Monthly Archives: January 2015

  • Building Better Relationships

    As children enter adolescence, their minds and bodies are rapidly changing.  Adolescence marks the beginning of more complex relationships, including romantic relationships, as hormones begin to rage and social influences to begin dating strengthen.

    Because teens are greatly influenced by the role models at home and in their communities, it comes as no surprise that we see teens exposed to violence at home or in their communities express similar behavior in their own dating relationships.

    The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently released research on current teen dating violence trends, finding "risky social environment was the strongest correlate of physical and emotional dating violence victimization and perpetration within a romantic relationship." Teens exposed to violence in their community or family environments are more likely to become involved in dating violence, because they often mirror the behavior they see. Home environments that consistently use violence or aggression to resolve problems or to establish power or control set a standard for the children to follow in those environments.

    Teens without healthy role models to establish positive norms about dating relationship behavior are ill equipped to handle the complex emotions that stem from these new relationships.  Teens who learn to identify unhealthy relationship qualities are much less likely to perpetuate negative norms they might have learned in their communities or homes.

    Development of social competency at an early age to promote pro-social bonding equips teens to apply what they have learned about healthy relationship norms to their own relationships.  Positive peer influence  promotes healthy norms as well.  According to NIJ, "Programs that help develop healthy peer relationships should begin early in adolescence, when youth are first learning to establish more autonomous and meaningful peer relationships.  Youth can learn and practice with peers many of the positive qualities that are important in healthy romantic relationships."

    Often, teens simply don't know yet the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  As teens learn to differentiate positive and negative relationship qualities, they learn how to set appropriate boundaries.  SEL activities that simulate real-life scenarios offer teens opportunities to practice handling a spectrum of relationship possibilities.  Essential social and emotional skill development, such as learning to identify and manage emotions, as well as making responsible decisions, lays a strong foundation for lifelong healthy relationship management.  Simple education of the acceptable "do's" and the unacceptable "don'ts" can go a long way to promoting healthy relationships.

    Research may show that teen violence does in fact occur, but we can do our part to steer teens toward healthier relationships. By equipping teens with strong social-emotional skills sets, and the knowledge they need to observe appropriate boundaries and discern unhealthy from healthy relationship qualities, we prepare teens to make healthy choices as they navigate relationships from adolescence into adulthood.

  • Take Five

    Emotion management is one of the core components of social emotional learning skills taught in effective prevention education. Coupled with other social emotional skills, emotion management benefits children both socially and academically.

    Dr. Kenneth Barish, a child therapist and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, in the Huffington Post writes, "Children who are able to regulate their emotions pay more attention, work harder, and achieve more in school." And the 2013 Too Good evaluation study showed just that-prevention education that develops social and emotional skill sets, such as emotion management, not only decreases the risk of substance use but also facilitates stronger academic performance.

    Research and evidence show the benefits that result from emotion management, but how can we as adult role models cultivate emotion management in children? One way is by lending an empathetic ear. When children feel they are truly being heard, they feel less a sense of urgency and therefore are able to more thoughtfully express themselves. Dr. Barish states that children are less likely to "get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial." Children are therefore more likely to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, which prepares them to make thoughtful, rational choices.

    We can also heighten children's awareness of their own emotions by teaching them valuable self-assessment tools, such as learning to identify the physical signs of their emotions in addition to the thoughts and experiences associated with them. For example, children attentive to how their heart races, or to the feel of the muscles around the mouth when they are frowning, can use these physical signals as a cue to relax. When children learn to identify these signs in others, they are better able to interpret and ultimately anticipate the emotions of others. Acute social awareness provides the necessary elements to applying empathy. Socially aware children are also better able to positively influence the behaviors of those around them by deflecting conflict or intervening with a solution-based attitude.

    Self-aware children are empowered not only to respond to internal and external influences but to bring about positive change in potentially negative situations.  Children who learn to recognize and appreciate the emotions of others develop a greater capacity to build stronger, more supportive relationships.

    Emotion management ultimately leads to responsible decision making, effective communication, pro-social bonding, and academic success-an established formula that emboldens children to establish a bright future for themselves.

  • Please Pass the Gravy!

    As we greet the new year, we tuck away more memories of close family gatherings—memories of the table draped in heirloom lace and the lingering taste of great-grandmother's gingersnaps. During the holiday season, the dinner table is a symbol for tradition and family unity; it is a place of comfort and bonding.

    Moving forward, it would prove especially beneficial to let this tradition extend into a year-round routine. According to a study commissioned by CASA Columbia, teens that have frequent dinners with their families are less likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco, or other drug use. The study showed that teens who had weaker relationships with their parents were more than twice as likely to have used alcohol, twice as likely to use tobacco, and three to four times more likely to have used marijuana.

