Sometimes an article is hard to write because its content lies close to the heart. Such was the case with this writer, reporting on Dr. Catherine Birndorf’s and Pamela Weinberg’s terrific talk about transitions.
Transitions. The word belies a process that can leave one feeling halfway to nowhere. A conversation on confidently preparing for transitions took place on a warm day in early May with Catherine Birndorf and Pamela Weinberg, speaking on behalf of Parents in Action at the School Relations Lunch. The takeaway? Lean in to a change of direction, a change of heart or a change of mind, own it, and prepare for it -preparation leads to confidence and success.
“Karen Finerman’s Strategies for Life” by Meg Sheridan
Karen Finerman spoke to the sell-out audience at NYC-Parents in Action’s annual Mother’s Day Benefit held on May 13,2014, on “How to get out of your own way and be the woman you are meant to be.” She is the CEO of Metropolitan Capital Advisors, a panelist on CNBC’s “Fast Money”, and mother of four – two sets of twins.
Ms. Finerman began by explaining that her mother raised her as a Calvinist. That is, her mother bought Karen and her three sisters Calvin Klein clothes. But once they graduated from college, her daughters had to buy Calvin themselves. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet who think Calvinism is something else entirely,” said Finerman, “but the philosophy worked for us.” Karen set out with a goal to be independent, make money, and be a success on Wall Street.
Sex, drugs and social media. These are concerns of today’s parents, and they’re not so different from those of generations past. On February 10 before a packed house at The Trinity School, a panel of sixteen New York City independent school ninth- through twelfth-graders shed light on just what’s going on with teens today. Lucy Martin Gianino, who has moderated twenty-six of Parents in Action’s twenty-eight Teen Scene discussions, noted that the teens on her first panels are now old enough to be parents in the audience.
What’s distressing many parents about kids and sex today is that it seems so casual. The panelists did not disabuse us of that impression, saying that committed relationships are rare in high school. One panelist could think of only “three couples in [her] whole upper school” that were committed and another cited only five or six. Much of the rest of high school romantic life consists of “hooking up,” but parents shouldn’t assume hooking up always goes as far as intercourse.
On a Tuesday night in October, in an auditorium filled to capacity at the Nightingale-Bamford School, parents viewed “Out of Reach,” a documentary film about prescription drug use among adolescents. Cyrus Stowe, a 17 year-old high school student and filmmaker from Dallas, Texas, produced the 22-minute feature in collaboration with director Tucker Capps (of A&E’s Intervention) and Partnership for Drug Free Kids Medicine Abuse Project.
“When you pictured having a family, what did that look like? Who was your child going to be to you, and for you?” So began the interactive presentation by Andrea Spiritos, a psychotherapist specializing in young adulthood and parenting. Her workshop, “Parenting with an Open Heart” on October 23rd, was attended by PIA school reps, facilitators and their guests. The workshop focused on the ways parents can communicate openly and honestly with their children, listen without judgment and allow their children to develop into adults who are comfortable in their own skin.
Parents have a lot more power than they may realize to prevent teens from sliding into substance abuse. That was the strong message a sell-out crowd at the Harmonie Club heard on the evening of November 12, when Joseph A. Califano, Jr., headlined a panel discussion on “How to Raise a Drug Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents,” which is also the title of Califano’s recently updated book.
Califano, who served as United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Carter administration, is a founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), which co-sponsored the event with Parents in Action. Serving on the panel with Califano were Drs. Joe Woolston and Claudia Califano, both of the Yale Child Study Center, and Dr. Herbert Kleber, director of the Division of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Dr. Sam Ball, the newly elected president of CASA and a professor of psychiatry at Yale, moderated the discussion.
Robin Berman, MD, Wows Audience with Wit and Wisdom – Fall Benefit 2014
By Melanie Wells
“Hate Me Now, Thank Me Later” - Dr. Robin Berman’s UK book title - succinctly captures the message and tone of her very entertaining presentation to a delighted audience at the NYC-Parents in Action Fall Benefit on November 13.
Deceptively comedic, Dr. Berman’s energetic style (and the frequent laughs it drew) actually delivered substantive data and some profound food for thought on what goes into successfully guiding children to confident maturity. In one of her many lively and accessible axioms, Dr. Berman advised parents: “Be an emotional grown-up. You don’t want your children to be so aware of your needs that they have to swallow their own.”
Dr. Berman’s message begins with the parent, not the child. She stressed again and again that parents must sit in the driver’s seat. Quoting children (whose voices are not always included with expert advice) Dr. Berman offered excerpts of interviews with kids who turned out to be strong advocates for her message. According to one: “They [parents] say don’t yell but they yell, they say don’t lie and they lie. It’s not kids who have to change, it’s the parents.” Kids need a parent firmly in charge, says Berman, but that’s not the whole story.
Some of the almost 200 fathers who came to the auditorium of the Hewitt School on the second Monday of March did so because their wives told them to come, others came of their own volition. Everyone in the standing room only crowd who attended this year’s NYC - Parents in Action’s signature Fathers Only event, stayed to see excerpts of the Academy Award nominated film Boyhood and hear a panel discussion moderated by George Davison, Head of Grace Church School. The evening, hosted by PIA Board member Chris Theodoros, proved that indeed, Fathers Matter, the aptly titled book by author and panelist Paul Raeburn. Along with Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a child and adolescent psychologist at the National School Climate Center, and John Sloss a producer of Boyhood, the panel proved that fathers are among a child’s most valuable asset.
Foodfight.org Founder Offers a Brief Lesson in "Food Literacy"
By Melanie Wells
You care deeply about your child’s nutrition. You’ve read the rising – and frightening - statistics on the overweight/obesity/diabetes epidemic surging in America. You don’t want your child to join those statistics. So you read labels. You limit sugary treats. You search for a nutritional regimen to protect your child.
But is that enough? According to Deborah Lewison-Grant, Ph.D., founder of FoodFight.org, this fight is way bigger than saying no to an extra can of Coca Cola. It’s about redefining our relationship with food, and even more importantly, with Big Food.
