Seeking Connection

Seeking Connection

We are hard-wired for connectivity.

In the wake of another high school tragedy, I’m ever more convinced that we are losing the art of connection. I say this because, in the case of Nathaniel Berhow, none of the people he interacted with regularly had any clue that he was angry or sad or depressed enough to walk into Saugus High School and shoot five people. He was a “regular guy” who kept to himself.**

We are made to be connected, yet so many of us feel disconnected. Not just alone in a crowd, but lonely in a crowd.

Too many people lack the connectedness of authentic relationships. People who know you, who see you.

I was recently struck by something author and life coach, Martha Beck, said. “Loneliness is proof that one’s innate search for connection is intact.”

Chronic loneliness affects up to 47% of Americans and an estimated 9 million people in the UK according to MDLinx. People long to be connected and seem to be coming up short.

Even more astonishing is that people who report suffering of loneliness also have mortality rates similar to those of a person smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

15 cigarettes a day!

A 2018 study by Cigna and Ipsos found that among the lonely, Generation Z is the loneliest. The study notes that “Feeling like people around them are not really with them, feeling shy, and feeling like no one really knows them well are among the most common feelings experienced by those in the Generation Z (adults ages 18-22).” Students were also found to be the loneliest.

Loneliness plagues our society: the chronically lonely and everyone, who aware or unaware, knows someone who is lonely. Or who will at some point in their own lives feel lonely.

There are many reasons why loneliness or feeling disconnected from society might require external intervention. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.*

There is one solution that both sides of the equation have in common. It’s obnoxiously simple.

Be kind.

Simple acts of kindness are the easiest way to start building connections.

If you are lonely or sad or angry, take a small step toward healing with some small act of kindness.

Even if you don’t feel like you need anything, but want to make the world a better place, go out of your way to be kind to someone.

In looking beyond our own feelings and seeking to help others, we build connection where none existed and strengthen connections we already had. Because kindness can be the heart of connectivity.

In the 1970s, Dr. Robert Nerem performed a health study using rabbits. The crazy thing is that he discovered as much about the importance of kindness as he did about health. The rabbits that were supposed to be declining in health fared 60% better when they had a caretaker who was kind to them.

The results are two-fold. It actually improves your own mental health and consequently your own physical health when you consider others first. And it improves the health of the people around you too.

One of our favorite books at our house lately is Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller. The main character asks, “But what does it mean to be kind anyway?”

I think most people over 10 can come up with a few simple examples, but it seems that many people over 10 have trouble executing on them.

Here’s the thing. It’s so easy to start.

Hold a door open.
Make eye contact and smile at the cashier the next time you check out.
Ask a friend how they are doing and actually wait for the answer.
Take cookies to your neighbor.
Volunteer at a local charity.

You can choose a commitment level. Kindness is usually free. It doesn’t have to take much time. But it changes everything. Better yet, it connects us all.

We are a lonely crowd.

But we don’t have to be.

And maybe we can start healing the tragedy that is plaguing our schools and communities. Maybe we can start seeing the Nathaniels in our midst. It probably won’t fix all the problems. But it might be a good start.

*If you are lonely and looking for more ideas on where to start, check out this article from Good Housekeeping.
**To read more about high school shootings, have a look at our 2018 post, Combatting Fear in the Face of School Shootings.

Kelly Fann

Kelly Fann

Marketing Assistant

Karlie was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. She has gained experience working with teenagers through work, volunteer, and personal opportunities.

Kelly has lived in three countries and worked with teens across the world, encouraging them to pursue their passions and to be kind.

13 Reasons Why: Making Noise or Making Change?

13 Reasons Why: Making Noise or Making Change?

Recently, season 3 of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was released. Because of its implications on teenage culture, Teen Life has been following this show since the beginning, and last month, I finished the 3rd installment of this controversial series.

Let me start by saying that this show is not one I would recommend teenagers watch. I would not even recommend that adults watch it with its mature content and language. However, I know that teens continue to watch it, and so it begs the question: Is 13 Reasons Why helping or hurting teenagers?

