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Articles for Parents

Check out these articles that cover a variety of parenting topics. From newborns to teens, we're here to give you guidance when you need it.

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    What You Need to Know About Smartphones, Teens and Depression

    Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t is the title of an article in the New York Times. 

    The writer says a growing number of academicians are challenging the true impact of social media and smartphones, questioning whether too much time on devices is actually the culprit for the dramatic increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, especially in teens.

    Before you jump on that bandwagon, believing the claims, you might want to hear what psychologist Jean Twenge has to say. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State and author of numerous books including Generation Me and her most recent release, iGen: Why Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

    In a blog for the Institute for Family Studies, Twenge calls out the NYT writer on six facts that, she claims, he ignores. 

    Twenge contends that the NYT article grossly misrepresents the research consensus on technology and mental health because the article makes it sound as if the majority of researchers have concluded that technology use isn’t related to mental health. Twenge says that is not the case. 

    “The article also misrepresents findings from a recent review of screen time and mental health studies,” writes Twenge. “The article does mention a recent review of studies on screen time and mental health by Amy Orben, who concluded that the average correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms is between .11 and .17.”

    The article cites this study as evidence that the link is small, but Twenge argues these are not small effects. Data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Survey of US High School students indicates that twice as many heavy users of electronic devices (5+ hours a day) compared to light users (1 hour a day) have attempted suicide (12% vs. 6%).

    Twenge states that the NYT article quotes experts who, without plausible evidence, dismiss the possibility that the rise of social media and smartphones might be behind the marked rise in teen depression, self-harm and suicide in recent years. The article quotes Jeff Hancock of the Stanford Social Media Lab as saying, “Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones? How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt?”

    “The problem with this argument is that none of these factors can explain the increase in teen mental health issues that began in 2012,” Twenge writes. “First, they didn’t happen at the same time. The largest increases in income inequality occurred between 1980 and 2000… Student loan debt has been stable since 2012. The number of Americans worried a fair amount or a great deal about climate change went from 73% in 2012 to 74% in 2019.”

    Twenge contrasts this with 2013, the first year the majority of Americans owned a smartphone. By 2018, 95% of teens had access to a smartphone and 45% of them said they were online “almost constantly.”

    “The largest increase in self-harm, self-poisoning and suicide occurred among 10- to 14-year-old girls,” Twenge writes. “Hancock would have us believe that 10- to 14-year-olds are harming themselves because they are upset over income inequality or possibly someday having to pay off student loans after college - not because they are bullied online, not because they feel constant pressure to look perfect on social media, not because they can access online sites instructing them in self-harm, and not because electronic communication has replaced in-person interaction, a basic human need.”

    While Twenge does state that concern about climate change seems plausible, she asks, “How many 12-year-old-girls do you know who are cutting themselves because the planet is warming? It is much more likely they are concerned about self-image, social status, friendships and family relationships - all issues that have become fraught in the age of social media.” 

    Twenge also notes that the rise in depression, self-harm and suicide has been considerably larger among girls than boys. She contends that all of the issues listed above should impact boys and girls equally. Thus, they do not explain why the rise would be larger for girls.

    Technology use, however, does differ by gender. Girls spend more time on social media, which may be more toxic than the gaming which is more popular among boys.

    Twenge calls out the author for combining two completely separate questions - whether technology use is related to depression among individuals and whether the increase in smartphone and social media use is related to the generational increase in teen depression.

    “Even teens who don’t use technology have been affected by the shift in teen social life from in-person get-togethers to online interactions,” Twenge says. “Consider a teen who doesn’t use social media and would prefer to go out with her friend, but who will she go out with when everyone else is at home on Instagram?”

    The NYT article also points to Europe as proof that smartphones are not behind the increase in teen depression, yet the evidence shows otherwise. The study used to make the case examines adults, not teens. The World Health Organization reports increases in suicide rates around the world, with the largest increases among youth.

    The last point Twenge makes is that while the researchers claiming that technology use is unrelated to well-being said they had not taken any funding from the tech industry, one of them is currently employed and one was previously employed by the Oxford Internet Institute, which is funded by Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

    “Parents can rest assured that their instincts to protect their kids from too much screen time are not wrong,” Twenge writes. “If kids who ate five apples a day versus one were twice as likely to attempt suicide, parents would make extremely sure their kids didn’t eat too many apples. Why should our response to technology time be any different?”

    The moral of this story is - don’t believe everything you read. Check the facts for yourself. What you don’t know can hurt you and the ones you love.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 1, 2020.

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    How You Can Help End Child Trafficking

    Did you know...?

