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The Family Center: enrichment programs for families and professionals

The Middle School Years: Brain Matters

Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW

Q. I have one child in middle school and another about to begin middle school. I have seen behavioral changes in both of them and don’t know what is “normal” for this age. What would be helpful for me to understand about these middle school years?

A. The pre-teen years bring enormous cognitive, social and emotional changes for early adolescents – some welcomed and others quite challenging.

These changes can be complex, sometimes making the child we love unrecognizable. Though there are many issues influencing pre-teens, ranging from peer relationships to technology, one of the most significant is how their brains are developing. Just around the time our kids are entering middle school, their brain undergoes a period of rapid development and growth. They have an increased ability to do work, their intellectual interests expand, and their capabilities continue to develop.

Despite cognitive leaps, however, there are many critical brain functions which are undeveloped – this during a period when kids are moving towards increased independence, greater challenges, more complex social relationships and significant risk taking. Consider these issues in your efforts to support your adolescent as they negotiate the middle school years:

Read more: The Middle School Years: Brain Matters


Finding “Normal” in the Middle School Years

Ask the Experts by Michael Dib

Q: What is considered a normal middle school student?

A: Many times parents are worried by changes in their middle school aged child. Please keep in mind that there will be many internal chemical and hormonal changes that occur during adolescence. You will experience behaviors that were not prevalent or observable during elementary school.

While each middle school student has her/his own interests, personality, and likes/dislikes, there are many developmental issues that students face during their middle school years.

Read more: Finding “Normal” in the Middle School Years


Reducing Stress Through Mindfulness Meditation

Ask the Experts by Maureen McKinley Light, LMSW

Q: I can’t seem to get a handle on stress. It seems to affect every part of my life, including my ability to parent. I feel overwhelmed by everyday life. What can I do?

A. There is a growing recognition that we can have more control over our emotions than we suspect. Often we fall victim to our reactions to life. In recent years new approaches to psychology such as cognitive behavioral therapy have demonstrated that we can moderate our emotions by observing our thought patterns and how they are affecting us.

Put simply: Our thoughts from moment to moment have immediate impact on our emotions, one way or another. If we are worrying about something which may happen, or obsessing about something that already happened, we are caught up in “ruminating thoughts” which often have extreme emotional consequences. If we worry, “What if Josh doesn’t make the little league team his friends are on? He will be devastated!”, our emotional distress will be just as immediate and intense as though the event already happened.

Read more: Reducing Stress Through Mindfulness Meditation


Making the Most of Technology In Your Family

Ask the Experts by Sean Hogan Downey, LMSW

Q: I have 3 children that are 6, 9 and 12 years of age. With the influence of more technology starting at an ever-younger age, it seems like we have less and less family time. How can we increase face to face connection time and still see the value in technology?

A: Culture has absorbed the digital world. Helping kids also see the value of personal interaction is your goal. Recognizing these facts will get you started on a solution:

  • TV, computers, pods and pads are important parts of family life.
  • Connecting face to face requires some down time from all the “digitals.”
  • Connecting face to face has to also have an esteemed place in your family.

Parents need to figure out what they actually believe and make family rules to support those beliefs.

Read more: Making the Most of Technology In Your Family


Modeling Adulthood

Ask the Experts by Jeff Jay

Q. My husband and I have two children, 9 and 12. We're not sure how to talk to them about alcohol and other drugs, but we're afraid these things are soon going to be part of their world. What should we do?"

A. Kids notice everything. As they move into their teen years they notice more of everything and with a more discerning eye. They're constantly adapting themselves to the world around them and evaluating the actions of others. Young people want to grow up fast, so they pay special attention to adults.

If kids see that adult gatherings always include alcohol, it sends a message that will be received loud and clear. The message is: if I'm an adult interacting with other adults in a social setting, I should be drinking. Children are the only ones who aren't allowed to drink. If I'm going to be one of the grown-ups, I need to drink.

Read more: Modeling Adulthood


How Important Is It...Really?

Ask the Experts by Carolyn Van Dorn

Q: Why do I need my medical information written out?

A: We live in a world where everything is in the palm of our hands or loaded on a computer. Sometimes it is good to choose to do it the "old fashioned way," and jot it down.

It is extremely important for us to have our health information documented. In an immediate emergency situation, responders need to know what measures to take and if there are pre-existing medical issues. In most cases, they will not be in a position to search through files on your computer or phone.

Read more: How Important Is It...Really?


Assertiveness Skills for Children and Teens

Ask the Experts by Vita Venditti

Q. How can I get my child to stand up for himself? I’ve observed that he often allows his friends to have the upper hand. I am worried he may give into peer pressure when the issue is alcohol or drugs.

A. One of the reasons children succumb to peer pressure is because they do not have the power to stand up for themselves. As a parent, you can play a critical role in the development of assertiveness skills in your children.

