Parents Need to Grow Up Too

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Is anyone really ready to be a parent? There’s a shared experience among most new parents; a sense of disbelief that the hospital staff will simply let you walk out with a newborn child. It’s like giving a set of car keys to someone who hasn’t learned how to drive. Yet our parenting has a profound impact not only on our children’s development but also on our own. The challenges of parenthood provide us with an opportunity to grow as individuals. Like our children, we also have developmental tasks. From the first moment, we have no option but to be role models. How and what we model is totally up to us. The same is true of the relationships we develop with our children. If our primary focus is disciplining undesirable behavior, then our long-term relationship with our children will be negatively impacted. It takes conscious effort to focus more on the positive within our children and within ourselves. This brings us back to the developmental task of parenting. Our own level of emotional development impacts the relationship we develop with our children. The more emotional, social, and behavioral issues that we are struggling with, the less capable we will be to develop a healthy relationship with our child (or others). Thus parenting provides us with the opportunity to mature and address issues that we may have previously avoided. But the choice is ours. If we choose not to deal with our own anger problems, for example, we will likely have a higher level of conflict with our already challenging adolescent. If we regularly drink alcohol, our ability to positively impact our child’s view on substance abuse may be compromised. Sometimes our toughest challenge as parents is not our children’s behavior, but our own.

As parents it’s natural to focus on and correct children’s behavior. We rarely consider, however, how our own day-to-day behavior impacts that of our children. Children are extremely sensitive to their parents’ subtle moods, actions, and words. They internalize these characteristics as they develop their own identity and approach to the world. Of course our children bring their own emotional, behavioral, and social issues, in addition to what they learn from us and others. But even if they have significant issues from birth that are uniquely their own, our behavior will still have a significant impact.

Consider channeling your desire to be a good parent into taking better care of yourself by identifying and addressing your own issues and challenges. The better adjusted and happier you are, the healthier your parent-child relationship will be.

Dieing for a Drink

By Dr.  Jan Hittelman

Despite a reduction in crime overall in 2009, locally there has been a surge in alcohol-related arrests, as reported by the Camera (“Major Crime Down, But Drinking Up”, March 5, 2010). This includes offenses by adults as well as minors. University of Colorado Police, for example, report “ a 24 percent increase over 2008 and 45 percent more than 2006”. It is quite common for high school students to report that while their parents don’t want them to drink and drive, they know that “everybody” drinks alcohol at parties and it’s really no big deal. Many people don’t realize that the high from alcohol is due to its toxic nature. It’s the subjective experience of alcohol poisoning. Most adolescents don’t realize that you can die from drinking too much alcohol, falsely assuming that at worst you’ll throw up (which does not prevent alcohol poisoning) or just sleep it off. Unfortunately, many people die from alcohol as a function of their respiratory system shutting down or choking on their own vomit. There are also few intoxicants that are as addictive as alcohol or as dangerous to our overall physical health, with the exception of the other “legal” drug: tobacco. The fact that alcohol is legal is often a reason that adolescents, and perhaps adults, underestimate its deadly potential.
While it is illegal to sell alcohol to minors, it is easily accessible by having an adult purchase it for them or even more conveniently by taking it from their parents’ liquor cabinet.

What’s a parent to do? Consider these suggestions:

• A good place to start is to look at our own behavior and what we are modeling to our children
• Help your children understand that even though alcohol is legal, it’s more dangerous and addictive than many “street drugs”
• Educate your children regarding the devastating effects that alcohol can have on the developing adolescent brain
• Make sure they know that if they do experiment with alcohol and need help, they can call you and you will come get them
• Have ongoing discussions with your child about alcohol and other drugs

As parents we must educate our children, starting in elementary school about the dangers of drinking, how it affects us physiologically and the wisdom of abstinence. Alcohol abuse is serious business. Does your child know that?

From Paris to Boulder

 By Jan Hittelman

A recent “major news story” was Paris Hilton’s early release from and subsequent return to jail. Ongoing video of the front of her home during her brief release ran for hours on all of the major national news outlets. I wonder how parents of servicemen and women serving in Iraq feel when the news they’re looking for is preempted by the latest Paris update or car chase. Even Paris commented that the news should be focusing on more important matters like the war in Iraq.

