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NewBridge offers strategies for a better back-to-school experience

PEQUANNOCK TOWNSHIP, NJ (Morris County) — Children and teenagers face lingering challenges as they return to a third pandemic-era school year, but NewBridge Services childhood experts said strategies for parents and students can ease them.

“Parents and children have been incredibly resilient during one of the most challenging crises of our lifetime. We encourage people to be gentle with themselves as we navigate the ongoing recovery from the pandemic,” said Denise Geffke-Ramos, director of Child and Family Services.

Families are grieving the upheaval caused by the pandemic (and some, the loss of a loved one). “When people say they are ‘over’ the pandemic, I think what they’re saying is they want to go back to their lives before it. But we are in new territory,” said Chamomile Balzano, a CFS senior supervising clinician. “Acceptance is part of the grieving process.”

One of the best ways parents can help their children is with self-care. “The better you take care of yourself, the better you’re going to take care of your kids,” said Geffke-Ramos, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor.

Geffke-Ramos urged parents to embrace the five protective factors:

  • Developing parental resilience to manage feelings and handle problem-solving with a clear head.
  • Building social connections and a strong support network.
  • Learning what behaviors are typical for children at each age to help set realistic expectations.
  • Seeking support when needed and accepting help to reduce stress.
  • Helping children develop social and emotional competence in expressing themselves, handling emotions and getting along with others.

Parents can foster resiliency in their children by modeling it, said Elizabeth Jacobson, NewBridge’s director of Community Response and Education. “When parents learn to regulate their emotions, their children pick up on that.”

Balzano, a licensed clinical social worker, urged parents to be gentle with themselves, their children and others. Setting expectations for a ‘normal’ school year “can add a level of stress to parents,” she said. While academics are important, maintaining mental well-being may need to be the priority as the school year begins.

During the pandemic, children and teens lost ground in building social skills, a key part of their psychosocial development. Reducing time spent on screens and using it instead to get together with friends, take family hikes, play sports or participate in extracurricular programs allow children to practice those skills, Balzano said.

“It’s important to keep kids active and involved,” Balzano said. “Studies have shown that children who spend more time online have higher incidence of depression and other mental health problems.”

Results of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study released in March 2022 showed significant increases in the number of children diagnosed with mental health conditions between 2016 and 2020. The number of children ages 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%, and those with depression by 27%.

Getting good sleep and regular exercise, and eating healthy meals all contribute to well-being, Geffke-Ramos said. The NewBridge experts recommended mind-body practices including yoga and meditation as ways to lower stress for both adults and children. Parents can teach children simple relaxation techniques such as focusing on their breath and doing a mental body scan that can calm them whenever they begin to feel anxious.

Clients have reported success with the meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, Geffke-Ramos said.

NewBridge runs a virtual weekly support group for teens ages 13 to 17, addressing adolescent life issues such as emotion management, coping skills, social issues. The support group, facilitated by Senior Access Specialist/Clinician Monica Cruz, a licensed associate counselor, has ongoing enrollment. To learn more, call 973-316-9333.

Jacobson continues to train school personnel and community members in Youth Mental Health First Aid, teaching them how to recognize and respond to a child or teen having a mental health crisis. In the fall, she will also teach in-school programs on resiliency in a post-COVID era.

Parents struggling with anxiety and stress or whose child is can contact NewBridge Services at 973-316-9333.

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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