    • Pedophiles and traffickers can message your children through YouTube.
    • Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in big cities. It happens in every zip code.
    • Boys are trafficked, too.
    • Traffickers can be doctors, lawyers and CEOs.
    • Foster care children, immigrants and refugees are at greatest risk for becoming victims.
    • Your child has already been targeted by a human trafficker.
    • Many children and teens are trafficked in plain sight. 

    (Source: Military Moms Blog, October 2019)

    January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and Jerry Redman, executive director of Street Grace Tennessee, wants everyone to know the definition of human trafficking, the signs to look for and what you should do if you suspect someone is being trafficked.

    “So many people think this doesn’t happen in their backyard, or that its presence in a community is a result of the interstate system,” says Redman. “Neither of these statements are true. Whether you live in a town of 50,000 or in the largest city in America, many people have this false sense of security which actually makes everyone more vulnerable.”

    WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?

    Human trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, is the use of force, fraud or coercion to commercially exploit someone. It is a crime of connection or a crime of convenience. In other words, if a person is looking to sell a person, they need access to that person to groom them. It is easier to groom someone they can already access. In fact, 41% of trafficked children are trafficked by a family member. Girls are targeted more than boys, but boys, (especially young boys) are also targeted.

    “Many people are under the assumption that it is mostly runaway and homeless youth who are at risk for being trafficked. That is a myth,” Redman says. “I can think of two stories of women being trafficked in plain sight that I believe drive home the point that we all need to be very aware of what is happening around us - even in our own home.

    “A young woman who lived in a solidly upper middle class situation was trafficked by someone with a connection to her family. She was in school and not deprived in any way. She lived with her parents in a very caring environment. No one would have ever guessed that she was being trafficked.”

    Theresa L. Flores tells her story in The Slave Across the Street. At 16, she was literally trafficked out of her own home by classmates and was too ashamed and scared to tell anyone that it was going on. 

    WHAT YOU CAN DO...

    If you want to help put an end to human trafficking, here are some things you should look for:

    • Does someone appear to be under the control of someone else?
    • Is the person who appears to be in control doing all the talking?
    • Is the suspected trafficking victim dressed appropriately?
    • Has the person looked up once?
    • Has the person spoken?

    “These are signs that all of us should be aware of,” Redman says. “It’s also important to know that sometimes victims will come straight out and tell you they are being trafficked. If that happens, your job is to remain calm, believe them and call the police. Some people are hesitant, worried about being wrong. Authorities will tell you: It is better to be wrong than to not report. Additionally, in most states, adults are mandated reporters of any type of suspected child abuse.

    “If the person you suspect is being trafficked is an adult, you can still call the police. Ultimately, the person will have to be the one to make the decision about their next steps, but you can tell them there are resources and you can give them the national hotline number - 888-373-7888.”

    In the fight to eradicate human trafficking, authorities are pursuing traffickers in creative ways, including technological partnerships. For example, when someone solicits sex online from someone they believe to be a child, the solicitor receives a message saying, “This is not a real child. You are now on our radar and your information has been turned over to the authorities. Additionally, the person is sent another email saying, “We know you have a problem and here is information about where to seek help.” 

    However, the biggest help in this fight actually comes from everyday people - observant and informed citizens who know the definition and the signs of human trafficking.

    “Many states across the country are partnering with national authorities to put more stringent policies in place,” Redman says. “In fact, Tennessee, Montana, Nevada, Georgia and Louisiana received the highest scores from Shared Hope for their work to end human trafficking. With all of the work that has happened over the last 20 years, I believe we are actually in a position to see human trafficking either eradicated or close to that in this century. But, it will take all of us working together to make that happen.”

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 25, 2020.

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    How to Have Real Conversations

    In his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley shares this quote by Mortimer J. Adler: 

    “Without communication, there can be no community. … That is why conversation, discussion, or talk is the most important form of speaking and listening.”

    FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

    In recent years, we are having fewer and fewer sit-down, face-to-face conversations. Those things seem to have been replaced by texting, emojis, messaging on Facebook and emails. All these things may have short-circuited our ability to know each other deeply.

    News stories abound about the increase in anxiety and depression for all ages, we have seen the suicide rate triple for teens, and surveys indicate we as a culture are lonelier than we have ever been. In light of that, perhaps the new year should be designated as a year of intentional conversation with others.

    “Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship,” says Earley. “That means that longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence - and most powerfully in our own hearts.”

    Earley explains that conversation exposes us in two ways: face-to-face conversation brings risks and truth-telling happens.

    HOW WE COMMUNICATE IMPACTS EVERYONE

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle believes that replacing face-to-face communication with technology is depleting people’s capacity for empathy toward others. Research has shown that the way people are currently seeking to communicate through devices has threatened true friendship. Instead of things happening in real time right in front of us, people are planning and curating the versions of themselves that they want to bring to the discussion. 

