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April 24, 2024

WCPA Spring 2024 Newsletter

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In the WCPA Spring newsletter, topics include: Middle School to High School Transitions, The Antidote to Virtual Conversations, Reflection Diaries, Supporting Those Struggling with Depression, and Play Therapy 101.

Middle School to High School Transitions

Julia Covilli, MSW, LMSW

When adults consider big life transitions, they often think of getting married, having kids, or losing a loved one. Even young adults, who may additionally consider transitions like graduating from college, moving out of their childhood home, and getting their first job, often do not recognize earlier life transitions as impactful as they are. The switch from middle school to high school can feel life-altering for many youth, but this change is often minimized, due its commonplace nature and the unfortunate reality that many adults view the childhood experience as less important. 

Moving from middle school, even a large middle school, to high school can be overwhelming and scary to adolescents. Beyond the novelty of going to a new school, high school creates numerous possibilities for growth and disappointment that can intimidate even the most outgoing student. 

Middle school can be a tough time for many students, and those who experience alienation during middle school frequently predict negative outcomes for their high school experience. They are frequently told, usually in the hopes of reducing anxiety, that high school will be different and likely better. But how can an adolescent, especially one who has suffered from bullying or feeling like they do not fit in, believe that simply changing schools will improve their situation? 

This transition can be particularly challenging for teens moving into a high school in which they will likely be in classes with the same students they have been with since elementary school, with whom they already have established relationships that may be of poor quality or constrictive. This may result in significant anxiety over the summer between eighth and ninth grade, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of relational difficulties and isolation during their freshman year and beyond. Those youth who do make efforts to be more optimistic can be that much more discouraged and disheartened if they encounter similar difficulties within their social group as they had in the past. 

While some students join sports teams or club activities, make friends, and feel like they are a part of the school community, others feel nervous to follow their passions, fearing peer exclusion, and do not engage in the opportunities that could provide them better suited friendships and increased confidence. Those students who never branch out tend to get stuck in what is termed “proximity friendships.” A study by Faur and Laursen (2022) indicated that “classroom seating proximity was associated with the formation of new friendships.” This is bolstered in a study conducted by Rohrer, Keller, and Elwert (2021), which found that spatial proximity in the classroom induced the development of friendships, even among students with differing gender, academic achievement, and ethnicity. Having friends with diverse backgrounds can be very rewarding for youth, but these proximity friendships can also create pressure to maintain these convenient relationships, especially if seating is rearranged. 

Conversely, if the other students involved in a student’s sports and extracurriculars initially appear to be healthy friendship options, and the teen only exerts energy into friendships with these particular peers, friendship options can quickly feel limited. If the student later discovers the other kids on their team or in their club are no longer healthy options (e.g., due to problem behaviors, bullying, or excluding them from social events) or if the student decides to cease their participation in that sport or club, a student can become left without a peer group to lean on for support. 

Additionally, this transition may come with grief and loss of friendships with previous classmates who enrolled at different high schools, especially for those who go the private school route. If an adolescent feels like they have made a friend for life, and then that friend goes to a different high school and stops talking to them, it can feel like their heart has been broken. This can damage an adolescent’s sense of who they are as a friend and make it difficult to open up to trusting new people again to form new friendships. When they have so many barriers to developing new friendships, it can be a real challenge for youths to connect with their school community. 

When the young people in our lives experience this struggle, the best way to help is often to assure them that they are not alone in this experience, that what they feel is valid and normal, and that as a caring adult in their life, you are there to provide them what they need to be emotionally healthy, strong, and safe. Showing them that you see their pain, understand them (even when their experience looks different from the one you had as a kid), and are willing to be a support creates a necessary and positive environment for them to flourish and become the best version of themselves. 

In therapy, youth clients who have shown the most growth socially and emotionally have been the ones who felt understood and not just seen but known by their support system. Some kids really struggle during this transition and when they learn that their support system can be truly depended upon, they burgeon into more confident people. Even those with substantial difficulty making friends or maintaining friendships can adapt better to their school environment when their support system facilitates them to feel comfortable exploring who they are and how much value they possess. To feel truly worthy of love and kindness enables individuals to find others who will provide that love and kindness. 