At the April School PIA School Rep Luncheon, the audience got an eye-opening look at the forces underlying our current overweight/obesity/diabetes epidemic, and learned that guiding children on a path to healthful eating is not as simple as just counting calories.
Six weeks ago Faye de Muyshondt’s second child, Oliver, was born; six years ago she gave birth to socialsklz:-). Before Oliver came marriage and a baby daughter; with socialsklz:-) came books, a website, workshops, and a unique way of giving young people the social interaction and communication, or “life,” skills they may lack. On the second Monday of May, Ms. de Muyshondt spoke at Parents in Action’s annual Mother’s Day lunch. Social skills, dubbed by a CASEL study “the missing piece in American education,” are what de Muyshondt calls essential “skills to use every day” and the foundation for “every single thing we do.” She believes they build self- esteem and confidence, affect our life drastically and are vital to success in today’s fast paced, technological world.
Your Child and Online Safety: Communication Matters
By Melanie Wells
Virtually all parents – when they have doubts or agonize over solving a child-rearing problem – share a drive to reach the goal that trumps all others: to “keep my child safe.” The Internet has expanded the territory parents need to cover, and at the October 7th PIA Fall Seminar, attendees received insight and guidance on how best to do so, from Chauncey Parker, Special Policy Advisor in the Manhattan DA’s office; and Liz Repking, Founder of Cyber Safety and Consulting.
“Money Learning” - Start Early for Financial Health
By Melanie Wells
“We’d rather talk to our kids about sex than about money,” was the quip with which Dr. Melissa Donohue, Founder and Principal of Financial Nutrition, greeted her audience. As the chuckles died down, she reassured them that “what I love about financial education is that it’s so attainable,” likening it to learning to “take care of one’s health.”
Rather than avoid the topic, said Dr. Donohue, parents best serve kids if they initiate clear, direct conversations about money, and the earlier the better. “Money learning is behavior based as well as fact based,” she said, acknowledging the anxiety parents may feel about plunging into what is often – especially among the well-to-do – an emotionally loaded topic. In a presentation blending facts, emotional concerns and sensible advice, Dr. Donohue gave the parents a road map for educating their children financially – and effectively.
Few situations are as charged as the admissions process, and application mania, while a treatable condition, is a recognizable disorder that afflicts many high school students and their parents. Our preoccupation with elite schools, and how that squares with our definition of success, was at the heart of Frank Bruni’s talk to those attending NYC-Parents in Actions annual fall benefit lunch, earlier this month. “Where You Go is Not WhoYou’ll Be,” is the title of Bruni’s most recently published book, and his address to the crowd of mostly mothers argued his impassioned stance.
PIA’s signature event, Teen Scene XXX, celebrated its 30th birthday February 1st, reassuring the audience that their kids really are okay - despite the suggestive Roman numeral in the title. With PIA’s Lucy Martin Gianino moderating the articulate teen panel, parents, as always, heard candid talk from the 9th to 12th graders. The consistent message is, still, New York City independent school teens are a thoughtful and savvy bunch, capable of making good decisions, negotiating the shoals of adolescence and moving successfully to college and beyond.
Ron Lieber Talks About Values, Finance, Hard Questions and Choices
By John Lloyd
Ron is the “Your Money” columnist for the New York Times and the author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. Speaking at PIA’s annual Fathers Only Forum on March 1st at the Dalton School, he challenged the 150 fathers in attendance to engage their kids about finances as a way of teaching their values. The conversation that followed was lively, with topics ranging from how to handle allowance to how to talk about inheritance.
Creating a Consent Culture by Talking to Our Children
By Lori Gaon
How can we educate our children to have healthy relationships and not become one of these statistics? The key, Osherow explained, is teaching children about consent and communication. Consent concerns more than just sexual activity and therefore, may appropriately be taught to all children beginning at a young age.
Do you eat the fabulous artisanal chocolate bar one square at a time over the course of a week or do you eat it all at once? If you eat it all at once, indulging moderately is unimaginable, and Gretchen Rubin would label you an “abstainer” - it’s all or none - having something only makes you want it more. At this year’s PIA Mother’s Day lunch held Wednesday, May 11, Ms. Rubin talked about the differences between abstainers and moderators, Upholders, Questioners, Rebels and Obligers; all tendencies that have profound implications for making and breaking habits.
If you’re shying away from having “the talk” with your teen, perhaps you should reconsider. Today, social media is pervasive, and kids as young as seven may be exposed to pornography. With this sobering warning in mind, NYC-Parents in Action's Fall Seminar on October 26th addressed the timely topic of Teens, Sex and Consent. The five-member panel, moderated by Lucy Martin Gianino, answered questions, offered insight and gave guidance to parents navigating this complex and emotionally charged subject.
Justine Fonte, M.Ed, MPH and Director of Health & Wellness at The Dalton School, began the evening by explaining that as parents, the framework within which we were taught about consent has since changed. “The ‘No means no,’ that we grew up with is no longer effective,” she said. While we were taught to say “NO!” loud and clear, to not dress or dance a certain way and to not get drunk, today’s teens live in a world of nuance and mixed messages that have had significant impact on the issue of consent. The clear message from the panel was that young people need to understand that only enthusiastic consent means yes. Teens need to hear the word “Yes” from each other when engaging in sexual interaction, Fonte explained, and only a clear “yes means yes’’ can eliminate blurred lines and mixed messages. With the old “no means no,” it’s “easy to see how things get confusing, especially if there’s alcohol involved with the yes; or if one partner is silent; or says only ‘Um. . . okay.’” Kids need to understand that in most cases “all of those are ‘no.’”
Ilann Mazel, an attorney nationally recognized for championing children and people with disabilities and filing discrimination suits on their behalf, often deals with cases involving sexual assault. “Media messaging can be the root of the problem when dealing with teenage sexual consent cases,” he said. While cases don’t often involve violence at this age, many young people who have been accused of sexual misconduct don’t understand what they’ve done wrong. “Issues of consent are complicated and can be confusing at any age, but are especially so for a teenager,” he warned, agreeing with Fonte’s insistence on teens giving and receiving a firm “yes!” when consenting to sex.
