Saturday, April 17, 2010

An Interview with HiTops', Elizabeth M. Casparian and Carolyn Santoro

I have to admit, after working on this week of episodes, some of what I learned made me want to lock both my kids in a room until they turned 30 to keep them sheltered from all of the horrible temptations and pressures out there – many of which never even existed when I was a teenager. But this interview with HiTops made me realize that all of the influences in today’s world do not exist separately from the world we as parents create for them. In fact, the parameters I create for my kids are probably going to be stronger than the four walls of my imaginary lock-down facility. Parenting is not something to take for granted. It is a skill like any other, and needs to be practiced and perfected. The mistakes we as parents make have a much greater cost, but the drive to do better every day is stronger than it is with anything else. We can blame the outside world all we want, but ultimately, our kids will live in the world we build for them.

Interview with Elizabeth M. Casparian, PhD, Executive Director, HiTOPS and Carolyn Santoro, CHES, HiTOPS Health Educator and Coordinator of Teen PEP

• What is the most enviable thing about being a teenager these days? What is the least enviable?

Access to information and opportunity is incredible for teens today. Because of technology, young people can interact with a wider world and find learning, exploration, growth and service experiences more readily. However, we have yet to determine if the ever-present use of cell phones and computers will have long-term negative consequences. Many adults fear that using technology for all kinds of interaction is hurting young people’s ability to develop the social and interpersonal skills needed to develop lasting personal and professional relationships. Helping young people manage their time and balancing screen time with face-to-face time, as well as time outdoors, time with family and time learning through group discussions and experiences are a very new aspect of parental responsibility.

• How are teenagers different from the same demographic, say, 15-20 years ago (Gen Y vs. Gen X?).

Today’s teens are always connected to everyone all the time – there is almost no down time from being connected with their peers and knowing if they have been included or excluded from any activity. There is also a lack of supervision. In communities where both parents work – both affluent and not – parents leave teens unsupervised for long periods of time much more often than in the past. As little kids, most had heavily scheduled after school periods from nursery school until late middle school, but as teens, parents often assume they will be fine from 3 to 7 or 8 pm most nights without supervision. It is also common for parents to travel and leave teenage children home alone for weeks at a time with a car and a credit card. Without experience navigating life on their own, many teens find it difficult to cope alone. As a result, they invite friends to join them and end up in delinquent activities because there are no rules or adults to hold them accountable. Substance use, unprotected sex and illegal behavior often take place during those hours of the days and weekends when parents are at work or traveling for work.

• What is/are the most common thing(s) that causes stress in teens.

The answer to this has much to do with socioeconomic status. Teens living in poverty are worried about shelter, abuse, violence, safety. Middle class and upper middle class teens are struggling to live up to parental expectations to do well in school, go to college and get good jobs. Economic stress plays a critical role as teens juggle academic pressure with the pressure to help the family financially by working. They also feel pressure to get scholarships because college tuitions are so high.

• How much do you think nutrition plays into behavior among teenagers – hyperactivity, depression, concentration, energy level, etc.

While it is difficult to document, those of us who spend time with adolescents certainly can see the difference in kids who eat well – whole, balanced, minimally processed foods, etc – and kids who consume a lot of junk, sugar, etc. Young people will eat good food when it is offered and seem to have better concentration, better attitudes and overall better performance.

• What is a major mistake that parents/adults make with teens (feel free to list more than one).

Adults tend to talk AT adolescents and not LISTEN. While it is important for parents to share their values with their children, it is also critical for teens to feel heard, to have their opinions matter and to be able to express their needs to people who are interested in working with them within the framework of their own lived experiences, not theoretically, or based on out-dated perceptions of what adolescence is like. Listening well, reflecting back on what teens have said, and asking them what they need from adults is the best way to keep communication open lend support. When parents lecture, chastise, assume, punish, criticize and expect the worst, they miss out on the chance to develop a rapport with teens that can develop over time. Adults also need to work within the brain development limitations of teens and learn the difference between disobedience and true developmental challenges. Inconsistent disciplinary responses are very frustrating to kids and so kids neither learn what is expected of them, nor do they respect the authority of parents who have no consistent pattern for consequences.

• What is the best way to broach the tough subjects with teens, like sex and drugs. (What if a parent feels like a hypocrite telling their teen not to do something that they themselves did as a teenager?)

Many teens experiment, so it may be unrealistic to expect that teens will not take any risks, but the key is to help them take calculated risks and to be sure they have a safety net – having a designated driver, gaining access to protection if they plan to have sex, etc. Rigid expectations and zero tolerance may lead kids to simply hide behavior and not seek support, help or advice when they are making decisions. Parents need to discuss the safety and disciplinary consequences and be consistent in following through. Parents need to discuss their fears with their kids and if the want to share their own experiences, they can do so by explaining the mistakes they made and the consequences they experienced.

• What is the best way to deal with this sexting phenomenon?

Be sure young people know the consequences of sending explicit personal information over their cell phones. Current laws have not caught up with actual experiences, so teens who send any explicit photos or language may end up being charged with felony level offenses and becoming registered sex offenders because the laws are based on crimes involving the distribution of child pornography. Even having a photo on one’s cell phone of a person they do not even know could be enough.

• My teenaged daughter learned in school that 1 out of 10 girls ends up in an abusive relationship. How big a problem is this with the teens that come to see you and who.

The problem is huge. Young people do not always know that they are in emotionally abusive situations, but many relationships are unhealthy and include emotional abuse. Teens need to know how to recognize the signs and how to get out of it. Sometimes teens are so desperate to be part of a couple, they will stay in a relationship that feels restrictive, oppressive, stressful or coercive. While teens are better at recognizing and being able to leave a physically abusive relationship, emotional abuse can take forms that are hard for them to recognize.

• It seems like we’re always trying to keep up with the problems that teens face. For example, sexting was going on long before parents and the media caught up to it. Based on the teens that come into your facility, what do you think is going to be the next big issue we need to address?

If I could tell you this, we would be a rich, rich organization rather than struggling non-profit! Technology is certainly evolving faster than we are able to evaluate the consequences. Adults who live and work with youth need to keep communication flowing and must be ever-vigilant about seeing how trends in adolescent behavior might have both positive and negative impacts on health, safety, self-esteem. Adults MUST be willing to learn from youth – and to then work with them to develop strategies for reducing risk on all levels.

Interview by What You Can Do Staff Writer, Karen T. Harline

Blog written by Staff Writer - Karen T. Harline

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