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