When does this all begin? In answer to the moderator’s question, “When do these things start to happen for a teen?” Fonte answered that by age 10 or 11 kids start to explore their sexuality. Their natural attraction to others, due to hormones and their biology, is given far greater reach with access to a smart phone, which boosts the likelihood they will be exposed to sex by way of pornography at a very young age. Asked if the majority of our children are exposed to pornography, Emi Nakazato, a sexual-assault awareness and prevention educator, said that unfortunately, for many young people, in the absence of any other conversation about sex, porn may be their first avenue of sex education. “Pornography is powerful and the conflation of sex and violence can seem normalized, given the ease of access,” she said. “Many young men today watch so much porn that they often get desensitized.”
Rachel Henes continued the conversation. “Kids start absorbing messages about gender and sex from the day they are born,” she said. Henes, the director of Hallways, Freedom Institute’s evidence-based prevention and social-emotional wellness program serving the Independent School community in New York City, noted that all their lives, kids receive messages about sex and while sexual behaviors may not manifest until middle or high school, by the time they do, a kid’s perspective on sex is often one of sexual conquest or dominance. “These messages are in the world around us, in the air we breathe,” she said.
“We as parents need to be really clear about our expectations for our kids. Kids are confused because we’re confused,” said Henes. “Take homework for instance. We are clear in what we expect, but as adults we’re often not clear about consent and being respectful of the other person. . . making sure the other person is actively into the sexual activity. We need to look at sex as interacting with another human and care how they are doing.”
Empathy, Nakazato said, plays a key role in the sexual consent conversation. “Empathy can be taught,” she noted and is important because “when used it makes it difficult to dehumanize another person.” The lack of empathy, added Henes, “is rooted in the ideas about sexual conquest and dominance that our culture sends – so we need to address those with our kids in order to promote empathy, and that is something that parents can do.”
Nakazato delivered some humor to the somber audience, sharing a food analogy she has used as a way to initiate a sex positive conversation with her own teens. “Not every time you have sex is it going to be a five-star experience. Sometime it may just be like a snack, because you’re hungry. Food experiences can have a huge range, anywhere from a memorable Jean George experience to a simple granola bar. In extreme cases food can . . .make you sick or kill you from food poisoning. It could take a long time to experience a Jean George meal.” The same can be said of sex. You may have to eat “a lot of granola bars before you ever get to experience Jean George,” she said, her point being that sex can be experienced on a wide continuum, from exquisite to horrifying. Hence, the importance of teaching kids to communicate, listening to each other and making certain that they heard their sexual partner say “yes.”
Henes agreed that it’s never too early to offer positive messaging about consent. Speaking of her own “teachable moments” with her soon-to-be three-year-old son, she described using interactions with their cat as a tool to teach consent. “He has to notice what the cat wants,” she said. If her child wants to give the cat a hug and the cat reacts by pulling away, Henes has taught her son to respect that the cat doesn’t want a hug right now. If the cat stays put, her son can hug the cat.
Norms and social stereotypes that contribute to unhealthy ideas about masculinity affect both boys and girls. “The messaging is very limiting to boys,” said Fonte. “They often feel like they’re expected to have sex by a certain age, and when terms like, ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘don’t be such a pussy’ are tossed around,” it makes them feel like they are supposed to be part of that culture. “Stereotypes don’t stop there,” said Henes. Teen boys tend to repeat back phrases they think describe what being a boy means (“Be aggressive;” “Never cry;” “Be awesome at sports;” “Have sex;” “Never show emotion”) or suffer being teased or mocked.
“The more that boys are tied into these ideas of traditional masculinity, the higher the likelihood they may perpetrate some of these [negative] behaviors or be silent about others who do,” added Henes. But rather than focusing on these messages, we often focus on girls’ behaviors by sending messages like “don’t drink, don’t wear certain clothing, don’t act certain ways.” These messages don’t promote consent – they promote victim blaming. We need to notice this, and instead, spend our time challenging unhealthy ideas that connect sex and dominance/conquest, and linking sex with kindness, compassion, and respect.
Parents of girls, Henes continued, need to have ongoing conversations with their daughters, to mitigate pressures that girls often feel. She suggested parents start by asking, “What do you think this ad is saying?” and provide supportive commentary, like “‘I think this sends a message that a girl’s worth is in her body and how she looks and I want to make sure that you know that I don’t feel that way. You’re so much more than that.’ Conversations like this chip away at the onslaught of media messaging.”
So as parenting experts have said time and time again, talking to our children early is a vital part of the job. Keeping lines of communication open is fundamental, especially when it comes to sex and consent. It’s never too early to initiate the talk.
Towards the middle of November, days after the surprising results of the presidential election, Perri Peltz and Dr. Carrie Wilkens talked about their new documentary Risky Drinking, to be aired this January on HBO. The film’s about alcohol use disorder and “was born of people asking, ‘I drink at night and I only drink red wine and I never drink on Sundays…am I OK?’’ Ms. Peltz said. “We started hearing that question so much, that’s what gave birth to this film.” The two, who spoke at the annual fall benefit lunch on behalf of Parents in Action, explained that alcohol use disorder is best described on a spectrum. In answer to the question, “Do I have a problem?” the film profiles four people along the alcohol use disorder spectrum.
Risky Drinking is co-produced by HBO, the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). Peltz is the mother of three boys and a well- known media presence in New York. She’s reported for NBC, ABC, CNN, has been an anchor on a number of networks and is a public health advocate. Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., is one of the featured experts in the film. She’s the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires, and is the co- author of two books about addiction, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use.
