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A new year brings new opportunities and challenges. Growth and accomplishments. Mistakes made and lessons learned. I wish you the best in all of these things, with good health and family peace (or as close as you can get with tweens and teens in the house!).
As the old year comes to a close, I’d like to thank the many people who have helped me out at Risk-within-reason: Kelly Wilton, Debbie Kellerman and Tracey at Montreal Families, the awesome Michelle Skamene for her technical advice and encouragement, Barbara Victor and Carol Liverman at Agences Ometz, graphic designer Isabelle for my beautiful new logo, Isabelle Martin for helping me launch our French workshops (Risques Raisonnables), John Glasspoole at Interface Media, Rochelle Sochaczevski for offering to help me out with pics (though we’ve been too busy to get to them!), my friends Simone Freedman and Andrea Yampolsky for constant encouragement, my husband Martin for everything, and my three beautiful girls for an endless supply of material. Of course, thanks also goes out to all our wonderful readers, for their support and comments, their forwards, shares and likes. I am grateful for the follow-throughs that led to workshops and the opportunity to meet face to face.

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riskwithinreason is thrilled to announce that we have moved to a brand new, updated site with a lot more information for visitors and subscribers: www.risk-within-reason.com, so please update your bookmarks.

On this new site you will find my blog, along with an updated list of resources, social media sharing options and two new pulldown menus describing the prevention and awareness workshops for parents and educators. (Coming soon: workshops for kids and teens)

I love hearing from readers, so please feel free to contact me anytime with feedback, suggestions and workshop inquiries.

 

8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a day I knew I’d never forget.

My two-year-old twins were heading off for their very first day of preschool. They had their lunches packed, the backpacks full of extra clothes, wipes and smocks for painting. I was more emotionally wound up than they were, and I was almost disappointed when they just kissed me goodbye, and walked hand in hand into their very first day of school.

The only tears were my own, and I desperately, sheepishly blinked them back. There were no pudgy arms clutching at my legs, no high little girl voices begging me to take them home. I was proud of their determination, but not quite used to the idea that my baby girls might be growing up.

I got in my car, a tangle of conflicted emotions, and turned on the radio.

It was 9 a.m. September 11, 2001.

When the first reports of trouble in New York trickled in, I didn’t think much of it, preoccupied as I was by my own microdrama. Then the  announcer mentioned the World Trade Center, and I thought about my brother, whose law firm was in the process of moving their offices into one of the towers. I called my mom, who hadn’t heard anything. She couldn’t reach his cellphone, but we weren’t yet alarmed.

I stopped for coffee with a friend, asking the teenage barista to turn the radio over to CBC, and we stared at each other in horror as news of a second plane hitting the towers was reported. I ran home to keep trying to reach my brother. No answer. Cellphone service was in chaos.

Like everyone I knew, I watched the world implode upon a TV screen. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer scale of hatred, of callousness, of remorseless cruelty was astonishing. It was impossible that this destruction, this pain was being played out live on camera. It was unthinkable that we had to just sit there and watch. But we did. We couldn’t turn away even when the images burned into our eyes, seared themselves into our minds.

We were witnesses to the murders; our very witnessing the catalyst for it happening. A spectacle laid out in living colour for the hungry eyes of our cameras.

It took a couple of hours to track down my brother. His firm’s move had been postponed because of construction delays. Only a few people had been moved over to the World Trade Center that morning; one woman from their office died.

My daughters have an uncle today because of construction delays. They have three cousins. Construction delays.

I remember thinking, with typical shortsightedness, how lucky I was to have children too young to understand what was happening. Two-year-olds don’t watch the news or scan the front page of the newspaper in a daily race for the weather and comics. I was almost giddy with relief. How on earth could a parent ever explain this to a child?

I forgot that they wouldn’t be two forever. That I would have to explain over and over again as they grew how such a thing could happen. Their innocence waning as their capacity to comprehend expanded. Every time we saw a picture of the towers. Heard about the memorials. Each time we visited New York City.

Every September.

I didn’t realize that I would have to give answers to unanswerable questions. To the two-year-olds who are now 12. To their little sister, whose very existence I hadn’t even foreseen that morning ten years ago. To my future grandchildren.

