The pandemic is a stressful time for everyone, but especially for our kids.
Their exposure to the grown-up world has come fast and furious over the past nine months: a deadly outbreak; the murder of George Floyd and the protests; the divisive 2020 election; and everything else. All this while being isolated from loved ones outside their homes.
As their parents, caregivers, guardians and friends, we can be mindful of their burdens and still-growing brains. Whether our kids are feeling anxious, bored or tempted by addictive substances, our response as parents and caregivers can be the same: Start talking openly about healthy ways to manage stress, anxiety and depression.
That’s the message from the Windham County Prevention Partnership, a countywide coalition of four regional groups helping youth and young adults to make positive decisions in their lives.
Three things adults can do: Talk, Track, Secure
Leaders from two of the groups — Laura Schairbaum, director of the Greater Falls Connections in Bellows Falls, and Cindy Hayford, director of the Deerfield Valley Community Partnership in Wilmington — spoke with the Reformer recently about the partnership’s latest campaign: Talk, Track, Secure.
The campaign comes on the cusp of the holidays, in the ninth month of the global outbreak and during the national deployment of a coronavirus vaccine.
The pandemic itself, COVID fatigue and stress aren’t the only dangers, say Schairbaum and Hayford. They note that the pandemic has more kids at home alone, because of working parents/caregivers and remote learning. The partnership says this is concerning, as it combines stressors, exposure to access to substances and a lack of supervision.
That’s also wrapped up in media overload, in which kids are exposed to alcohol everywhere, in G-rated movies and on TV, up to 1,000 times a year, according to CNBC.
‘Make sure our kids are safe’
“We looked at what was happening with the pandemic and kids being home more, and we wanted to provide some encouragement to families to talk to their kids, track and secure their alcohol, cannabis, and medications, so we can make sure our youth are safe,” says Schairbaum.
The partnership, which also includes Building A Positive Community in Brattleboro and West River Valley Thrives in Townsend, serves all four supervisory unions in the county. Overall, the partnership strives to have Windham County youth delay as long as possible the first time they use any substance, to reduce their chances of developing a substance use disorder during a critical time in their lives.
Most families are doing this and being proactive, says Hayford, and the majority of teens are not using substances, versus the smaller number that are.
“We’re all in this together, and this is what most of us are doing to keep our kids safe,” says Hayford.
The women — who have dedicated themselves to a happier and healthier Windham County — say securing substances is one part of this effort.
Lock it up or keep in a secure place
For medications, that might mean a lockbox or a medication holder with a code; cannabis can be secured in the same lockbox; or all of the substances, including alcohol, can be kept in a locked cabinet or a safe place hidden away, the partnership suggests.
The conversation is just as, if not, more important than locks, notes Hayford.
“The Talk piece is important to establish family expectations around underage drinking and other substance use. Locking it up reinforces those expectations, and emphasizes that alcohol, cannabis and other substances are for adult-use only,” she says.
Schairbaum refers to the “talk piece” — about future goals, stressors and expectations around not using substances — as “upstream prevention,” as those conversations prevent “kids from using in the first place.”
The making of a celebration accommodation
So, let’s get talking
To help Talk, Track, Secure take root in homes and in the lives of Windham County students and young adults, the partnership wants families to focus the conversation on three things.
Firstly, talk around the dinner table and have family time together.
“COVID-19 is very stressful, and families are finding ways to have quality time and new family traditions. Family and other positive adult connections can be the most important factor in preventing substance use disorders as they might develop in teens,” says Schairbaum.
Secondly, talk to kids about mental health, stress, and any past traumas, and how to deal with these in a healthy way. Parents can get help dealing with their own stress and triggers, and should have open discussions around mental health, which helps reduce the stigma associated with it.
Thirdly, talk about expectations about substance use, and reinforce the benefits of waiting until they are 21, because their brains are still developing until their mid-20s.
“Talk about how important their health is, assist them in setting goals and discuss how staying drug and alcohol free will contribute to good health and lead to reaching their full potential,” says Hayford.
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State and local resources
A CDC report from August states that about 75 percent of 18 to 24 year olds reported struggling with mental health during the pandemic.
Resources abound these days, above and beyond the area’s mental health care offerings.
There’s covidsupportvt.org, a Vermont Care Partners website created in response to the pandemic and a landing place for people to get support, from stress advice to a crisis hotline. There are also specific crisis lines for veterans and members of the LGBTQ community.
Young people and adults can get same-day access to in-person, telehealth or video appointments, through Brattleboro Memorial Hospital or Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS), a regional mental health care provider designated by the state.
The partnership says parents and caregivers can make Talk, Track, Secure conversations open, nonjudgmental, and even humorous, all things that kids respond to the most. And it’s helpful to have these talks early and often as “teachable moments” through what they are seeing in their favorite music, streaming shows, or things in the news or social media.
Collaborating for a stronger community
More listening than talking
It advises to have more two-way conversations, with open-ended questions that involve more adult listening than talking, seeking out their teen’s thoughts and opinions, and helping young people focus and recommit to what their goals are.
No matter the piercings, or dye in their hair, it’s important to be supportive of youth as individuals as they’re growing, says Schairbaum.
Likewise, tracking need not require a homing beacon, the partnership leaders say. Just awareness of what you have in your home should be enough.
“Be aware of what you have in your home, so that if you do know that something is missing, you can start a conversation,” says Hayford.
Home is No. 1
Hayford says pre-COVID data points to 70 percent of Windham County high school students saying they have easy or somewhat easy access to substances.
“Home is definitely one source of alcohol, cannabis and prescription drugs, right up there with older friends and siblings,” notes Hayford. “A lot of parents assume that friends are the primary source, but it’s really important for adults to understand that teens are accessing it in the home, too.”
Hayford, who has been doing community-based intervention work for 24 years, says this has always been the case. Modeling definitely plays into the prevention, and adults can model behaviors that they’d like to see in their kids.
The most important thing we can think about as adults is why are we drinking or using any substance, how do we talk about our use in front of our children, and how are we taking care of our own needs so we can be there for our kids, she says.
Visit for easy-to-access information
At WindhamPartnership.org, the coalition of prevention groups offers all manner of educational and engaging materials including coping and connecting resources; a guide for caregivers of teens who identify as LGBTQ+; information on prescription drug misuse; and a variety of other resources. A family handbook is coming soon, which will include tips and checklists to help raise healthy kids. “It’s in the final stages,” says Hayford.
Schairbaum says the handbook will help parents and caregivers with tips to support their teens through adolescence and into adult life.
“When our kids are babies or toddlers, we make sure there’s nothing around them that will do them harm. That can continue into adolescence. Even though they can make decisions on their own, they still need us to help them stay safe and away from things that might be harmful to them,” notes Schairbaum.
Raising teens, especially in a pandemic, is stressful and mind boggling, so get helpful tips and tricks about supporting your teen at WindhamPartnership.org.
If you or those you know are struggling, you can contact the HCRS 24-Hour Crisis Line: 800-622-4235, VT Crisis Text Line: Text VT to 741741, Call 2-1-1, The LGBTQ Crisis Hotline: 866-488-7386, or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).