Sunday, November 26, 2006

Teens Stressing Stress

In the Boston Globe today Hui Feng, age 17, writes, “I can attest to just how stressful teenage years can be. For an average high schooler who is pushed to excel in school, pressured to fit in and compelled to be ‘cool,’ everyday stresses can compound into serious aftermath.”

Hui Feng goes on to say that many kids fall into depression. They avoid asking for help because of stigma associated with depression and other mental health disorders.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of kids who tell me the same thing. It’s the kids who don’t ask for who deal with stress by acting it out, medicating it, or holding it in.

Girls teased 15-year-old Wendy. She couldn’t talk with her mother about it. Her mother suffered from untreated bi-polar disorder. “It made me put my feelings in a box and not open up to nobody,” Wendy says. “I just didn't say anything for a long time. I was silent.” And she ended up depressed.

The middle-school years turned ugly for Oronde when he transferred to a new school. His classmates rejected him. “I felt alone,” he says. “I felt like I had nobody to turn to. My mind was messed up. I started traveling to drinking, using other drugs just to forget about everything.”

Wilson’s best friend was murdered. There seemed to be nothing he could do, no one he could talk to. He took his grief out on anyone in his path. “I was always going around looking for trouble, vandalizing stuff, breaking windows,” he says, “never really respecting anybody, spitting on the floor right in front of them.”

Hui Feng wants us to know that many kids struggle like this. And he wants us to do something about he. Hui Feng and 22 other young people in Massachusetts believe that prevention is the key. They’ve formed Teens Leading the Way, a group that’s raising awareness about mental health. The group is proposing mental health drop-in centers across the state - safe places where young people can share “their fears and demands of an awkward age,” as Hui Feng says. Hoping to get other kids involved, the group has a page on MySpace.

Ideally, these conversations would happen at home. Parents would be available to their kids. They would listen without judging and offer support and guidance.

But we know that some parents are not available to their kids, physically or emotionally. They either can’t or won’t take time to be there when their kids need them most.

A recent study found that kids as young as age 11 feel high levels of stress. Clearly, kids are feeling a need. I commend Hui Feng and the other students behind Teens Leading the Way for taking steps to fill the gap. Their actions may help many kids who are yearning to connect with someone who cares – someone who listens and can guide them along the way.

Resources
The Power of Girls
Boys on Bullying

Related Issues and Answers columns
Mental health: Coping with stress

Related columns for young people

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanks for Not Smoking

My friend Tony has been diagnosed with lung cancer. For the past few months he’s undergone a series of tests. Last weekend he left a message on my voicemail. “The doctor told me that all the tests are positive for cancer of the lung. So that’s the story.”

I cried that night and much of the next day. Tony is 86. He’s my neighbor in the summer. He lives in a little red house that overlooks the water. I love him.

He’s no ordinary guy. He’s a Marine and a former mail carrier. He still walks a few miles a day for exercise – rain or shine. In the summer he drags his heavy aluminum boat through the sand near his house into the water, and off he goes to pull his lobster traps.

Tony is 5’8” and in fighting-good shape. He whips those heavy lobster pots over the side of the boat like they’re made of air.

The day after Tony left the message, he told me the doctor said his cancer was likely a result of his cigarette smoking. “I told him I hadn’t smoked for 45 years,” Tony said.“Not since I was in the service.”

Some days during the summer I sit with him in his screened porch. He knows and keeps my secrets. Sometimes he cooks his lobsters in big pots on the stove in the porch, and we don’t talk. I just like being with him.

My father had his voice box removed, 30 years ago, as a result of cancer. He learned a new way to talk, by burping his words. Every time he saw kids smoking, whether he knew them or not, he’d say with his burping voice, “You want this to happen to you? Quit smoking!”

Young people who smoke tell me they’ll eventually quit. They say they hear it takes just a few years for the lungs to return to normal. If I told young smokers about Tony, they’d say, “But he’s 86 years old, inferring that his life was nearly over anyway.

Tony loves life, as much today as he did when he was a young Marine. He adores his wife and family. He has hundreds more lobsters to pull from the sea. We’re all heartsick.

Maybe cigarettes contributed to Tony’s cancer. Maybe not. But I wish that kids who choose to smoke could understand that with every drag of the cigarette, they’re hurting themselves and the people around them. The words ”you have cancer” are devastating to the person who’s sick and to those who love him.

