Family Health Magazine - ADOLESCENT HEALTH
How to deal with it
Case 1 A 12-year-old boy has been missing school, complaining of stomach aches and headaches. Although his marks in elementary school were above average, now he seems to be struggling just to pass. He no longer listens to his iPod or uses the new backpack he got for Christmas. Often he will avoid coming down for dinner. When he does, he will just pick at his food. His parents are concerned because he seems to be losing weight. He does not seem to care about his clothes, often coming home with dirty jeans or rips in his shirts. His parents have tried talking to him, but he sullenly insists that nothing is wrong and school is "fine".
Case 2 A 13-year-old girl seems to be having trouble adjusting to Grade 8. She is often angry for no apparent reason, blowing up at any attempt to talk to her. Formerly a straight-A student, her marks have slipped. She no longer invites her friends over, but is often out with them, long past her curfew. Half the time her parents are not even sure where she is. Her appearance has changed too, from a respectable-looking 12-year-old last year to a wildly dressed teen with heavy makeup. Her parents have tried to give her some freedom to find herself, but now wonder if they have let things get out of hand. When her parents try to enforce the curfew she starts swearing at them with words they have never heard her use before. They wish things could go back to the happier days, with a creative daughter who talked openly about anything.
What is a parent to do? There are several possible explanations for such changes in a child’s behavior:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- The child could be involved with youth violence, either as an aggressor or as a victim.
Types of Youth Violence
- Ganging up
- Violence in relationships
A Question of Power
Violence usually starts small with harassment. Classmates may resort to name-calling, teasing about appearance, spreading rumors, staring, or making insulting gestures. They may “shadow” other classmates to frighten them, while making themselves feel more powerful. Harassment is common and is often dismissed as “just kidding around." But to children going through the changes of the teen years, harassment can damage self-confidence, distort body image (how we see ourselves) and contribute to depression.
Sometimes, harassment may lead to more serious violence. There may be threats such as blackmail (do this or else) or extortion (pay up or be beaten up). From there, others can get drawn in - whether to protect a friend, or to join in for the “thrill” of excitement and power. At this stage gangs can develop. If weapons become involved, a lethal situation can occur. Fortunately, children are less likely to join gangs if they belong to stable, supportive families.
Teens and Violence
Unfortunately, as teens develop closer relationships with others, they risk possible abuse in these relationships. Some teens have been exposed to troubled relationships at home and they lack a healthy model of normal behavior in relationships. Parents, whether married or divorced, who are constantly quarreling or worse, show aggressive behavior that a child may copy. A son who watches his father being violent towards his mother has three times the usual risk of being violent to his partner.
Whether by accident or intention, teens with low self-esteem are at risk. They may become overly dependent on a friendship. They may go to great lengths to excuse abusive behavior by a friend and are less likely to leave an abusive relationship. Jealousy and possessiveness, signs of emotional abuse, are often the result.
As with other teen violence, when violence occurs during dating, it tends to escalate. At first, one partner may be jealous and possessive, constantly criticizing, and isolating the pair from friends. This partner’s attempts to control through pleading, tears, anger or threats can undermine the other’s self-confidence and independence. From this emotional abuse the violence can escalate to physical abuse, including sexual assault. Thus, like adults, teens are vulnerable to serious dating violence.
- Encourage a teen to feel comfortable holding off on a serious relationship until emotionally ready.
- Avoid criticizing the teen’s friends, as such criticism can often fuel the desire to make the relationships work. Do make the message clear that you are worried about their getting hurt.
- Remember, teens are even more likely than adults to idealize another person, seeing only the positive (some of them imaginary).
- Express your honest concern for your teen’s health and happiness. This is often more effective than criticism in helping a teen recognize the problems in an unhealthy relationship.
- Keep the lines of communication open.
- Let a teen know of your love and that you are around to guide and support when needed.