    Removing tone of voice, facial expression and body language from communication leaves the conversation lacking in so many ways. How can we bring back real, honest conversation? It’s not as hard as you might think.

    • Make an effort to remove devices from the dinner table whether you are at home or at a restaurant. 
    • Create space for regular conversation and fellowship with family and friends. Instead of the well-meaning, “Let's get together soon!” pull up your calendar and set a date to get together to catch up on life. 
    • For the sake of your emotional health, there should be a couple of people you connect with on a regular basis. These would be the people Earley is describing with whom risky conversations take place, truth-telling occurs and perfection is not expected.
    • When it comes to modeling the art of conversation with your children, create tech-free zones/times in your home where your family can come together for game night or other activities that invite the opportunity for conversations to occur. 

    CONVERSATION STARTERS

    If you feel like you aren’t great at getting conversations going, here are a few questions to get you started:

    • What is something that is popular now that totally annoys you and why?
    • What is the best/worst thing about your work/school?
    • If you had intro music, what song would it be and why?
    • Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
    • If you had to change your name, what would it be and why?
    • How should success be measured, and by that measurement, who is the most successful person you know?
    • If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
    • What was the best period of your life so far? What do you think will be the best period of your entire life?

    People of all ages are actually dying from the lack of community that currently exists in our culture, but that trend does not have to continue. Every person can be intentional about having regular meaningful conversations with others. Imagine how different our culture could be if we all committed to working on this.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 28, 2019.

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    First Holiday Without Mom or Dad

    The first holiday after the death of a parent is often the hardest one to celebrate, kicking off a year-long wave of fresh grief and memories for those who are left behind and struggling to make sense of their new normal. Christmas can be an especially tough holiday. 

    When Karen Wilson lost her father, Ray Murphy, seven years ago in December, she knew she was going to miss him and all of the joy and traditions he brought into their family celebrations. 

    “Christmas was his holiday and December was his month. He was jovial and funny, and he was a presence at Christmas. Everyone looked forward to being with him because he really got into it. I mean, he went way over the top and absolutely loved seeing joy in people’s faces,” says Karen. “At one point, he even converted the attic into a Christmas village which was a sight to behold.”

    When her parents were living, Karen and her siblings did their own family Christmas in the morning and then went over to her parents’ house for Christmas together. They all looked forward to having their family picture taken together, which predictably took forever because her dad would forget to set the timer or somebody blinked.

    Two or three years before he passed away, her father wasn’t able to do what he loved to do during the holidays anymore. It was difficult for Karen and her family to watch because his limitations depressed him, but they tried to make it festive for him. It wasn’t long before they stopped going to their parents’ house for Christmas.

    “What I miss the most,” Karen says, “He would call me two weeks before Christmas and say, ‘Karem ( that was his nickname for me), it’s time. We need to go shopping for your mom.’ Just the two of us would go out to the mall. I would have to hold him back because he wanted to buy her everything. My job was to help him focus - we would spend several hours, and then go to lunch. I would take everything home with me and wrap it and then take it to him to put under the tree.” 

    Another thing Karen loved about her father was the way he carried on with his grandchildren.

    “He was always very secretive about what he was up to for the grandkids. They loved that about him. Everybody knew it would be some kind of mechanical contraption. While he did it for the kids, he was for sure the biggest kid about celebrating the holiday. Anybody who knew my dad knew that he loved his family and loved Jesus.”

    While Ray’s family mourned him after he passed, seeing him in declining health for so long seemed to prepare them for his passing. It was almost as if they had already grieved over losing him while he was alive and in poor health.

    “Mom died about 13 months after Dad,” Karen says. “When they both were gone, my sister and brother and I felt like it was almost more emotional than when Dad died. You knew they were both gone. It felt like a huge void for all of us.”

    Christmas looks a lot different for Karen and her family now. Today, she and her family go to her brother’s house in the afternoon and tell stories and share memories of their parents. Their kids remember and enjoy telling their own stories, too. They laugh and honor them through their memories, and they have a good time together.

    If this is your first holiday without your loved one, here are some things to consider.

    • Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve, and don’t allow others to tell you how to grieve, because everyone experiences loss differently.
    • Remember. Telling stories about your loved one can help you process, remember and honor them as you celebrate with others. Some people choose to place a special ornament on the tree in remembrance of their loved one. Others may display a holiday photo or there may be a tradition they started that you wish to carry on. 
    • Ask for help if you need it, because grieving is just plain hard. It’s not always possible to move forward in the way you’d like, and it may be helpful to draw others into your process who have walked the road before you and have managed their emotions in a healthy way. You might try a friend or family member, spiritual leader, professional counselor or grief support group. 

