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Samantha Savin

JCC Chicago, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Sam Savin feels lucky that she’s able to provide mental health support for adolescents and teens in JCC Chicago’s community because it’s such a pivotal developmental stage. This is when young adults are starting to explore who they are and their identity, and along with this process comes many questions and situations to work through both personally and with their peers. Not only does Sam support the Teen community, she is also the Lead Social Worker for Apachi Day Camp, responsible for overseeing all Community Care specialists, and she supports children who attend JCC Chicago Early Childhood at Am Shalom Synagogue and their families.

Sam holds a master’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from DePaul University. Sam has worked in pediatric and educational settings for over 10 years, addressing behavioral and emotional challenges in youth. Sam lives in Highland Park with her husband and daughter.

You Asked, Here’s the Answer

Q: I’m a performer and I don’t want my parents to attend my show. My mom really wants to know why and I just feel like she should respect how I feel. Is that wrong? Do I have to give her a reason?

A: Performances help showcase all the hard work and learned skills you’ve gained throughout the course of a class and it’s natural for parents to want to celebrate that accomplishment. While it’s an exciting opportunity, it also leaves a lot of space for nerves or other uncomfortable feelings. Asking your parents not to attend is definitely your choice, however, understand that it’s probably not what they are expecting, and it might go over better if you give an explanation. I’m guessing that’s an uncomfortable conversation to have and perhaps face-to-face is too overwhelming. You could try texting or writing a letter explaining how you feel. This way you can set your boundaries and explain what you are comfortable with. Maybe there is way for them to attend that would make you comfortable. For example, perhaps they attend, but don’t drive you home afterwards so you don’t have to talk about the performance with them or maybe they attend but agree to sit in the back. If you truly do not want them there for whatever the reason, I think you have a greater chance of them understanding you and honoring your wishes if you open up to them.

For all the parents out there who might be reading this, I’m sure it’s heartbreaking for your child to ask this of you. Approach this situation with compassion and empathy. Find a calm moment, validate how they might be feeling but say that you’d like to express how you’re feeling as well. Decide, prior to this conversation if you are going to honor their request. Let them know your decision and say, “I will honor that request, however in order for me to be comfortable with it, I need to share how I feel.” Be honest about your reservations, that you don’t want to set a precedent, and knowing why would help you be more comfortable. Give them a choice of a conversation in person or over text. I think it’s fair to expect a reason why, however just because it’s fair, doesn’t mean that will happen. You don’t want to coerce or manipulate an explanation. You could also ask them if they feel more comfortable processing this with their school social worker. You can only control your side of the conversation, not what they contribute.


Q: My mom and I are constantly arguing about curfew, getting chores done, how I talk to her, basically everything. Everything she does is annoying to me. She’s a great mom, but I just need her to give me space. I don’t want to snap at her like I’m doing, but it’s gotten to a point where I just want to stay in my room when she’s home. Any suggestions on how to make this situation better?

A: I remember these days with my mom. I think the fact that you’re interested in making the situation better shows your maturity level. We typically get into bad patterns when it comes to communicating with the people we are close to. Most times we react in the moment, which rarely leads to constructive solutions. You might need to take the lead on setting up some positive and helpful communication with your mom. Figure out the top 2 or 3 things you’re arguing about and tell your mom that you want to figure out a way to stop arguing about these things. You can try emailing or texting if direct communication is too overwhelming. But basically, ask her for a “meeting” to talk about these things. Choose a time when you both are calm and prepared to share your thoughts. Stick to “I” statements, “I feel frustrated that right when I get home from school, I’m being asked to do all these chores.” You will both have to negotiate and compromise. Brainstorm ideas together, choose a solution, and then test it out for a week or so and revisit it. If you don’t think you’ll be able to have a productive conversation with your mom like this, try to include another adult who might be able to help move the conversation forward. This could be a relative, family friend, or even a school counselor. I know this might sound exhausting, but I’m guessing what you’re going through is pretty exhausting as well. Might as well try a different approach. Nothing will change if you do nothing.

Q: I have ADHD, anxiety, and Depression. I need tools to help me. I get upset for no reason and lash out at my family. Can you help me?