Related columns for young people
Cigarettes: Quit for Life

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Focusing on the Picture of Health

It’s not a news flash that many girls are obsessed with their appearance. The preoccupation begins early. A national study of nine and ten year old girls (approximately half white and half black) found that 40% reported that they were trying to lose weight.

I have friends whose five-year-olds are asking, “Am I fat?”

With appearance a big concern kids (boys and girls), and disordered eating, anorexia and bulimia affecting so many, you’d think that any parent would be cautious in choosing his or her words on the subject of body image.

So, I was horrified when my friend, Polly, told me about an exchange between her nine-year-old niece Sylvia and the girl’s dad.

Sylvia was at the swimming pool with her younger sister Val. The girls were jumping in and out of the pool and asking their dad Bob to play with them. Bob didn’t want to, and asked them to get out. Then he changed his mind. “You should keep playing,” he said. “It’s good exercise. You’re getting a little fat.”

Sylvia is a lean kid with long, lanky legs. In pre-adolescence a girl’s body starts to change. That’s normal. But fat? Not even close.

“Look at your sister,” Bob continued. “She isn’t fat. You should look more like her.”

I felt sick when I heard this. I thought of Bopha. In our DVD, The Power of Girls, she tells about her struggle with anorexia and bulimia. “My parents are always comparing me to my cousin, and they always think she's thinner … They remind me that I need to lose weight, that I shouldn't be eating a lot.”

Hearing her dad, Sylvia turned to Polly and asked, “Am I fat?!”

“Absolutely not!” Polly said. “You’re strong and you’re perfect just as you are!”

Kids today hear frequent references to childhood obesity. Images of waif-like models are touted to represent the ideal. Eating disorders – and disordered eating -- are complex. Researchers are still exploring their cause. But this much is known: parents have to help their kids not focus on appearance.

If you tell your children looks don’t count, you’ll lose credibility. But you can remind your children that their character and what they can accomplish matters more. Recognize, acknowledge, and support their genuine assets. Children who appreciate their strengths and talents are less likely to over emphasize how they look.

Resources
The Power of Girls

Related Issues and Answers columns
Anorexia in boys
Anorexia in girls
Bulimia

Related columns for young people

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Building REAL Confidence in Kids

The Boston Police Department recognizes the power of preventative education. They know that four percent of high school students admits to using anabolic steroids. Their police recruits, will have plenty of opportunities to talk with young people ¬and adults about anabolic steroid use.

Recently I talked to recruits at the Boston Police Academy. They were young, earnest and attentive. The topic was steroids. I showed our DVD Steroids: True Stories Hosted by Curt Schilling and booklets Words Can Work: When Talking About Steroids.

The executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, Peter Roby – a tall, distinguished man - presented the workshop with me. As a former college coach, he told the recruits that in law enforcement, just as in athletics, there’s a desire to build strength. “It’s a way for some to try to command respect and develop that ‘Don’t mess with me’ aura,” he explained.

When an officer walks down the street, he or she wants people to know they’re in control. Some people, Roby warned, may be tempted to build muscles with steroids to achieve that goal.

I asked for alternative ways of commanding respect. Hands shot up. One young man with a sureness about him answered, “By being confident.”

When I asked him for an example he said, “The way a person carries himself or herself. You can tell if they feel good about themselves.”

I thought of Craig in the film Steroids: True Stories Hosted by Curt Schilling. He describes his five-year addiction to steroids. He looked huge – like a cartoon caricature– according to his mother. But inside he felt tiny. “I was never big enough,” Craig says. “I was never strong enough, I was never ripped enough. It was never enough.”

I told the recruits that I’ve notice that a confident person 4’11” can fill a room with his or her presence more effectively than someone who is 6’6” but feels inadequate. Roby told the recruits that people can pick up on that lack of confidence a mile away, and in police work that’s a matter of life and death.

After the workshop, the young recruit who’d raised his hand to answer the question about confidence talked with me. “I work with kids at a Y,” he said. “I’m always trying to build their confidence.“

How does he do that? He watches for things the boys and girls do well and then praises them. Over and over again. “I stay on them, “ he said.

I got the sense that this recruit will walk his beat holding himself tall and commanding full respect. By the way, he stands about 5’ 6”.

Resources
Steroids: True Stories Hosted by Curt Schilling
Boys on Bullying
The Power of Girls: Inside and Out
Words Can Work: When Talking About Steroids

Related Issues and Answers columns
A sister’s story
A story of addiction
Avoiding steroids
Girls and steroids

Related columns for young people

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