In this third season, the Netflix show covered sex, drugs, abortion, prostitution, gun violence, bullying, sexual abuse, illegal immigration, steroid use, and sexual identity. These are issues and topics that today’s adolescents are wrestling with, but is this the format to discuss it? To quote one of the characters on the show, “But you’re not making change, you’re just making noise!”

Wow.

What a quote! And so applicable to almost anything in our culture, especially with this age of social media driven content.

So many people want their ideas, problems, concerns, and injustices heard. That is not a bad thing at all, but there is a difference between making change and just making noise! Here are a few ways that we can encourage teenagers (and ourselves) to make more than just noise.

Be willing to listen.
There is so much injustice going on right now in our country and world. It isn’t right and it shouldn’t be tolerated, but before you shout your thoughts, be willing to listen. Listen to those who have been hurt and marginalized. Listen to different opinions in a respectful way. Noise leaves little room for other voices, but change cannot happen with just one person, so listen to those around you!

Have a purpose.
If your goal is just to be angry, that is not the best way to motivate change. Have a purpose behind your words and actions. Pick a cause that you are passionate about and work to make our world better. We can’t all be champions for every issue – there isn’t enough time! But we can be allies and friends to those already doing good work. We can be encouragers. We can pick a few things to put our resources and energy behind!

Look to change yourself.
Change is difficult. Like 13 Reasons Why shows, a culture and attitude cannot change overnight. But you can start with yourself! Be honest and evaluate how you can change and grow. Do you have bias you need to face? Are you being inconsiderate to other points of views? Are you invalidating the feelings of others? This type of reflection is not easy and can even be painful at times. Be willing to ask hard questions and start conversations to grow.

Noise drowns out everything else where change is willing to listen. Noise stays the same while change has purpose. Noise is passive where change takes action. Noise can stay behind a computer device or screen while change starts a bigger conversation outside of social media.

In the midst of racial injustice, sexual abuse, school shootings, suicide and more, we need to be having conversations. While I might not agree with the method of 13 Reasons Why, I will encourage you to be brave enough to talk about difficult topics with teenagers. They know what is happening. They see more than we realize at school and in the lives of their friends. They listen, absorb, read, and investigate. Please don’t let them take on this task alone! Show them how we can start conversations to make change. Be more than noise this week!

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Marketing & Development Director

Karlie was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. She has gained experience working with teenagers through work, volunteer, and personal opportunities.

3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

 useRecently, I learned of a death by suicide by a prominent pastor – on the eve of National Suicide Awareness Day of all days. It was especially tragic because he was quite vocal about the topic from his writings and the pulpit, even going so far as to establish a non-profit promoting mental health and suicide prevention. He struggled quite publicly with his own depression and mental health and tried to keep the topic front-and-center, especially on social media. 

Yet, he still died by suicide. 

This was a tough one as I have a lot of friends in the clergy and have some unique insight into the stressors they face daily. I can understand the pressures that might bring someone to contemplate such a horrible outcome. But the question is, how does someone who is so vocal to the point of founding a non-profit still succumb to suicide? Is it just inevitable? Is it even preventable? 

After tragedies like this one and so many other high-profile suicides the common refrain is to urge people to ask for help or call the national suicide prevention hotline. These are definitely worthy actions to encourage. Yet, my guess is those who died by suicide likely gave that same advice at some point. 

So, are we missing something here? 

First of all, like most tragedies, suicide is not 100% preventable. Despite our best efforts, those in extreme darkness will choose this outcome no matter the best intentions of those who love them. Yet as those who love students, it would be good for us to understand what might drive someone to take their life.

Numerous studies have shown the actual act of taking one’s life comes by impulse more than we think. Often times we perceive suicide as being planned out meticulously like in “13 Reason’s Why”. Yet as survivors of suicide are interviewed, almost half in some cases report the attempt coming after a crisis less than 24 hours before. In fact, 1 in 4 survivors reported their suicide attempt within 10 minutes of the impulse!

Often these suicide attempts are aided by substance use and deteriorating mental health as well. But the bottom line is this – even though some suicides are long planned out, many more are an act of impulse in the immediate aftermath of a personal crisis!

