Emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders (e.g., depression, conduct disorder, and substance abuse) are sometimes propelled by risk factors such as low self-esteem, loss, and poverty. Other risk factors, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, include living in single-parent households, being exposed to drugs, and/or living in a violent community.
Unfortunately, we probably know dozens of children in the Austin and Garfield Park communities who meet those characteristics. Thankfully, the impact can be lessened by protective factors. Protective factors are better known as “buffers,” which shield some of the harm caused by risk factors. Especially important are buffers parents can control to combat school and community risk factors like bullying and violence.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that family support (immediate or extended) mitigates the damage caused by stressful events in both middle childhood and adolescence. That means grandparents, aunts, uncles, and great-cousins may all play an important role in a child’s well-being. They may be able to provide stable relationships that parents cannot, especially parents who work multiple jobs or are in school. If you have relatives or close friends who want to play a role in your child’s life, utilize them as human resources. They may be able to act as a sounding board when your children feel they have no one else to talk to, or they may be able to help your children navigate the college application process if you don’t know how. President Obama and Oprah Winfrey were both supported by extended members of their families who helped shape their lives. Try providing your children with the opportunity to have their lives shaped as well.
Have you ever grounded your child for a week and then recanted after day one because you needed space? This is called inconsistent discipline, and with it, children are often left wondering why they should behave correctly when there are no set consequences. When consistent discipline is provided, children learn to associate negative behavior with the negative consequences that are always given after they take an inappropriate action. Suspend the negative consequences once or twice or forget to provide them at all and your child will find the wiggle room to act inappropriately. Consistent discipline helps your child adjust to the structure he or she needs in order to feel safe and secure, which leads to a more emotionally and mentally stable child.
HHS says consistent discipline, free of physical punishment, is a buffer against risk factors. They recommend a language-based approach to discipline, which focuses on talking instead of hitting and alleviates the stress of violence toward your child while keeping you free of perpetuating it. Such a change in your style of chastising may not only lead to healthier children but a healthier you.
What have you communicated to your children through your words and actions about the use of drugs and alcohol, sex, or academic expectations? Your children’s understanding of your expectations for their behavior can greatly affect their ability to make wise decisions about how to handle stress. For example, if you teach your child to breathe deeply, exercise, or keep a journal in order to handle stress, he or she has the option of using those strategies to seek peace and feel better, as opposed to running to drugs and alcohol.
It is important to make clear what you believe is right or wrong, so your child can at least see your beliefs as an option to follow. Contrary to popular opinion, when parents talk, kids do listen: According to Partnership at Drugfree.org, “Kids who learn a lot about the risks of drugs and alcohol from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use than those who do not.”
So take the time to clearly and repeatedly voice your values and expectations to your child. When they get clear and consistent messages from parents about how they should behave, they are more likely to act appropriately and/or use the family-given strategies needed to overcome the pressures that help produce many mental and emotional issues.
Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the at-risk factors in your community, guard your children against them by surrounding them with support, consistently correcting them, and setting clear expectations for their values and behavior.