Learning “refusal skills” can help prevent your child from giving into peer pressure. Practicing can help someone know what to do if they are ever in a real-life situation where they don’t want to do something.

Here are some refusal skills:

Read more: Assertiveness Skills for Children and Teens


Retirees: Who Are You? And What Are You Going To Do?

Ask the Experts by Mary Anne Lushe

Q. I'll be retiring this October and I don't even know how to think about the future, or what to do with the rest of my life. Where do I begin?

A. The desire to take a path less traveled, to do something we've always longed to do, or to go more deeply into our own being, comes up for many of us in mid-life and beyond.

When we prepare to retire or a spouse does, we will often be asked what you plan to do, with the assumption that some interest will take up your time. For some it is entirely clear how they will spend their retirement time; for others... not so much.

I'd like to suggest that whether you are a young person or an elder, the more important question is not, "What should I do with the time I've been given," but "Who shall I be going forward?" At every age we are more than what we do. Too often we haven't done the work of discovering who we are, recognizing the unique things we bring to the table of life and developing the legacy we eventually want to leave. Teens and older adults both want to mean something and not just do something.

Read more: Retirees: Who Are You? And What Are You Going To Do?


Teens: Who Are You? And What Are You Going To Do?

Ask the Experts by Mary Anne Lushe

Q. I'm going to be a junior next year. How can I get my parents to stop asking me, "What do you plan to study in college or do after you graduate?" 

A. How many of us have entertained ourselves with the quirky, charming and outrageous answers that very small children give when asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's not so entertaining for teens - faced with major decisions - when they are asked the same things. Parents and other adults ask them the big questions with a greater sense of urgency. Most family members genuinely want to:

  • be supportive as younger people hone their choices,
  • help motivate them when their attention lags and
  • enthuse with them as they gain clarity in their thinking.

However, those well intentioned questions can appear intrusive, controlling or just plain nosy to teens who aren't yet sure of their goals or who may have desires that conflict with their parent's wishes. Those struggles often cause considerable discord in families.

Read more: Teens: Who Are You? And What Are You Going To Do?


Pave a Summer Path for Success in School

Ask the Experts by Michael Richman

Q. How can families pave a summer path for success in school?

A. All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. According to the National Summer Learning Association, “Research spanning 100 years show us that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer and most students lose about two months of math skills over the summer months”.

While these studies have shown that students lose 2.6 months of math learning, literacy is most affected by the summer break.

Read more: Pave a Summer Path for Success in School


Senior Driving Safety

Ask the Experts by Sharon Maier

Q. My mom is 85 in great health except for a little memory loss. I just got home from driving with her to church and am glad to be out of the car. While we didn’t go on any major streets, my mom seemed frazzled and once on the main road back home she changed lanes and cut off a driver. What should I do?

A. The first thing to do is to begin having conversations about driving. Driving is an emotional topic because it represents independence. Since you saw her getting frazzled when driving use that as a lead-in to a conversation about her driving. Remember, you want to have conversations, not lectures.

Help your mom come up with solutions that work for her. If you are not the perfect person to have this conversation with your mom defer to a family member that might be better suited. A sensitive topic needs to be treated with respect. Each family has its own dynamics and often one or two people have more influence than everyone else. Be aware of this so that you can give your mom the help she needs.

Read more: Senior Driving Safety


How Early Music Education Impacts Young Children and Beyond

Ask the Experts by Melissa Sharp and Nancy Takis

Q. My three-year-old loves to sing and listen to music. Is she too young to enroll in a music class?

A. As Early Childhood educators prepare for a career in teaching, they learn the importance of incorporating music into the classroom. Music education is not only a graduation requirement for a degree in Early Childhood; it is also integrated into the State of Michigan Licensing Rules for Child Care Centers.

The value of music exposure during the early years sets the stage for success in the future for various reasons. 

Nancy Takis, early childhood music educator consultant explains how early music education impacts young children and beyond:

The importance of early music education should not be underestimated. It provides more than a simple break from the "serious" academics. Rather, music activates and engages areas of the brain untapped by mathematics, science, and other disciplines.

Read more: How Early Music Education Impacts Young Children and Beyond


Building Resilience in Children

Ask the Experts by Maureen McKinley Light, LMSW

Q: As a parent, I want to be able to help my children to be resilient, be able to recover quickly from setbacks they encounter in their daily lives. How can I help them develop this trait?

A: I recently spoke about resilience in childhood in the closing presentation of the Bullying Series for The Family Center. I chose to focus upon resilience as a desirable trait in general.

As I pointed out, there will be many parents who are concerned that their children have experienced some type of bullying by others, even if the circumstance does not fit the criteria for “bullying” as it has been identified by the schools in recent months. In fact, parents suffer when their children are observed to be hurt by others, and struggle to find appropriate ways of responding to this.

Read more: Building Resilience in Children


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