So, as we talk about suicide, we also need to talk honestly about what is going on with the victim and what we can do to help. We need to understand that suicide can be (but not always) prevented by actual intervention on behalf of the one doing the outcry. While we can encourage the potential victim of suicide to act (i.e. ask for help, call a hotline), there are some tangible things we can do as helpers to intervene. 

• If you suspect someone might be contemplating suicide – ASK THEM. You won’t be putting any ideas into their head that are not already there.
• Never let someone you suspect is suicidal to be alone. Keep doors open and conversations ongoing.
• Remove any means that could complete suicide. Remove any guns, ammo, pills, rope, sharp objects, or anything that the potential victim could  use to inflict self-harm.

Why?
Because 90% of suicide survivors do not make another attempt! When we as helpers take basic actions like being present, asking good questions, and recognizing the impulsivity of suicide, we can save lives! 

It is time we recognize our roles as helpers to those who are genuinely struggling to find their own voice. We have a role to play for our family and friends who have lost hope. To step into this role demands courage and action. 

I highly encourage you to follow some of the research at Means Matter – a study out of Harvard working through the question of impulsivity and the means of suicide. This work has been formative for me as a helper of students to understand more tangible ways to help those contemplating suicide.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

Good Enough

Good Enough

A few weeks ago, I got the email. It was from the state of Texas and it was notifying me that STAAR scores were available for 2 of my kiddos. I knew it would be coming because I had seen several social media posts of parents applauding their own children for how well they had done:

“Only missed 1 question!”
“Perfect Score!”
“Mastery Level Scores!”

However, statistically, those students were the exception, not the rule. No one was posting about their child who scored in the “Did Not Meet Grade Level” or “Approaching Grade Level” categories.

We live in a world that quantifies and ranks. Our students are no exception. They have GPAs, Class Rank, ACT/SAT scores, STAAR, band chairs, athletic depth charts, and more. Even my elementary aged kids can tell you their reading level or Lexile level. They can tell you how many students in their class did not pass STAAR last year. They announce a valedictorian at my daughter’s middle school at the end of 8th grade. The list goes on and on.

I was sitting in Karate with my youngest a few weeks ago. As he has moved up belt levels, it has become more challenging for him. He isn’t even in first grade yet, but here is yet another ranking system to compare everyone. He is frustrated and disheartened.

In the middle of the class a few weeks ago, his instructor stopped and had everyone sit down. He turned to the long string of parents watching along the walls and threw out this line:

“Better is always good enough.”

Again:

“Better is always good enough.”

Twice. Because maybe we didn’t hear him the first time.

Such poignant words I needed to hear. I am naturally bent toward perfectionism – just ask my husband. I push myself hard and want to be at the top if there is a ranking to be had. But for many, that ranking system only reinforces that they are not good enough. That they did not pass or make all A’s or make the first string. Students (and adults) feel they could never possibly achieve enough and at some point, they quit trying. In karate, it looks like a child earning a stripe for a skill they haven’t mastered yet but have worked really hard on for the past few weeks and are improving on.

Let’s take that to a different level – Many of the students we encounter everyday have faced very real struggles or trauma in life. There will probably never be a top rank in any traditional system for many of them. But what if we, as a group, shouted from the rooftops that better is always good enough. What if we adjusted our expectations to reflect that philosophy?

Today, she actually tried and did her best on the math test and brought home a 60 – but she actually tried. Better is always good enough.

Today, he apologized after disobeying everything you said. Better is always good enough.

Today, she yelled at another student, but she didn’t get into a physical altercation with them – better is always good enough.

Today, he asked for help instead of just quitting – better is always good enough.

Too often we want our children and the students we work with to be the best. To reach the stars. To be the top. But sometimes, in reaching for the stars, we miss the small victories. The victories we need to applaud in order to keep the students in our lives more motivated and trying. We need to acknowledge that what is a victory for one student would not even be on the radar for another student. That a victory might not be a win by everyone else’s standards.

But to be successful in helping our students, our children, our peers we need to have a moment for Better Is Always Good Enough.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

Back to Baby Basics [Repost]

Back to Baby Basics [Repost]

I originally wrote the following post two years ago when our son, Sawyer, was born. But this summer has once again brought some changes for our family – this time form of a little girl named Janie.  
 

