens Mississippi App. The goal is that every teen in the state choose pathways that will help them live balanced lives, be treated with respect and achieve good physical, emotional, and mental health. The Healthy Teens Mississippi App is a great resource for teens, parents, schools, and community health organizations. For more visit www.healthyteensapp.com.

Laura Walker is the staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. Canopy is Mississippi’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions. For more information about services through Canopy Children’s Solutions, visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.

This article was featured in the July/August 2018 edition of Well Being Magazine. Find more articles from Well Being by visiting http://www.wellbeingmag.com/

Test for Success

Grades are important, they help determine college selections, scholarship eligibility, and can guide future careers. One-third of all teens experience anxiety, particularly leading up to midterms, finals, ACTs and SATs. As parents, you can help ease children’s anxiety while encouraging them to do their best.

“Parents should support their children academically; however, some parents will add to the pressure a child already feels,” said Stephanie Moses, MAMFT, Outpatient Therapist for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “Children need the freedom to be children while acknowledging their academic responsibilities. It’s about balance.”

Preparing your child for strong academic performance begins at an early age. Instilling a love of learning through books, puzzles and academic play shows your child that learning is important. As a child grows, adapting those learning skills helps to support them in school and shows them you are equally engaged in their success. Ways to support these skills include practicing spelling words in the car, reviewing fractions while baking cookies, or reading a chapter in a book together before bed. Establishing strong study skills early is also important so that a child is accustomed to balancing school and other responsibilities. Well before a child reaches high school, these skills should be well-established. However, parents still play a critical role in their reinforcement, especially around busy test seasons.

Time management. Encourage your teen to develop a study schedule. Remind them that subjects where they excel will require less time than those where they may struggle and to budget time accordingly.

Conducive environment. Help your teen identify a setting that supports productive studying. Find a peaceful place without distractions that will help your child focus.

Encouragement. Offer your child an encouraging word when you check in on their progress. Checking in also helps you gauge burnout when a teen may need to take a break or move to another subject.

Perspective. Some teens thrive under stress but if stress negatively impacts them, give them perspective. One test or one grade isn’t going to impact their lives all that much. Reassure your teen that it will be ok, regardless of the outcome, as long as they do their best.

It’s ok to ask for help. If your child needs help, seek out local resources such as ACT prep classes, tutors or study groups. Also, if your child can’t control their stress and anxiety, schedule an appointment with a local therapist to help them develop positive coping skills and give them an opportunity to work through their stress.

Stay healthy. Ask your teen to join you for a bike ride or take a walk together. Provide nutritious meals and snacks that fuel their body and their brain. Remind your teen they need adequate sleep to properly focus and retain information. Drink lots of water and boost your immune system with daily vitamins to help stay well during test seasons.

no stress

Celebrate small victories. Did your teen complete their report on the Greek Classic The Iliad? Did they score an 89 on their Trigonometry test? Did they just come home from their first time taking the ACT? Then celebrate! Go out for dinner and ice cream, watch a movie, grab a cup of coffee or go shopping together. These opportunities tell your teen, regardless of the outcome, that you are proud of their efforts and you support them no matter what.

While it is important that we support our children’s goals and push them to reach their full potential, we must be cautious not to push beyond their limits. Remind your children that if they do their very best, that’s all you expect. It is our jobs as parents to support our children in failure and success.

By Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions

Hope Begins at Home. Home Begins with You.

Some of your most special memories growing up might include making macaroni necklaces and hand-painted cards for mom on Mother’s Day. But imagine for a moment if there had been no mom in your life to celebrate; no nurturing figure to tuck you in at night or offer warm hugs after a bad day. Many children in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS) are in desperate need of someone to celebrate and be grateful for, and that someone could be you.

Canopy Children’s Solutions (Canopy) seeks families wanting to make a difference in the lives of children. Youth in foster care are often shuffled in and out of group homes and care facilities every few months without the ability to develop long-term connections. These connections are essential to establishing a sense of self-worth, love and security that children need to grow and thrive.

Canopy is hosting an informational meeting for individuals and families interested in learning more about therapeutic foster care (TFC). The meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, at 6:00 p.m. at the Canopy office located at 105 Asbury Circle, Suite A, Hattiesburg.