    Sometimes it is difficult to know when you aren’t doing well. If people you know and trust encourage you to seek help, listen to them. When going through the grief process, there are periods when it is hard to see the forest for the trees because it is just overwhelming to deal with all that is on your plate.

    During the holidays, you might be tempted to try and fill all of your moments to keep you busy and distracted. That works for some people. While it isn’t a bad thing to have some celebrations to look forward to, be sure to give yourself room to breathe, but not so much time that you are consumed by your loss.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 21, 2019.

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    10 Sanity-Saving Tips for Holiday Gatherings

    Celebrating the holidays with family looks different for everyone, and it can be super stressful. Some families get along really well and they look forward to being together. They never speak harshly or cry, get in a hurry, burn the rolls, forget to thaw the turkey or have a meltdown at any point. Other families just know that major conflict or hurt feelings are predictable, but they long for something different. 

    Whether your family gatherings are fun and carefree or they’re not the stuff of your dreams, the way you choose to communicate at a get together can make a huge difference in the way you feel when you head home. These ideas can help you out!

    • Consider trying to get on the same page ahead of time. Talk about who is coming so you can prepare, especially if there will be extra people that you or your children don’t know well or see often.
    • Anticipate and set boundaries. Most families have at least one person who has the potential to make extended family gatherings interesting, if not downright miserable. Don't let them get under your skin. Instead, take a deep breath, recognize you are only going to be around them for a limited time and don’t allow them to steal your joy. You don’t have to prove your point, have the last word or “win in a conversation with them.” Consider telling everybody that super-divisive hot topics are off limits for discussion at the gathering.
    • Be self-aware and teach your children to do the same. Talk about what to do if someone says something hurtful or gets on your nerves. In the moment, it is easy to forget that you have a choice when it comes to how you will respond. Discuss how you know when someone is getting the best of you: your heart starts beating faster, sometimes people feel warm, your palms sweat or you want to cry. All of those are warning signs can let you know to proceed with caution, help you stay in control of your emotions and choose how to respond to the person. If you talk about it ahead of time, chances are good that you will be better prepared and won’t feel the need to lash out, defend or lose it. 
    • Get your ZZZs. Believe it or not, getting enough rest can be a huge help when it comes to healthy communication with family members. Rest helps you to think clearly and to not be so on edge. When you are tired, it is easier for people to get the best of you.
    • Guard against anticipating too much about how things are going to go in general or with a certain person. You can actually make the situation worse if you have played scenarios over and over again in your head. It’s one thing to prepare yourself; it’s another thing to have yourself so on edge that if someone uses the wrong tone of voice or a certain word it sets you off. 
    • Take a breather. If you think things are escalating and you don’t feel like you are doing well, go for a walk to get some fresh air. If that’s not an option, find a quiet place to breathe and calm down. Research indicates that just 20 minutes of doing something different will help you recalibrate and handle a situation better.
    • Have a plan. Sometimes it helps to bring a little structure to the gathering instead of everybody just hanging out, opening the door to who knows what. Keeping everybody occupied can go a long way toward keeping the peace and creating fun. Grab some boxes of graham crackers, gum drops, candy canes, pretzels and other fun treats and let people make gingerbread houses. Or, gather food items and such and have everybody help make care packages for the local homeless shelter. Divide into teams and play several rounds of Minute to Win It (this is easy for children and adults to do together). Get a fun Christmas puzzle and let everybody work on it. Once it’s finished you can frame it. Play a game of Name that Tune: Christmas Edition. Anything that creates an atmosphere of fun is helpful.
    • Pay attention to others. If you really want to make someone feel special and set the tone for the day, be interested in the things that matter to them. Request that delicious casserole recipe, ask to see recent photos or find something to compliment about them. Ask them what the best part of their year has been.  
    • Know when it’s time to go. If you’ve tried all you know to try and you’re either not enjoying yourself or you are feeling emotionally or physically drained, it may be time to make a graceful exit. Give everyone a hug or shake hands, say thank you and end your visit well. 
    • Keep your expectations realistic. Acknowledge that perfect holiday celebrations can actually be overrated. After all, think about all the things you laugh about from past celebrations - it’s probably not all the things that went just right. 

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 14, 2019.


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    Fun Ways for Families to Connect During the Holidays

    With all of the expectations around the holidays, things can get kind of crazy. The very time that is supposed to bring families closer together is often filled with extra stress, fighting kids, awkward extended family dynamics and sometimes marital tension.

    Sometimes the craziness gets the best of us and family members start to feel disconnected. This leads to all kinds of holiday drama - the very thing we all want to avoid. 

    Want to help make sure the holidays are a time where family members feel connected and close? Here are some things you can do at home, in the car, during meals and out in the community that not only will create conversation, but also laughter, insight and memories.