Having a baby and spending time at home adds new perspective and forces me to slow down. People expect you to take off from work, forget about house chores and just spend time with your sweet little one. So much importance is placed on enjoying and getting to know your baby – as it should be! But why does this only apply when our children are infants? Even though my kids are still little, I think there are several baby-parenting tactics that we should apply to parenting teens. They may be half-grown and independent (or so they think), but these teenage years are so critical for their development and your family!

Here are a few things that I believe we can learn from those beginning days of parenting that can benefit the relationship you share with your teenager:

Dedicated Meal Times

I am a huge believer in the power of meals and their ability to bring people together. Perfect strangers are friends at the end of a meal. Two people can begin a romantic relationship over a meal. And people are comforted, encouraged and uplifted through meal conversations. Meals are so important.

When kids are little, meals require a lot of attention. Meal times are all about them! As babies, parents have to put down everything to feed them the milk they need. When they grow into wiggly, independent toddlers, mealtime can turn into all out. When do we lose the desire to set aside dedicated time for meals? I know life is busy. I know it isn’t always possible to eat every meal at home, but teenagers need dedicated time from you!

This mealtime can look different for every family. Maybe it is ordering pizza and eating on paper plates. Maybe it is grabbing a quick bite after football practice at your favorite fast food restaurant. Or maybe it includes a homemade meal and set table (good for you!). Whatever your situation looks like, take time to silence phones, turn off televisions, get rid of distractions and share a meal with your family. Ask about school and tell them about your day in return. Find out more about friends and hobbies. Talk about future plans and silly things like their favorite TV shows. They need that time, and I bet you’ll find that you do, too! In fact, Andy and Sandra Stanley talk about this in a series on family. (You can watch it here! Start at 22:00 to begin where they talk about family dinners.) 

Intentional Routines

When children are little, we have routines for almost everything. A morning routine – wake up, change diaper, put on fresh clothes. A nightly routine – bath time, change into pjs, read a book, goodnight kisses. Imagine if we had routines with our teenagers…seems silly, right? But these don’t have to include reading them a book or rocking them to sleep. It doesn’t even have to be a bedtime routine!

A few years ago, Chris Robey discussed this very topic with Dr. Mark DeYoung in the podcast episode “4 Ways the ‘Check-In’ Transforms Relationships.” I encourage you to go listen to this podcast! There are so many benefits to asking teens how they are doing and making it part of a routine. I discussed a dinner routine above, but maybe your routine is as simple as asking one question in the car on the way home from school. Or asking them to say goodnight before they go to bed and speaking truth over them at that time. Create a routine so your teenager knows what to expect from you. Ask good questions and speak words of encouragement.

Realistic Expectations

When are babies are small, we expect them to act like babies. Duh, right? You wouldn’t expect my baby to walk, talk, or feed herself. If she cries, I am not surprised. When she has a blowout diaper, I don’t get upset with her. I am enjoying every moment of this baby stage – the good, bad, and the stinky.

We need to apply the same principle with teenagers. They are going to mess up, make decisions you don’t understand, get caught up in drama. I fear that adults often fall into the trap of treating teenagers like children while placing adult expectations on them. We hover and control while also getting upset when they don’t make choices we approve of. They are still trying to figure out who they are. They need a little guidance and a whole lot of grace! If you place unrealistic expectations on your teenager, you will be as frustrated as I would be if I expected Janie to change her own diapers.

Let’s go back to the days where our children were more important than clean houses and home cooked meals. I beg you to take the time to get to know your teenager! What do you think about this? Are there other baby-parenting practices that you can apply to parenting teenagers?

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Marketing & Development Director

Karlie was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. She has gained experience working with teenagers through work, volunteer, and personal opportunities.

Traveling New Roads Together

Traveling New Roads Together

Last month, I had the pleasure of training a group of college students preparing to be camp counselors. My main purpose in the training was to equip them to support kids from hard places. Many of the camps they would be doing would take them into areas of the city where behavioral issues and lack of family support would be likely prevalent.

