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For many parents, the start of this school year stirs up many emotions. As schools resume in-person classes, many parents think about their kids’ mental health, coping skills, the potential for risky behavior, and the long-term impacts of past, present and future social isolation as the pandemic persists.
Over the last 18 months, South Florida families have learned a lot about how we interact with each other and deal with stress. Substance use issues for individuals of all ages have made the headlines as people cope. While social distancing was a precursor to social isolation, the antidote of which is an open conversation that can help so many overcome these trying times.
Living Skills in the Schools is a substance abuse prevention program serving students throughout Palm Beach County with free programming since 1999. LSIS is a program under a not-for-profit foundation. It is licensed by the Department of Children and Families and accredited by Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. Last school year alone, we reached over 56,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in 52 schools throughout Palm Beach County.
Our work is focused on reducing and preventing substance abuse by teaching children and teens the skills they need to resist addiction. We are prepared to step in when parents, families, neighborhoods, and schools may be overwhelmed, out of their depth, and lacking resources.
Research suggests regular family dinners with teens help reduce substance abuse risk. It was something we encouraged regularly. With schools closed and the challenges of unequal technology access apparent, it became clear that we needed to find new avenues to reach students and parents. Our work has always been in the schools, but we needed to explore ways to put our prevention education into the hands of students and parents in a meaningful and respectful manner. We created the Family Box for Substance Abuse Prevention. Each box is filled with carefully curated items such as a video player, conversation cards for the adult and the teen, a book, T-shirts for the whole family, a bookmark with helpful tips, and a free Bud’s Chicken and Seafood dinner voucher for a family feast for four. It provides tools for families to have cross-generational family conversations around substance abuse.
In January, we distributed over 500 boxes and are excited to have another 500 free boxes to distribute now. We knew families would be interested in having these conversations; they didn’t know where to start. We knew the conversations needed to be meaningful. We knew there was a way we could help families by providing them the tools for discussing a sensitive topic. We also knew that we had to help people rediscover the effect and significance of a family dinner — and it would be a key component.
The feedback was incredible, with parents gaining a better understanding of their kids’ struggles and experiences with peer pressure, decision-making, coping skills, mental health, and resistance skills to substance use. Families began to share, understand, and express their challenges and how they truly felt about each other. The Family Box was a tool to help alleviate stigma and shame. In this way, parents could better understand what their kids already knew — that the situations children and teens face are real and relevant.
So, as we begin another school year — fraught with continued challenges — I encourage friends and neighbors to request a free Family Box at store.livingskillsintheschools.org/. Don’t wait to start these conversations. With the right tools, we can guide our children and teens in a way that helps them make healthy decisions, find reassurance, support, and access to help, and provide support when and where families may need it, ultimately increasing resilience in the next generation.
Suzanne Spencer is CEO of Living Skills in the Schools.