A: I absolutely can give you some ideas on tools and strategies to help you manage your feelings. These are just suggestions, and finding a therapist to work with you is really the ideal way to make long lasting change. First, have some self-compassion and recognize how great it is that you want to make a change and improve the relationship with your family. Most strategies sound simple and unlikely to make an impact, but consistently using one or two strategies really will make all the difference. It may feel like you are lashing out for no reason, but if we do a little digging, I can promise there is a reason. Knowing the reason is helpful because it forces us to look deeper into our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. The next time you “lash out,” find a moment later when you’re calm and reflect on what happened. Ask yourself “why” three times to try and uncover your true thoughts about the event. For example: Let’s say your mom asked you why you haven’t cleaned your room and you yelled at her. Ask yourself “why” three times?

Why did I yell at her?

Because she made me mad.

Why did she make me mad?

Because I was going to clean it but have been putting it off.

Why have I been putting it off?

Because cleaning my room feels overwhelming to me right now.

You can keep asking ‘why’ to get at deeper levels, but this helps create a framework where you can understand where some of these emotions are coming from. In this example, it’s understandable that being asked about a task that you wanted to do might trigger a big reaction. Knowing this can help us reconstruct our internal dialogue and help prepare us for future moments. It also allows us to return to that person and give a meaningful explanation for our behavior. Being able to say, “Mom, I yelled at you because cleaning my room has been something I’ve been wanting to do, but it seems overwhelming right now,” helps repair the relationship and creates an empathic connection to that person.

Here are a couple of my favorite ways to try and manage your emotions before you have a big reaction.

  1. Notice your physical symptoms. Is your heartbeat increasing? Palms sweating? Stomach feels funny? Noticing these changes is a clue that we are beginning to have a strong reaction to something.
  2. Take a deep, slow breath before you react. Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. This gives you time to weigh your options.
  3. Get a drink of cold water or hold ice cubes in your hands. Temperature change can help when we’re in emotional distress.

Label how you’re feeling. Go beyond saying you’re angry. There is usually something underneath anger that is driving our behavior. If we use the above example, maybe you feel embarrassed because you feel like you should be able to clean your room.  Labeling can help you have self-compassion during heightened emotions.

Q: In my psych class, we’ve been talking about different mental illnesses. It’s making me think I might have Bipolar or Borderline personality disorder. I get mixed results when I take online quizzes. I have big mood swings, some unhealthy relationships, have had a few traumatic experiences as a kid like my parents having a bad divorce, I’ve been told I’m impulsive and don’t think anything through. What should I do?

A: As much as I love psychology classes, this is one of the problems. You can’t help but try and diagnose yourself and those around you. As hard as it is, please stay away from online quizzes. Those are not created by professionals and are taking a very simplistic view of very complex illnesses. Bipolar Disorder and Personality Disorders take a very skilled psychologist or psychiatrist to properly diagnose and treat someone with those. I suggest talking with a trusted adult like a parent, family friend, teacher, or pediatrician to help you find a qualified individual that can assess you. To be honest, we all, at times, might have traits of varying mental illnesses. We all have mood swings sometimes or disturbances in our typical sleep routine, this might mean something bigger is going on and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, if you feel like something is off and like these traits are impacting your overall functioning, absolutely seek out some guidance from an adult. This will at least help you find some answers.

Q: I recently noticed some cuts on my friend’s arm, I asked them about it and they said it wasn’t a big deal and changed the subject. Their parents are really strict, and I don’t want to get her into trouble. Should I say something?

A: Thank you so much for this question. The topic of self-harm can be difficult and scary to talk about. First and foremost, you’re being a great friend by showing concern and seeking out guidance. When it comes to self-harm or any kind of safety concern, you always want to be overly cautious. So yes, you should say something to an adult. If you don’t feel comfortable going to her parents then I suggest you go to your school social worker or teacher, they have received training on how to manage these situations and the do not have to tell your friend it was you who said something. Continue to check in with your friend and be a support to her but know that it’s not your responsibility to manage this on your own.

I also want to talk a little bit about self-harm and what it is. A lot of people have a misconception that someone who engages in self-harm, is suicidal. This is actually not typically the case. Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as way of dealing with difficult feelings, painful memories, or overwhelming situations. It is a coping strategy for dealing with their emotional pain. There are a lot of other positive coping strategies that someone can use that mimic a physical sensation or release and therapy can be a helpful way to explore these options. Sometimes people hold ice cubes in their hands or snap a rubber band on their wrist.

If you or someone you know is in crisis: Text 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Q: I’m a sophomore in high school and I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure from my parents and myself to do AP classes. I already feel like I have a pretty intense class and extracurricular schedule, but I know it’s what a lot of my friends are doing, and those classes look good on college applications. I just don’t think I can take on anymore. What should I do?