    IF YOU'RE TRAVELING...

    Instead of automatically plugging into technology, what about giving your kids a limited amount of time with tech stuff? Don’t be intimidated by the pushback and don’t expect them to thank you any time soon. Get creative and offer some motivation for participation. For example, for every 30 minutes you play the game you get X number of minutes with your screen. During the down times, interact with each other by playing some of these games:

    • Categories:  Pick a category (Disney movies, popular songs, flavors of soda) and take turns naming something in that category until someone is stumped. (This person loses and the winner picks the next category.)

    • Going on a Picnic: This is a memory game for all ages! The first person starts a story with, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring...” and then lists an item. The next person says, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring...” and then lists the first person’s item PLUS a new item. As the story grows and grows, each person repeats the list and adds a new item. The first person to incorrectly list all the items is out! You can keep playing until only one person remains.

    • License Plate Game: Interpret the letters in each license plate you pass. For instance, TMK could stand for “Toasty Miniature Kangaroo.”

    • Peoplewatching: Watch a vehicle traveling on the road near you for a few minutes. Make up a story about the people in the car. Answer questions like: What are their names? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they going to do when they get there? The sillier and more detailed the story is, the better!

    IF YOU'RE STAYING AT HOME AS A FAMILY

    • Plan a walk and play “I Spy.” When you exercise together, your brain releases endorphins that create “feel good memories” you can all enjoy for years to come. Walk around the yard, neighborhood, park or find a local hiking trail, but encourage the whole family to come! To keep the kids engaged for the walk (and to keep things playful for the adults), play as many rounds of “I Spy” as you can. Then keep track of who wins the most “I Spy” rounds and award them with a special treat when you get home, like hot chocolate, a cookie or maybe watching the movie or show of their choice.
    • Make something special. Baking goodies for the ones you love is fun, but baking goodies for someone in need or someone who doesn’t expect it is even more fun. It also teaches the littlest ones in the family that holidays aren’t just about receiving, but giving! Choose one or two people, families or organizations you’d like to delight this holiday season. Then, gather together in to bake something yummy together and share. Consider giving to an elderly neighbor, a family friend, the staff of a local nonprofit your family supports, etc.

    IF YOU'RE SHARING A MEAL WITH OTHERS...

    To avoid awkward silence at the dinner table with relatives or friends you may not see very often, try a few of these conversation starters:

    • What is one way you have helped another person this year?
    • Who is someone in your life you’re thankful for and why?
    • If you could have dinner with anyone (past or present), who would it be and why?
    • If you could have a superpower what would it be and how would you use it?
    • What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen?
    • What is the hardest thing about being your current age?

    It’s possible to be in a room or a car full of people who are not interacting fully with each other, especially when routines get thrown to the side and people are tired and cranky. When people feel disconnected and schedules are upside down, chaos reigns. Instead of chaos, plan for what you know is coming, whether it is boredom, difficult conversations or unwanted silence. During the busiest season of the year, these tips may help lessen the drama and help you make memories with family and friends.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 30, 2019.

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    How to Deal with the Unexpected

    How do you typically deal with the surprises life hands you? How you handle these situations - whether it's a sick family member, a traffic jam on the morning of your big meeting or a last-minute, expensive repair - can determine whether the problem is minor or becomes huge and affects the rest of your day, week, month and beyond.

    When unexpected things collide with the best-laid plans, some people have a tendency to react to the emotions of the moment. Their anxiety goes through the roof, they begin to panic, thinking about being late and all of the things they are supposed to get done. This often leads to frustration and feelings of helplessness and in some cases, even feeling hopeless. 

    How can you effectively prepare for these situations in a way that will help you remain calm, cool and collected? The key is to learn how to respond versus react, so the first item on the agenda is to have a plan and utilize the resources available to you.  

    The first key: Have a backup plan just in case something goes wrong. This is like having an emergency generator so your life can keep going regardless of the crisis at hand. Be intentional about creating a support network of people who are willing to assist you when you are in a bind. It doesn’t have to be family. It could be teachers, church members, neighbors, the parents of your child’s friends, co-workers, etc.

    The second key:  Step back and assess the situation before doing anything. People often move to action before actually assessing the situation to determine all their options. This includes getting the facts. We are much less likely to do something ridiculous when we think before we respond. 

    Once you have your plans in place, remember to follow your plan when the unexpected happens. Having steps to follow helps to make these situations more manageable.

    • Keep your emotions in check. Don’t let the situation control you. 
    • Be prepared. Keep basic medication on hand, have a spare set of keys for your car, take a lesson on how to change a flat tire, give your neighbor keys to your house, etc. 
    • Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. It is hard to be helpful when people don’t know there is a need. 
    • Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes talking with an objective third party can be helpful.