Two five- minute clips from the film were played, the first profiling a 26 year-old woman from Denver, Colorado, who binge drinks. The segment follows her, hour-by-hour, one night over Halloween weekend. Ms. Peltz introduced the segment by saying this young woman did not consider herself to have a drinking problem; the subject went on to describe why she drinks before going out. “Drinking definitely eases the dating world, the whole point of drinking is to turn off your brain for once and not think of anything. I didn’t drink at all this week knowing I was going to drink a ton this weekend.” The film follows her through the night as she consumes somewhere near sixteen drinks (the amount of alcohol in each shot or drink is hard to determine), including vodka, vodka jello shots, tequila, whisky and beer. Around 1:30 in the morning we see her sobbing while apologizing to a friend who brings her home.
The second clip follows a group of stay-at-home moms from Fayetteville, Arkansas who found each other through the blog, “momwhodrinksandcusses.” “We started doing Happy Hour every Thursday,” one said. “It’s like a therapy session. We get together and we drink wine.” For them drinking is bonding, and the pleasure the friends take in drinking and drinking with each other is evident. Some of the exchanges between the mothers in the film were greeted with recognizable laughter from the audience, most of who were also mothers. But the seductiveness of alcohol to ease the tedium, frustration and challenges of raising children, sometimes alone, is cause for concern. Ms. Peltz said the segment was originally intended to represent alcohol use disorder at the beginning of the spectrum but when one friend asks, “What do you do when one of your friends seems like they’re in trouble? How do you know when things have gone too far?” it’s clear the solace found in drinking can tip towards alcohol abuse. The troubled mother says, “I know without alcohol who I want to be, I want to be Oprah…I want to be amazing, I want to be a rock star. When I drink I’m not that awesome and I don’t remember. You think I’d stop.” Towards the end of the segment she says, “ Drinking impacts my relationship with my kids. I want to be able to moderate. I want to be able to function. I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job at functioning right now, (but) I don’t think I want to be completely sober.” As described by Ms. Peltz, the remaining segments of the film feature stories about a 59-year-old man “well on his way to becoming a full blown alcoholic,” and an end stage alcoholic who has been in and out of detox thirteen times over the course of two years.
After the film clips the women talked about alcohol use and binge drinking, which has been normalized to some extent, but greatly affects decision-making and risk-taking behaviors. Ms. Peltz pointed out that men and women process alcohol in very different ways. “We can get drunker faster,” she said. “Women have more fat in their bodies while men have more water,” explained Dr. Wilkens. Because women also lack the stomach enzyme that helps the body process alcohol it becomes more concentrated in women’s bodies. Estrogen seems to play a role too; taken all together long term alcohol use poses greater risks to women’s health in general - their organs break down faster, leading to breast cancer and other diseases.
In response to a question from the audience Dr. Wilkens defined drinking level limits. For women, low risk drinking is “no more than three drinks on any one occasion during a week for a total of seven drinks. For men, low-risk drinking means up to fourteen drinks a week and no more than four drinks on any one occasion. Binge drinking consists of four drinks in one setting for women and five drinks in one setting for men “or a .08 blood alcohol concentration that is typically reached after four or five drinks within a two-hour period,” said Dr. Wilkens. She continued, “Intoxication is determined by the rate you consume and how big you are. Little girls can react differently to the same number of shots than the 6’2” guy next to her. She’s probably going to get drunker.”
Will college kids develop drinking problems? “Their drinking is so out of control, so off the spectrum we don’t know if they’ll develop a drinking problem,” said Ms. Peltz. Dr. Wilkens added, “People will say if he’s drinking like that in college isn’t he destined to become an alcoholic? In reality most (college kids) grow out of it, they just stop, life gets more complicated and they go back to normal drinking.”
“Part of what you’re trying to do as a parent is protect your kid’s developing brain,” said Dr. Wilkens. “The brain’s a fragile thing and anything you can do as a parent to keep drugs and alcohol out of that brain, so it can develop, is a good thing.” As a young person, “You’re also learning so many things, you’re learning how to interact with people, you’re learning your physical and emotional boundaries you’re learning how to take care of yourself, what you can accomplish,’ she said. The take away: when you’re young, learning can be disrupted by choosing substances; when you’re older, by choosing substances you can disrupt your life.
Your Child: Risk and Protective Factors, and How Parents Can Help
By Melanie Wells
The question that haunts every parent - how can I help my children avoid risky behavior? – is not a simple one to answer. According to Rachel Henes, Director of Hallways, a prevention and social-emotional wellness program through the Freedom Institute, the key is to start early, even before Kindergarten.
Henes, addressing an attentive luncheon crowd of PIA School Reps and guests on January 24th, identified some of the potent forces that put our kids at risk:
Media/cultural (exposure to porn, and other sexualized images, perpetuate unhealthy norms);
Social & Academic pressure (the immense pressure to succeed, a constant in affluent culture, has been shown to enhance risk);
Gender norms (pressure to conform to these norms can lead to stress/anxiety and a host of harmful attitudes and behaviors, including harassment and assault).
These forces are complex and not easily overcome. Although Henes acknowledged there is no “magic bullet,” she said parents should begin counter-strategies early. Communication, empathy, prosocial values, emotional support – these take time to build. As protective factors, begun at an early age and practiced regularly over years, they can serve your child well from pre-teen years, through the high-risk adolescent period, and into adulthood.
Henes offered a bit of background on Freedom Institute’s Hallways Program and how its presence in the NYC independent schools has provided insight into the risks that may lead to unhealthy behaviors. Hallways, serving the school network through classroom workshops, faculty training, parent presentations, assessments and counseling, has been in a good position to observe and assess the student population. The program’s focus has moved from primarily substance abuse to a more holistic comprehensive approach that encompasses a broad social-emotional wellness range, with an emphasis on prevention. Through its involvement with the schools, the Hallways program has had a window on the factors that put children at risk.
Although vulnerability to the risks may begin before the teen years, “adolescence is a critical period,” said Henes. Offering a look at “what we know” about high-risk behavior and its origins, she outlined factors that have an impact on the adolescent period:
1) Neuro-pathways in the brain are in formation during adolescence, and BRAINS ARE VULNERABLE. (The more delay in initial use of alcohol or drugs, the better.)
