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Risk Factors & Warning Signs of Substance Use

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

It is estimated that approximately one third of adults in the United States have met criteria for an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives, while approximately 10% have met criteria for another substance use disorder. While these numbers are staggering, what is even more astonishing is the fact that consuming substances before the age of 14 increases the likelihood of abusing substances later in life by 400%. In fact, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that 9 out of 10 individuals who abuse substances began using these substances before the age of 18. So, what are the risk factors and early signs to watch out for? What can you do to help?

Risk Factors:

  • Family history—if you have a family history of addiction, it is important to talk about this with your children just as you would have a conversation about a family history of cancer, diabetes, or any other mental illness. Determine when and how to approach this conversation by talking with your pediatrician.
  • Comorbid diagnoses—having an existing mental health diagnosis (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety) increases the chances that one will use and abuse substances later in life. Many individuals start using substances as a method of self-medicating if their mental health symptoms are not well managed.
  • Exposure—having easy access to substances, being exposed to peer groups or family members who use substances, or being exposed to media messages encouraging substance use can also increase the risk of substance use and abuse.
  • Additional risk factors include poor coping skills, academic failure, chaotic home or peer environments, as well as impulsivity and risk taking behaviors.

Warning Signs to Watch for:

  • Unexplained and/or extreme mood swings
  • Dilated pupils/bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite
  • Change in sleep patterns or levels of fatigue
  • Changes in friends
  • Loss of interest in previously preferred hobbies
  • Being secretive about friends and activities
  • Withdrawing from family members and loved ones
  • Not respecting curfew or breaking other house rules
  • Running away from home or sneaking out
  • Stealing or having unexplained amounts of money
  • Increased absences from school
  • Decline in grades
  • Increase in behavioral problems

How to Help:

  • Start the conversation when it is appropriate. Talking to your pre-teen or teen about the effects of substances and alcohol/drug laws is essential in keeping the lines of communication open. Ask them first about their level understanding and what they have already learned or heard about.
  • Increase coping skills—having appropriate communication skills, positive social-emotional connections, strong self-esteem, and confidence in dealing with peer pressure are all extremely beneficial in helping children and teens navigate adolescence. If your child struggles in one or more of these areas, it is important to target these vulnerabilities early on through the appropriate therapeutic supports (i.e., psychotherapy, social skills groups, school counseling, occupational therapy, executive function coaching).
  • If you are concerned your child is using substances, you may contact their pediatrician or find support through SAMHSA’s national helpline (call 1-800-662-HELP or text HELP4U to 435748 to receive information on local treatment facilities, support groups, and local community organizations).

References:

Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(8):757–766. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Grant BF, Saha TD, Ruan WJ, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Drug Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions–III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(1):39–47. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2132

 

About the Author

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Miranda Milana, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Social Skill Concerns in a Time of Reduced Social Opportunities

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Even in pre-pandemic times, we saw many children and adolescents where social difficulties were the primary concern. Now, almost two years into the life-altering changes brought on by COVID-19, it is rare that I see a young person whose parents do not raise social concerns. Some common concerns include:

My child does not know how to play with peers.

My child is anxious/fearful around peers.

My child avoids peers and/or would rather play alone.

My child does well with 1-2 peers but cannot handle a group.

My child does not have friends and/or does not seem to know how to make friends.

These are all important, valid concerns. Social development is critical to evaluate and understand when we look at a child’s overall functioning, and early social skills lay an important foundation for later independent functioning, fulfilling interpersonal relationships, and vocational/academic success. Concerns about social presentation (i.e., how your child “looks” or behaves socially) can have many varied causes. Sometimes the cause is clear and relatively straightforward to determine with a neuropsychological evaluation. For example, an evaluation may lead to an autism diagnosis, explaining why a child is struggling socially. Other times, the exact cause is unclear, and probably related to many different factors all coming together. For example, children with ADHD very often present with social challenges, though the path from ADHD to social problems is not always “cut and dry.”

For children coming in to testing now (and over the past 18 months), some of the biggest complicating factors are the social isolation, online learning, and reduced social opportunities related to the pandemic. This is not to say that there are no longer clear cases where a child has autism at the root of their social difficulties – there certainly are. However, for each child now, we must consider the impact that COVID has had on their specific social development. This will depend on the child’s age (and age at the onset of the pandemic), school placement and educational environment, family structure (e.g., siblings and/or other children in the home), and community policies. For example, young children who are attending daycare/private preschool may actually not have missed as much socialization time, as many daycares re-opened after only a few months of closure. This is not to minimize the disruption or extreme challenge of such closures to families; for young children, however, it is likely that their social development is not radically impacted by a few months of reduced social opportunities. In contrast, an elementary-age child may have experienced well over a year of reduced socialization, with remote learning in place for many communities until the fall of 2021.