Many youth say they just want to be accepted by peers and “fit-in,” but the long-term effects of conforming to mainstream ideals can be damaging to someone’s identity formation and comfort with self. Just as important as peer relationships are at this age, so is identity formation. When teens can identify and align with their personal values, they feel surer of themselves and more able to assert themselves with peers in healthy ways, like setting boundaries and respectfully but firmly holding those boundaries. 

The more families embrace a teen’s developing identity and individuality (even when their values and identity do not perfectly align with their parents’), the more a teen can feel safe making choices for themselves. Those choices may include trying a new activity to meet new people, being brave enough to extend invitations to peers for socialization, or simply being okay with not being popular but instead being willing to hold out for worthwhile friendships that make the teen feel like they are a part of their school’s community in their own way. Supporting a teen with unconditional love and a non-judgmental standpoint will enhance their growth as an individual and as a member of their school and community. 

When providing a student guidance in making these choices, remember to embrace opportunities that allow them their autonomy and authority over themselves. This means providing them evidence of their resilience, strengths, and potential which will empower them, rather than trying to fabricate socialization opportunities by “voluntelling” them to join clubs or invite peers to activities. (This can result in the maintenance of their belief that they are not capable of connecting with others on their own.) One of the many goals of adolescence is to develop a sense of competence in themselves and their decisions that will provide positive outcomes for their time in high school and beyond. 

Lastly, understanding the difference between anxious avoidance of rejection and an actual realization that a certain school environment is not a good fit is important in establishing whether a child may benefit from transferring schools after their freshman year. While transferring schools can be challenging and usually should not be the first solution tried, it can be a worthwhile endeavor under certain circumstances, to provide more opportunities for the adolescent to feel included. 

Adolescence is a time of great change. Most youth do not understand that many of these changes are quite common, so they are unlikely to open up about it unless we ask them. It’s important that we, as caring adults, are willing to start these conversations. Sometimes, though, kids need more support than we alone can give them. Consider involving a struggling student in a support group or individual counseling, if the challenges during this transition seem particularly difficult. If they engage in behaviors that go against their values and it creates stress and grief, if they struggle to engage with their peers, or if they become increasingly depressed, anxious, or confrontational, these signs and others like them can indicate that increased support may be necessary. 

From the Director:

The Antidote to “Virtual Conversations”

Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.

Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D

Recently, the virtual world and ways of relating to others online seem to be expanding at an alarming pace. My concerns are growing about the impact of online relationships in regard to the emotional well-being of our children. My fear is that in a few years many of our children will not know what it is to experience long conversations with a good friend, or be able to be honest and genuine with others, with all of our gifts and flaws, or not be fearful about being vulnerable and open in close relationships. I don’t understand how we can spend our days in what I will call these ‘virtual conversations’ and then go on to have emotionally close relationships with our children and spouses. 

We are wired for connectedness. We are wired to be able to share who we are with others that we care about. We also know that when we are unable to connect with others, we are subject to depression and anxiety. Connectedness implies sharing on an emotional level. And sometimes this is hard work. Some of us have a difficult time knowing what we feel. Many of us don’t enjoy the vulnerability of sharing because we are putting ourselves in the position of being exposed and then, possibly, rejected. The “virtual conversation” is an escape from having to do this messy, difficult work. However, I have always believed that in the end we pay the price. The more we stay in the virtual world, the greater the possibility of separating from others – becoming disconnected. I am reminded of the line from Eleanor Rigby – “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” 

So what is the antidote? What is the cure? I believe that we, as the adults, have to make it our cause and our goal to overcome a societal tsunami where technology has the potential to have a devastating effect on our children’s well-being as well as our own. Realistically speaking, there are many positives to online communication. It would be foolhardy to say that we eliminate this part of our life. However, we can put in place a pattern of living that incorporates behaviors that will strengthen our ability to emotionally connect with others and, hopefully, will become a part of our children’s everyday lives. What we know is that having a meaningful relationship with others is much more satisfying emotionally than the short-term highs that we may receive through social media. Given the opportunity, children will opt to engage in a relationship where they feel listened to and valued even if the relationship is with an adult rather than another child. The reason for this is because we are made for relationships. Not to be in community runs counter to who we are as humans. I would therefore suggest the following: 