2) Nine out of ten addicts began using before age 18.
3) Teens are exposed to porn, sexualized images, and unhealthy norms; Henes noted that 20% of Middle School students have received a “sext.”
4) Gender norms are a risk factor, with pressure on girls to achieve “effortless perfection” on all fronts, and a corresponding pressure on boys to restrict/suppress emotion.
5) Affluent culture, with its focus on “external success markers” is a strong risk factor, with affluent suburban settings exhibiting higher rates of substance use, depression and anxiety than the average. Psychologytoday.com/articles/201311/the-problem-rich-kids
Henes acknowledged it is not known “precisely how the [suburban affluent culture risk] translates” to the NYC independent school community, but “we assume risks are as high or higher.” With the pressure to succeed intense and unrelenting, and the accompanying anxiety and stress such pressure engenders, young teens turn to substance use in a misguided effort to cope. Henes noted that traditional prevention efforts using “scare tactics” will often backfire; while the scary stories and stats may “impress adults,” they are more likely to “arouse curiosity, even excitement” among teens. Effective prevention, she said, focuses on understanding risk and protective factors, with intent to equip kids with critical skills such as empathy, decision making, and stress management.
What can parents do at home to support their children in avoiding risk, and to help build key skills? One of the most important foundations is effective communication. Talking about “difficult” subjects with children and teens, such as perfectionism, anxiety, stress, fear of failure and low self-image, can help to build their social-emotional skills, such as coping and resisting peer pressure, as well as send messages about important values and expectations. Henes recommended a “daily practice” that is based on effective communication. Try daily to:
EXPRESS care. Check on what’s “important to your child right now” - ask who their friends are, and what they value.
DEMONSRATE care. Put your phone away to talk.
ASK questions – about a variety of things! (The “doing” of “asking the questions” is more important than just the reply.)
FOCUS on effort as well as outcome. Focus on who your children are, not just what they do. (Counter the tendency to constantly track and measure “achievement”.)
FIND quiet moments to be together and communicate. TALK!
TEACH that mistakes are normal – they are “how you learn.”
SUPPORT your children in making their own decisions.
MODEL your own healthy coping. Let your kids see you take stock of your own errors. And let them see you be “kind to yourself” when you deal with your mistakes.
One area critical to emotional wellness, Henes noted, is the development and practice of empathy, or the “valuing of others and their lived experiences.” Empathy, compassion, kindness and self-worth are tightly interwoven and crucial to psychological-emotional health. Henes noted that in many schools, emphasis on social justice and the value of diversity are strong, but the children do not learn how to enact these values. For that, kids need to develop an ability to really listen to, and empathize with, others. Insensitive behavior and low empathy usually go hand in hand. Issues of consent, for instance, arise in a culture of low empathy. Healthy sexuality develops in an atmosphere rich in empathy.
To encourage healthy development of empathy, what can parents do?
If you see an act of empathy (from your child, on TV), call it out, with praise.
Give your children the vocabulary to label/express emotions in healthy ways.
Explicitly communicate your values regarding treatment of others.
Set clear boundaries and expectations. Kids know they’re expected to bring home good grades. Tell them clearly you also have high expectations in how they treat each other; how they counter a micro-aggression. Talk specifically about your expectations regarding consent and respect in relationships.
Explain the “why” behind values. Include kids in setting rules of empathic behavior.
Follow up with consequences if they break these rules.
Challenge harmful gender norms. Talk early and often about healthy gender, by “taking apart” gender stereotypes. “Unpack” notions that set gender-based limits on your child.
Address mixed messages your child may be receiving. Remember your child is growing up not only in your home, but in the surrounding culture.
Recognize and check your own biases and discomfort. Model the ability to speak up if you hear, see, or know about offensive behaviors, jokes, and comments.
Help your child think through healthy decisions. Be there to support your child and brainstorm options, but resist the urge to “fix” their problems.
Last but not least: ask for help and support - for yourself. Connect with other parents. Do what you ask of your kids: talk, discuss the hard stuff. Use your parental network to feel connected and supported in the difficult, but rewarding, task of rearing children who have a healthy capacity for empathy, compassion, self-care and sound decision making.
These skills, though time-consuming to build, will more effectively equip your children to avoid risky behavior than any set of scare tactics, and will serve them well into a mature and healthy adulthood. The effort is worth the reward. Embrace the difficult. Go boldly!
Rachel Henes is the Director of Hallways, Freedom Institute’s evidence-based prevention and social-emotional wellness program that serves over 40 Independent Schools in the New York City area. To learn more about Hallways’ programs, please visit www.hallways.org
Date: January 24, 2017
Time: 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
921 Madison Avenue at 73rd Street New York, NY 10021 Map and Directions
On a chilly night in February, three months after a contentious election and in a new year marked by protests on a variety of fronts, sixteen teenagers from over a dozen New York independent schools gathered on a stage and showed they were more mature and thoughtful than many adults. They were surprisingly optimistic about their relationships with their parents, friends, the schools they attend and the world they will inherit. Welcome to Teen Scene 2017, the 31st annual teen panel sponsored by Parents in Action.
Teen Scene is where parents get to hear first-hand reporting of what’s going on with their kids. Moderated by PIA’s veteran teen interrogator and charmer, Lucy Martin Gianino, these student “guides” ranged in age from 15 to 18, from partiers to abstainers, from competitive ski racers to soccer stars, from actors to artists, with over a dozen activities among them that would light up anyone’s resume or college essay. The group included a part time coat check girl, an oboe player, a class president, and two kids with early admittance to Harvard.
Granted, these are not your average couch potato kids; they are a self-selecting group of students who are probably not coming home in police cars or with grades much lower than a B. But they are also an enlightened and articulate group who are figuring out themselves and their futures, and were generous enough to share their journeys with a roomful of 400 plus nervous parents who sat in the Trinity School chapel, wondering whether they would leave terrified or delighted. For the most part, these girls and boys filled the crowd with hope and awe at their wisdom and honesty, but like any event starring irreverent teenagers, there were also a few moments that set off alarms.
