POCATELLO — It doesn’t always take grand gestures to change a child’s life.
Just showing up, listening, putting down devices, asking questions, or learning a kid’s name can make all the difference.
That’s according to six expert panelists — a judge, a counselor, a psychologist, a principal, a nonprofit director, and a probation officer — who came together Wednesday night to discuss the pressures facing today’s adolescents and how they can overcome challenges and become resilient.
“We’ve got to get the word out that there’s a lot of kids struggling right now,” said Todd Mauger, the chief juvenile probation officer for Bannock County Juvenile Justice. “Those parents that are with them every day don’t know how bad it can be … it’s shocking for them.”
The forum, facilitated by the Pocatello/Chubbuck school district, was part of the annual Kind Week — an initiative two moms started after a spate of youth suicides in 2015.
“We want to let our youth know that we’re here for them,” Rainbow Maldonado, a founding director of Kind Community, said.
And that can be as simple as checking in with kids, Victoria Byrd, executive director for the nonprofit Stronger Than, said.
“They can feel very alone in their problems,” Byrd said. “A lot of times we don’t (have hard conversations) because we’re scared we’re going to make it worse, we’re scared we’re going to push our children away, we’re scared of 100 different things. But I would much rather take the risk, (potentially) saving my child’s life, than letting those words go unsaid.”
Those conversations help kids feel connected and supported.
And it’s important they know three things, Byrd said: “Everybody is lovable, there’s no problem that’s unsolvable, and there’s no emotion that lasts forever.”
Judge Anson Call said children who have more adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, tend to have worse outcomes in life.
“I don’t interact with a lot of bad people in my job,” he said. “ I interact with a lot of people who’ve suffered a lot of trauma in their lives.”
But “just because bad things have happened to kids or families doesn’t mean that they are destined to have bad outcomes,” Call said.
“Just because bad things have happened to kids or families doesn’t mean that they are destined to have bad outcomes.” — Judge Anson Call
Kids who talk about their experiences, focus on what they can control in their lives, and develop their strengths are more likely to build resilience, he said. A sense of belonging is crucial too.
“When they find that belonging it’s because they’ve been shown kindness, and then they in turn find ways of sharing that kindness with other people.”
And that’s pivotal, because one of the biggest problems facing youth today is isolation, according to Dr. Kendra Westerhaus, a psychologist and the pediatric/child team lead at Health West, Inc.
“Kids are more and more on their devices and have less and less interpersonal connection,” Westerhaus said.
Having just one good friend can make a big difference. And it’s important for kids to be involved in extracurricular activities.
Mauger recounted a story of a child who was frequently in and out of the court system — until he joined the football team.
But not all kids can afford the fees to participate in athletics and activities, and that’s one way community members can help — offer to sponsor the fees for a child in need.
Children also need at least one positive adult in their lives, so panelists urged community members to volunteer with CASA as a guardian ad litem — advocates who ensure kids are “safe, have a permanent home, and the opportunity to thrive.”
And there’s always a need for more foster parents.
But the panelists were quick to clarify that even seemingly small actions make a difference too — just noticing kids, giving them attention, and asking the hard questions.
As multiple panelists said: “We can’t do everything, but we can do something.”