  • In order to enhance your own emotionally intimate relationship, fathers/mothers, husbands/wives, plan for 15 to 30 minutes a day having a conversation about the feelings that you experienced that day either at work or home. Don’t use this time to complain about the failings of the other person. 
  • Never allow phones or games during mealtime. Attempt to have as many family meals as you can each week. Have each person talk about what was important in his/her life that day and then how they felt about it. Remember mealtime is not a time for lectures. If necessary, use conversation cards that you can buy online as conversation starters, where one person asks a question, such as, “What movie did you most enjoy this year?” and “Why did you enjoy it?” Each person takes turns answering the question. 
  • Each parent spends time alone with each child at least once every two weeks. It would be best to do this in a neutral place, for example at McDonald’s or taking a walk. Then encourage and allow your child to talk about her or himself and what is going on in his/her world. This is a time to listen not lecture. However, it is also very meaningful when adults appropriately share some of the experiences going on in their lives with their children. 
  • Allow for unstructured play time in your children’s lives where, again, there is no technology. This time can result in family members playing ball or games together. Or it may be allowing your children to have others over to play. We need to remember that our children need downtime that isn’t filled with online time. 

What I have found in my own life is that children respond enthusiastically to conversations where they are made to feel important because someone is asking about who they are and how they feel. They feel valued. This sense of self-worth leads to higher self-esteem. Studies have shown that these behaviors can even increase a child’s cognitive ability. Most importantly, as our children are learning how to connect with us, they take these meaningful behaviors and begin to incorporate them into their own lives. This is an antidote well worth trying. 

Reflection Diaries

A series of reflections written by a developing teacher leader

Carol Hall-Whittier, Ed. D.

Carol Hall-Whittier, Ed. D.

Is there a leader in the house? We have an educational emergency. There is a crisis looming in the private and educational sectors of our nation; educators and businesspeople alike discuss the need for trained leaders for the future. The field of education is experiencing a crisis because of limited supply and increasing demand for teachers and teacher leaders. 

Educational leaders are needed, but they cannot be pulled out of a hat. They are not on an assembly line with the product available in a day or week. Unfortunately, we know that time is of the essence. Teacher leaders are needed now. Why not consider leadership development as an ongoing, day-to-day systemic process, growing practicing educators, retaining good people, and building capacity for effective leadership in the educational community? 

There were several stages of my development as an educational leader. The first stage was delving into leadership literature and other academic experiences. Then, simultaneously, observing leadership in action. 

Below is my personal reflection, written years ago, on a day in the life of my school leadership training. The experiences that I am sharing are during the infant stages of my leadership training. Dr. Savannah Young was the school principal and my mentor as I learned the elements of school leadership. She engaged me in numerous “on the job” training activities as I learned leadership principles. As scaffolding is used in early childhood education to support children as they learn new concepts and ideas, my leadership training was scaffolded when I took on small responsibilities and learned to apply theoretical concepts to my day-to-day decision making. 

Reflection 2 Written September 13, 1996
Trust Building 

Dr. Young and I have had many parent conferences within the last two weeks. Most of them occurred with kindergarten parents who were unhappy with their child’s teacher. One conference made me think about how important it is for parents to trust us and believe we have the students’ best interests in mind when making decisions.

A mother and father walked into the office looking quite upset. They said, “Someone has put our son back in kindergarten.” The mother seemed to be physically disabled from a stroke and the father had a mental impairment. (It is necessary to share those points to develop background). I patiently listened to their concerns and assured them we would solve their problem.

The parents and I walked down to the classroom. They identified their son and suddenly I realized I was the one who put their son back in kindergarten. I was the culprit.

Their son was truly not ready for first grade. The previous teacher went out on maternity leave during the last month of school. Somehow, this child’s fate was left hanging. The parents were not notified of his retention. And I made the mistake of placing him in a kindergarten class without notifying the parents.

Fortunately, the new kindergarten teacher had samples of the student’s work. He could barely write his name. The first-grade teacher had samples of the first graders’ writings. I shared the writing samples with the parents to support my decision. Though they argued the point, it was obvious that their son’s maturation was at kindergarten level, not first grade.

Not wanting to give in, they began to accuse last year’s teacher of abuse. I quickly pointed out that we were now dealing with the issue of whether their son should repeat kindergarten.