    All kinds of things will pop up in your life that have the potential to wreck your schedule, cause irritation or create stress, but how you handle it can be a game-changer. The next time you are dealt an unexpected surprise, be ready to respond by staying calm, assessing the situation and working your plan. You will probably be amazed at how quickly you can manage the crisis and get on with your day.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 16, 2019.


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    How to Connect at Family Mealtimes

    We live in a day and time when parents feel like they run from one thing to the next seeking to give their children every opportunity to experience life to the fullest. Many people say there's nothing wrong with that.

    The reality is that children and their parents are experiencing high rates of disconnectedness. They are experiencing a lot of life, but at what cost?

    One of the most powerful ways for families to create connection is by sharing regular and meaningful meals together, which offers a variety of benefits. Studies suggest that having meals together as a family at least four times a week has positive effects on child development and has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, substance abuse and eating disorders, and an increased chance of graduating from high school as well as better family relationships. 

    Family meals also help to:

    • provide a sense of family unity and identity.
    • give children an opportunity to express themselves.
    • teach kids to wait their turn to speak.
    • let them hear many different perspectives.
    • show how to agree to disagree on certain topics. 
    • transmit family values and traditions from one generation to the next
    • teach good table manners and etiquette.

    The American College of Pediatricians notes that the daily coming together around the family table:

    • Provides structure for the day, allowing children to feel more secure and safe by knowing what to expect. 
    • Helps parents monitor their children’s moods, behavior and activities, giving insight into the emotional well-being of their children.
    • Allows children to learn and appreciate social interactions, understand the importance of community and experience different ideas while under the guidance of their parents.

    These times together as a family create a bond and shared memories that children carry with them long into adulthood. The key to the success of these gatherings is to make them technology-free zones – no televisions, tablets or cell phones allowed.

    You may already know that family meals are a good thing, but maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to make it happen and what to do with the time you have together. Keep in mind it doesn’t have to be dinner, it could be breakfast, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. The goal is for everybody to be together and connect. Making the meal could be part of that or you could even grab something and bring it home.

    If you are at a loss for how to get the conversation around the table going, here are some suggestions to help you get started:

    • Share. Have each person share their best/favorite moment from today or yesterday. Use this time to get updates on each other, friends, co-workers and family. 
    • Ask. What’s one thing you are excited about that is coming up? Who did you notice today and why did you notice them? Is there anything going on in your life or someone else’s life that we can help with? What is the best meal or dessert you’ve ever had?
    • Discuss. If sports are your thing, talk about the latest game or an upcoming championship such as the World Series, Super Bowl, World Cup or NBA playoffs. Find ways to talk about things each individual is interested in or would like to learn more about. Maybe it’s that dream vacation or road trip, birthday bash or even how you’d like to spend your time over the weekend.
    • Listen. During the conversations, make the effort to listen without interrupting. Whatever you do, don’t ask a question and then hijack the conversation. We can learn a lot when we’re not doing all the talking.

    It might seem hard to believe that just having a meal together where you are connecting can be such a huge preventative factor for so many things, but it’s true. The key is to be intentional and keep it simple. 

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 9, 2019.


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    How to Prevent Depression in Teens

    A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics indicates that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds has increased a startling 56% over the last decade. Suicide has become the second-most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults. 

    “Pediatricians have indeed seen a huge increase in depression and anxiety in adolescents over the last few years,” says Dr. Nita Shumaker, pediatrician. “I spend a lot of time talking to parents about lifestyle choices affecting mental health.”

    While no one knows for sure what is causing this dramatic increase in teen suicide, the trend is extremely disturbing. Some experts are referring to this as a public health crisis and wondering why there is not more of an outcry for something to be done.

    Part of the problem may be that no one is clear about what is causing this uptick. It could be technology, violent video games, television shows, bullying, not enough likes on Instagram posts, the ease in which someone can compare their life to their friend’s highlight reel or who knows what else.  

    “It is clear that there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to teens and their mental health,” Shumaker says. “I start early talking about letting electronics into the home. It is a portal for both good and evil to enter into children’s lives. And electronics are really not the problem, it’s the all-access pass that so many children have to technology that is the problem.”

    Another issue Shumaker notes is sleep deprivation. 

    “Sleep deprivation is a torture technique and a well-documented trigger for anxiety and depression,” Shumaker says. “Not getting enough sleep leads to more impulsive behavior as well as poor performance in school.”

    The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that children and adolescents have no electronics in the bedroom.

    “Allowing electronics in the bedroom means that adolescents spend an enormous amount of time alone, unsupervised and on the internet,” Shumaker says. “This means that fundamentally they are separated from the family, which I believe is another potential cause of depression and anxiety. Having electronics in the bedroom means parents don’t put their kids to bed anymore - their electronics do.

