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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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On Deadline: 'My sister's gift' column raises question of how best to 'reach' kids

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2012
A number of readers have responded positively to my column in the Weekly of Sept. 7 about a "gift" of good advice my older sister Marilyn gave me more than a half century ago when I was in a blue teenage funk for a week or so.
It was that I was important because how I presented myself affected everyone around me in positive or negative ways, some barely perceptible but others significant. The broader message is that we all of us -- young, old and in between -- are important.
I concluded the column (see www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=17592) by saying that it would be nice if that gift could be passed along to today's young persons, and outlined a program I and others developed in the early 1980s that might help accomplish that.
Among the responses were some relevant and thoughtful comments, in addition to basic thanks.
The thoughts of one resident in particular may be worth sharing, and thinking about.
"I just read your article about your sister's gift to you, and was very moved by your personal story and how well you told it. Thank you," she began.
"My take on what follows in your article is, however, different from yours.
"Consider: Would that same 13-year-old boy have responded the same way if being told what to do by a committee? If instead of one close and trusted person sitting on his bed and sharing her wisdom with him, he'd been the recipient of pages and pages of psychological materials explaining how he should think and feel and how his family should behave, would that have had the same salubrious effect?
"Sometimes in our zeal to do good, we may overdo."
Great question, well put. And as a teenager I doubt that I would have appreciated a committee coming into my room and sitting on the end of my bed. And official programs and materials and conferences may be something akin to that.
She continues:
"When I was in high school, we had nary a suicide, and plenty of families were doubtless what today has been categorized as dysfunctional.
"What was so different?
"No one came at us with psychological counseling, making us self-conscious about our attitudes or feelings. No one insisted we take drugs to change our moods, attention span, or behavior.
"Teenagers are already self-conscious enough. And shouldn't those who are closest to them and love them be the ones to speak wisdom to them? Shouldn't they be allowed, as we were, to find their way within the context of their own private worlds?
"Shouldn't school be about accumulating knowledge, learning math, history, literature and science, as well as how to think logically and critically, and to write cohesive, intelligent essays? After all, the lessons of history and of classic literature are replete with wisdom very likely surpassing anything psychologists may compile.
"Shouldn't the focus of attention be on that -- on education in the classic sense -- and off of the students' private thoughts and feelings? Mightn't that feel invasive to a child? "Parents typically know if and when their child needs special help. Why don't we trust each family to deal with its own private issues, as yours did."
I replied with a thanks for her thoughtful email and some thoughts:
"I do agree with the 'committee' not being an effective way to communicate with young persons at pivotal times in their lives." I invited her to look over the Family LifeSkills materials that a group of us developed in the early 1980s following a couple of teen suicides at Palo Alto High School, in response to a request from then Principal Jim Shroyer for help with an "anti-suicide" program.
Instead, we decided to do a series of informational mailings to each student covering ways families could communicate better and provide a stronger base of support for young persons feeling effective and their general well-being. The students were encouraged to share their ideas with their parents, even by leaving the four-page pieces lying around -- a kind of "trickle-up theory" of starting dialogue.
Several local family therapists have told me they used articles from the materials as homework assignments for teens and families they were counseling -- one therapist said she used them for more than 25 years. (They are still online at http://www.pamf.org/teen/parents/emotions/lifeskills/ -- check the Acrobat versions on the left column for the actual mailers).
I continued my reply: "In developing those materials, we were acutely conscious about the 'committee' type approach, but there was virtually no intervention effort underway at the time, back in the early 1980s -- when there were a couple of teen suicides of Palo Alto High School students. This does not include the 'slow suicides' of self-destructive behavior that resulted in auto accidents or other means of risking (and sometimes ending) one's life."
"The repeated message in the LifeSkills materials is 'Take time to listen!' Take time to be a family, not just people who share a house in a frenetically busy culture.
In the early 1980s, the emphasis on academic achievement was just beginning its upward trajectory of emphasis on grades and advanced-placement classes.
In the 1970s each of the then-three high schools in Palo Alto had a 'special problems counselor,' and I knew each of them. Those were eliminated along the way for budget reasons. One of them, the late Phil Bliss, founded Midpeninsula High School in Palo Alto as a "safety net" for bright kids who didn't fit the academic mold of the primary high schools.
Today's interventions are often done through the Adolescent Counseling Service (ACS).
There is a continuing dialogue about the role of "school counselors" in Palo Alto -- namely whether their job is just to provide academic counseling on grades and target colleges/universities vs. dealing with emotional issues and family crises or negative patterns.
In terms of academic focus vs. private thoughts or emotions, clearly the family should be deeply involved in the latter (both, actually). Yet in reality not all families are well equipped to do that, and some are even toxic. Studies indicate a large percentage of young persons -- some say up to one in ten -- are subjected to some form of physical or emotional abuse by they time they reach high school.
Can a student's academic performance truly be separated from his or her emotional sense of well-being and effectiveness -- that feeling that if there's something they don't like they can do something a bout it?
It would be ideal if every family were equipped with the knowledge and understanding to be able to deal with serious situations or emotional crises of family members. But there's a real world to consider, and all too many families -- even without the seriously abusive elements -- just don't have the knowledge or capacity to provide that kind of safe environment.
Sometimes a committee is needed to help create a cultural environment where it's OK to ask for help, or find a supportive coach or guide to help them through some of the thorny thickets of life in today's world.
As for academics vs. emotional states, a physician once told me that he believed in dealing with the whole person rather than specific organs when diagnosing illness. He said when a group of organs come into his office and sit down he might reconsider that approach.
Similarly, it might be really difficult to separate a student's academic performance from his or her personal life and emotional state of being.
Note: I would be most interested in hearing more thoughtful ideas about the nature of life for young persons and their families in today's world in comments below.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).
What is it worth to you?


