The Best “Welcome Back” Gift You Can Give

Do kids experience trauma? Can the effects be long-lasting? Can trauma be treated? Can kids be happy again after experiencing trauma? The answer to all of these questions is, “Yes”!

Trauma is actually quite common among kids. In a groundbreaking research project called, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied over 17,000 participants in the San Deigo, CA, area. Participants were given a questionnaire asking if they had experienced any difficult childhood events, such as a death in the family, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, parent imprisonment or similar events. Surprisingly, this study found that over 50% of all kids experience at least one traumatic event before the age of 17! It’s important to note that the study was conducted on primarily white, middle-class participants. In areas where there are high amounts of crime, poverty, or drugs, the incidence of trauma in kids can be as high as 100%!

I have to wonder then…If we surveyed ALL elementary, middle school and high school aged students today, what percentage of them would report having already experienced a traumatic event in their life?

I think the percentage would be much higher than 50%. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was close to 100%.

Why wouldn’t this surprise me? Because we are ALL experiencing life with COVID-19.

A traumatic event can be defined as exposure to actual or threatened injury or death. COVID-19 is all of that – for all of us – even kids. COVID-19 has threatened our sense of security, safety and life.

Any experience can be traumatic when it triggers a stress response and is difficult to understand, process or cope with. The COVID-19 pandemic exasperated stressors already present in families, as well as created new stressors where none existed previously. Families have been struggling with so many uncertainties. Will I keep my job? Where will the next meal come from? Will we have enough money for the next rent or mortgage payment? How can I access and afford healthcare if I need it?

Sometimes we tend to think of trauma as a single event. However, for some kids, trauma can be recurring, such as being bullied day after day, witnessing frequent intense arguments, experiencing abuse in the home or seeing repeated violence in their neighborhood, the media or online. With families sheltering at home 24/7 for months, it has been almost impossible for some kids to escape the recurring traumatic events happening within their home.

As you prepare to welcome kids back to your school or organization you should expect each of them to be in a different stage of recovery from the traumatic experience of living with COVID-19. All of us respond to trauma in different ways.

Many of us show resilience and won’t develop long-term emotional, mental or physical problems after experiencing a traumatic event. Some of your kids will not have succumbed to the traumatic experiences, risks or hardships of COVID-19.

There will be other kids whose traumatic experience with COVID-19 will diminish greatly the minute they walk through your doors and into an environment of familiarity, structure, safety and support. However, there will also be kids walking through the same doors who will bring traumatic experiences from COVID-19 with them.

Having a trauma-sensitive environment or community your kids walk into on the first day and every day thereafter is so important. A trauma-sensitive community helps kids overcome negative feelings of a traumatic experience and diminishes the severity of it long term.

Trauma can cause feelings of disconnection for kids and it can undermine their overall success. Creating a trauma-sensitive community in which all your kids feel safe, welcomed and supported is important and requires you to build it on the following principles:

  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support and mutual self-help
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment, voice and choice
  • Consideration, recognition and provision for cultural, historical and gender issues

Creating this kind of a community doesn’t happen quickly or easily. It requires care, commitment, collaboration and consistency by everyone in your organization. It is critical that kids feel safe and connected in all parts of your organization and not just in one program or with one teacher or staff person.

What kind of a community will your kids walk into when they come through your doors again? Will they feel safe, welcomed and supported by everyone in your organization? Welcoming your kids back to a trauma-sensitive community is one of the best “welcome back” gifts you can give all of them. It’s also one of the best gifts your organization can invest in.

Giving you ALL my best,


P.S. How Trauma-Informed Schools Help Every Student Succeed is a great article about what being a trauma-sensitive and informed school/organization means and requires. I encourage you to give it a read. Note in the article how integral restorative practices are to any trauma-sensitive approach. If you didn’t attend the webinar, Bringing Restorative Practices to Your Students, I hosted in April you will want to watch the replay of it. I would also recommend you reach out to the webinar presenter, Bill Michener, the national independent licensed trainer of restorative practices, to discuss how you can incorporate restorative practices into your trauma-sensitive community.

How Well Would You Pass the Test

If you were asked to identify up to 14 different vaping devices hidden in plain sight among a classroom of students, how confident are you that you could identify all of them? Would you know what to look for?

When you read or hear that kids have new ways to hide their vaping habits anywhere they go, including in school, at home, in public places, it’s true. Kids are vaping in plain sight and most adults don’t even know it.

