Father-daughter tradition strengthens bonds

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Daniel Ross, left, and his daughters, Isabella Ross, 16, and Gabrielle Ross, 14, all of Jasper, eat lunch at Los Bravos Mexican Restaurant on Tuesday in Jasper. The three have had an annual lunch before every school year since 2014 to talk about the upcoming year and reflect on the last one.

Special to The Herald

The beginning of a school year is often an exciting time of anticipation of what might be sometimes mixed with anxiety about the unknown.

That’s one of the reasons the Ross family has an annual tradition associated with the start of a new school year.

The day before classes began for the 2019-20 school year was no different. It was the renewal of a long-standing tradition.

It was Aug. 6, and 14-year-old Gabrielle Ross was excited. Between her lively reminiscing about middle school — the school supply lists were “pretty chill, in my opinion” compared to this year’s, and eighth grade showed her that “writing is my jam” — her dad made sure she was on track for her first day of classes at Jasper High School.

“Do your know your schedule tomorrow?” he asked.

“I put it in my folder, which my folder is in my backpack,” she replied.

“Are you confident you’ll find your way around to your classes?”

She answered in the affirmative.

Sitting quietly between the two was 16-year-old Isabella, a junior. More reserved than her younger sister, on this particular day she had something else on her mind. That afternoon she got her driver’s license and then, that evening, drove herself to band practice for the first time. She plays percussion.

The three were at Los Bravos, having their annual Dad-Daughters-Day-Before-School-Starts Lunch. The girls’ mother, Shannon, was absent; this time is “something that’s just them and Dad,” Daniel explained.

“It’s one of those chances of connecting with my kids while they’re still here. They’re not going to be here very long,” he said, getting choked up despite having told himself he wouldn’t.

“Shannon and I talk all the time about how our job is to prepare them for adulthood. Every year is a chance to see how we’re actually doing.”

Gabrielle compared the annual lunch, which started at Wendy’s in 2014, to celebrating on New Year’s Eve. “A year has passed and [we’re] celebrating a new year of school,” she elaborated.

With Isabella getting her license, she now drives herself and her sister to school each day. Daniel cautions that just because both of them are going to the same school, they should not start delaying their departure time.

Learning time management is crucial for high school students, according to the social workers at the four Dubois County high schools.

Paige Mundy at Northeast Dubois High School says the biggest challenge she sees among freshmen is “just learning the new pace and organizing themselves in a way that keeps them on top of their work.”

Isabella looks forward to band, and both girls look forward to their art classes.

“I always wondered what the thing would be that my kids would be into that I couldn’t possibly understand,” Daniel says. “It’s animé.”

When Isabella said she was least looking forward to geometry, Daniel shared that geometry was “a tough one for me. I squeaked it out at the last minute,” barely avoiding summer school.

He hoped sharing his experience would help ease some of his daughter’s fears. Throughout the school year, he and his wife try to keep tabs on “any kind of anxieties” that surface.

That is important, according to JHS social worker Holly Hughes, and starts with parents, guardians and other trusted adults keeping an open line of communication with their students.

“Face-to-face communication is still the best form of communication,” Hughes says. “Ask your student about their school days and how they are feeling with the demands of a high school course load. It’s important to remember that many students are also participating in extracurricular [activities] and/or have jobs. If your student is feeling anxious or overwhelmed, remind them you are there for them to help them figure it out.”

Gabrielle mentioned feeling concerned about the social aspect of high school, which sounds familiar to Hughes and her counterparts across the county. With underclassmen, particularly, there is sure to be “drama” with peer relationships, according to Southridge High School’s Christine Vinson, something that teens have to learn to work through.

“Some of the biggest hurdles freshman students have shared with me are learning how to adjust to the social pressures of high school and juggling their academic plates with everything else they are involved in,” Hughes says.

“Freshman students are in some classes with upperclassmen and this can be intimidating to some students because they haven’t experienced this yet in their educational careers. Students [at JHS] are also allowed to have their phones throughout the day and have to learn how to balance social life during school life.”

Many students go through a “friend group change” at some point during their freshman or sophomore year, according to Hughes. She adds, though, that “once students become upperclassmen, most of them have learned how to handle the social pressures, and their mindset changes to life after high school.”

Daniel noticed “a big jump in maturity” in Isabella between her eighth- and ninth-grade years, and he is curious about how Gabrielle will mature during the upcoming months.