During the Q&A session at the end, questions kept coming up about how they should handle discipline. One counselor asked, “Can we make the kids do pushups if they are misbehaving or late?”. This is a common form of discipline within sports or camps, and I have never liked it. Personally, I think it can be pretty degrading to a kid to give penance in the form of a pushup – but despite how much I despise the approach, I answered – “Yes.”

But I had a caveat.

“As long as you do the pushups with them.”

The group laughed, but the point was taken. When you make kids do pushups for misbehaving, is any connection made? Or are we further cementing our authority and power? However, when we do pushups with the kids, connection is created and there is some sense of shared responsibility.

Because if the kids are constantly misbehaving or late – does the fault completely lay on their shoulders? Or is it a power play for the adult to dish out the discipline without also taking some of the blame? 

As helpers of students, we often forget the power of vulnerability and connection when it comes to how we correct. It is much easier to point out the mistakes with our kids. It’s much harder to admit our culpability.

This concept rang true to me as I read through a recent study on teenagers and cell phone use commissioned by Common Sense Media. The main takeaway of the study showed that 1 in 3 teenagers take their cell phones to bed and report checking their phones multiple times overnight.

Simply put, this is a horrifying trend. Numerous studies have confirmed the “blue light” emitted by screens should be eliminated at least 30 minutes before bed, and cell phone be removed from the bedroom for any chance of quality sleep. Why on earth would teenagers do this to themselves?

Well, because we do. The same study reports 61% of adults check their phone within 30 minutes of going to bed. Simply put – we adults have developed some nasty habits with our devices and our kids are watching.

An interesting thought that came out of the same study showed the number of teenagers who think their parents are spending way too much time on the phone went up by 11%. But teenagers own assessment of how much time they spent on devices was more muted. While they thought their parents spend way too much time on the phone, they felt like their time was just about right.

This study highlighted how teenagers can develop really unhealthy habits and suffer loss of sleep and health as a result. As an adult it would be easy to just tell a student to not take their phone to bed. If so, prepare for a fight.

It’s like this in so many aspects of our parenting and mentoring of students. We are quick to point out their issues and tell them where they should change, but even with the lightest of scrutiny, we as adults aren’t doing much better. 

This isn’t just about cell phones and sleep. It’s how we deal with our stress. It’s how we self-medicate. It’s about our anger. It’s our discontent. Do we not realize our kids are watching us, even if they seem aloof?

This offers opportunity for connection. For example, if you know your teenager is taking their phone to bed, you likely are as well. Instead of laying down the law, why not share your own struggle and create a plan to deal with it together?

Or maybe you struggle with anger or outbursts. Maybe acknowledge that with your kid? Apologize? Even ask for help?

When we choose connection with our teenagers, we build relationship. It’s the harder road, but it is one that acknowledges our humanity as well as respects where our teenager is developmentally. 

We cannot ask our teenagers to travel roads we do not presently travel. By choosing vulnerability and connection, we choose to travel those roads together.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

In my Teen Life Support Group last semester, I had a student who seemingly did not want to be there. She refused to talk. She crossed her arms. She kept her head down. After the first week, we talked to her and said that she didn’t have to talk but needed to participate as a member of the group. She reluctantly did the activities, but still never spoke a word.

A few weeks later, another student asked about my family. I explained that my parents live in Alabama, and I don’t see them very often because of the distance. Immediately, my standoffish student spoke. “Wait, you’re from Alabama? Me too.” In that moment, we had created a connection.

Connection. It sounds so easy, right? But how often do we strive to achieve it and come up short? Sometimes, finding a commonality is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days I wonder if I have anything at all in common with the teens I’m with. Some days I wonder if they even want to connect with me at all.

In their book, The Connected Child, Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine walk through a series of connecting principals to help us as parents, teachers, youth ministers, or friends of young people who are struggling and yet seem to reject our help. In order to connect, we have to engage with students. Here are five of their strategies:

 

  1. Behavioral Matching: Reflect your student’s behavior or physical position. This increases their ability to feel safe. It’s less complicated than it seems. When my daughter wants to talk at night, I lay down next her instead of standing over her.  If my smaller child wants to play with cars on the floor, I sit on the floor as well. Find the natural comfort behavior for your teen and match it without even mentioning it.

