By Erin Buell
How do we keep our children healthy? We provide them with shelter and nourishment. We love them and look out for their well-being and safety; we take care of them when they are sick or hurt. There are, of course, many ways that we support the health of our children every day.
The health of any individual involves physical, mental and emotional elements. As a child grows into an adolescent and then into an adult, finding and maintaining the balance of these three elements can be challenging. Teenagers and pre-teens go through immense changes physically, emotionally and mentally in a short span of years. Often, teens experience changes in how they feel about relationships with peers, friends and family. Moods, coping skills, enthusiasm and stress can change daily.
While all of these changes are normal, adults do not always understand why a teen acts as he or she does, and we often aren't sure of how to help the person navigate through it. That lack of understanding can be perceived by a teen or pre-teen as a "them-vs.-us" scenario.
How a child experiences these teen years may very well influence how healthy he or she will be throughout life, and adults have some very important, and perhaps surprising, roles to support the health of children in this way.
Over the past 20 years, The Search Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization committed to helping create healthy communities for children, has surveyed nearly 3 million kids. These surveys are a research-based framework that explores the importance of a child's internal and external assets on his or her personal development. These assets, now known as the 40 Developmental Assets, appear to be immensely important in providing healthy developmental building blocks for youth.
The Developmental Assets include 20 external assets, such as how a child perceives the level of love and support from family, and clear and fair boundaries, rules and consequences that his or her family, school and neighborhood provide. External assets are also about the child's involvement in activities. Organized activities, such as school sports or music lessons, as well as hobbies and creative activities, can add assets for a child. School, friendships and adult role models are also important.
There are also 20 internal assets in this model. Internal assets include evidence of a child's motivation, personal care, value on helping others, social competence and self-esteem.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the more of these 40 assets a child perceives that he or she has, the higher the likelihood that that child will make healthy choices. The surveys show that these children did better in school, engaged in helpful behavior and expressed higher self-esteem. More compelling, perhaps, is that the fewer assets a child perceives that he or she has, the higher the likelihood that the child will develop low self-esteem and engage in high-risk behavior such as alcohol use, drug use and sexual activity.
Of course, the role that parents and teachers have in supporting asset building is important. But all adults in a community are vital to the developmental health of our children.
Adolescence, by definition, is the period of time when a human being matures from a child to an adult. Our adolescents are finding ways, both consciously and subconsciously, to find independence and acquire the skills to handle the world as an adult. During this process, teens often feel a push-pull in their attitudes about parents. While they need and want the security and love that a family provides, they are also frequently feeling the need to push away from that protective environment. A teen may ignore a repeated request from a parent, only to willingly comply with the same request from an adult outside the family. As much as this might be frustrating from a parenting standpoint, it is sometimes a necessary part of the teenager's developmental process.
Supporting the health of a child means that we all can take a moment to say hello to a teenager. We can try to remember names, to keep promises, to listen more than we speak. We can provide boundaries and rules that are reasonable and appropriate in nature and in consequence, and we can try to follow those very rules ourselves. We can let them act their age, even if we don't always understand them; we can ask questions about how they feel, and be OK with it if they don't feel like talking. We can pay attention and let them know we are here for them, and be available if they do want to talk.
We can support a healthy community by paying attention to the opportunities to build the assets of every child.
Erin Buell is the community outreach coordinator for St. Luke's Community Health.