- Help teens to be alert for the warning signs of jealousy and possessiveness in relationships. These are often followed by the use of pity and fear to control people.
Most teens are not gang members, nor are most physically harmed by violence. But all children witness violence continually, whether at school, through a relationship, in the home, or through the media.
Changes in Youth Violence
In some ways, youth violence today is different from in the past. Instead of facing a lone bully, teens today may find themselves facing a group. There is a trend towards violence at a younger age, both as victims and as group members. Also, teens may feel under pressure to belong to a group or form a relationship earlier than before. Perhaps most disturbingly, there appears to be an increase in the severity of violence, with knives and other weapons becoming more common. Explanations for these trends reflect changes in our world. Violence is seen on TV, in movies, magazines or in professional sports. It is heard in song lyrics and in racist or sexist jokes. It is experienced at school or at home. Violence affects everyone’s view of the world.
When teens see violence used without consequences, or used to solve problems, they come to view it as more acceptable. They may see violence as an abuse of power, with a member of a stronger or more advantaged group intimidating a more vulnerable person. If our society fails to promote equality of human right and mutual respect among people, violence is likely to continue and grow.
Most teens do not belong to gangs. A gang can be defined as three or more youths who commit illegal or antisocial acts (such as vandalism, stealing, fighting or using drugs). For some teens, gangs can meet several needs:
- power and control otherwise absent in their lives.
In a sense, gangs serve as a “second family” for youth. Young people who are attracted to gangs may come from families which have no limits and boundaries, or at the other extreme, too many rules and restrictions.
The media has a big influence on youth. Violence is often accepted and even glorified, increasing the appeal of a gang lifestyle. At this level of development, teens may not think of consequences. They may not know the risks involved in gang behavior. They may feel protected by the shared responsibility of a group or by thinking “it will never happen to me.” For these reasons, teens may be more violent and unpredictable in gangs than they would be alone.
Recognizing Youth Violence
Once parents realize a child may be vulnerable to youth violence, including violence in relationships, they have already taken the first step towards helping their child. The warning signs listed below can help parents detect a problem early. Teenagers often do not talk, for several reasons. They may fear retaliation, fear not being taken seriously, fear becoming an outcast, or they may not know when they are in serious trouble. Because of this, adults are often left with only nonverbal clues that there is a problem.
- signs of depression: withdrawal, not talking, secretiveness, unhappiness, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping
- school marks falling, or missing school
- items missing or damaged, often without explanation
- injuries, especially in unusual places (e.g. the head, ribs or upper arms)
- away from home a lot
- talking back, lack of respect for authority
- tattoos, body piercing, strange symbols and wild clothing (could be gang markers)
- lack of friends, friends you don’t know or troublemaking friends
Action on Youth Violence
Parents, schools and the community all have roles, and must work together on the problems of youth violence.
Advice to Parents
- Tell your teen to report harassment or threats. From an early age, tell your child to report teasing, name-calling or threats. Let them know where they can turn for help.
- Maintain a connection with your teen. Give your children a sense of security and stability through regular family activities. You may need to consider changes in your family’s lifestyle. For example, some parents change shifts or work fewer hours, sacrificing material wants, to ensure time to meet their children’s needs for love and attention. Other families set aside one day a week as “family day,” when they do something together like take a day walk, watch a movie or make a meal.
- Encourage your child to be an individual. Teach teens to think for themselves, praise them for their accomplishments.
- Encourage extra-curricular activities. Through involvement in activities outside school teens will learn more about themselves, protect their self-esteem, and be less vulnerable to peer pressure.
- Tell your teens that their safety is your first concern. By telling your children that your first concern when they get into trouble is their safety, rather than punishment, you encourage them to be honest and open.
- Take all concerns seriously. Get the facts about a teen’s concerns. If you are not sure what to do about the situation, ask for help. Talk with your family doctor. There are also helpful resources in schools and the community.
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2015, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 2S6 [AD_FHd97]