 

  1. Playful Engagement: Be playful in your conversations. We adults often want to get to the point, address the problem, and fix it. But they often need us to break the ice. We do that by showing that we can have fun. When my teen doesn’t want to do something they deem embarrassing, I do it first. If they are frustrated, say “Whoa? I didn’t know you were the boss!” Let them know they are safe even in disagreements. You can have a deeper conversation once there is more connection.

 

  1. Create Eye ContactWe live in a world where students don’t look at each other. They look at screens. But the eyes are powerful.  Look your students in the eyes and they will know they are cared for. As parents, how often do we yell down the hall or up the stairs. How would things change if we spent more time looking in our teenagers’ eyes?

 

  1. Share Healthy Touch: Give a hug. Pat them on the back. Hold their hand. Play with their hair. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask permission. Students often want to know you care, and you don’t have to use words to show up.

 

  1. Be aware of your tone of voiceAre you loud? Are you frustrated? Are you talking quickly or slowly? Do you even know? You can start and end a conversation just by using your tone. You also can be authoritative without being demeaning or unkind.

 

Connecting through engagement is hard, but as Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.”

My student from Alabama? After she learned we were from the same place, everything shifted. That tiny connection was all it took to help make our group safe for her. She was able to talk through some significant things happening at her home all because of connection.  

A week after group ended, the interventionist stopped me in the hall.  She raved about how this girl was totally different than she was 8 weeks before. What a powerful lesson about the potential power that can be unleashed with just a little connection!

 

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

Confronting the Momo Problem

Confronting the Momo Problem

The “Momo Challenge”.

Did you hear about it? Did it cause panic among your circles? Did you see emails, Facebook posts, and texts warning you about this terrifying internet presence?

Momo is scary, terrifying, horrible, dark, and twisted. But it is also fake – a hoax. Even though this particular character was fake, it brings up a great question – how do we confront internet and social media issues with our children?

Before I go further, let me give some context for those who haven’t heard of Momo. According to this CNN article, “The [Momo] challenge is the latest viral concern/social media fad/urban legend going around Facebook parenting groups and schools. It’s described as a “suicide game” which combines shock imagery and hidden messaging, and it supposedly encourages kids to attempt dangerous stunts, including suicide.”

According to Facebook posts, the scary, large-eyed doll figure called Momo would pop up in the middle of YouTube videos aimed at children like cartoons and toy reviews. Momo would then ask children to engage in destructive behavior – hurting themselves, loved ones, and even encouraging them to kill themselves. Reportedly, Momo also warned viewers against telling adults about what they were seeing and hearing. It is a horrifying thought that these messages would sneak into videos that parents and adults trusted to be safe for children.

However, while there have been Facebook posts, testimonies and stories, there has been little to no evidence that these Momo Challenge messages exist – no screen shots or recordings. According to experts, Momo is nothing to be worried about and stories of the challenge have been perpetuated by fearful exaggeration.

Now here is the problem with Momo – are children scared of the figure because they saw it in a video? Or are they scared because of the stories and pictures they have seen from parents and peers? Which begs the question – did we make this problem worse by talking about it? And how do we handle things like this in the future?

Here are some things to keep in mind while having internet, social media, or cyber-bullying conversations with you children and teenagers:

 

Question without telling.

When asking teens about current things that you are seeing in the news or on Facebook, start by asking non-leading questions. Instead of asking about Snapchat, for example, ask what apps they are using on their phones. Ask how they interact with friends via the internet. Ask if they have seen or heard anything scary or inappropriate on the internet or their phone apps.

By all means, please ask your teenagers what they are watching, listening to, interacting on. If you have younger children, have them watch videos with you in the room, check their view history and regulate what they have access to. But try to avoid telling them the shortcomings of social media and the internet if they are using it innocently. Open the door for your kids to talk to you without making them worried or afraid of what you might tell them. 

 

Talk without projecting fear.

It is understandable if you are worried. But your kids don’t need your worry and fear projected on them. This is especially important when you are talking about cyberbullying and worrisome content.

