Chances are good that the words Mark Twain wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1874 still ring true for those who parent and work with teens: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
As much as we want to believe otherwise, when it comes to heart-to-heart talks, teens will usually turn to each other for advice and consolation instead of their parents or teachers. That’s why www.TeenCentral.net—an interactive and confidential Web site that delivers crisis intervention services and advice to teens 24 hours a day—receives over two million hits each month from teens all over the world.
The professional counselors who monitor the site explain to parents that, while they understand how overwhelming it can be for parents to have a kid in crisis, they are committed to protecting the anonymity of the site’s teen visitors and cannot reveal what is discussed between teens.
This confidentiality makes it possible for teens troubled about things like sex, drinking, drugs, eating disorders, dating issues, or loneliness to talk honestly, get support from their peers, and receive sound advice and direction from the experts who counsel them. It is the experts’ belief that when a troubled youth is helped, the whole family can benefit.
The Web site was the brainchild of “KidsPeace,” an organization that has been helping kids in crisis since 1882. Today, KidsPeace has 65 centers nationwide that employ more than 2,500 people, including doctors and childcare professionals, child and adolescent development experts from Harvard Medical School and Brown University, and many others who are committed to the mission of “giving hope, help, and healing to children facing crisis.” As young people share their stories, they are guided through a process of problem identification, information, and crisis-resolution techniques.
This approach has been so successful that KidsPeace produced a book that represents 500,000 of the stories shared at the Web site. In “I’ve Got This Friend Who . . .” (Hazelden, 2007), six fictitious and composite teens talk with each other about the high-risk pressures and problems they face every day. Woven into the dialogue are valuable pieces of information about the various issues discussed, including advice on where to go and how to get help if they or some of their friends are in need of it. Self-tests and personal stories help readers identify and clarify their own issues, while helping them develop the self-confidence and strength they need in order to make changes.
In the midst of a discussion about drinking, for example, readers are given a list of warning signs to determine if a friend might be abusing alcohol. As the teen “authors” talk about their own thoughts and experiences, they share ideas about how to best help a friend in trouble and how they can say “no” to alcohol and other drugs without getting embarrassed or ostracized by their peers.
Since the book’s “authors” are composites of so many voices, every teen reader should be able to identify with at least one of them. Karen, the “devil’s advocate,” is smart, outspoken, and independent. Ryan is a popular athlete who is also involved in student government and theater. Eric is a “nerd” who worries about fitting in. Ashley, the youngest at 13, questions which values are worth compromising in order to be accepted. Emile, the oldest at 18, is a street-smart kid who wants to straighten out.
“Every day, millions of teens navigate the turbulent seas of growing up in an increasingly complex world where they face an assault of problems and challenges that often require split-second decisions,” explained Lewis Lipsitt, the national director of the KidsPeace Lee Salk Center for Research. “Making the right choices at the moment of truth is often a difficult, confusing, and even frightening proposition. But it is critical and can affect the rest of their lives.”
Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction and recovery; check its Web site at www.hazelden.org.