Helping Your Child Make Healthy and Safe Choices
This week’s column was written by Kristen Jordan, a parent of an 8th grader and a former Board of Trustees member. The column is based upon a presentation that was jointly hosted by Elysian’s PTSO, Stevens’ Cooperative and Hoboken Charter.
Last Tuesday, March 1, several Elysian staff and parents joined community members from other schools in town to hear a presentation by some people from Hallways, which is part of the Freedom Institute in New York City. The program works in schools in New York City and as the website states “Hallways offers a comprehensive approach to prevention and social-emotional wellness tailored to the specific challenges faced by independent school students today.”
The topic of Tuesday’s discussion was “Helping Your Child Make Healthy and Safe Choices.” The speakers focused on using social and emotional wellness to prevent high risk behaviors, with a particular focus on substance abuse. They discussed how important is it to delay use of substances because the earlier kids use substances, the more likely they are to develop problems or addictions. They talked specifically about how vulnerable youth are because of the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
They cited the biggest risk factors for kids who use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are STRESS (primarily from academic pressure and the need to achieve) and THE MEDIA (almost half of kids with access to social network sites have seen someone abusing). They cited academic pressures and high expectations a primary source of risk because kids may put all of their energy into succeeding academically at the expense of relational, emotional, and social development. They talked about helping kids develop healthy social relationships as a very important part of preventing use. We need to offer our kids support to deal with stress in productive ways and help them to develop intrinsic self-worth as well as traits like kindness and generosity. They also discussed helping kids to know that it is okay to be vulnerable; that we need to help kids feel like it is okay to talk about things that bother them and that this is one of the best ways to protect against use.
While the focus was on prevention of early substance abuse, I thought that the information they shared was helpful in thinking more broadly about helping children navigate potential risks and situations and how to prepare them to deal with those situations.
Below is much of what was given as advice for Effective Prevention:
—Let your child know “I want you to be an independent, healthy decision maker”; come at it from a perspective of making healthy choices. Have conversations often about making healthy decisions.
—Be a good role model: send clear and consistent messages. Discuss how you deal with stress. Be thoughtful about what you say and do. What are healthy ways to cope with stress? Model that it is okay to work hard and still be disappointed with the outcome. You can work through not achieving the outcome you may have hoped for. Emphasize the importance of learning rather than the grade one receives; the grade someone gets does not effect their value as a person.
—Give your child feedback about integrity, kindness, self worth and qualities that you you value.
—Pause and be an observer of your child; see what is going on in your child’s social, emotional and academic life. Find out what might be causing stress for your child and initiate discussions early and often about healthy friendships, decision making, what is stressful. Say to them “I notice that you seem stressed about…”
—Teach kids about drug facts. Not scare tactics, but “This is how drugs effect the brain and body, particularly in a young developing brain.” Emphasize that adult’s brains are no longer developing and process drugs and alcohol in different ways. Drug and alcohol abuse are directly related to brain science. (Find articles).
—Set appropriate boundaries and expectations, whatever those are for your family. Decide what those boundaries are and tell your child over and over in many different ways. They emphasized that if we don’t talk about it, children will perceive it as permissiveness.
—Have conversations about healthy relationships and what they look like. “What does it feel like to be in a healthy friendship? In healthy relationships?”
—Find opportunities to talk about issues: When you are watching a show and there are images of sex, alcohol use, or toxic relationships maybe take the time during a commercial to open a conversation like “What do you think about that?” “Why do you think people do that?”
—Have conversations about what they are seeing in social media. We need to help them make sense of it.
—Know where your kids are and what they are doing.
—Talk about how they should respond when there is internal or external pressure; when they are in challenging situations, what should they do?
—Have conversations ahead of time about what to do it they find themselves in a situation where there is risk (e.g. someone is making a choice to go into their parents liquor cabinet). Ahead of time, think about situations they may encounter, and come up with what they might do in those situations.
—We want our kids to reach out to us. Make an agreement with them: Emphasize to them what they should do if they find themselves in a situation where there is risk or they feel uncomfortable. “I want you to call me and I will always come get you.” Have a plan for a nonsense text that they should send you that will be the code to get them out of any situation. Give them a safe way out of any situation. If you know that you will be upset and have a hard time not getting upset if your kid calls you, have a trusted relative or friend be the person who gets the call or text to take the kid out of the situation. Let your child know that the most important thing is that everyone is safe. Then, if consequences need to happen, save them for the next day and give them in a calm way.
—Tell your child they can throw you under the bus (“my mom says I have to go…”)
Lastly, one of the big takeaways was to not worry about getting the conversation “right” but to make sure you try to have the conversations.
Here are some helpful conversation starters:
“You will have lots of decisions to make…”
“”Know that you can talk to me, even if you feel like you’ve handled something poorly.”
“I want to help you and support you.”
“I may not not be good at this conversation and it may be awkward…”
“Just because I talk about this doesn’t mean I expect you to experiment.” I wasn't you to have the best information to make healthily choices now and in the future.”
“You have all this freedom and I’m not there. Here’s my concern…”
“I want you to make good decisions because I care for and value you.”