For example, maybe your teen received a less-than-nice message on social media. While this is not ideal or even acceptable, it also doesn’t mean that they are being bullied. However, if you project that fear onto your child, they will look for bullying in every situation in the future. Let them hold onto their innocence for as long as possible. Use accountability and some boundaries to check on them without placing rules that will raise anxiety or stress.

 

 Ask without assumption.

Don’t assume that just because an app is popular, your student has it on their phone. Even though Snapchat could be used with some negative intent, it doesn’t mean that your teen is using it for anything besides sending silly pictures to friends.

You should ask. You should question and keep your teenager accountable. But please don’t assume that they are doing something wrong or hiding something from you. When you start a conversation with assumptions, your teen will most likely start their response with defensiveness. Healthy conversations will include questions and an open discussion – they will end with accusations and assumptions. Give your teen the benefit of the doubt and show that you are willing to listen first before reacting!

 

 Discuss without an agenda.

Sometimes, you need to have discussions with your kids even if you don’t have something specific you need to ask about. When you open the door for discussion at all times, not just when they are in trouble or you are worried, they are more likely to come to you on their own instead of you always having to seek them out.

They may think you are being dorky and they may roll your eyes, but ask, “What is the newest app these days?” Ask the cool ways to connect with friends online. Start a conversation about the newest video game craze. Show that you are interested in them. Teens want you to ask – despite their reactions – they want to be heard and cared about. Be an adult who hears about the scary, dangerous, fun, exciting things first because that is the kind of relationship you have cultivated with teenagers.

 

As I wrap up, I want to encourage you to be invested in the social media practices of your children. Know what they are watching, downloading, playing and using. Ask other adults, and stay aware of trends and possible dangers.

Hopefully you did hear about the Momo Challenge, but I also hope you will do research and ask around when you hear legends and rumors. While we don’t want to be naïve adults, we also don’t need to believe everything on internet. Above all else, start conversations with your kids and teens. Ask questions, engage them, and also trust them!

You are doing hard work in an constantly changing world!

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Marketing & Development Director

Karlie was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. She has gained experience working with teenagers through work, volunteer, and personal opportunities.

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

Growing up in a rather sheltered environment and experiencing the “military brat” existence of moving every 3-4 years, I never really understood or heard a lot about mental health issues amongst my peers as a teenager. We didn’t watch a ton of TV or movies, and most of the music I listened to was pretty tame compared to what was out there at the time. Plus, when you move a lot, most of your time involves getting to know new people – not necessarily understanding the challenges and stresses facing your friends. I didn’t really understand what depression or anxiety looked like, nor really cared much to talk about it. I was too busy trying to keep up and worrying about myself. 

It wasn’t until I started learning how to play guitar that I heard much at all about depression and suicide. There was a ’90s Christian band called “Caedmon’s Call” that featured a dark (by Christian music standards) song called “Center Aisle” lamenting a friend’s suicide. I remember being enamored by the complexity of the chords as I was learning guitar, but I was more struck by the intense emotions of the chorus line:

 “What crimes have you committed, demanding such a penance?

Could have waited for five more minutes and a cry for help.” 

This was the first time I had ever considered that suicide could become an option for a person feeling distraught or out of options. 

It made me wonder if any of my friends had ever considered suicide as an option. While I have experienced seasonal depression, I haven’t ever gotten to the point where I wanted to end it all. But, the more I learned, the more I understood the dark places people go to when they feel there are no other options available. 

The World Health Organization estimates suicide as the second leading cause of death of people 15-19 years of age. As someone who works with and loves teenagers, that isn’t just maddening – it’s a mandate for us to take action. For those so young in life to think there is nothing else to live for is an indictment on so many things. But instead of pointing fingers, let’s look at what could be some very promising research with a surprisingly simple conclusion.

In a recent JAMA Psychiatry article, research was outlined on a study of 448 adolescents admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Within that group, they formed a control group (this group received no treatment other than hospitalization) and a treatment group. The treatment group was asked to identify four adults in their lives that they perceived love and support from moving forward. Those four adults were then trained in suicide education and support measures and asked to check in on the teens after they left the hospital. These adults also received coaching and support from the study writers throughout the process. 

After ten years, the study checked back in on the control and treatment groups and while statistically small, the results were impressive. The control group had 13 deaths while the treatment group only had two. When you break the numbers down, even conservatively, the death rate drops by over 50 percent! 