If you are a parent who has been sheltering at home with a middle or high schooler these past months, vaping could be happening right under your roof without you even realizing it. If you are a teacher, coach, youth worker or anyone who engages with adolescents, you could also be unaware of the vaping that is taking place right in front of you.

I’m hosting a free webinar tomorrow from Noon-1:15 pm EST, called, “Youth, Vaping & E-Cigarettes: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

If you’re wondering if it would be worth your valuable time or you will learn anything new by registering for the webinar, I highly encourage you to take this test to help you make your decision…

The Today Show on NBC featured a story last October where they put parents and teachers to the test to see if they could find vaping devices that were in plain sight among a classroom of high school students. Take a moment to watch the featured story by clicking on the image below and see how many of the hidden devices you are able to identify.

So, how many of the hidden devices were you able to identify? Did you do “as well” as the parents and the teachers did in the story? If so, then maybe your decision as to whether you should register for tomorrow’s webinar on youth and vaping has been made.

I look forward to seeing you in the webinar.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every January I turn to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey results to see what the national trends were with adolescent substance use over the past year. Since 1975, the MTF study has been conducted annually by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I’ve seen a lot of trends with different substances over the past 30+ years of reviewing MTF studies – trends that primarily showed a decrease in use while other trends raised some concerns.

This past January I read the summary of the 2019 MTF survey which involved about 42,500 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades enrolled in 396 secondary schools nationwide. I was a bit more prepared for the 2019 results than when I read the 2018 report a year earlier. From 2017 to 2018, increases in adolescent vaping were the largest EVER recorded in the past 43 years for any adolescent substance use outcome in the United States! So, not surprisingly, from 2018 to 2019, the vaping continued its dramatic increase.

Vaping involves the inhalation of aerosols (sometimes including nicotine) using battery-powered devices such as e-cigarettes, “mods,” Juuls and e-pens. Starting in 2017, the MTF study asked about the vaping of three specific substances – nicotine, marijuana and just flavoring. Here’s a quick summary of the trends seen in vaping all three substances from 2017 to 2019:

  • Only vaping “just flavoring” showed significant decreases in 2019 in all three grades.
  • Over the two-year interval from 2017 to 2019, 30-day prevalence of vaping marijuana doubled or tripled in all three grades. For example, it rose from 4.9% in 2017 to 14.0% in 2019 among 12th graders.
  • Vaping nicotine also showed sharp increases over the same interval, with 30-day prevalence more than doubling in all three grades, rising from 11.9% in 2017 to 25.5% in 2019 among 12th graders. Given that nicotine is involved in most vaping this presents a serious threat to the hard-won progress we have tracked since the mid-1990s in reducing cigarette smoking among adolescents.

These survey results were concerning to me in January, but they became even more concerning when COVID-19 hit our country in March. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was believed young people were not at risk for the virus and if they did contract it, would likely experience few complications because of it. But, as time went on, an increasing number of serious coronavirus cases, involving young people, were being reported.

This is when it struck me that our adolescents ARE at serious risk for the coronavirus, especially those who vape or smoke. Numerous studies indicate that vaping, like smoking, inflames and damages the lungs. If teens have underlying lung damage from vaping, and get the coronavirus on top of that, the outcome is not going to be positive.

With the pandemic keeping many of us sheltering at home these past three months, it put teens who vape in a difficult predicament. How could they continue to secretly vape while at home 24/7? How could they access vaping products? Unfortunately, kids who were willing to work hard could still get vaping products, and for some, this meant leaving the house and potentially exposing themselves to COVID. Just being isolated during the past months has increased anxiety, stress and depression for many of us and for adolescents, its enough of a reason for some to start vaping or use more than they were before.

For other teens, COVID-19 has been the catalyst for them to quit vaping, whether they wanted to or not. However, the question remains to be answered, “Will they resume vaping when they leave their home and are among friends again who still vape?”

Even more concerning to me is whether parents know when their child is vaping. Parents and other adults kids are living with will continue to be on the front lines in the months to come and in the best position to recognize if their child is vaping. The question is, “Do they know how to identify vaping use?” Kids have become so savvy and secretive in their vaping practices that even I, a substance use prevention professional, might not even be able to identify when it’s happening.

As you prepare your response and readiness plan for the return of kids to your schools and programs, you need to address two things: 1) You and all your staff need to be prepared to recognize vaping among kids and 2) Help parents identify vaping use with their kids at home.

