Thursday 28 March 2013

Understanding boys.....and managing teenage drinking

We have started the Easter holidays with an incredibly tragic and moving Memorial Service for a 17-year-old boy who, seemingly at the peak of his glittering (top public) school career, chose to end his life.   It is a shocking event and impossible for any parent to comprehend, and it has been a stark reminder of how vulnerable, sensitive and misunderstood many teenage boys are.  Statistics (eg. On depression, exclusion, aggression, imprisonment, suicide) point time and again to boys being less able to tolerate the emotional fallout as a result of life’s challenges or disappointments than girls.  And so, in today’s pressurized world, any adult who spends time with teenage boys needs to be intuitive to the signs, because for teenage boys they are always there, but far from obvious to detect.
Today’s teenagers are under huge pressure to aim high at every stage, and yet a first class degree is no guarantee of a glittering career at the end of the string of annual exams.  Perhaps we have unwittingly raised our young with a sense of entitlement, high expectation and pushed them to far-reaching goals and greater achievement?  So on the one hand hopes are high, and on the other lies the risk of disappointment?   Whilst many young will be able to withstand life’s knocks and pressures, there are others whose life/family circumstances have not endowed them with the innate resilience necessary for today’s world.  
The male brain, as opposed to the female brain, finds processing emotion hard (being able to recognize, understand and rationalize HOW they are feeling) and furthermore their brain is also not structured to articulate feelings, so emotions often remain stuck inside and get intensified by further disappointments – so there is a physiological reason WHY boys don’t sit down and discuss their innermost fears/uncertainties/embarrassments…..
But their feelings leak out and in the case of teenage boys their behaviour is the cryptic clue.  Behaviour is how we communicate our underlying emotional needs (eg. Sulking to cover up anger, bravado to cover up fear, bright cheery smile to cover up sadness) but if there are other events in a boy’s life (changes affecting their security/home, risk of failure, unrealistic goals and expectations) then any extreme or out of character behaviour could be masking the underlying emotion (grief, hurt, fear or shame).  So before reacting to any “bad” behaviour, pause and ask yourself “is this normal teenage behaviour or do I need to ease off the gas?”
A way of coping with underlying emotional issues is to resort to certain “coping” strategies.  If we are stressed we may walk the dog, kick the cat or talk to a friend.  Other less good coping strategies are things like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and food, all of which work to numb emotional pain. Other self-harming/risky behaviours offer boys an exciting high, whilst also helping them to release emotionsAccording to statistics privileged children will either self-harm, pop pills or drink alcohol.   Whatever the strategy, the problem gets camouflaged and stuffed a little further under the carpet, waiting to explode.   
Alcohol is readily available in most homes and social drinking is part of growing up.  But when alcohol is being used in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, address the issue.  It is easy to fall into thinking “well teenagers just do drink a lot”.  They don’t have to.  We continue to voice our concerns to our children (but not lecture) about the amount of alcohol teenagers consider to be normal, whilst at the same time making sure that in our family we are walking the talk. If they see us drinking too much on most nights, that is what they consider acceptable.  Teenagers are imbibing subliminal messages from their parents all the time, so I am careful not to express my desperate need for alcohol at the end of a stressful day or extol the virtues of a night of over indulgence!   Somehow today’s teenagers have developed a worrying attitude towards alcohol, and it is not uncommon to hear how:  drinking is a pre-requisite to a good night out, there is no point in going out and not drinking, you have fun and it was funny seeing…x .. drunk or that everyone consumes vast quantities of alcohol so it is “normal”.      
The salient facts about alcohol are:
  • ·      The damage done to your brain by alcohol never repairs itself
  • ·      The teenage brain needs twice as much alcohol as an adult brain to achieve the desired effects
  • ·      The younger you start drinking, the more chance you have of addiction – proven
  • ·        Alcohol damages the bit of your brain responsible for memory, decisions, learning & rationality – it makes you stupid
  • ·       Alcohol affects impulse control, respecting authority and finding your brake pedal – it has a detrimental effect on behaviour

Tips for parents:
Ø  Keep an eye out for persistent out of character behaviour and ask for help if you are concerned
Ø  Avoid being demanding and eliciting a confrontational reaction: boys respond well to clear, straightforward instructions
Ø  Create an atmosphere of reassurance:  taking risks, experimentation and making mistakes are all part of growing up.  Avoid humiliation instead use mistakes to discuss and help the child to establish personal limits
Ø  Help your child to see the personal benefits to them of limiting their own alcohol intake through discussion of the personal consequences of drinking too much
Ø  Impose any boundaries you need to in a calm, assertive and non-confrontational way
Ø  Teenagers, like adults, have different levels of ability to cope with stress. Watch for tell-tale signs (use of negative coping strategies) that indicate that their stress levels are too high.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Why SHOULD parents be concerned about pornography?