I have to stress again that the numbers are way too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but for me it speaks to something incredibly important about our (yours and mine) work with teenagers – ADULTS MATTER

I think this study important for the following reasons:

  1. The students selected the supportive adults
    • It is so easy to feel alone as you struggle through depression and suicidal thoughts. To be prompted to identify people who care in and of itself is a healing exercise. And by selecting these adults, a connection is made that cannot be easily broken. 
  2. The adults accept the invitation
    • No one is forcing these adults to participate. But, if a struggling teen asked you to be a part of their recovery, wouldn’t you help? 
  3. The adults learned how to support the teenager
    • So many adults feel like they know what is best for a teenager. We were teenagers once, right? But a learner is a leader in this case. The presence of an adult who is willing to do what it takes to support the struggling teenager has significant influence. 

To me this isn’t just about suicide, though if it saved more lives, I would be screaming this from every platform I have. But, if the presence of a caring, informed adult can potentially save a life, how much more can it help a struggling teenager? The life of a teenager can be overwhelming and full of pressures. If more adults looked and saw the opportunity to learn and ask good questions, imagine what an encouragement we could be! 

I encourage you to read further on this study and the implications here and consider partnering with organizations who are putting volunteers out in the field like Teen Life here

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

ACEs

ACEs

ACE –

Does that mean anything to you? For some it might conjure up the lyrics of an old George Straight song that says, “You’ve got to have an ace in the hole.” For others it brings images of poker games and winning hands. For others, names of all-star professional baseball pitchers. For others, the experience of serving in tennis and never getting a volley back. Maybe for you, it’s the terminology for someone who is always seemingly ahead – “He’s holding all the aces.”

But how many of you saw ACE and thought about difficult childhood experiences? I’m guessing not very many of you. This past week I had the opportunity to sit in a training which discussed trauma informed care. As part of that discussion, the ACEs were mentioned.

So, what are the ACEs?

ACEs in this context stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are experiences that occur before the age of 18 that have a dramatic impact on how we live, function, and make decisions as an adult. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study began in the mid-1990s and continued through 2015 and has consistently shown the impact of childhood experiences on adult functioning. Let’s take a minute to look at what was studied and the major findings.

The ACE Study looked at the occurrence of 10 major childhood experiences, which are typically divided into 3 main categories.

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

 

What It Said 

According to the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common. So common that almost 2/3 of participants reported at least one ACE, and more than 20% reported three or more ACEs. – Pause for a minute – that is statistically the majority of people that you meet every day. That is 1 in 5 who have had multiple significant experiences – most of which we don’t like to talk about.

So what does that mean? Per the CDC, as the number of ACEs increases, so does likelihood of the risk for the following:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Depression
  • Health-related quality of life
  • Illicit drug use
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Poor work performance
  • Financial stress
  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Early initiation of smoking
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Risk for sexual violence
  • Poor academic achievement

 

It covers it all – health problems, increased risky behaviors and a decreased life potential. It also leads to an increase likelihood of premature death.

Look at the list above again and let’s talk about students – especially high school students. Often, we as parents, youth workers, teachers, and Teen Life Facilitators spend a great deal of time talking about poor grades, teenage pregnancy, suicide attempts, self-injury behaviors, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use/abuse. But do we stop to take the time to think about what experiences might have contributed to these decisions? When we are feeling frustrated, do we see the behavior as defiance or a coping skill?

So now that we know what the ACEs are and what the research shows, what in the world do we do?

Build relationships.

According to Dr. Karyn Purvis, “The child with a history of loss, trauma, or abuse has no hope of healing without a nurturing relationship.” The presence of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can greatly increase resiliency among children and youth who have experienced multiple ACEs.

Are you willing to look past the hard choices, to look past the mistakes, in order to see the experiences that have impacted the students in our lives? And when you do, are you willing to stick it out to connect and empower youth to overcome?

 

***For More Information about The CDC ACE Study can be found here and here. More information about the ACEs in general can be found here. More information about Dr. Karyn Purvis and her Trust Based Relational Intervention can be found here.

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Director. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.