By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Part three of the Leander ISD Student Wellness series was presented last week at Vandegrift High School. The theme of the presentation, open to all LISD families, was “Mental, Social and Physical Well-being,” which covered suicide prevention and awareness, positive parenting and avoiding power struggles, and body image and eating disorders.
Teen suicide addressed
Adrian Ivey, LISD’s Director of Guidance, opened the evening with a comprehensive picture of the factors that can contribute to teen suicide. Leading indicators of suicide include substance abuse and mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Other groups are also at risk, however; for example, those experiencing high stress situations (major trauma, family illness), those with a family history of suicide and those considered to have a preexisting vulnerability such as LGBT youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).
The risk can can be mitigated by protective factors. Social and family support, lack of availability of lethal means (such as a gun), and access to mental health services are a few of the components that can be influential in preventing suicide. As Ivey stressed, someone contemplating suicide will often do so for only a brief window of time, meaning these simple factors can be key deterrents.
Texas has developed its own suicide prevention and response program, found at www.texassuicideprevention.org, the main message of which is “ASK about suicide to save a life,” stressing the importance of asking if you think someone you know may be considering suicide.
“Asking a direct question and knowing how to refer will help to save lives,” advised Ivey.
She went on to dispel a common misconception. “Asking a direct question about suicide does not put the thought in someone’s head. On the contrary. Most of the time people will report that it made them feel good just to know that someone was listening.”
Avoiding power struggles when communicating
The second speaker of the evening, Response to Intervention Behavioral Coach Sandy Smith, offered useful tips for avoiding power struggles when communicating with children.
She reminded the audience first of all that a child’s brain is not yet developed and that this more than any other factor will influence behavior and response. Executive function and emotional regulation — primary brain functions — reach maturation at around age 24 to 26.
Until then, the “fight or flight” reptile brain, necessary for survival, is unduly influential, especially in adolescents.
“They’re living in this emotional part of their brain, hovering above fight or flight all the time. So in adolescence you can feel like you’re going to die of embarrassment. That’s a natural physiological response,” Smith said.
Adults can combat these naturally occurring responses by avoiding having their own fight or flight responses and instead using language, including body language, to calm or dispel conflict.
“About 55 percent of what we communicate comes through body language alone. So without even saying anything you’ve said most of what you’re going to say. 38 percent comes from tone of voice. And then only seven percent comes from the actual words,” Smith said.
To that end, remaining calm, choosing words carefully and using non-threatening body language and tone can help to calm a child who is feeling agitated. Furthermore, using silence — but not the silent treatment — can de-escalate rising emotions.
Children have a natural desire for attention or control that parents can manage by giving positive reinforcement for desired behaviors — ”five positives for every negative” — even if it’s for the smallest gesture. Giving choices can also achieve preferred results, as long as the choices are both positive, i.e. homework or bathtime versus homework or spanking.
Besides the tools she covered in her presentation, Smith encouraged parents to attend the Love & Logic parenting classes offered by LISD several times a year.
Healthy body images and messages
Kristen Bell, MD, is a physician at Cedar Park Physician Associates, and her core message was about healthy body images and messages.
Instead of focusing on weight or appearance, Bell implored parents to remind their children, especially their daughters, of their bodies’ abilities and strengths. Rather than telling your kids that junk food is bad, discuss with them how different foods make them feel and what provides the most effective fuel for their growing bodies.
Because children and adults alike are bombarded daily with an abundance of images and messages about how they should look, what they should weigh, and what constitutes “normal” or attractive, parents must work twice as hard to combat unrealistic and dangerous expectations. For example, a majority of models are considered underweight. Photoshop then adjusts any “undesirable” features to create an artificial ideal.
In that same vein, Bell reminded parents of the dangers of anorexia and bulimia. Parents need to be aware of the signs of these dangerous diseases, including fear of eating, extra hair on the arms and face, and body dysmorphia (distorted body image) for the former and binge eating, vomiting, use of laxatives and even loss of tooth enamel for the latter. Compulsive exercise can also be a sign of disordered body image.
Bell’s presentation highlighted the fact that girls now perceive themselves as overweight from a younger and younger age, and by high school six out of ten girls give up things they love doing like sports because of concerns about how others may judge their appearance. Ironically, it’s girls who stay in sports who, “tend to have a more positive self-image and do better in terms of resisting the pressures externally about body image.”
For her part, Bell considers “fat” to be a bad word. Instead have a conversation, “that’s not about, ‘Hey, you’re overweight and you need to lose weight.’ When you’re seven, eight, nine — that’s not a good message to tell your child. Giving them the good choices and then recognizing the choices that they make that are positive,” can help to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, image and attitude.
The entire evening’s presentation and will be available on the LISD website at www.leanderisd.org.