Civic Engagement Can Help Teens Thrive Later in Life

Want to help your teenagers become successful adults? Get them involved in civic activities – voting, volunteering and activism.

Although parents providing this bit of advice to teens will likely be met with groans and eye rolling, research does back it up.

In a study published in the current issue of the journal Child Development, scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that teens who were engaged in civic activities were more likely than non-engaged peers to attain higher income and education levels as adults.

“We know from past research that taking part in civic activities can help people feel more connected to others and help build stronger communities, but we wanted to know if civic engagement in adolescence could enhance people’s health, education level and income as they become adults,” said Parissa J. Ballard, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and principal investigator of the study.

Ballard and her team used a nationally representative sample of 9,471 adolescents and young adults from an ongoing study called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Participants were between the ages of 18 to 27 when civic engagement was measured, and then six years later outcomes – health, education and income – were measured.

The research team used propensity score matching, a statistically rigorous methodology to examine how civic engagement related to later outcomes regardless of participants’ background characteristics, including levels of health and parental education. For example, adolescents who volunteered were matched to adolescents from similar backgrounds who did not volunteer to compare their health, education and income as adults.

“Relative to other common approaches used in this kind of research, this method lets us have greater confidence that civic engagement really is affecting later life health and education,” Ballard said.

The research team found that volunteering and voting also were favorably associated with subsequent mental health and health behaviors, such as a fewer symptoms of depression and lower risk for negative health behaviors including substance use.

For teens who were involved in activism the findings were more complex. Although they too had a much greater chance of obtaining a higher level of education and personal income, they also were involved in more risky behaviors six years later, Ballard said.

“In this study, we couldn’t determine why that was the case, but I think activism can be frustrating for teens and young adults because they are at a stage in life where they are more idealistic and impatient with the slow pace of social change,” Ballard said. “I would encourage parents to help their children remain passionate about their cause but also learn to manage expectations as to short- and long-term goals.”

This research was supported in part by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under a cooperative agreement for the Adolescent and Young Adult Health Research Network.

Co-authors are: Lindsay Till Hoyt, Ph.D., of Fordham University and Mark C. Pachucki, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts.

Cyber Safety for Today’s Teens

It goes without saying that technology has fully inserted itself into most aspects of our day-to-day lives—and children and teens are no exception. Children are learning to swipe smartphones before they learn to turn the pages of a book, and many of them are swiping on their own devices. For parents, the endless exploration of technology raises many concerns for children and teens.

Parents need not only be aware of what their children are getting from the constant connectivity, but also what they may be putting out into the digital universe. Yes, the horror stories surrounding teens and technology are vast and worrisome, but these hard-learned lessons can provide other families with safe cyber practices that will make all the difference for security and peace of mind.

Limit screen time, especially for youngsters. We may have grown to rely on our devices in the adult world. I, myself, use my phone for everything from navigation, to paying bills, to making grocery lists—the list (no pun intended) goes on and on. However, for children, it is essential their screen time be limited and purposeful. Use screen time as an occasional reward, but make sure that everyone is clear about how long they can use the device and for what purposes.

If you feel that your child must have a phone for staying in touch, consider phones or plans that provide programmed options for usage. For instance, there are ways to program children’s phones so that they are only able to call or text a set list of phone numbers. You can also set restrictions on how data is used or what websites or apps your children can access. The key here is to keep your children’s circle small when introducing them to their first phone—the stricter the parameters, the more peace of mind parents will have about children using technology.

Be aware of your child or teen’s social media presence. Keep a very watchful eye on your child’s use of social media and limit access to devices when concerns arise. You should insist on access to or control over your teen’s social media accounts whenever necessary. If you suspect that your child is cyberbullying or being cyberbullied, take the phone.

Keep records of any evidence that your child is being bullied, including text messages, screenshots, profile posts or photos, etc. Schools today are cracking down on bullying; however, parents must present documented, repeated instances of harassment or bullying before school officials will intervene.

Along the same lines as cyberbullying concerns, parents should monitor social media accounts to ensure that children are protecting themselves and being digitally responsible. Teens today are so concerned with obtaining “likes” and gaining “followers” that they lose sight of how vulnerable they may be making themselves online. Explain to them that, even with privacy settings, nothing is 100% private when it comes to posts, comments, photos, etc.

Make sure that teens are not using personal information, like a full name, specific address, current location, or school. Social media sites make it extremely easy to tag one’s location, but too often teens fail to consider who might be keeping tabs on their location. Gently, but firmly, remind your children that not everyone on social media is who they claim to be.

Talk about the permanency of our digital footprints. This means once posted online ownership no longer belongs to you. Even deleted material is not ever fully erased if even one person has captured, saved, or screenshotted the post.