There was a lesson to be learned from this experience. I was able to observe from interacting with these parents, that there are factors – reasons why parents take stands or positions that are inexplainable. For example, these parents were fearful. When I looked closely, and truly listened, I learned more about them than I could have ever imagined I would.

Both parents experienced a disability. I believe they felt retention for their son meant he was also disabled. When I perceived this, and began to listen in terms of their needs, I understood how to communicate more effectively.

The mother began to cry. The father became silent and withdrawn. But I was more knowledgeable about their needs. I was able to respond with compassion and empathy. I was able to deliver information that would help them to be more confident with our decision. They left, and I wasn’t sure if they believed me.

However, a few days later, I saw Mom. She smiled and waved. I check periodically on the student’s progress. He is happy and growing. Everyone is happy.

Thomas J. Sergiovanni’s leadership model emphasizes developing the inner structure of the school: the culture, values, and beliefs. In his book, Moral Leadership, he describes the heart of leadership as what a person believes, values, and is committed to. Foundationally speaking, it is important for a budding leader as I was, to understand that one’s behavior and beliefs about every stakeholder, particularly parents, influences the success of our students. 

Meet WCPA’s Newest Therapist!

We are pleased to share the addition of our newest therapist, Lauren Chacón. Lauren joins us with significant education and experience serving youth, adults, and families.

Welcome, Lauren!

Lauren Chacón, MSW, LMSW

Lauren Chacón, MSW, LMSW

With a robust background in individual, family, and group therapy, Lauren brings unique experience to WCPA’s practice. She has previously worked in a non-profit, outpatient setting, where she navigated the complexities of providing therapy to individuals and families of various cultures and backgrounds. She has also worked in a hospital-based, intensive outpatient program, providing mental health services to adolescents and their families, facilitating therapeutic interventions within a group context. 

While adept in addressing a spectrum of ages, her passion lies in working with adolescents and young adults, guiding them through the complexities of this transformative life stage. Grounded in experiential therapy modalities, such as Emotion-Focused Therapy and Internal Family Systems, she integrates empathy, cultural sensitivity, and experience-based techniques into her therapeutic approach, empowering clients to explore and heal from within. 

Bachelor of Science, University of Texas at El Paso 
Master of Social Work, Washington University 
Licensed Master Social Worker, States of Missouri and Illinois 

Pre-Adolescents, Adolescents, Young Adults, Adults, Seniors, Couples, and Families 

To schedule, call West County Psychological Associates at 314-275-8599. 

Walking with Loved Ones:

How to Support Those Struggling with Depression

Lauren Chacόn, MSW, LMSW

Lauren Chacón, MSW, LMSW

One of the most difficult experiences of my life so far has been witnessing someone I love battle with depression. Seeing them suffer was heartbreaking. At the time, I had not yet been trained as a therapist, and I was overwhelmed because I had no idea how I could help them or what I could do to make things better. Not having the knowledge or tools to support them made me feel frantic and alone. Since then, I have learned through personal and professional experience how to better accompany people struggling with depression on their healing journey. 

For starters, it would have been helpful for my past self to have had a better understanding of what depression is and what it is not. Depression is not simply a feeling of sadness, nor does it get resolved by thinking happy thoughts. Depression is an illness in which a person experiences deep, prolonged despair and hopelessness that defies logic and reason. Clinical symptoms of depression include feelings of emptiness, loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, and recurrent thoughts of death. In his book, How to Know a Person, David Brooks describes depression as “an unimaginable abyss…it is not just sorrow,” he writes, “it is a state of consciousness that distorts perceptions of time, space, and self” (2023). 

With this understanding in mind, how might we support those who are experiencing depression? Over the years, I have heard from clients about the ways that people in their lives have successfully and unsuccessfully tried to support them as they battled depression. While it is important to note that people experience depression in unique ways, I have found the following practices to be generally helpful. 

1) BE PRESENT. Avoid jumping straight into problem-solving mode, offering unsolicited advice on what your loved one can do differently to feel better. As we might imagine, the last thing a hurting person wants to hear is, “You might not be depressed if you exercised more,” or “Have you thought about x, y, or z intervention?” Instead, be present and compassionate. Maybe they don’t want to talk–or they struggle to find the words to share their experience with you–that is okay! Sit with them, patiently, in silence. In extending your compassionate presence, you are helping them to disrupt the vast landscape of loneliness. 