If parents can cast their mind back to the pre-internet days, it was almost impossible for most young children to stumble across porn, but if they did come across a magazine or pornographic photos, this might have satisfied the average teenage boy’s curiosity.  Nowadays live sex, rough sex, same/group sex etc are a click or two away on the house computer and millions of children (around 7 million) as young as 5 or 6 have stumbled accidentally on graphic images.   There are a number of statistics available, for instance:

  • 3% of teenage boys and 17% of teenage girls have never seen internet porn, the rest may have occasionally looked at sites and others seek out such sites regularly.

Whatever the figures, the number of people viewing internet porn is growing faster in the UK than the rest of the world and the largest group of internet porn viewers are reputedly aged 12 – 17, the young, impressionably and easy to brainwash.   So if, like us, your children are this age, it’s time to take action.

Since 1995 the internet porn market has grown to an estimated 250 million pages/sites.

And brainwashing is exactly what is happening.  The teenage brain undergoes massive re-wiring, laying down behavioural templates, call them habits for the future.  The internal brain modifications are influenced by external experiences, impressions and memories which are banked in the brain.  During adolescence the brain becomes hard-wired resulting in your child developing their adult attitudes, values, core beliefs and personality.   

The more exciting, risky, arousing and exhilarating those experiences are, the greater the likelihood for addiction.   How?  It’s all to do with biochemical thrills.  Introduce the teenage brain to a biochemical rush via drugs, alcohol, food issues, self harming and the brain will wire itself up with receptors which need “feeding” with more of those feel good chemicals.   Watching porn results in a massive biochemical rush. 

During the teenage years the sexual template starts to develop.  In evolutionary terms dormant cells become activated by the innate human need to find a mate, commit and procreate - it is a powerful force of nature.   Adolescence is also a time of natural curiosity, experimentation, risk and the need to move away from family/home towards peers and other influences.   But while the accelerator is being applied, so is a teenager’s innate brake pedal at work – natural feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, fear, confusion, shyness, sometimes loneliness are present during this time.

Today’s young are under a lot of pressure (academic, performance, image, sexualisation etc) and the need to reduce stress is quite high.   Porn, alcohol, drugs, food, smoking and so forth work as de-stressors because they give you a "high", numb negative emotions, make one feel calmer and more socially at ease.   However these coping strategies tip, during the teenage years, very quickly from occasional usage into a habit and onto an addiction.

Porn is probably the new big concern parents should have in terms of addiction potential. What are the consequences? 

Their psychosocial development (mind/emotions/identity in a social environment) is affected, e.g. a boy’s sexual appetite/attitudes & practices develop within 3 years following first ejaculation.  So a 14 year old boy, experimenting with pornographic images for arousal in lieu of an actual relationship is affected by:

  • Being massively de-sensitised whereby he can only get aroused by the images/practices stored in his newly formed memory bank as opposed to having an actual relationship
  • Developing a skewed attitude towards girls, relationships and expectations.

So if we wish our children in the long-term to have the potential to form a “normal” healthy relationship - with one person, which develops slowly, is based on trust, respect, love, commitment - then exposure to porn prior to this time needs to be avoided.  

Counselling Services are a source of up-to-the-minute issues as they are working at the coal face and from what we hear there is a massive rise in young men, in their 20s who are seeking help because they are unable to have a normal sexual relationship, and worse, some can’t be bothered. 

And your daughter?  We live in a sexually charged culture, and she is impressionable and sensitive to outside influences.  We can’t ban TV or the Internet, and with books like “50 Shades…” becoming best sellers and MTV’s inappropriate music videos, the general sense girls imbibe is that media celebrates beauty and sexy, promising popularity, attention and success.  

The concerns amongst parents we talk to is that our children (e.g. age 13) are getting involved in age-inappropriate activities, at parties, sleepovers or in homes where there are no parents present (eg after school), and the pornographic nature of their activities demonstrates the powerful influence of media/internet. 

So what can parents do?  A lot – but here are a few ideas:

  • Get computer savvy: find out about internet controls and firewalls, restrict Adult Cable TV and explain why you feel it appropriate to place restrictions at home
  • No teenage boy has inbuilt self-control, and certainly not when with his peer group and it is late at night…..
  • Educate your children to protect themselves, logging on to dodgy sites means that you can be traced via your IP address
  • Talk to your teenagers and find out what their view ARE on pornography, hopefully you may be reassured by their attitudes and choices. 
  • Don’t avoid embarrassing topics and leave things to chance – Dads MUST start talking to their sons!  Your influence now is important, otherwise he is at the mercy of what is going on in society.
  • Help your daughter to see that trading sexual “favours” to gain acceptance & popularity is social suicide long-term.  Some things have not changed, boys may want more from girls, today’s girls may be willing to deliver, but their label/reputation will last forever
  • Appreciate her innate qualities at home in order that she can nurture her self-respect, don’t let her acquire admiration from her peer group by being included in activities which do not accord with her values
  • Role model respectful loving communicative relationships at home so they have an innate sense of what a healthy relationship looks like

Monday 14 January 2013

What do teenagers REALLY need to learn?