Not only can deleted posts resurface, people can edit or manipulate the photo or post in any way they choose. Teach children and teens to think carefully before making a post.

Technology and Children: A Parent’s Survival Guide

Technology has changed the way children develop and interact with others, and while it seems to change every day, many parents are forced to keep up or get left behind.

Jessica Mirman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences, says that, even though much of technology can receive a bad representation, it is not inherently bad.

“Parents can be pretty sophisticated with technology when it comes to helping their children develop,” she said. “There are a variety of apps that can help with literacy skills. Especially for children with developmental disabilities, technology can be very helpful at home and in the classroom.”

Play it safe

Mirman says technology can be a distraction and a safety hazard across developmental periods.

“Parents need to be aware of what kinds of devices are in their homes and vehicles,” she said.

Whether it is about accidentally swallowing button batteries, the tiny batteries often found in musical greeting cards, games, Christmas ornaments and cameras, or the risks of texting and driving, Mirman suggested that parental vigilance can save lives.

“For example, button batteries are small, shiny, and very appealing to infants and toddlers who may try to ingest them,” she said. “Parents need to keep these and other batteries out of reach and keep devices secure with openings kept shut.”

The types of technology risks can change with age. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving. That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads.

“We always worry about when teens, and parents too, are glued to their phones while driving,” Mirman said. “There is also teen driver safety research that says when parents are calling, teens feel that they are expected to answer, even while driving. Parents need to remember to practice what they preach and model healthy technology habits at home and in the vehicle.”

What’s trending?

Social media is another way technology changes how people develop, according to Mirman. She says social media is a good tool to keep people connected; but there are guidelines and boundaries parents need to set, starting again, with practicing what they preach.

“Parents should practice moderation and respect for others on social media,” Mirman said. “Kids are very observant, and they will pick up on what parents do and often mimic those behaviors.”

She says children and teenagers are quick to point out any hypocrisy in parents.

Widespread and improved mobile technology means teens can access social media more easily. According to a Pew survey conducted during 2014 and 2015, 94 percent of teens who go online using a mobile device do so daily.

Mirman says parents who monitor their children’s social media usage need to start early to develop a foundation of trust with their teens. Parents cannot be around all the time, and teenagers will need to understand why they need to follow the rules, even when Mom and Dad are not watching.

“If an older child or teen really wants to get their hands on something online, they will likely find a way to do it,” Mirman said. “That is why parents need to be clear about their reasoning for why the rules are in place and not just be an enforcer of the rules.”

Screen time

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should avoid the use of screen media. Between ages 18 months and 24 months, some screen-time can be introduced, with parental supervision. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, a maximum of one hour a day is recommended. For children above the age of 6, consistent time limits should be established.

Marcela Frazier, O.D., an associate professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, says the amount of screen time a child has can have a negative impact on their eyesight.

“The more time children spend on devices, the less time they spend outdoors, and spending time outdoors could slow down the progression of nearsightedness, which is becoming more and more prevalent in children,” Frazier said. “Prolonged exposure to the screens of devices can cause eye fatigue, eye irritation and headaches due to the increased demand on the visual system and the tendency to not blink while using them.”

Frazier says adults usually report symptoms like eyestrain, dryness, headaches and eye irritation after prolonged use of near devices; however, children may experience these issues and not be able to communicate them accurately. Parents may notice some signs of eye irritation and fatigue related to screen-time in children manifested as excessive blinking, squinting, watery eyes, red eyes and some eye-rubbing.

The flip side

Mirman says much research has been done involving children and technology, but what happens when the parents are addicted to tech?

“If parents are distracted, they can’t pay attention to their children,” Mirman said. “Kids notice this quickly.”

She says, by being distracted with technology, parents can make their children feel rejected or unimportant. A more fluid boundary between home and work can add to that distraction.

Finding a remedy

Mirman says technology can be good, if used in moderation. Many kids can use age-appropriate video games as positive stimulants, and can use them as a way of positive social interaction with online multiplayer games. This can be especially helpful for socially marginalized children and teens.

“A lot of kids can make positive connections with others through multiplayer games or social media that they may not necessarily make in person,” she said.

She says it is important for families to create a positive culture around the phones and devices, and practice what she calls “phone hygiene.”

“Developing healthy habits is important not just for you but for the well-being of the entire family,” she said.

Using Car Rides to Get Teenagers to Open Up

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For many years as a frontline practitioner and later as a respite foster carer, I have often driven children and young people to supervised contact visits with birth family members or to 1:1 session outside of the home. After talking to some workers the other day, we all agreed that these car rides provide opportunities for some of our most powerful conversations to take place with the young people in our care.