We will be searching for those answers for many, many years. Forever. Like the Holocaust, and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and Tiananmen Square, but newer and closer and fresher. With really good production values.

Teaching our kids about the grim side of human nature is never an easy thing to do. In the olden days we had dark inflections to our nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We had cradles that fell and witches in the woods who ate errant children, desperate girls who cut off their toes to fit the prince’s glass slipper.

We don’t do that anymore. We’ve scrubbed our stories, sanitizing the imaginary preschool world the same way we Purell their little hands. Have you ever watched the original Disney versions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? Tiana and Arielle wouldn’t last a day in their world.

When natural disasters occur and people die, we can point to the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of nature. It’s upsetting, but somehow we feel we can contain our children’s fears through education and action. But terrorism, war, mass murder, school massacres? That’s a whole other story.

I wish I could say I have the answers here, but I don’t. The truth is, I still don’t know what to say to my girls about September 11th. I tried to dole out the nuggets of information sparingly when they were younger, offered some context as they got older and learned more on their own. But I knew some time ago that I couldn’t protect them from knowing any more. And I shouldn’t. The plump, smiling toddlers smiling innocently into the camera at the exact moment the first plane fell out of the sky have morphed into tall, lithe preteens. They cringe and reluctantly agree when I ask to take their picture on the first day of high school.

I can only hold them close as long as they let me and hope they get more from remembering that day than the fear and hatred that made it possible in the first place.

Enjoying a bit of time outdoors, with no screens, phones or digital music. Lovely.

It’s easy — and a little unfair — to prepare a stereotypical list of unpleasant teen behaviours: moodiness, surliness, disrespect, dramatic changes in sleeping patterns, eating patterns and relationships with other family members. We expect them to blow off their chores, roll their eyes at family activities, spend all their time online and on cellphones and listen to music we parents find discordant, inappropriate or offensive. It’s almost as if in steeling ourselves for battles to come, we expect them to fight us on the clothes they wear, the friends they chose, and how late they get to stay out at night.

But not all teens are like that. Most of them (most of the time) are loving parts of their families, good big sisters and brothers and concerned about their communities and the world around them. But the caricatures of teenagers tend to dominate in the popular imagination, and can blind us to all of the wonderful ways our teens enrich our lives.

That’s my standard response whenever I discuss signs and symptoms of real teen problems with groups of parents. The lists of red flags can sound a lot like the behaviours described above. Has your teen gained weight? Lost weight? Been listless? Have their friends changed? Have they withdrawn into their rooms? There’s always one parent who voices the concern that these sound like pretty typical teen behaviours.

And they are.

But a teen at serious risk for depression, drug or alcohol problems tends to have more than one of these things, and there is a pattern of marked decline, and usually more than one or two instances of emotional outbursts or slammed doors.

So when should you worry? Sometimes things do go wrong. The following types of behaviours warrant immediate investigation:

*money going missing around the house without satisfactory explanation;

*pattern of lying about whereabouts and activities;

*aggression, hostility, irritability;

*pattern of withdrawal;

*rapid weight loss;

*wearing of long sleeves in warm weather (a sign of non-suicidal self-mutilation);

*sudden drop in grades (not just one lousy mark);

*unexplained absences at school/ work;

*sudden trouble with headaches;

*rapid increase in muscle definition or sudden dramatic increase in acne (a sign of steroid use);

*loss of interest in activities;

*extreme, persistent fatigue lasting more than a couple of days;

*sudden change in personal hygiene – unkempt appearance, lack of washing;

*sudden use of new slang or jargon related to drugs or gambling;

*speculation or fascination with death/ suicide.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the more worrisome signs, particularly if there are more than one.

So what do you do as a parent? First, speak to your child. If you are still concerned, speak to their doctor. Call the school guidance counsellor. Call a therapist who specializes in teens. Call your CLSC if you live in Quebec.

If you are concerned your teen might be an immediate danger to yourself or others, take them right away to the emergency department of a children’s hospital. Here in Montreal, there is a psychiatrist on call at the Montreal Children’s Hospital 24 hours a day who can do an emergency assessment. Be aware that in Quebec the age of medical consent is 14, so you may not be privy to their discussion.