Canopy believes that all children deserve to grow up in nurturing, stable families. When children are placed into foster care, it is often due to circumstances involving abuse, neglect and/or exploitation.  Following such traumatic events, children need individuals or families to provide loving reassurance in the comfort of a temporary safe haven.

“Mother’s Day can be very difficult for children in foster care who don’t have a place to ‘belong,’ especially if they don’t understand their separation,” said Elliott Brown Therapeutic Foster Care Program Supervisor.

“We receive calls nearly every day hoping to place a child into our program. It is heartbreaking to have to turn them down because we simply don’t have homes to place these children in.”

Canopy’s TFC Program specializes in the care of foster children with emotional, developmental and medical needs. When children are enrolled in the program, they receive interventions that are designed to address their individualized needs in the most comprehensive manner possible. Canopy’s TFC staff not only provide direct support to foster children through individual and family therapy, but also to resource families through ongoing training.

Ultimately, the TFC Program is looking for compassionate and dedicated resource parents who are willing to provide much-needed care to foster children with therapeutic needs. Fostering is an opportunity to draw upon one’s own compassion, generosity and wisdom to help another person in need. These children need to be reminded there is love and compassion in the world; they need to know there is hope, and it can start with you.

For more information about therapeutic foster care, please contact Elliott Brown at 601-606-0208 or elliott.brown@mycanopy.org or visit mycanopy.org.

2018 Children’s Mental Health Summit

The Fifth Annual Children’s Mental Health Summit, hosted by Canopy Children’s Solutions (Canopy), will take place Thursday and Friday, May 10-11, at the Jackson Hilton Hotel in Jackson, Miss.

The theme for this year’s event is Every Child Can Be a Success: Creating Positive Outcomes. This two-day event will feature a half-day pre-conference on Thursday, May 10, with breakout sessions on varied topics that affect Mississippi families and children. The main conference will follow on Friday beginning at 8:00 a.m. featuring Scott D. Miller, Ph.D., of the International Center for Clinic Excellence as keynote speaker. In addition to the keynote, Canopy is pleased to welcome speakers Teresa R. Mosely, M.Ed, and Nick Hughes, M. Div., who will share their personal testaments of triumph over tragedy. A complete list of speakers and topics can be found on the event website.

“It is important that we provide tools to those who work with children so they can better support the intricate needs of the children they serve,” said Canopy CEO John Damon, Ph.D. “We have been very successful in bringing in speakers for the Children’s Mental Health Summit who challenge conventional thinking and broaden our skills as clinicians, teachers, social workers, child advocates and parents. I’m very excited about the opportunities that we will have again this year.”

Registration for the pre-conference is $50 per participant and $100 per participant for the main conference on Friday. Participants may choose to attend one or both days. These fees include the cost of materials, breaks, lunch (Friday only) and Continuing Education Units (CEUs). Licensed counselors and social workers can receive up to 9.5 CEUs for attending both days of the summit. Licensed educators may also receive up to 1 CEU credit for participation.

For complete information on the Children’s Mental Health Summit, including registration and information on overnight accommodations, please visit www.helpkidsthrive.org or contact Kym Williams at 601.352.7784.

Cutting through the Pain

After sharing a deeply intimate night together, Lauren’s boyfriend, Bryan, broke up with her. She was angry, sad, devastated, and felt used. Hoping to cheer her up, Lauren’s friends talked her into dinner. When she arrived, Bryan’s car was outside. When Lauren saw Bryan and Jenny there together, he smiled and pulled Jenny close. Lauren could feel her heart in her throat; it felt as though everything was spinning around her. She turned and ran out the door to her car. The pain in Lauren’s chest was agonizing. She felt sick to her stomach and could not stop crying as she drove home. Her friends told her to calm down, that it was no big deal. Lauren felt like no one was actually listening; no one understood. The pain was too much and it had to end.

When she got home, Lauren found a pair of scissors on her mother’s sewing table. In the quiet of her bathroom, she carved small cuts into her arm. Lauren was careful not to cut too deep as to leave visible scars. She placed them carefully as to be easily concealed. With each cut, she felt a sense of calm rush over her. Exhausted from such an emotional evening, she cleaned the scissors, placed them back on the table and went to bed. Lauren felt empty inside, but the pain of the cuts helped her remember she was in control of her pain.