Posted by teach every child, a resident of ,
on Sep 15, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Jay this is very well said. I particularly appreciate your statement that "it might be really difficult to separate a student's academic performance from his or her personal life and emotional state of being." Teen suicide is not a new problem. Suicide happened before now and it will keep happening until we realize that we need to have more support for our kids. Absolutely we need to involve families -- but we need to understand that many people try to get help for their kids but the mental health system fails them or they are overwhelmed or -- as is often the case -- it is very hard to distinguish between ordinary teen moodiness and depression especially if it is a first child.

We need to move toward a whole community approach which includes acknowledging that social-emotional support is crucial, that mental health problems occur and are not the fault of the afflicted family, and that a humane and loving society cares for and nurtures all its members, including and most especially the sick and lonely.

We need to provide parents with resources to help their kids not blame for not knowing how. It's not so easy for parents to reach their unhappy teens. Sometimes it is better if it is another caring adult who is NOT the parent, such as a coach, guidance counselor, or a Teacher Advisor.

We also need to open our thinking up to implementing school-based health and well-being systems that can contact every child and provide multiple adults in caring roles for every kid. Our child attends Paly and we like the Teacher Advisor system. I hope that Gunn gets this system soon.

I am glad to see that school board candidate Ken Dauber is talking about social emotional support and reaching every child: Web Link Many people are supporting him for this reason. We need better social emotional supports and mental health curriculum in our schools and we need to start in middle school not only high school.

Posted by parent, a resident of ,
on Sep 15, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I find it interesting that Mr. Thorwaldson makes no mention of the Developmental Assets framework that the community and district have been working on since it was recommended by Project Safety Net. It has been referenced several times by the Weekly and has focused on at many school board meetings. It is frustrating that this work has been going on and our community pays no attention to it. Ken Dauber is not certainly not the first member of this community who has focused on SEL for our kids.

Posted by Fairmesdow mom, a resident of ,
on Sep 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

Parent is a good example of what is wrong with some of the volunteers in our community. Instead of applauding Jay and Ken for caring about an issue that parent supposedly cares about and for publicizing it in the paper and in the school board race, parent wants credit for thinking of it "first." It's just immature and pathetic. Stop being so holier than thou and put kids first.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of ,
on Sep 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

As a former teenager who seriously considered suicide, I would like to add my 2 cents.

My problem was my parents. At the time I thought it was me. My parents were having work related problems and financial problems, big time, but they decided that as "good parents" they should keep the problems to themselves. Instead, every little thing that I did became their problem that they could dump on me. From grades, to friends, to my messy bedroom, to what I wore, to my music choices, the problems with young people everywhere, drugs, sex, (which was warning me against something I had no intention of getting involved with), became big issues and things which they strongly disapproved and wanted me to improve. Their disapproval made me feel worthless.

There were two things which got me through this. The first was my best friend's parents. I was always welcomed there and treated as a valuable family member, nothing like my own home. In fact I could not even take my best friend home as the atmosphere when if my friends turned up there was like a knife edge of disapproval. The second was a church youth group where the love of God was shown to me in a very positive way. I was shown there that I was not judged by
them and was accepted for who I was. This was something I had never experienced in my family and I craved for this acceptance. It was what got me through my teens.

My relationship with my parents improved gradually over the years but was never really good. I kept in touch with them out of duty and because I didn't want to pass on family grudges to my own children. I have learned since some of the issues that my parents went through during the bad times and realise now it was their problems that caused them to behave that way towards me and nothing I could have done could have made them act any differently towards me. None of this was a good way to spend my teenage years, but without my effort to keep a relationship with them, I would never have learned the truth of why they treated me like they did.