A: Hi and thank you so much for your question. Academic pressures on high school students are extremely high right now. Firstly, I think it’s wonderful that you are able to realize and admit that you already feel like you have a strenuous schedule and can’t take on more. It is so difficult for us to be honest with ourselves, so please praise yourself for that! Secondly, as I’m sure you know, colleges look for more than AP classes. Think about the cost/benefit of AP classes, will your grades ultimately suffer due to the extra work and stress? Will you get into your top choice school without AP classes? Will your self-esteem be affected by taking or not taking AP classes? Try to figure out what your motivation is for taking an AP class and ask yourself, is it worth it? If the only motivation is for college or to please your parents, then the benefit might not outweigh the cost. Perhaps ask the AP teacher if you could see a syllabus and that way you can accurately gauge the rigor of the course. If you decide AP classes are not right for you, then ask your parents to sit down and have a focused conversation about your academic goals. You could also include your school college counselor in this conversation to help navigate the discussion. Use “I feel” statements to express your perspective and have some talking points prepared so your parents know you’ve taken the time to consider what is in your best interest. Thank you for your question, be well!

Q: I’m a Junior in high school and think I have depression. I’m always tired, don’t want to do anything, and get annoyed at everything. I really feel like I need therapy but don’t want to ask my parents about getting help. I think it will just worry them and make them look at me like I’m crazy. Does this sound like depression and is there anything I can do to deal with it on my own?

A: Hi and thank you so much for your question. Struggling with these kinds of symptoms can be very difficult. I truly admire your ability to notice that you’re not feeling quite like yourself and that you may need some help. Asking for help is a very difficult and necessary first step to managing these feelings. While I can’t diagnose you with depression, I can say that the diagnosis doesn’t really make much of a difference in terms of what I’m going to suggest. Listen and trust your instincts. You know something is feeling off and you’d like this to change. Yes, there are things you can do privately that might help improve your mood and motivation. Such things might be creating a realistic daily schedule and to-do list, having a really good morning and bedtime routine that allows for self-care, getting enough sleep at night, eating healthy, and exercising regularly. However, the likelihood that you successfully implement some of these suggestions will increase if you receive some outside help. As someone who has gone through years of therapy myself, I know how difficult it is to admit that you need help. This is because of the negative stigma attached to mental health and mental health illnesses. I think it is so brave for people to begin having these difficult and uncomfortable conversations. If you don’t want to talk to your parents about therapy, ask your school counselor or social worker. They can typically see you a certain number of times without needing parental consent. Those sessions could help get you started on some healthy habits and discuss how to best approach your parents. Please know that you are not alone in feeling this way. Here a couple phenomenal podcasts from teens who talk about mental health in a very relatable way along with tips for management. She Persisted Podcast and Your Life Sucks Podcast. Thank you for your question and be well!

Q: Hi. Lately I’ve been feeling really insecure about my grades. I’m constantly comparing myself to my friends who always get better grades without any effort. I just feel embarrassed, they’re all planning to attend much better schools than I could ever get into and I’m starting to not want to be around them because I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

A: Comparing ourselves to others is something most of us do, but rarely results in us feeling very good. Maybe try talking to your friends about this, I bet you’re not alone in feeling the need to compare yourself. And although it looks easy for your friends, that may not be the case. But let’s be honest, there are some things that come naturally to others, like academics, artistic abilities, athleticism, and although we can put in effort, we might not have the same result. What I like to focus on is that effort piece. There is a great book by Carol Dweck about Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset. Having a “growth mindset” is freeing and allows you to focus on building new skills, embracing challenges, and finding inspiration from the success of others. A Fixed mindset is very limiting and will make you feel threatened by others success, focuses less on effort and only desires looking ‘smart’, and causes you to avoid challenges.

Here are some easy Growth Mindset activities:

  1. Mantra Cards: it seems simple and may feel a little silly, but having a positive mantra to repeat to yourself or read when you’re feeling insecure is a great way to boost your confidence.
  2. Refresh your routine: Try something you normally do but do it a little differently. If you love to read, try a new genre. If you go the same way to school every day, try going a different route. This will help you to get comfortable with trying a new experience when the outcome doesn’t really matter.
  3. Use the word ‘yet’ a lot. Instead of saying, “I can’t do something.” Try saying, “I haven’t figured this out, yet.”