I feel so strongly about these two things that I want to be of help to you in addressing them. So, mark your calendar for a free webinar I am hosting next Thursday, June 18, from Noon-1:15 pm EST, called “Youth, Vaping and E-Cigarettes: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” I was an attendee of this webinar in January and I learned SO MUCH! I know you will, too. Registration for the webinar opens on Monday, June 15. If you would like to receive the registration email in your Inbox on Monday, please message me at Plan to register early as there is a cap on the number of participants for this webinar. And, be sure to share the invitation with your staff and the parents of your students!

COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and vaping among adolescents isn’t likely going to decrease quickly either. So, if you want to reduce kids’ risk for the coronavirus one of the best things you can do is keep them from compromising their lungs by vaping. It starts by registering for next week’s webinar and learning the good, the bad and the ugly of vaping. I promise…it will pay off.

A Summer Like No Other Summer

I’m a day late with my blog. But, for good reason. I just returned from visiting my 88 and 89-year-old parents who still live on the family farm and who I haven’t seen or been with since COVID-19 hit in early March. I had to quarantine for 14 days before my visit due to my dad being a dialysis and cancer patient. After spending fourteen days alone in my home, followed by three days in the beautiful, quiet, peaceful countryside, I am more relaxed, focused and energized than I have been for a long time. It’s actually been a life-impacting experience for me.

The serenity of the family farm

Time was the gift I was given during my quarantine at home and visit to the farm. Being free of interruptions and distractions for 17 days, gave me the time to think about things that typically get pushed aside in my mind because I’m moving on to another task or I’m rushing off somewhere. I had numerous “a ha” moments these past several weeks. One of them came just a few days ago when I turned my calendar from May to June.

It struck me that moving from May to June is usually a time when we think of the end of a school year and the beginning of summer break for kids. There’s typically a feeling of excitement and anticipation making this transition. There might be plans for spending time in the pool or on the beach with friends, going to the ballpark for games, attending county fairs, visiting amusement parks, participating in summer camps, taking vacations and enjoying outdoor parties – just to name a few. Summertime means less structure, more time with friends and less adult supervision for kids. It’s a welcomed and fun time of the year for many kids and adults alike.

But, transitioning from May into June this year didn’t bring me that same kind of excitement and anticipation of summer like it normally does. After thinking more deeply about it I realized that summer break actually started 2 ½ months ago for kids and parents. It’s no wonder the normal feelings associated with moving into June weren’t there for me.

With the shutdown of schools, afterschool activities and extracurricular activities in early March, due to COVID-19, kids have been experiencing free and unstructured time since then. However, the time has been spent primarily in their home with family and not with friends. Adult supervision in the home has likely varied depending on whether parents were quarantined or working from home. Studies also indicate kids are already reporting an increase of boredom, anxiety and stress over the past several months.

Why is this so concerning, especially today, on June 4? Because summer hasn’t even officially started yet and the normal concerns of summertime with kids could very well have started months ago. Historically, summertime means an increased likelihood for kids to be exposed to substance use. Research has shown for many years that alcohol and drug use among adolescents significantly increases during the summer months. Studies show that during the months of June and July, teens are more likely to begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol. By the end of August, nearly one million teens will have tasted their first drink of alcohol. On an average summer day, approximately 4,500 youth will smoke cigarettes or marijuana for the first time.

While the risks of substance use and experimentation is possible any time of the year with kids, the drastic increase during the summer months can be contributed to several factors:

· More free and unstructured time

· Less adult supervision

· Accessibility to substances in the home

These factors have been present in most kids’ lives since mid-March and could continue for an additional 2 ½-3 months, inceasing the risk even more for substance use. With COVID-19 restrictions expected to continue and many typical summer activities being canceled, life isn’t going to change much for kids from what it is or has been. So, if kids are reporting being bored, anxious and stressed now, how will they be feeling in the months to come? And, it doesn’t help that some of the reasons kids give for using substances under normal circumstances is because they are bored, anxious and stressed.

Common sense and experience tell me we need to prepare for a spike in substance use with kids this summer unlike what we see during normal summertime. As you prepare a readiness response plan for the return of your kids to school and other activities in the coming months, it will be important to consider implementing proven substance use prevention and intervention approaches or at least re-evaluate the practices you were using before the pandemic. What worked prior to COVID-19 may not be what’s most effective now.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s already June, and in other ways, it seems like the last few months have lasted forever. I’m sure it feels that way for many kids and parents, too. The extended “summer break” they are experiencing, coupled with all the current challenges and stressors of COVID-19, could make for a summer like no other summer. The challenge for you and I is…”How can we make it a summer free of substance use?”