Many of us recognise the importance of this uninterrupted, private time with no risk of a direct gaze which often enables children to share and process their experiences and emotions. Then, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment and thought about it in the context of the child’s trauma and attachment needs, and these car conversations made even more sense.

Children who develop in homes where they experience stress and fear because adults are emotionally unavailable due to their own trauma, their mental illness, substance dependency, interpersonal violence, or are perpetrators of sexual or other abuse don’t get to internalise a sense of a safe person or place they can go to, either literally or metaphorically. They have more reactive survival brains and fear/threat responses that are easily triggered.

Daily life can be a brutal assault on their senses, triggering continual fight, flight, freeze, friend or flop responses in a random way so car journeys can feel more contained, predictable and less sensory stimulating. Hence why I have often arrived at the fast food outlet and the young person has preferred to carry on talking and it’s been my anxiety about feeding them which has eventually got us out and into McDonald’s!

Thinking of the children’s early childhood relationships which have often been largely unpredictable, chaotic and/or inconsistent then the time spent with a worker who offers a better attachment experience can be calming and reassuring. A car journey can become a non-threatening, attachment focused, time and space without too much sensory overload with a trusted adult to begin to explore, express and invite a reaction or response to complex, memories issues or concerns. The side of someone’s head who is slightly distracted by driving can offer a less intense interaction allowing a child to think and share what they feel the need too.

Of course, for some youngsters, cars may remind them of traumatic events. I remember a 6 year old telling me how Daddy had hit Mummy in the car, and he had tried to stop him. Then, he showed me how he had tried to wedge himself between them. We talked about how this had felt for him and our journeys gave him a different experience and memories. Other children may find being in a confined space with a relative stranger very frightening and triggering so they may not settle well, may fiddle with things and wriggle about as they get the urge to flee without the opportunity to fulfill this need.

As workers, hopefully we can see car journeys as potential opportunities to listen whilst taking the foot off the ‘find out information/fix it gas, so we can focus on relationship building and just ‘being’ emotionally available and present with the child or youngster in our care. Then, we can offer them a journey that’s not just getting from A to B, but a space that  is about them.

Parenting Troubled Teens: Indications of their Cry for Help

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It can sometimes be difficult for parents to determine the difference between normal teenage mood swings and having a troubled teen. Therefore, it is imperative to learn which signs to look for to help you figure out if your teenager needs you to intervene or simply give them some space. Fortunately, most troubled teens will give several indicators if they need help due to emotional or even legal difficulties.

1. Emotional Issues

Every teenager will battle with the occasional emotional instability that accompanies hormonal changes and dealing with peer pressure. However, it is estimated that at least 4,600 teenagers commit suicide in the U.S. on an annual basis, and every parent needs to be aware that issues such as sleeping all of the time and changing hygiene habits can be indicators that something is seriously wrong.

Sadly, you cannot rely on your teen to openly discuss this problem with you, so you need to carefully monitor their behavior so that you can take steps to assist them if necessary. Keep in mind that they might be resistant to the idea of discussing their problems, but getting them to open up to someone they trust or a trained counselor can help improve their outlook on life.

2. Legal Issues 

There are several different things that can cause a teenager to get into legal trouble, including drug usage, shoplifting and drinking and driving. Therefore, you need to be involved enough to recognize the symptoms of all of these risky behaviors. For example, someone who has been abusing drugs or alcohol is likely to exhibit mood changes, dropping grades and a tendency to be more secretive than usual. Additionally, if your teen starts wearing clothing that you have never seen before, this could mean that they have started shoplifting.

Unfortunately, any illegal activity could easily cause your teenager to get into legal trouble. If this happens, you need to provide them with emotional and legal support, and it is critical to hire an experienced lawyer. As stated by Kevin W DeVore, a Minnesota criminal defense attorney experienced in juvenile law, “Achieving a favorable outcome and minimizing or avoiding consequences after you’ve been accused of a crime is possible, but you should have a knowledgeable and caring advocate protecting your rights and fighting for you.” Your attorney should have a firm understanding of how to represent your teen’s case so they will have a much better chance of getting an acquittal or the minimum possible penalties.

3. Health Issues 

Some troubled teens are simply struggling with an undiagnosed health issue that is impacting their ability to live a normal life. ADHD is a common problem that can prevent sufferers from properly focusing on their schoolwork, and it could also cause them to lash out in frustration. Due to this, if your teenager seems to be having a difficult time staying focused and completing tasks, you should definitely consider taking them to a doctor for a checkup.

As you can see, there are many issues that can impact your teen, and it is highly likely that they will try to hide these problems from you. Fortunately, you can still take action to help them as long as you pay close attention to all of the potential indicators of an issue such as declining grades, hygiene issues and secretive behavior. 

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