Similarly, the “CWA Debate” story permeated local and national news. A debate ensued over questionable remarks made during an April panel discussion at Boulder High School regarding drug use and sexual behavior. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, can’t we all agree that our time and energy would be better spent helping teens reduce at-risk behaviors? Better yet, begin to focus more on teens’ strengths and the fact that most teens do make healthy choices.

It’s important to remember that the majority of our local high school youth do NOT drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, use other drugs, have sex, and when they do have sex, the majority uses a condom (Boulder County Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2005).
Based on the facts, we have every reason to believe that most local high school students possess the ability to effectively evaluate information and exercise good judgment. There is little disagreement that certain comments made by some panelists were ill advised. The real travesty is the prejudicial assumption that youth are incapable of critically evaluating others’ opinions. Ironically, zealous critics may have done more harm insulting the intelligence of those students in attendance, than the actual comments in question.

If only it were true that one statement from a panel discussion could profoundly impact youth behavior. For the minority of youth who are engaging in high-risk behaviors, we need to be thinking about ways to provide needed resources, ongoing education and support to empower them to make healthier choices.

In last month’s column, when asked about efforts to provide an emotional safety net for our children, the incoming Boulder Valley School District Superintendent Dr. Chris King said: “I’ve been surprised at the lack of coordination and the dearth of services in our community.” Clearly, while a variety of excellent support services for youth currently exist, there’s still work to be done. If only this story could get more attention.

An often-underestimated resource for teens is the influence of trusted adults. Whether it’s parents, relatives, teachers, neighbors, parents of peers, counselors, older siblings, or clergy, teens listen to adults that they know and respect. Research shows, for example, that when parents have ongoing discussions with their children about substance abuse, they are 50% less likely to use drugs and alcohol. We need to think about the messages that we’re imparting to our children, rather than that of strangers during a one-hour talk.

What’s on the Mind of Middle School Youth?

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

We often assume that the pressures and risk factors that impact youth begin in high school. The truth is that they begin in middle school, when youth are typically 11 to 14 years of age. Boulder County Healthy Youth Alliance partners, a collaboration of local youth-serving agencies and groups, conducted “youth summits” with local high school and, most recently, middle school students in order to better understand the factors influencing decisions about their health. One significant finding of the high school youth summits was that “middle school was repeatedly identified as the place where engaging in risk behaviors began.”

In the recently completed report “Voices and Views Middle School Youth Speak Out”, we are given a unique opportunity to hear from youth on a variety of important topics including: stress, depression, substance use, intimacy, sex, peer pressure, harassment and bullying.
Beginning the very challenging process of adolescence, middle school youth are confronted with a wide range of very difficult issues and are often under-prepared to deal with these issues due to their stage of social, emotional and neurological development.

An overriding finding from the summit is that youth view parental involvement as a critical variable. In terms of stress and depression for example, students indicate that “good relationships with parents are preventative” and “adults should talk about suicide and depression.” At the same time students also indicated that “parents pressure kids to do well in everything – be good in school, be good in sports” and that this can fuel feelings of stress and depression. We also know from research that children whose parents talk to them about risk behaviors are safer. Data from the 2007 BVSD Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicate that if students believe their parents think its wrong they are half as likely to ever drink alcohol, 15 times more likely to think smoking is wrong, and 12 times more likely to think marijuana is harmful.

As parents we must put real effort into creating opportunities to frequently talk with our children about challenges and experiences in their lives and do it in a way that will foster ongoing open communication about a wide range of risk behaviors and topics. This is particularly true during the middle school years when children are often more receptive to parental feedback than they will be during high school. This should be a discussion and not a lecture. A simple rule of thumb is to make every effort for your child to do most of the talking; ask questions, encourage and respect your child’s opinions, let them know that you appreciate them sharing their points of view even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. After they have fully expressed themselves, that’s the time to share your feelings, opinions and concerns.

It is quite common for parents to underestimate their influence on their adolescent children. While it may not be obvious, adolescents want their parents’ praise and approval more than ever.