Some other excellent resources:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/index.php

http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com/signs-drug-use.html

www.youthgambling.com

http://www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-1036

http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

 

 

 

 

 

Immediate. Spontaneous. Concurrent.

Everything in real-time. In order to understand how our kids experience the world, we need to understand this real-time reflex.

Real time in media isn’t a terribly new idea. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1949), 12 Angry Men (1957), and the amazing Run Lola Run (1998) follow events they occur in the same time frame as the movie. It’s a technique also seen recently in television shows like 24 and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. You see it in YouTube videos, video games (such as Prince of Persia, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs).

But beyond mere entertainment, real-time means we’ve become accustomed to using our media as a literal window on the world. We think nothing of news that shows us things as they are happening: wars, revolutions, natural disasters and political intrigue. We demand — and expect — access to our politicians and celebrities on a constant, regular and intimate basis. We put regular folks with conveniently placed cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place in the right time on the same par as CNN journalists. We’ve also turned the camera back on the Internet itself, watching the conversations people are having online into news (see CBSNews’ What’s Trending)

Our kids are growing up in a world where the minutiae of the everyday is blogged and posted on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare. They know what their friends had for breakfast, where they are at this very minute and whether they are having a fight with their boyfriend. We adults may complain and worry about how this redefines privacy and trivializes intimacy, but that’s a moot point for them. This is the new normal.

Immediacy also means they see their pictures as soon as they take them, and have them instantly uploaded on their preferred social media tool. It means they know their SAT scores and marks as quickly as possible. It means that when they gamble, they prefer quick rounds of poker or scratch lottery cards to those weekly draws. It means that shopping has become a social media experience (check out Pose, Where to Get It and VIZL).

The real-time reflex means social interaction gets pared down to its bare bones. We used to accept a phone call in place of a formal face-to-face meeting as a time saver. Then email whittled down the social niceties of a phone call or formal letter even further. But our kids don’t often waste their time on emails or phone calls – everything is reduced to the shorthand of a text message. No greetings or sign-offs. No signatures or “how are you’s?” Just “lmk” and “ttyl” and “lmao.”

This isn’t meant as a critique, but simply an observation. It helps us understand how to parent and teach our kids more effectively. We don’t always have to adapt to this real-time reflex, but it can help us understand the cadence of their daily lives. You might you get faster and more helpful messages from your teen about where they are and what they are doing if you text them instead of calling their cellphones. And you might gain some insight into their stressors and anxieties by understanding how their lives are played out in real-time on social media.

Blame Coco Chanel. Tanned skin used to be a sign of poverty, with pale skin a mark of style, class and status.

Legend has it that the fashion icon accidentally browned in the sun on a yacht and started a craze that’s endured into the new millennium. Unfortunately, the phrase “healthy tan” has proven to be a tragic contradiction. There is no such thing as a healthy tan – even a light glow is a sign of skin damage.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, cases of life-threatening melanoma increased from 550 in the year 2000, to 740 in 2010, a 34 per cent increase. There has been an additional rise in the other, more treatable forms of skin cancer as well. Even more worrisome has been the dramatic drop in age of cancer development. Doctors are now regularly seeing patients with the deadly form of the disease in their 30s and even in their 20s, cases that were extremely rare a decade or two ago.

Ultra violet skin damage is cumulative over our lifetimes, with the exposure in our childhood and teenage years particularly critical determinants of whether we will one day develop skin cancers. Our skin cells don’t forget. Each serious burn doubles our lifetime risk for developing skin cancer.

All of this explains the concern over teens using tanning beds, and the current drive to ban their use in teens under 18 years of age. This Montreal Gazette article reports that tanning bed usage by people under 35 increases by 75% the risk of developing melanomas. The Canadian Dermatology Association has a compelling video that all teens interested in tanning should see, called Indoor Tanning is Out. They remind us that the World Health Organization has upgraded tanning beds to a level 1 carcinogenic risk, the same category as smoking cigarettes and asbestos.  Yikes.

Having trouble getting the message about sun damage across to your teen? Send them the link to this amazing, awareness-raising video: Dear 16-year-old me. And buy them some cool sunglasses. Coco would approve.