    Healthy bonding, support, and high expectations are protective factors for establishing positive norms to prevent substance use and abuse. Family, school, and community environments offer children a space to engage in healthy relationships, and bonding through meaningful participation provides opportunities for children to develop esteem, promoting a sense of self-worth in relation to others.

    From the dinner table to the classroom, positive adult role models set and reinforce healthy norms for children. When parents and teachers set a positive example, children will come to expect their parents' and teachers' attitudes and behaviors to be the norm; the opposing negative attitudes and behaviors of negative influences will be seen as an unhealthy exception to the norm.

    High expectations from respected adults, combined with a strong support system, reinforce in children a desire to live up to their best selves, giving them the confidence they need to aspire to reaching their goals and relate to others in a healthy way.

    It is sometimes difficult to resist being swept away by the fast-paced current of our contemporary culture. The holidays remind us to pause and engage more frequently in meaningful exchanges with children and teens who look to us for direction, for we play a significant role in their unfolding futures.

    From all of us at the Mendez Foundation, we wish you a safe and fruitful new year!

  • The Possible Dream

    Goal-setting is a cornerstone to effective prevention education. When children set goals for themselves, they make an investment in their future. The firmer their resolutions, the less likely they are to make decisions that would deter them from reaching those goals. They in turn develop a stronger moral compass, and they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance use and violence.

    Setting age appropriate goals for children, and encouraging them to set their own, will foster foundational expansion. However, it is crucial to recognize the stages of children’s cognitive development; children move from concrete to abstract thinking over the course of elementary school. In order for children to reach their goals, they must strive toward goals that are set within their stage of development. Furthermore, children who are able to discern short-term from long-term goals may set and reach their goals with greater confidence.

    While aiding children in setting and reaching goals, we must consider the most beneficial learning environment. In a recent Huffington Post article, Dr. Gail Gross, Family and Child Development Expert, writes, “As we guide children towards their fullest potential, we teach them through bonding, observation, social learning and role modeling, how to delay gratification and reach goals and resolutions.” Children thrive in a learning environment that encourages bonding and social learning. They establish a sense of individuality in relation to others, which is necessary for both autonomy and healthy relationship building. Social learning activities may include interactive games, media, and role-plays. These activities simulate real life social constructs so children may tangibly apply what they have learned to their own lives.

    But how does a social environment circle back to goal-setting? Once a community is established, children are able to feel both a sense of individuality and a sense of belonging to a group. These feelings in combination relieve stress in children, which in turn frees them up to set reachable goals for themselves. And the more capable children are of setting reachable goals, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. Children will develop healthy decision making skills that will secure for them a safe and flourishing future.

  • The New Face of Heroin

    Think of Vermont, and you most likely conjure images of mountains ablaze with russet foliage and roads meandering through quaint covered bridges. You might not suspect this pastoral state has an escalating heroin epidemic. But early this year, Rolling Stone highlighted a story of a Vermont teen whose OxyContin abuse led to heroin addiction.

    Teens and young adults are increasingly exposed to heroin in places few of us would expect. In less than a decade, the demographic of heroin users has dramatically shifted. What once was considered an inner-city street drug can now be found in the heart of suburban households. Recently, a front page article in The New York Times featured a story about a Staten Island mom who over a four month period spiraled into a life of using and dealing heroin that ended in her arrest. The home she and her family once shared quickly became a den for drug users and dealers.

    Why this surge in heroin use and the change in demographic?  A recently published article in The Economist identifies a direct correlation between prescription medication abuse and heroin use. The causal link between these two drugs is not obvious on its face but easy to see after examining how these drugs are related. The rise in prescribed pain medications has led to an increase in opioid addictions. Effective measures to control access to prescription pain medications have driven addicted users to the next affordable source for their high. Street heroin is as plentiful and cheap as it ever was. This revelation reminds us to consider efforts to prevent substance use in the first place.

    People young and old carry misperceptions of the strength of prescription medications and the negative effects of their abuse.  The implied safety of a doctor’s prescription suggest pills and other medications are a safer risk than street drugs like heroin or methamphetamine.  What may begin as legitimate treatment for illness or injury may turn into addiction as a result of decisions made without considering consequences.

    But what preventive measures can we take to navigate children and teens away from the abuse of prescription medications?  The root problem lies much deeper than simply targeting individual drugs. Research has shown that children at high risk of substance abuse benefit from prevention education strategies that build social and emotional skills.

    Responsible decision-making skills give children the ability to consider the consequences of the choices they face.  Effective communication skills together with practical and effective refusal strategies embolden children and teens to refuse negative pressure from their peers.  Adding an awareness of the harm of abusing substances effectively builds for children and teens a solid foundation to meet the challenges of life and make healthy choices along the way.