So I am saying this because although a committee would never have helped me when my own parents were the real problem, a couple of caring adults who knew me well and treated me as an individual plus a weekly time of interaction in a very non-threatening environment were my life savers. And, none of them ever even knew it.

Church youth groups and individuals taking time with young people do make a big difference. TAs at school may help some, but they still have too many students and too little time with them to be the help that troubled teens need. Efforts to get teens outside of competitive environments of school, sports and other competitive activities are a "must" in my opinion. Some kids will thrive in these environments, others will feel more like losers when they don't make the grade, the team, the honors choir, or the plum role.
Helping them to find their niche in a group of peers, to have a complete couple of hours of fun, to forget all their stresses, to relax and just be themselves, must be a goal for anyone interested in helping our youth today.

Posted by PalyTeen, a resident of ,
on Sep 16, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I am a teenager at Paly, and my dad told me that I should take a look at this article. Personally, I do not think that it is possible to separate academics and social-emotional stress. The fact that students interact with other people while they learn will inevitably lead to an emotional connection to their performance. Most students respect their teachers and care about their grades to some extent. Unfortunately, I've had a fair number of teachers who haven't given the slightest effort to support me or my classmates. Most parents expect their children to receive high grades in all of their classes, and if the teachers can't support the students then this becomes nearly impossible.

A few examples (I won't name names) - I had a science teacher who overloaded us with homework without any thought to our other classes, or workloads or schedules. She had us stay after school if our homework was late. She wouldn't give the instructions for labs until after they were graded.
I had a Social Studies teacher who berated the class repeatedly about late homework.
I had an English teacher who refused to tell us the due dates for assignments (after being asked on multiple occasions).
I have had disorganized teachers who lost my assignments and gave me zeros; who had no In-Box or any means of collecting homework.

I need a decent teacher who is willing to support me; school is about the students and our learning. The adults in this district need to wake up and give me a good teacher - that will lower my stress and improve my academics.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Sep 19, 2012 at 6:59 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Some really good and thoughtful comments above. As for the Developmental Assets that "parent" mentions, this is an excellent collection of 41 items that are considered important for young persons (or someone of any age) to have. But can anyone recite them?

In the original column about "my sister's greatest gift" there was this comment:

"Today Palo Alto parents, teachers, school officials, community organizations and students are engaged in an ambitious effort to increase the sense of well-being among the younger persons in our community. 'Project Safety Net' has evolved from primarily a crisis-intervention model into what is becoming a broad program designed to address elements of the local culture that cause distress among many young persons and their families.

"A key tool is 41 'Developmental Assets,' put together by a consortium of groups to list elements that are important for a young person to have. Translating that many assets into actionable steps to change behavior in a family or among friends is a major challenge -- but good people of all ages are working on it, breaking out key elements on which to focus."

The challenge I mention is "how to get from here to there" in helping young persons and their families foster those assets.

Conferences and workshops are important -- for those who attend them.

But here's a math problem: Let's say (to simplify the math) that there are about 2,000 students at each high school. If one holds a conference on parenting or building assets, typically about 100 to 200 people attend -- let's see, at most about 5 percent of the target population as I calculate it. That means that 95 percent, give or take, are getting little or no useful information on the topic at hand.

And I don't even include middle-school-age families -- when key decisions are being made and patterns developed by young persons.

Over several decades, my experience is that most of parenting-conference attendees are from families that already are doing very much right. Some families arrive early, sit up front, chat and listen.

But at one Saturday-morning conference a family arrived late. The mother took a seat and the teenage son sat next to her with arms crossed in a sullen-seeming silent slouch. The father, unshaven, spent the entire conference leaning against the back wall. I commented to a school official that it seemed that the father and son were dragged to the event in "psychological chains," and likely would get little or nothing from a three-hour conference. Maybe six months of psychotherapeutic intervention might help.

And there are families, as one commenter observed above, who are in deeply serious situations -- including domestic violence, sexual abuse, chronic hyper-critical parenting. A speaker at one conference, Sid Simon, wrote a book on the damage of over-criticism (with a chapter entitled "The Knives of Negative Criticism") outlining the proverbial "death by a thousand cuts."

So just doing conferences is missing the huge middle range of families who are doing a lot right but could perhaps do better, avoid some conflicts and negative interchanges if they had a few techniques known to improve communications and foster positive assets.

Overall, this clearly is not a simple matter. Many good people and community organizations -- from the YMCA to PTAs and others -- are trying hard to help families and young persons connect with each other. It's not something any one person or entity can do alone. -jay

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