The evening got off to a rollicking start when Lucy asked her first question: how had this politically intense past year affected them? Nearly all who answered were frank about their schools’ liberal bent, and noted the election results had been emotional for many. Several mentioned school mates who had reacted swiftly and enthusiastically to join protests, take buses to Washington, create school wide walkouts and question what they saw happening. They were also careful to point out that not all their friends or teachers shared the same beliefs, and that sometimes that dissonance was tough. For some of the seniors, this was their first opportunity to vote, and for others, the recent election made them keenly aware of the privilege to exercise this freedom. A ninth-grade boy said the “election was a wake-up call to pay attention, it’s not just about the interest, but about the impact this election can have on us and that we can have on the next one.”
Academic pressure was clearly a concern for the panel. While independent school parents know their kids are receiving a terrific education, many worry about the emotional price of achieving top grades, and shining in demanding extracurricular activities, all for the sake of getting into the “right” colleges. The students acknowledged they feel constant pressure not just to make excellent marks, but also, as one young man put it, not to “waste the opportunities that have been given to me.” A freshman girl, already feeling pressure to know what college she should attend and what she wants to do when she grows up, lamented somewhat anxiously,” I’m only 15.”
A junior boy quipped sagely, “Competing with everyone in your class, along with the pressure your parents put on you, sets up some interesting conflicts.” Another noted his parents had signed him up for standardized test prep classes for 10 hours every weekend, which, he said in a deadpan voice, is definitely “not great.” “God,” he pleaded out loud, “A little conversation would have gone a long way on that one!” Another young man admitted that his immigrant parents sometimes put undue pressure on him to do well, but in reality, he acknowledged, kids “put unnecessary pressure on ourselves, and that’s definitely unhealthy.”
For the seniors who had either gotten into college early, or were just waiting for their announcements, the application process seemed to have a silver lining. One senior girl said: “The first few months of the fall was like a huge wave of anxiety… but in the end, in my class, we all came together and learned to rely on one another … and now there’s this sweet feeling of nostalgia for all of us.” Another senior, a boy, gave parents some remarkably sane advice: “My parents want the best, but where you go doesn’t mean who you will be.”
If anything emerged as a theme of the evening, it was a plea for parents to listen to their kids, and most importantly, to trust them. Whether it was discussing homework, curfews, partying or friends, all of the speakers stressed the importance of listening and trust.
“A little trust goes a long way; if I breach that, then we have a talk, but let your kids prove themselves to you,” said one 11th grade girl. Another girl, a senior, said she and her parents had very open communications. They talked about all kinds of things, all the time, and she found that very helpful. “I don’t lie and they don’t worry.”
When Ms. Gianino asked, “What can parents do to help their kids?” some responses echoed the “how-to” books most parents have read: “Have dinner together,” a self-assured young man said instantly, and nearly all the heads on the panel bobbed simultaneously. “I have dinner with my parents five times a week, and that makes me feel less stress. I put my phone away, and my mom asks, ‘How was today different than yesterday?’ It definitely lets me get things off my chest before I have to start my night!’”
A 15-year-old girl told the crowd, “Even though we’re not always supposed to at school, texting throughout the day with my mom really helps.” And a senior boy, sounding like a seasoned parenting expert, added: “If you don’t know how to talk to your kids, start a TV show with them, or read a book together,” something he proudly admitted he still does with his own family. One girl described how her parents had begun “a family group chat” and that they had “finally learned how to use emojis.” She elicited a huge laugh from the audience and also some hope, when she described how seeing a smiley face from one of them would make her smile in the middle of a busy day.
While these kids offered advice for parents, many had praise too. One boy praised his parents for telling him they would always help him out if he got into trouble, “No questions asked. There would probably be consequences down the road, but at the moment I needed them, I know they would be helpful.”
The night was not all wholesome sweetness and light; the kids did admit that partying, drugs, and sex are still a part of many high school students’ lives, and as expected, the older kids seemed to know more than the younger ones. A ninth-grade boy said he really hadn’t seen too many kids getting out of control at all, and another stated flatly he was an athlete and strictly avoided drugs and alcohol. Still another told of losing a friend group, after turning down a joint once too often. However, most of the panel acknowledged that kids are holding and attending unchaperoned parties, called “frees,” at many homes, and that fake IDs are rampant. At Lucy’s prodding, several kids admitted they could have drugs, (mostly marijuana) and liquor delivered - without questions - to private homes, in large quantities. Some dealers even take credit cards.
Some panelists took a pragmatic view, noting that most of the people they know party in moderation, and that “most kids try hard not to be idiots.” Those getting “really out of control” are an isolated sub-group, they said. There were reports of Adderall and prescription drug abuse and pre-game drinking before parties, but most kids believed that opiates were used only by a very small fringe. One boy was proud to admit that, when he had been the guy who wasn’t drinking, he took some “out of control” friends home. “I felt like I was doing the right thing, but I had to take quite a shower afterwards,” he told the audience, who laughed a little uncomfortably.
There was more parental discomfort when some panelists naively explained how they “knew” their drugs were safe. One boy maintained that kids didn’t usually use random dealers, but dealt with the same people repeatedly so they could responsibly source their marijuana. “If you know a safe dealer,” another girl said, “then you think the stuff is fairly safe.” It’s probably fair to say that no one in the audience was relieved to hear this.
When sex is the topic, the kids said they preferred to talk to their siblings, friends or school health instructors, and noted hearing plenty of discussions about consent in their classes. On the whole, the kids were not very forthcoming on this subject. They did explain that “hooking up” meant a range of things, depending on the ages of those involved. It may mean ‘making out’ for younger teens, and perhaps something more for 12th graders, although that “something” was kept vague. The panelists stressed that boys and girls tend to develop deep friendships these days, and many of them are reluctant to “mess it up” by getting involved romantically. And while these students do seem to have mature and healthy expectations in this area, one could not help but wonder whether they even have time for dating or relationships, and whether this might impede healthy development.