Cutting became a source of release for Lauren. It cleared her mind and caused her emotional pain to subside. Lauren found control in cutting. She could decide where and how deeply to cut. It helped her to relieve anxiety and stress. It was a secret she kept to herself. Rather than relying on the support of friends or family, Lauren would cut when the world became too much, until the night that even cutting couldn’t ease her pain.

When teens are faced with new levels of stress, whether it is over grades, or relationships or how they will perform during a game, they must find a way to relieve the stress knotted up inside their body. Some teens turn to positive coping mechanisms such as moderate exercise, meditation, journaling or listening to music. Others find ways that alter the way they feel through alcohol use and self-medication, self-injury (such as cutting) or participating in risky behavior. Much like alcohol and drugs, self-injury can lead to an immediate feeling of relief but each time it requires more and more to have the same effect.

“When working with a child who self-injures, the first important thing to understand is ‘why’ they self-injure. What pain are they trying to mask,” said Caitlin Mudd, Program Director for Canopy CARES Center. “Your brain releases chemical endorphins as a self-preservation mechanism when your body experiences physical injury. For many of our kids who have experienced a lot of trauma, it is actually easier for them to experience physical pain than emotional pain, so self-injury helps them replace what’s going on inside with something they can manage through the body’s natural response. We work with them to understand their pain and find a healthier way to address it.”

Self-Harm

Each year, one in five girls and one in seven boys engage in self-injurious behavior. Approximately 90 percent of individuals who engage in self-harm, do so during their teen and pre-teen years. If often starts by the age of 14 and can carry on into their 20s without the right help. Self-injury can occur for many reasons including an individual’s attempt to relieve emotional numbness or pain, inflict punishment on themselves, reenact abuse, establish what is “real,” or regain a sense of control over one’s self. Self-injuring behaviors may start from introduction from a peer, something the youth has seen on the internet or television, or it may happen merely out of impulse or by accident. Self-injury can, but does not always, accompany the presence of a mental health challenge such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorder.

Self-harm is identified by a number of behaviors. The most common include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Interfering with wound healing (picking or reopening wounds)
  • Punching or hitting oneself or other objects
  • Inserting objects into the skin
  • Purposely bruising or breaking one’s bones
  • Pulling out eyelashes, brows or scalp hair (not for grooming)

Self-injurious behavior is often concealed. Do not confuse this as a ploy for attention as individuals often don’t broadcast self-injury wounds, making these behaviors sometimes difficult to spot. If you notice someone wearing unusual clothing for the time of year, i.e. long sleeves during hot summer months, they could be concealing self-injury wounds. A person may also refuse to participate in activities they once enjoyed that would reveal such wounds, i.e. going swimming or visiting the beach. A sign can also be if a person has consistently fresh wounds but also has a seemingly logical story, i.e. cat scratches, or getting in a fight no one saw to explain a broken hand. You may also notice items that they use to self-injure in peculiar places such as razor blades in their backpack or pocket.

If you suspect someone is self-injuring, approach them and tell them you want to help. When you broach the topic, remain calm and don’t be demeaning. Tell them what you’ve noticed that concerns you. Ask them about things that are going on in their lives and how it makes them feel. Be particularly mindful of feelings of emptiness. Encourage a teen to be open with their parents or trusted adult who can connect them with a mental health professional. Finding adequate support can help to end or ease the frequency of self-injury.

If you or someone you know is self-injuring, confide in someone who can help find a better way to cope. This can be a counselor, therapist, teacher, coach, parent, youth minister, pediatrician or other trusted adult. Don’t just assume symptoms will go away on their own. Getting professional help is important for long-term safety. Ignoring the problem can push a child toward more dangerous and risky behaviors.

Canopy Children’s Solutions is a Mississippi-based non-profit with Behavioral Health Clinics in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Gulfport working specifically with children and adolescents ages 5-20. For more information on Canopy outpatient clinics, contact a Care Coordinator at 800.388.6247. You can also click here.