Sure, it’s a year old already, but this Dear Sugar column from TheRumpus.net is a beautifully written, powerful argument for confronting head-on the hard blows life sometimes serves up. Should be required reading for all teachers, parents, youth care workers.

(Thanks Julie, for bringing this to my attention.)

A selection:

Several years ago I worked with barely teenage girls in a middle school. Most  of them were poor white kids in seventh and eighth grade. Not one of them had a  decent father. Their dads were in prison or unknown to them or roving the streets of our city strung out on drugs or f**king them. Their moms were young used and abused drug-and-alcohol addled women who were often abusive themselves.  The twenty some girls who were assigned to meet with me as a group and also  individually were deemed “at highest risk” by the faculty at the school.

My job title was youth advocate. My approach was unconditional positive regard. My mission was to help the girl youth succeed in spite of the  unspeakably harrowing crap stew they’d been simmering in all of their lives.  Succeeding in this context meant getting neither pregnant nor locked up before  graduating high school. It meant eventually holding down a job at Taco Bell or Wal-Mart. It was only that! It was such a small thing and yet it was enormous. It was like trying to push an eighteen wheeler with your pinkie finger.

I was not technically qualified to be a youth advocate. I’d never worked with  youth or counseled anyone. I had degrees in neither education nor psychology.  I’d been a waitress who wrote stories every chance I got for most of the  preceding years. But for some reason, I wanted this job and so I talked my way into it.

I wasn’t meant to let the girls know I was trying to help them succeed. I was meant to silently, secretly, covertly empower them by taking them to do things they’d never done at places they’d never been. I took them to a rock-climbing gym and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore. The theory was that if they liked to pull the weight of their blossoming girl bodies up a faux boulder with little pebble-esque plastic hand-and-foot-holds then perhaps they would not get knocked up. If they glommed on to the beauty of art witnessed live—made before their very eyes—they would not become tweakers and steal someone’s wallet and go to jail at the age of fifteen.

Instead, they’d grow up and get a job at Wal-Mart. That was the hope, the goal, the reason I was being paid a salary. And while we did those empowering things, I was meant to talk to them about sex and drugs and boys and mothers and relationships and healthy homework habits and the importance of self-esteem and answer every question they had with honesty and affirm every story they told with unconditional positive regard.

(click here to read from the beginning…)

One of the hardest parts of parenting is the gradual allocation of freedoms to our children. Whether we are sending them off to the playground on their own for the first time or watching them climb on a city bus or subway, we swallow our fears and concerns and allow them to begin the critical process of fending for themselves. It’s so important they begin to do this in age-appropriate ways, so they can learn to advocate for themselves, problem-solve, develop self-esteem.

Each time they prove themselves competent and responsible, we can consider allocating additional freedoms. My mantra has always been that privacy and freedom are privileges that must be earned through consistent responsible behaviour.

As a parent, this means repressing the memory of every frightening television show, movie and news report we’ve ever seen about how these things can go wrong. It means actively not thinking about the child who went to the corner store , made their way to camp or walked her dog and never came home again. Because as horrible and terrifying and tragic as these incidents are, they are so statistically unlikely that they can not — and should not — frame most of our day-to-day parenting.

Sure, we should teach our kids about stranger danger and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, but the vast majority of child abductions and abuse come from people they know. Family members and friends. And 99% of missing children are found within hours or days, according to this article in Pediatrics. That article, an American Academy of Pediatrics publication entitled “The Pediatrician’s Role in the Prevention of Missing Children” also contains a lot of practical information about what we can tell our children to protect them, without unnecessarily terrifying them.

Earlier this week, our Montreal Families editorial office received a press release about a new app for mobile phones (called Nearparent), in which a GPS-enabled network of trusted adult helpers is set up by the parent for their child to access on their smartphones. My initial reaction was revulsion — I couldn’t imagine a worse example of paranoia then tracking your child’s every move. When I read more closely, however, I realized that they do protect the child’s privacy by allowing them to control when they check in somewhere or activate the help feature, which alerts nearby trusted adults that have been added to their personal network of helpers.