When asked how they were handling the growing awareness of gender fluidity, the panel agreed almost unanimously that, as New Yorkers, they were “open minded,” and that being transgender was basically a “non-issue.” One boy quipped that it was “awesome that people are so open.” Most also felt that it is much easier for kids to come out today, whether as transgender or gay, and that adults need to stop worrying about pronoun changes, or gender-neutral bath rooms. One junior girl did, however, make a humorous plea for keeping some traditional “girls” bathrooms with stalls, because they were so important “for social interactions” with friends.
As the evening drew to a close, Lucy asked for a few final thoughts from the students, who returned to the issue of trust and close communication. One young man wisely told parents, “If you are assuming the worst, you might not be doing the best.” A girl reminded everyone “to be aware of your home life, be at home, and have dinner together. Kids who are hooking up and doing drugs are the ones with the worst home life.” Perhaps most importantly, said several kids, “Like your children, and don’t make them do things just because of college. Like what they like.” An 11th grade boy told parents that it was vital to help their kids “make their dreams come true, but you’re setting them up to fail if you don’t help them do the work that will make that happen.”
Most touching were the kids who viewed their parents not only in the traditional sense, as guides and role models, but also as friends. A senior boy said with obvious pride, “My mother is my best friend. We are exactly the same person…and because we’ve been best friends my whole life, it’s helped me go a long way.” When Ms. Gianino questioned whether this ran contrary to traditional parenting advice, an 18-year-old girl summed it up best:
“You have to be both, not just one or another. Sometimes we do need the stability that a parent provides but other times, [we] just need someone to talk to, someone to share our lives with and if you can’t be both of those people, it’s a real disservice to your child.”
Out of the mouths of babes. It’s not always so easy to hear every part of what they have to say, but so very important that we remember how much our kids need and want us in their lives, in good times and bad. Do yourselves, and them, a favor: listen!
What would happen if you put an engaging group of experts in front of a crowd of engaged fathers and let the audience drive the conversation? The 8th annual PIA Fathers Forum set out to answer that question. It worked. The session went 45 minutes longer than scheduled, to handle the volume of questions; and even as it ended, dozens of fathers lined up to continue the discussion with panel members one-on-one. The evening provided a judgment-free environment where fathers could talk openly about their struggles.
This year’s PIA Fathers Forum was held on March 7th at the Trevor Day Upper School. Roughly 150 dads, representing 40 different schools, heard from an impressive panel of educators and experts, all fathers themselves.
Moderator Bill DeHaven, Head of School, Winston Preparatory School, was joined by panelists Paul Burke, Head of School at The Nightingale-Bamford School; Joshua Mandel, Doctor of Psychology, Director of Psychological Services at Collegiate School; and Jerry Bubrick, PhD, Senior Director, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center and Director OCD Service, Child Mind Institute.
In a departure from previous Forums organized around a single topic, this evening’s focus was questions from the audience, which covered a wide range of topics:
The role of fathers
A number of questions noted the changing role of fathers. Bill said that fathers have an image problem, as mothers are traditionally seen as the nurturers and caregivers. It’s time for dads to stand up, he added, as the presence of fathers in children’s lives is so impactful.
Both boys and girls learn about maleness from the male adults around them, Josh said. Men who were themselves taught to suppress their emotions have to guard against slipping back into stereotypical fathering – i.e. exerting control. This just extends this same problem to another generation.
When a father and his child have a close relationship, research shows the child will be better off not just early on but for rest of his or her life. The list of benefits is long and broad:
Higher tolerance for frustration and stress
Increased openness to trying new things and connecting with others
Improved emotional health, empathy, and self-control
Resistance to gender-stereotypical attitudes
Josh works at an all-boys school, and he has seen that boys who have a close relationship with their fathers handle ups and downs more smoothly. Paul works at an all-girls school and stressed that daughters look to fathers for guidance on how men should treat women, including noting how they treat the child’s mother.
A number of questions focused on sources of family conflict, including parent-child conflict and issues between parents themselves.
If your child seems to go out of his or her way to challenge you – “You can’t make me!” – Jerry suggested ways to interrupt that dynamic:
Keep your own emotions in check (kids won’t respond reasonably to negativity)
Focus on effecting a change rather than trying to “win”
Discuss with your spouse – in private and away from the child - strategies for defusing these situations
It’s okay if you and your partner have different approaches to parenting, Josh said. Kids need to understand that mom and dad don’t agree on everything. Recent research shows the benefits of children being exposed to two differing approaches to parenting.
Be careful, however, not to show a lack of respect for your partner in front of kids, Jerry stressed. Instead, model how you want your children to react. Are you teaching them that someone’s right and someone’s wrong, or are you teaching them compromise? A top indicator of a child’s success in school is how his or her parents treat each other.
For fathers dealing with the impact of a divorce on the child: if they are resistant to engaging with you, consider letting them design the time you spend together. That might mean just playing a video game side by side. As Bill said, “We can’t not have a place in our kids’ lives, no matter what.”
Jerry reminded the audience that it’s normal for both girls and boys to be nervous about how their bodies are perceived. He advised being watchful for signs of excess: restrictions on eating, constant mirror-checking, and wearing excess clothing (such as sweaters and long sleeves in summer).
Girls’ struggles, however, are underscored by modern media – women in films (including teens) are four times more likely to be shown wearing sexually revealing clothes as are men, and three times more likely to appear partially naked.
Asked what the fathers in the audience could do, Paul stressed modelling respectful behavior. When the onslaught of images comes, tell your daughter you’re not into that. He quoted Catherine Steiner-Adair: make a point to tell your daughter you love her when she’s at her messiest.
The audience asked about how to identify clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Jerry, an expert in this area, took the lead in responding. He stressed that these conditions are different from moodiness, and that rapid switches between calm behavior and anger was normal for adolescents.
If you’re concerned about depression, watch for marked changes in normal function, such as falling grades (an A student now getting Cs and not caring); increased isolation; and abnormal irritability.
Bipolar disorder can be indicated by wide swings from normal to way-over-the-top to normal to real depression.