    “We are missing such valuable time with our children and their mental health is suffering from it. We as a culture are abandoning our children to the internet and it is literally killing them.”

    What can we do to help our kids?

    • Your presence matters. Practice what you are trying to teach. Be intentional about disconnecting from your phone and other technology and actively engage with your kids.
    • Set limits with technology use, including amount of time on screens and where technology lives in your home. (And don’t expect your children to thank you for setting boundaries!)
    • Be vigilant about making sure they get enough rest and seriously limit distractions that could keep them awake. Help them make healthy food and exercise choices, as these can impact other areas of life.
    • Talk with them about the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and discuss ways to manage them so they are educated not only for themselves, but also for their friends. Contrary to what some believe, talking about these symptoms or the topic of suicide does not increase the risk of suicide.
    • Make them aware of helpful resources both locally and nationally. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) 
    • Suicide Resource Center - The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a whole host of resources for teens and families.
    • Give your teen household responsibilities. You may think your teen already has so much on their plate, but including teens in household chores helps them feel connected and it teaches them responsibility as well as how to manage their time.
    • Create space for your family to do things together on a regular basis. Make sure they are getting helpful information from you, and not just taking their cues from their friends.

    Our children are living in a complicated world for sure. Although no one can definitively say why there is such an increase in suicide among our young people, we cannot afford to sacrifice the mental health or lives of our children. We must be intentional in our efforts to help them. Whether they will admit it or not, they are counting on our guidance to navigate this time in their lives.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 3, 2019.


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    How to Be a Happier Person

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    How to Help Boys Thrive

    Not long ago, I wrote a provocative column concerning men and marriageability. At the end I asked, “What will we do to help our boys succeed in life and relationships?” The good news is, we can do all kinds of things to ensure that boys and girls have the same opportunities in education, earning potential and life in general.  

    Many researchers believe that the educational system itself plays a large role in how well boys do or don’t fare. Others cite technology and video games, the breakdown of the family, the focus on women’s equality or the lack of positive male role models as reasons - just to name a few. The reality is that ALL of these things contribute to whether boys succeed or fail. 

    Will Honeycutt, assistant director of counseling at The McCallie School for Boys, believes that technology plays a role in disconnecting boys from real life. Whether it’s binge-watching episodes of Game of Thrones over a weekend, playing video games or being entrenched in social media, technology is isolating boys from valuable experiences, interacting with others, engaging in conversation, learning emotional regulation and figuring out who they are as a person.

    So, how can we help boys thrive in an ever-changing culture? 

    Troy Kemp, executive director for The National Center for the Development of Boys in Chattanooga, Tenn., has some ideas we can use, whether at home or in the community. 

    BOYS AND GIRLS ARE NOT THE SAME

    Boys are different than girls - not better than - but different. Their bodies and brains mature differently, and they take in and process information differently. Boys and girls have varying strengths and weaknesses. 

    Research shows that teaching in educational settings leans heavily toward the strengths of the female brain, so actively addressing variety in learning styles and responses is a great place to start. Teachers can choose reading materials to reflect the interests of boys. Boys need to be surrounded by positive influences that will help them break through the popular culture’s narrow definition of manhood, and having more male teachers in the classroom would be a step in the right direction. 

    WHAT ABOUT AT HOME?

    Kemp feels that parents need to educate themselves about how boys (and others who wiggle) learn best and what intrinsically motivates them. Boys need examples of excellence, and using words and visuals can help them see things more fully and hold their attention. It is important that we don’t automatically assume boys aren’t trying if they don’t respond the way we want or expect. It may be possible that we didn’t clearly express our expectations, which may be very different from theirs.

    According to Kemp, boys also need to develop a proper vision for manhood and masculinity. In order to achieve that vision, they need to be exposed to male mentors who are balanced in their approach to life, learning, unconditional love and emotions. Having a community of men who are behind them makes a great impact and prepares them to mentor others. 

    “Boys need a crew and a cause,” says Kemp. “They need to know someone is counting on them and they can count on others. Boys need to know what is important to them is also important to parents…especially their fathers.”

    If you’re a father, get on your son’s level and don’t discount what is important to him. Give him choices within the choices you approve. Parents can model responsibility and healthy relationships with technology and everything else. 