We spent a week in a top independent school overseas just before Christmas training teenagers, staff and parents.  The teenagers had to roll up their sleeves and learn about themselves - their personality, what upsets (stresses) them, understand how they behave when upset/depressed, how they deal with typical downs, eg coping with anxiety, how to communicate/get on well with friends/adults, deal with fallouts, accept difference and take responsibility for their actions/choices as they become more independent.

The staff had a training session on managing teenage emotional ups and downs and understanding behaviour patterns in order to maximise their effectiveness through fine tuning the way they communicate with and respond to students and their issues.

We also spoke to the parents about teenage development, highlighting the positive influence parents can have during this very vulnerable period.  How could parents effectively tackle rebelliousness, disrespect, lethargy, moodiness, poor communication, depression?  What are these behaviours telling us?  Monitoring screen usage, alcohol, sex, smoking? To punish or not to punish.....?   All important issues which require parental reflection, understanding, decisions & planning.

We were asked for our input on the school's ethos and policy towards discipline in order that their approach, long-term, manages and improves teenage behaviour in an effective and positive way.

We could not help lamenting on how rare it would be to find many top fee paying UK schools prepared to contemplate let alone prioritise this sort of hands on training experience for their school community.   We wondered why?

Is it because the British have a natural tendency to brush their problems under the carpet, soldiering on with a stiff upper lip "we're FINE" attitude? 

Is it because our culture considers acknowledging difficulties, the emotional stuff or facing ones adversaries a risky business, potentially exposing us as weak, or worse, failures?

Or is it that schools are too pre-occupied by the drive to achieve better results - higher academic achievement & better university entrance statistics, and this requires them to focus their attention on a wider curriculum of additional support, learning & educational experiences to promote these ends?

A focus on the softer skills, a child’s personal development side, may therefore feel less immediately rewarding to schools because it is not measurable, it takes time, it requires evolutionary change, and is not mission critical.  Therefore the majority of independent schools offer little more than a cursory nod to social, emotional and moral learning, despite a typical school's vision, ethos or mission statement acknowledging the need for their students to "grow with emotional maturity, social awareness and respect for individuality and difference".

And yet a UNICEF report in 2007 rated British children the POOREST, in terms of their wellbeing, in the developed world.  For any parent that is a shocking statistic.  The government swung into action at that time, addressing social reform with their Every Child Matters paper, focusing schools on pupil social & emotional learning via the SEAL programme and prioritizing PSHE (personal social health).

However parents should be asking their child’s school what their school is actually DOING with PSHE at the same time as finding out how their child is doing academically.    Time spent understanding and building the skills to manage problems, setbacks or decisions help a child to achieve their goals and if this can be done whilst the teenage brain is growing and developing this means that these strategies become learned behaviours and eventually habits for the future.  None of us want to wait until things HAVE gone wrong for our children once they are older, when they might end up with ending up beset with anxiety, depression or worse.  Early prevention is better and a lot easier to tackle than cure.

The James Wentworth-Stanley Memorial Fund has some frightening statistics from the WHO:  

  • Depression affects around 121 million people worldwide.
  • An estimated 7-14% of adolescents self-harm at some point
  • 20-45% say they have experienced suicidal thoughts
  • Suicide is three times more common in males than females.
  • An average 1 million people a year die by suicide
  • For every suicide, there are 20 more attempts.

Few Heads of schools could dispute, from an intellectual standpoint, that developing students “softer skills” makes sense.   But how do they ACTUALLY implement the practical application of these skills in their schools?  How are staff ACTUALLY ensuring that their pupils leave their school armed with life skills like being resilient, intrinsically motivated, emotionally contained, an independent thinker, problem solver, confident on all levels, able to show empathy, and able to cope with anxiety/depression? Schools offer lectures on eg. the dangers of drugs, alcohol, cults or inadequate contraception but do lectures of this kind represent an adequate and effective PSHE programme?

We both know, with our own teenagers, that these x factor qualities do not arrive with good luck or like magic out of a hat.  However they can be nurtured during adolescence by a whole school culture (and home life) where there is an awareness and understanding of the emotional development of each child alongside nurturing the practical skills, which should underpin every aspect of their education and school (and home) experience.

Prep schools will get feedback on how well prepared their students were for their next stage and how well they managed the transition. However, Public schools are not accountable for their pupils once they have left and few schools have a system in place to know where their pupils end up or whether they were successful or not.   But we see too many young people who have worked their socks off at school, achieved some very high grades, only to come unstuck because they don’t have the wherewithal to manage life after the safe confines of school.

Never have young people needed the tools to withstand the challenges, choices, disappointments & obstacles they are liable to face in the “real” world more than in the present climate.