Seeing the above symptoms doesn’t mean there’s something there, Jerry continued, but they should spark a conversation. “I noticed you’re not spending as much time with your homework, am I right about that?” Avoid easily dismissed questions like, “Is everything okay?” and make sure you’re having a conversation, not delivering a monologue.
Josh reminded the audience that all kids are going to go through rough times. If your child is struggling at home but is doing well at school or with friends, it may be less of a concern. However, when parents and teachers notice the same problem, that’s more concerning. Bill agreed, saying that “Our kids show their worst selves to us at home,” and stressed that parents of kids in independent schools should leverage the “amazing resources” available to them. Don’t hesitate to advocate for your child.
The panel agreed that recent years in NYC have never been harder for kids, because of social media, the economy, politics, and school pressure. Paul said we’re in an “anxiety epidemic,” exacerbated by the onslaught of technology and what it demands of children.
That said, he advised against raising the stakes, which only adds stress. Kids are going to make mistakes offline and online. Don’t worry about a childhood mistake being discovered later by a college or a future employer (who will most likely be a millennial with a different perspective than yours anyway).
In response to questions about limiting screen time, Jerry said it’s not about a specific number; it’s about balance. This balance will depend on your child’s age and situation. He compared screen time to driving. You have to prove you can be trusted to drive well. Can your child balance screen time with friends, homework, and family? That’s healthy. If the screen is his or her only friend, that’s an issue.
Jerry said that, for younger kids, it’s reasonable to know their passwords and monitor their activity. And if you praise them for what they’re doing well, they’re less likely to shut down communications with you.
Bill reminded the audience to lead by example. Do you yell at your kids to put down their phones while you’re answering a work email? If we can’t stand in a line at Starbucks without pulling out our phones, we’re modelling bad behavior. Also, when you demand that your child put down his or her phone, then what? Offer concrete alternatives.
There were questions about teen drug use as well as how to discuss drug use by adults.
Drugs and your child:
Josh said that, for those with younger children, it’s important to start the conversation early – “What are you hearing about this?” This will make later conversations easier. Rely on words that have meaning in familiar contexts: “We want you to be responsible crossing the street and we want you to be responsible about drugs and alcohol” - but keep it conversational. Paul said that when his kids hear his “teacher voice,” he loses them.
Research shows that it’s important to set high expectations: the later a child’s initial usage, the lower the chances of later drug abuse.
If your kid comes home and you think he or she is drunk or high, that’s NOT the time to have a conversation, that’s the time to make sure your child is safe, or else you’ll trigger a fight-or-flight response. Say, “We’ll talk about it in the morning, or tomorrow evening,” but then be sure you find a time to talk. Let them know you’re frustrated, and don’t be afraid to take something away or otherwise reasonably punish them; this is easier if you’ve set expectations in advance.
Drugs and you:
Regarding your own usage, think in advance about how you want to answer their questions. What you say is your decision, but if you want them to think about consequences, it’s important to stress the negative aspects – if not of your own experience, then that of a friend’s.
If your family has a history of addiction, Paul doesn’t recommend hiding it: “The unmentionable becomes the unmanageable.” Josh agreed, saying that there’s no topic we can’t talk to your kids about, but there are developmentally appropriate ways to do it. Don’t talk to 4th graders about heroin, but you can talk about prescription drugs or their uncle who smokes or the caffeine in sports drinks.
Staying connected as children grow
Maintain communication even when your child pushes you away:
As adolescents get older, they may cut off communication – “Stop, Dad. I don’t want to talk about it.” Paul stressed that this is totally normal. It’s all about being present until they come back to you. It’s unpredictable, but when it does happen, be present, which means putting other things aside. He quoted Mike Riera: as your child gets older, the bad news is, you get fired as her manager; the good news is, you get rehired as her consultant.
Josh explained the reason your teen may be pushing you away: adolescence is the bridge between dependence and independence and they may see you as a roadblock to that change. But when they push you away the most is when they may need you the most. Teens need love, approval, and compassion, even when they say they don’t. As Bill said, don’t give up when you get the initial eye-roll of resistance.
As your adolescent grows, your job is not to always reassure them, Jerry pointed out, even if they want you to. Like scratching a mosquito bite, constant reassurance feels good in the short term but causes long-term harm. Your “protector mode” can stop your kids from figuring things out on their own.
Adapting means doing things together that your kids want to do, instead of just including them in things that you want to do. Jerry also stressed the importance of spending time with each of your kids individually. He has identical twin daughters, and they are often called “the girls;” he focuses on treating them as individuals.
If they don’t want you in their room or to open their door, that may be okay, Josh suggested. Try texting them (and don’t feel hurt if they don’t respond). Find a way to meet them on their own terms. There will be times to invade your child’s privacy when you need to, but if you don’t need to, perhaps don’t.
Continue to keep the relationship strong even after your children become adults, Paul said. Girls older than 18 in particular can face tremendous pressures and may find themselves in tough situations. Connecting to older children may mean fighting to overcome your own fear of discussing uncomfortable topics.
And finally: Listen:
When we listen to our kids, Jerry said, they start to open up – maybe not right away, but eventually. When they do come talk to you, the first thing they hear shouldn’t be your ideas. If you jump right to trying to fix the problem, they’ll feel that you’re shutting them down. He said that if the audience only took away one thing from Fathers Forum this year, he would choose that. And he shared a great video to underscore that point.
PIA’s own Chris Theodoros wrapped up the session by thanking the panel and the fathers who attended. As Chris said, events like Fathers Forum are a great way to learn from those around you. He also stressed the availability of great resources such as Common Sense Media, The Child Mind Institute, and Understood.org, as well as the wonderful independent schools our children attend.
Date: March 7, 2017
Time: 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Trevor Day Upper School
312 East 95th Street (new location) New York, NY 10128 Map and Directions
Beth Kobliner is a commentator and journalist, author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, as well as Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not): A Parents’ Guide for Kids 3 to 23, a new book published by Simon & Schuster.