    • Count the number of hours boys are in front of screens. Excessive amounts of screen time for children, especially boys, can be detrimental to healthy brain development. 
    • Make sure they are getting at least two hours of physical exercise every day. Don’t pull your son from a team or group if his grades drop. Work with the coach or group leader and use their power and influence.
    • Be intentional about teaching and modeling the qualities of healthy relationships and don’t assume they know what unhealthy looks like. 
    • Drive-time is a great time for conversation about what a lot of teens consider awkward topics. That way, nobody is looking at facial expressions. You can make it a media-free moment, too.
    • Take advantage of current situations to talk about accountability and responsibility, including healthy ways to handle anger or disappointment and treating people with respect who are disrespectful to you. 
    • Point them toward healthy role models beyond Mom and Dad - coaches, trusted friends and relatives - so they have more than their parents speaking into their lives and encouraging them on their journey into adulthood.
    • Spend one-on-one time with your child. Let them set the agenda for your time together. Fathers, try reading to and with your children. 
    • Volunteer together as a family. Go on a mission trip, help out at a local nonprofit or do something that involves giving to others. There is a real chemical reaction in the brain when we help others in need that makes us feel good and makes us want to do more acts of kindness.

    All of these things combined can help boys thrive in school and in life. Boys with a strong support system have a foundation to build upon as they enter manhood and make wise decisions about their future.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on October 5, 2019.


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    When Should Your Teen Date?

    “When will I be old enough to date?” - the question many parents dread. You've known it was coming, but you also realize you are crossing over into a whole new world with lots of moving parts, plenty of which you cannot control. 

    You may reply sarcastically, “When you’re 30!” Or, you may try to be a bit more realistic and really wrestle with the right age for your child to date, which may be different depending on the child.

    A study published in The Journal of School Health found that dating during the teen years can help teens learn social skills and grow in emotional intelligence. But guess what? Not dating during these years actually has benefits as well. 

    Here's what they found:

    • The non-dating students had similar or better interpersonal skills than their more frequently dating peers. 
    • While the scores of self-reported positive relationships with friends, at home and at school did not differ between dating and non-dating peers, teachers rated the non-dating students significantly higher for social skills and leadership skills than their dating peers.
    • The study indicated that students who didn’t date were also less likely to be depressed. Teachers’ scores on the depression scale were significantly lower for the group that reported no dating. And, the proportion of students who self-reported being sad or hopeless was significantly lower within this group as well.

    Teen dating relationships today are complicated. Here are just a sample of the thoughts teens have, and the drama that often accompanies dating relationships is a whole other discussion that cannot be disregarded. 

    “Does she like me?”  

    “Is he cheating on me?”  

    “I’m scared of what he will do if I break up with him. I think he might hurt himself.”

    “Are his constant questions about where I am, what I am doing, who I am with, and what I am wearing signs of how much he loves me?” 

    “Do I break up with him because he is mean or stay with him because a bad relationship is better than being in no relationship?” 

    In an endless sea of questions, some teens feel intense pressure to date and be in the “cool” crowd while others could care less. Either ways, this is a time to pour into your teen the qualities that will help them navigate relationships in a healthy way, whether it is romantic or not.The following things are important to keep in the forefront of your mind as you seek to teach your teen how to engage in relationships with others. 

    • They still need your guidance. The prefrontal cortex, or the rational part of the brain that helps with planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control and thinking about long-term actions and their consequences, is nowhere near fully formed, and it won’t be until age 25 or so. This has huge implications for teen behavior. 
    • Healthy relationship skills don’t come naturally, even if your teen seems super smart. They are the result of intentional teaching and modeling of behavior such as looking someone in the eyes during a conversation, using a respectful versus disrespectful tone of voice, and having high regard for one’s feelings. 
    • What your teen does in high school absolutely will follow them into adulthood and impact future relationships. Set standards, develop a strategy and don’t allow them to believe the lie that how they treat others now (or allow themselves to be treated) won’t impact them later. Unfortunately, this is a harsh reality many have experienced.
    • Sexual activity affects teens’ mental and emotional health. While the culture often pushes that having sex in the teen years is perfectly normal, plenty of young adults now believe that kind of relationship in high school created more anxiety, stress and depression for them and distracted them from truly enjoying the teen years.
    • They need to hear from you that their value and worth is not dependent on their relationship status. Friendships can be rich, deep and rewarding. Teens need to know and appreciate that their uniqueness is what makes them individuals.
    • Experiencing a range of emotions in relationships is normal, and it helps teens build their emotional regulation muscle. Being able to discern how they are feeling and learning to handle the intensity of the emotions that come with being in any relationship with others, whether it is happiness, sadness, anger, elation, disappointment or encouragement, is beneficial. 

    So, when will your child be old enough to date? Great question! It’s definitely something you should consider with great care ahead of time. Waiting until they are 30 for sure isn’t the right answer. Agreed-upon guidelines for when the time is right will be important. And, it may be comforting to you and to your teen to know that in no way does it mean they are missing out if they don’t date at all during the teen years.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on September 21, 2019.

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