He observed that band has been good for his elder daughter as far as guidance and discipline. She says her teachers have told her she is good at writing, but she doesn’t like it.

Daniel, who has a background in writing as a former Herald editor and now oversees communications as part of his role as executive minister at Redemption Christian Church, confirmed the teachers’ assessment, then asked Isabella what she does like.

She shrugged in response.

That, according to school social workers, should not cause concern.

“Parents can validate that it is completely normal for high school students to still be exploring their interests and not know their exact path,” says Audrey Fleck, social worker at Forest Park High School. “Taking ACTs and SATs and completing college applications, scholarship (paperwork) and college visits can feel overwhelming for upperclassmen.”

Parents can help their teens stay organized by helping them break down these tasks into manageable pieces, she suggests.

Before he and his daughters ate their lunch, Daniel offered a prayer. He asked for wisdom, courage and strength for all of them, as well as their teachers, for what lies ahead.


Stress is unavoidable, normal for HS students

Experiencing stress at some level is unavoidable, and normal, for high school students. Helping teens learn how to deal with it is important to their mental health, now and in the future. 

When asked for suggestions for parents and other trusted adults to help their high-schoolers learn to deal with stress in a positive way, the social workers at the four Dubois County high schools had much to offer.

“Be supportive of your kids in everything they do,” Paige Mundy at Northeast Dubois says. “Make sure your expectations of them align with all of the other things they have going on.”

She suggests that a student who is taking college courses, working part time and playing a sport might need a break on household chores for a while. Also, she says, allow teens opportunities to de-stress with friends or through other activities, and give positive reinforcement with constructive criticism.

“Understand that they are teens with a lot on their plate, and they are going to make mistakes,” she says.

Holly Hughes at JHS is a big proponent of self-care. “If your student is feeling overwhelmed, remind them to take at least 10 minutes a day to themselves to do something they enjoy doing. The goal is to reduce anxiety levels while reminding the student it is OK to take time to keep your mental health in check.”

“Remember,” she says, “it’s always best to lead by example and as parents to take time for yourselves, too.”

While it is important for teens to get involved in extracurricular activities, Forest Park’s Audrey Fleck says those activities combined with their academic load should create “a healthy balance.”

Involvement in extracurricular activities can be a great way to reduce stress and learn lifelong skills, she adds, encouraging parents to guide their children “in developing a balanced four-year plan that provides challenges, helps them explore their interests and provides some enjoyment.”

Fleck also urges parents to be aware of the resources available at the teen’s school. At Forest Park, for example, each student has a 45-minute study period every day during which every teacher is available to help. The students should be encouraged and mentored “to (seek) out those resources themselves. In high school, students are definitely expected to be more independent as they prepare for the next steps of postsecondary education or the workforce, and so helping students start to make this transition is very important.“

Christine Vinson, social worker at Southridge High School, says it is important to help students develop good self-esteem, to be sure they know they have strong family support and to help them feel connected to family and school. Having those “protective factors” in place can help combat any risk factors they might face, such as rejection by peers or involvement with alcohol or drugs.

“If they have those protective factors working against the risk factors, it works in their favor,” she says. “Kiddoes do a really good job of keeping good mental health, especially if they have good protective factors.

“What we teach them now, they take into adulthood,” she adds.

The social workers welcome calls from parents, and particularly want to be put in the loop if a child is going through more than just normal stress.

“As a parent, if you notice red flags in your child and you have tried to talk to them about how they are feeling and they are not responding, it would be more than appropriate to reach out to the school social worker, guidance counselor or administration to help figure out the next steps,” Vinson says.

Signs of abnormal stress could include constant irritability, not sleeping well, crying a lot, withdrawing from friends or activities they used to enjoy and struggling with grades.

Mundy cites absenteeism as an example of when a phone call to the school could make a big difference.

When a student misses a lot of school, protocol generally dictates how the school handles it. “However, if the parent communicates with us that their child is struggling with mental health, stress, illness, etcetera,” Mundy says, “we … can communicate with the teachers about flexibility on missing assignments and work with the students to prioritize work.”

On the other hand, without communication from parents or students about the reason behind the absences, the school’s “hands are tied and we are required to report absences to the state, which could lead to truancy. Teachers enter zeroes for grades because they don’t have information telling them otherwise, and it makes for a much more difficult time [for the student] to succeed upon return — which leads to increased stress for the student.”

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.

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