In all cases, pre-existing and/or co-occurring areas of difficulty are extremely important in our conceptualization of why a child is struggling socially. If your child will have an evaluation soon and you have social concerns, you can prepare by thinking about:

  • What was my child like socially before COVID?
    • Did they have strong friendships? Did they have conflict or “drama” with peers often? Were they invited to playdates and/or birthday parties?
  • What was my child like emotionally before COVID?
    • Happy? Easy-going? Quiet and shy? Sensitive? Irritable?
  • What were the practical, observable things that changed from March 2020 through the present?
    • How much time did they spend doing online learning? Did someone in their family become very ill? Lose a job? How isolated were they?
  • What was my child’s response to the things that happened above?
    • Did they enjoy online learning? Were they fearful about becoming sick? Did they miss spending time with friends or family?
  • What other areas seem to be challenging for them?
    • Communicating? Reading? Managing feelings? Paying attention?

All of these are helpful pieces of information that you can communicate to an evaluator. This will build context for the concerns that you see now, and help us move through the web of complex possibilities that may be contributing to your child’s social challenges. Remember that it is always good to be watchful and thoughtful when your child is struggling. At the same time, keep in mind that many individuals (children, adolescents, and adults alike) will require long periods of time to rebuild their skills, stamina, strength, and sense of safety. It is still OK not to be OK quite yet.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Getting Back in the Swing of Things

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

The past 22 months have brought more transitions and changes to our daily lives than ever before. Whether children and parents have had to transition from routine school breaks, or to unprecedented remote learning environments, we have all dealt with our fair share of the unexpected since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As we prepare to enter yet another transition with winter break ending (and February break not too far away), these changes in schedule and routine can be difficult adjustments for entire families. Not to mention the seemingly never-ending worries wondering whether virtual learning will resume once again. In order to help ease these times of transition, try utilizing the following tips:

Consider sticking to similar routines when possible. Sleeping in, unusual mealtimes, and later bedtimes are all tempting (and sometimes unavoidable!) when we don’t have our regular school or work routines during breaks and vacations. Try to implement some sort of routine whenever possible if routine is what works best for you and your family. It might mean that you can still sleep in, but mornings start consistently at 7am instead of 5am. Maybe dinner is no longer eaten at 7pm but at 6pm. Whatever the changes may be, consistency is key.

Schedule time for fun! As much as routine and schedules can be important, don’t forget to leave time for enjoyable activities! The holiday season can bring numerous obligations between holiday parties, visiting with family/friends, and previously scheduled extracurricular activities. Take some time to plan preferred family activities as well! After all, a break is supposed to be just that…a break!

Don’t wait to start transitioning back to school day routines until the morning of. Going back to work or school after extended time off can be really challenging. There is often a sense of dread and “Sunday Scaries” that accompany a return back to our daily responsibilities. Don’t wait until the night before or morning of to resume a typical bedtime and wakeup call. Instead, gradually shift the nighttime and early morning routine over a few days so that the night before/morning of doesn’t feel so daunting and overwhelming! By pushing back bedtime and setting the alarm 15 minutes earlier over the course of several days, the difference won’t seem as insurmountable.

Create visual calendars and talk about the transition ahead of time. Creating visuals can be crucial in helping children to prepare for what is to come. For younger children who do not yet have an appropriate conceptualization of time, a visual can be a particularly useful resource in preparing them for what to expect and when. Make reviewing the visual calendar a part of the nighttime or morning routine.

Provide validation and have patience with yourself. No matter how hard we try to prepare, seeing an increase in problematic behaviors, temper tantrums, and emotional outbursts is to be expected throughout times of change. Helpful strategies during times of dysregulation include naming the emotion, validating it, and creating space for safe and appropriate expression. Try using statements such as:

  • Labeling the emotion: “It looks like an earlier bedtime is really frustrating for you.”
  • Validating the feeling: “It’s okay to feel this way.”
  • Normalize the feeling: “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I have to do things I don’t like.”
  • Modeling appropriate strategies: “Something that can be helpful for me is deep breathing. Do you want to try and see if this is helpful for you, too?

 

About the Author

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Miranda Milana, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

The Power of a List

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

For so many children, adolescents, and young adults, I find myself recommending something that seems too simple to be of much use – a list. The power of lists has been identified and described in depth by several experts, such as Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto – an excellent read). These books often discuss efficiency in the workplace, health and safety practices, and maintaining consistency in products or services. As adults, these are the things we often care about – ensuring that we are efficient, consistent, and getting things done.

In my practice, I recommend lists for different reasons. I recommend lists to teach executive functioning skills, such as planning, task initiation, organization, and task monitoring. Lists are also incredibly helpful for children who struggle to hold on to information. These children often miss information that is stated aloud, such as a parent giving directions or a teacher explaining instructions. Their brains often struggle to “keep up” with the pace of information presented in the world. Having the information written down in an organized manner, such a list, can help them access the information without time constraints.

