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.