2) SHOW EMPATHY toward your loved one. An alarming aspect of depression is that it distorts reality. It is common for people experiencing depression to internalize thoughts such as, “This is all my fault,” “I am the problem,” “I am too much,” “I am worthless,” or “I don’t deserve the good things in life.” When someone shares their experience, we can respond with empathy by validating their hardship and affirming their courage to reach out. For instance, we might say, “I can only imagine how difficult it is to go through this. I am glad you could share your experience with me.” 

3) ACCEPT that you may never fully understand your loved one’s experience. Depression is complex and multifaceted. Therefore, resist the urge to list out reasons for your loved one to be hopeful, happy, or grateful. They have likely already gone through this list of gratitude. In hearing it from someone else, it might add shame or guilt to the fact they intellectually know this, but do not feel or believe it. Learning how to respond in a helpful way can take time, but do your best to show them that you believe in them and their experience. We can say to them (with words and also actions), “I want to understand you, and though I may not ever fully know the pain you are experiencing, I see you and am here with you.” 

4) TAKE CARE of yourself. You matter. Accompanying people through difficult times is challenging and can be tough to navigate; make sure to check-in with yourself and set yourself up with the support you may need. This could look like having your own therapist, doing a regularly scheduled activity that you enjoy, and participating in support groups for people/parents/caregivers/friends in similarly challenging situations. 

There are many different ways in which we can support people experiencing depression. Some of these things may seem obvious, but they can take a lot of discipline and practice to be effective. Learning how to support others and yourself is not easy. Do your best. Apologize when you make mistakes. Keep trying. Sometimes we can start this journey by simply engaging in conversation with our loved one about what is and is not helpful. With patience and compassion, growth and healing can take place. If we can assist you or your loved one, feel free to reach out. The West County Psychological Associates office number is (314) 275-8599. 

Play Therapy 101

Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW

Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW

As a seasoned therapist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the life-changing power of play therapy in helping kids figure out their internal emotions. Play therapy serves as an important tool for untangling the complex structure of one’s emotions, when verbalizing anything is still a challenge. By fostering a nurturing, therapeutic relationship through play, a safe space is created for self-awareness to bloom, guiding individuals toward more insight and understanding of their thoughts, feelings, internal body sensations, and actions. 

Tools: In the play therapy toolbox, each tool serves as a way to help verbalize what’s going on in the client’s mind and grow. From therapeutic board games, designed to promote verbalization of feelings and family bonding, to an array of puppets, facilitating therapeutic role-plays and emotional exploration, every resource is carefully selected to meet the unique needs of the individual. The sand tray, furnished with various figurines/objects (people, villains, animals, insects, structures, nature objects, forms of transportation and symbols of death) representing various aspects of life, invites clients to construct their narratives, while therapeutic books and craft projects offer avenues for psychoeducation and healing through indirect creative expression. 

Directive vs. Non-Directive: In the area of play therapy, there are two main types: Non-Directive and Directive. Non-Directive play therapy empowers the child to lead the session, freely choosing from a variety of toys and mediums within the playroom. On the other hand, Directive play therapy provides a more structured environment, with the therapist offering guidance and prompts tailored to the individual’s needs. Through imaginative play, drawing, or storytelling, children often recreate their inner struggles, providing the path toward healing and resolution. 

Who Benefits and How: The beauty of play therapy extends beyond helping young children; it offers comfort to anyone struggling with emotional turmoil or behavior problems related to trauma, anger, anxiety, or school. From trauma survivors to individuals battling anxiety or low self-esteem, play therapy provides a non-threatening way to express and heal. For teens and adults, nature mandalas offer a serene outlet for quieting the mind, while board games cultivate better impulse control and social skills, and can enhance coping and problem-solving skills. 

As an advocate for play therapy, I’ve witnessed its amazing impact in promoting resilience and nurturing emotional intelligence. If you or someone you know is struggling to regulate their emotions or manage problematic behaviors, consider the transformative potential of play therapy. Together, the groundwork is laid for healing, empowerment and personal growth, leading individuals towards a brighter, more fulfilling future. 

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