Children & Internet Porn

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Over the last several years there has been an increased concern regarding children’s’ exposure to pornography on the Internet. Studies report that more than 40% of teens and preteens visit pornographic web sites on purpose or by accident. Internet porn is big business. It is estimated that 12% of all web sites are porn sites, generating revenues in the billions of dollars annually. If there are no restrictions in place, a child of any age can easily find Internet porn, often by accident (initially). Not surprisingly, boys are more likely than girls to seek out Internet porn and their use increases with age. Some early research indicates that those who frequent porn sites are more likely to objectify women and see sexual behavior as a purely physical act.

How can parents protect their children from exposure to online porn? There are many software options available that block porn sites from your computer. If children, however, are determined to view porn online, chances are they will find a way to do so. Nowadays, children can access the Internet on a number of devices in addition to the home computer, making the challenge of restricted viewing even more difficult. Another, more sophisticated strategy, is to use the power of communication and education. Parents often underestimate their influence over their child’s behavior. When parents take an active role of sharing their values and engaging their child in a meaningful discussion regarding risk behaviors, like Internet porn, children tend to internalize their parents’ values. It is much more effective to teach your child self-control than to get caught-up in a game of cat and mouse: Secretly checking computer history, putting restrictive blocks in place, etc.

For some children, Internet porn can quickly become an addictive behavior that can require treatment. In this case, adding restrictions wherever possible may be necessary. For most children, however, viewing oddities on the Internet is a function of developmental curiosity and experimentation to be expected during adolescence. It is a function of each family’s unique set of values to decide when, if ever, to allow this behavior and to what degree. Whatever your view of this behavior may be, it is important to take an active role in educating your child about this and other Internet etiquette.

Having supportive, ongoing, mutually respectful parent-child discussions regarding appropriate Internet behavior may be our most effective parental tool.

High Tech Rehab

 By Jan Hittelman

An increasing concern for parents is the amount of time their children are spending recreationally on the computer and/or playing video games. The challenge for parents is determining what’s appropriate and how much is too much.

As more people engage in high tech recreation, there are increasing concerns regarding the effects of these activities and the potential harm of excessive computer and video game use. In 2007 both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommended a careful review of related research and the consideration of defining excessive computer and video gaming as an addiction.

As with other potentially harmful behaviors, certain symptoms must be considered before making the diagnosis of “addiction.” These include: the amount of time that is dedicated to the behavior, the degree to which the behavior interferes with healthy daily functioning, and any resulting detrimental physiological or behavioral effects.

Time dedicated to computer and video game use: While not necessarily research-based, many experts recommend limiting use to two hours a day. A more practical time guideline would be based on the individual and the impact of use on daily functioning.

Impact on healthy daily functioning: Excessive use is more of a concern if it negatively interferes with school performance, peer socialization, family interaction, exercise/weight control, and interest in other activities.

Physiological Effects: While more research is needed, there have been studies that report negative physiological effects. These include: light-induced seizures, sleep disturbances, back and neck pain, headaches, dry eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Behavioral Effects: There are numerous studies that show a correlation between exposure to violent video games and aggressive thoughts or behavior. None of these studies, however, can demonstrate long-term impacts or conclude that video gaming itself causes aggressive behavior.

What’s a parent to do? The first step is to have an open discussion with your children regarding computer and video game use. If your child has a healthy social life and continues to function well at home and in school, simply monitoring use may be sufficient. If the amount of daily use time is excessive and/or you have concerns about your child’s social, emotional or behavioral health, try setting clear guidelines. In addition, consider gaming and recreational computer time as a reward for completing homework, household chores, or engaging in prosocial activities. Help your child replace use time with other fun activities. Simply taking away the activity and leaving a vacuum, will likely lead to conflict and efforts to “get around” newly imposed rules.

It is also important to understand that addictive behaviors are usually symptoms of underlying emotional challenges (e.g. depression, anxiety, social adjustment, etc.). Addressing the surface behaviors without treating these issues will only result in a reoccurrence of the undesired behaviors and/or new ones taking their place. If you have concerns about your child, consider an assessment by a mental health professional to determine the extent of the problem and better understand the underlying issues that may be fueling the behavior.