So (in this particular app at least), your kid isn’t transformed into a bleeping red dot on a screen, moving from school to playground to corner store and home, supervised by the parent using a smartphone at work or stuck in traffic. Thank goodness. Many clever parents have figured out how to track their kids using the Mobile Me app on their kids’ iPods, iPads and iPhone (and almost as many kids have likely figured out how to circumvent their parents’ spying.) Because unless your child is a recovering heroin addict, I can’t imagine how that could help them. And even then, I’m sure there are more effective ideas for keeping them safe.

OK, so maybe this particular app is not that bad, but it’s still part of a larger media-fuelled panic, in which the world is seen as a desperately dangerous place (see this piece on Cultivation Analysis, in which heavy viewers of television consistently see the world as scarier and more violent than non-viewers or light viewers). Apps like this reinforce the idea that the world is really scary, that most strangers are dangerous.

While parents might enjoy the peace of mind this app promises (not sure how practical it is in actually delivering any additional safety), they are giving their kids the message that venturing beyond the front lawn without mom or dad in unsafe. That we can’t quite trust them to be OK out there without us. How could this not undermine their self confidence and self esteem?

The truth is that if your child is taking the bus to school or walking home from a friend’s house, you have already determined that they are old enough and mature enough to do so. If they suddenly need help from an adult, are they not better seeking it from a friendly person on the street rather than whipping out their smartphone? Are not the vast majority of people on the street friendly to a child or teen in need? Is creating this kind of GPS-enabled network not feeding into a CSI/Law and Order/Unsolved Mysteries view of the world, in which we need law enforcement to pinpoint our kid’s location at any given moment? Why not just implant microchips behind their ears like we do with our dogs?

I’d like to think that if my kids, my friends’ kids and your kids find themselves suddenly needing immediate help, they are mature and level-headed enough to find some way to get it quickly. If they are not, then it is our duty to explain this to them in a firm but encouraging way before they head out our front doors.

Because I would much rather they see the world as a place of opportunity and discovery and not one where danger lurks in a trench coat or hoodie in every dark shadow.

If you have preteen or teenaged girls, you should know about websites (and Facebook apps) like Honesty Box or Fourspring.me and the potential pitfalls and risks they pose.

What are they all about? These sites are the web 2.0 equivalent of writing on the bathroom wall. They invite users to post mostly anonymous, public “constructive” criticism about each other. Honesty Box promises anonymity to users until they accumulate enough HB points to see what others have been saying about them. So users can tell each other what they really think about whether they look hot, if their boyfriend is cheating on them or if those new jeans make them look fat. Helpful stuff.

Fourspring.me invites users to post questions about anything and invite responses from other users. While some may use the site to get homework queries solves or address philosophical issues (“What came first: the chicken or the egg?”), most of the teen users take advantage of the site’s potential for stirring up muck and spreading rumours. It’s a dangerous recipe for hurt, paranoia and damaged self-esteem.

Honesty Box has provoked a lot of controversy as a consequence of the cyberbullying it enables. Users may find themselves targeted in malicious and extremely hurtful ways. An unsuccessful campaign was launched on ReallyWorried.com to get Facebook to remove the app. On the Internet, free speech generally prevails unless the PR tide turns ugly or money can no longer be made.

Producer Lynn Glazier did a fabulous three-part audio documentary on teens and the Internet for CBC Radio this past winter (It’s A Teen’s World: Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips, Part 1-3), in which she asks a group of teen girls why anyone in their right mind would want to open themselves to potentially hurtful comments online. While many of them acknowledged that upsetting things had been written about them online, they persisted using the sites because the occasional unsolicited positive comment (“You have really nice hair”) made them feel so good.

As a parent, there are several things you can do about sites like these. One is to bring them up in discussion (which is not at all the same thing as a lecture), and ask them if they have heard about these sites and what they think of them.

The second is to show them some of the excellent and highly watchable stuff produced about them (such as the CBC piece mentioned above, or this excellent video on Kelsie’s Teen Talk). Bear in mind that you shouldn’t be forcing them to watch it, but rather opening up a dialogue. Watch it with them, if they are OK with that.

The third thing you should do is show them how to opt out of the Honesty Box app on their Facebook account (even if they already are subscribers, they can unsubscribe).

The Internet is full of both opportunities and challenges for kids and teens, but it’s hard to see how sites and apps like these can be said to offer anything positive at all.