Here is a quick example:

On a typical weekday morning, parents alternate checking on their 8-year-old as he gets ready for school. They give reminders of all the things left to do – “Brush your teeth!” “Get dressed!” “Put your homework in your backpack!” Time before the bus becomes shorter and shorter, as does everyone’s patience. Parents think, “We do the same things every single morning! Why is it so hard for him to remember?” Child thinks, “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” Voice volumes increase, tone shifts, and before anyone knows it or means to, there is a shouting match as the bus is pulling up.

Of course, a list won’t stop hurt feelings or eliminate frustration. However, if the child’s “morning routine” is posted somewhere easy to see, he may need far fewer reminders from his parents of all the tasks he has left to do. Frustration may be reduced, and the child can feel successful completing tasks with greater independence.

A list may be steps in a routine, as illustrated above. A list could also be of materials the child needs for baseball practice, the chores that should be done each week, or the limits and expectations around “screen time.” I often spend time with parents discussing the contents of a list, where the list should be placed, and the format it might take. For example, do you want checkboxes next to each item? Do you want the steps to be numbered? Maybe you love arts and crafts, and you want to laminate the list and have Velcro tabs with a “checkmark” that can be placed next to each completed task. The format and purpose vary, but lists are infinitely useful.

For many children, practice using lists is not only helping them to build skills in the moment, but is excellent practice for later life. Developing comfort with the tools and strategies that work best for you is an invaluable aspect of raising our children to become independent adults who can achieve their goals.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Rating Scales/Questionnaires – Why Do We Give Them and Why Do They Matter?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

When you request a neuropsychological evaluation, you are undoubtably inundated with paperwork. Consent forms, confidentiality forms, COVID forms, and credit card forms. Then, to your surprise, you bring your child to their first appointment, and the neuropsychologist hands you…more forms! Why? What are these forms for, and what will you do with the information? These are great questions, and always feel free to ask your neuropsychologist. Here are some answers I give when I am asked:

Why do you need so many forms?

Our goal in completing a neuropsychological evaluation is to have as comprehensive picture of a child as possible. This means gathering information from many sources, including what you and/or others are noticing that is raising concerns (what we discuss in the intake appointment), prior evaluations and documentation (e.g., their IEP, testing done at school), your child’s performance on our assessment measures (what they do when they come to the office), and important people’s perceptions of your child’s functioning in daily settings – this is what we assess through the rating scales (also called questionnaires). The parent/teacher rating scales are an important source of information because they not only capture your concerns, but also show us how your concerns may be similar to or different from parents (or teachers) of same-age children. For example, concerns with “attention and focus” are common for us to hear. Attentional skills develop gradually over time, and having a standardized rating scale that evaluates your concerns (or your child’s teacher’s concerns) with attention helps us understand how far off your child’s skills are from what is expected for their age.

What do the forms ask about?

This depends on why your child is being referred for a neuropsychological evaluation. For example, if your child is referred for a question around autism, you will likely be given forms that ask about their social functioning, such as how they do at playdates, birthday parties, the playground, or other community spaces with peers. Your child’s teacher would also likely be given forms to evaluate how your child interacts with peers at school, such as how they do during lunch, snack, and recess; how well they work in groups; and if they have been successful in forming strong friendships. If the concerns are more related to mental health, you may be given forms that ask about their symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc.

What will you do with the forms?

We will take your ratings (or your child’s teacher’s ratings) and compare them to normative data. This is a fancy way of saying “we will see how your child compares to kids their age.” Then, we will take that information to help us form a more comprehensive picture of your child’s profile and our recommendations for how to best help and support them. For example, something I see often is a concern with kids following directions, remembering what they are told to do, and finishing all the steps necessary for a task or project (e.g., getting ready for school or bed). This can be (though certainly isn’t always) a difficulty with working memory or, holding information in mind. We assess working memory in many ways during testing. However, we can’t always see the deficits that parents and teachers see, because testing is inherently different from “real life.” So, rating scales serve as an important source of information in understanding what is going on day-to-day, which helps us to make more comprehensive recommendations.

How do I fill these out?

Please, please, please – read the directions carefully! Each form is meant to evaluate something different. For example, some ask you about your child’s emotional state “in general,” others ask about how they have been behaving over the last two weeks, and others ask about how well they can complete tasks independently (i.e., without any help or guidance). Do your best to complete each question – skipping questions that seem “irrelevant” or “inappropriate” may impact how well we can use the information later on. We realize that not every question will apply to every child – we are using the best tools we have, and some are designed to assess a wide range of children. If you have questions about the wording or phrasing, please ask your neuropsychologist – we really don’t mind!

I have a teenager. Why don’t you just ask them about how they are feeling?

If your child is old enough, we will absolutely talk to them about their perceptions of what is going on, what their concerns are, and what has been helpful for them. Many rating scales have a “child” or “self-report” version, and we may have them complete those, in addition to talking more conversationally about how they are doing.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.