If every teenager you know has three friends, then at any given time at least one of those four youth have participated in an at-risk behavior in the past month. At-risk behavior does not respect social, economic, geographic, or cultural boundaries. No matter where you live—city or country—there are at-risk teens in your community and maybe even in your own home. For some that might be a sobering thought but the statistics are there to support it.
Maybe you are now wondering what you can do to help teens from being at risk at all and what you can do for those already at risk from becoming fully engulfed in a life of negative choices. The answer is: A lot.
Defining At-Risk Youth
First of all there is no standard, accepted definition of what ‘at-risk’ means. At best it is a term which means the at-risk youth has so much working against him or her that it is unlikely they will have a positive outcome once they reach adulthood. Clear as mud, right? Then there are numerous success stories at-risk youth who have become adults who have gone on to lead successful lives. Those stories make the ‘at-risk’ label even murkier. However here are some generally accepted guidelines to define what it means to be at-risk youth:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Significant trauma to self or within the family
- Physical, emotional, and/or mental impairment
- Behavioral issues which are not or are poorly addressed
- Parents are uneducated
- Comes from a single parent family and/or has an absentee parent
- Public assistance
- Parental substance abuse
- Lives in a high crime area
- Comes from a large family
- Lives in an area with high unemployment
- Lack of community resources
- Lack of opportunities for youth recreation and/or employment
- Youth substance abuse
- Sibling and/or friends considered at-risk
- Lack of positive role models at home and/or within the community
Yes, that is a long list. It may even encompass every teen you know. As sobering a thought as that is the fact remains defining and labeling teens as at-risk is a complex issue. What is important to remember is this list is simply the risk factors common to teens who end up making the transition from at-risk to needing a therapeutic intervention for their issues. It would be wonderful if we could define that moment a teen ‘snaps’ but we cannot. The next best thing we can do as parents, families, and communities is to give our teens the resources to avoid a negative outcome.
The World Has Changed
If we look at our own generation, we—no matter our age—had more community opportunities than most teens today. Today’s teens compete with adults for jobs that we had in our youth. We had community centers of varying description where today’s teens do not have those same options largely in part because of the legal issues that come with them. Drug use does not carry the same social stigma as it once did.
The American dream has become harder to reach because of economic factors. In most families both parents need to work when even a generation or two ago families did not have to have two, or more, incomes to survive. Then on top of all of that teens have unprecedented access to the world through the Internet. Roll all of this up for just one teenager to deal with on top of whatever is happening at home, at school, and with their friends and it is easy to see how a teen can have a hard time learning how to deal with it. The opportunities teens had to learn life skills are vanishing at a rapid pace.
What Can I Do To Help?
Today’s teens have issues. It is more the rule than the exception. As an adult, as a parent it may feel overwhelming. You may not know where or how to start. Take a look at your own home and ask, “What can I do to help?” No matter who you are there are things you could be doing better as a parent and as a person to be a better example for your teens. Next, take a look at your community and ask the same question. If there are little to no opportunities for youth where you live maybe you can be the right person to get something going that will have a positive impact on the outcomes of teens in your community. Creating teen-friendly communities focused on preventing negative outcomes should be a goal. Here are some excellent examples:
- After school and summer programs
- Low cost or free recreational opportunities
- Teen employment initiatives
- Cultural events
- Low cost or free health, fitness, and nutrition resources
- Mentoring opportunities
- Teen outreach programs for youth already involved in negative behaviors
- Crisis services
- Counseling services
Dispelling Negatives With Positives
Regardless of an individual teen’s issues what all teens need are opportunities for positive interaction. The kid with the worst behavior is missing something. That missing element, or elements, is why he or she is acting out. Therefore the only way to counteract negative behavior is by teaching positive behavior. If a teen ends up in a therapeutic residential treatment school, teaching positive behavior is a large part of what those programs do to rehabilitate those youth. It makes sense that the way to keep a teen from needing such a drastic intervention is by providing opportunities for them to learn those same life skills at home and within the community.
The Mental Health Crisis
When more than 25-percent of our youth are engaging in at-risk behavior at any given time teenagers become a crisis we need to solve. Twenty-percent of teens will experience depression before they become adults and suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth age 10-24. Fifty-percent of you with depression drop out of high school. We need to be looking at mental health in a serious way. It is affecting our youth and ultimately the success of society as a whole. If for whatever reason these kids are not learning the skills which will make them successful adults, then we fail as a society.
What’s At Stake?
Not to sound too melodramatic but only the future of our teens and our country. No big deal. We are the adults so it is time we start acting like it and find ways to engage with the younger generations to help them be ready to build a strong future. When it comes to helping our teens have the best chance for a positive future, we do not need to invent the wheel. There are already hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of programs with proven track records. The problem is we as parents and community leaders are not making sure the teens of our town have access to them. If we expect our teens to grow up to be strong leaders in our communities, then we not only need to show them a strong community leadership who is interested in teens, but give them opportunities to develop those skills.
Remember, one-fourth of the teenagers you know are in crisis. A lot of times those teens find themselves in that state because they lack the life skills they need to be successful. We can continue to blame Gen X, Gen Y, or the Millennials for their apathy or we can act to show them apathy is not the path to success. Yes, there are things these newer generations are dealing with that we do not understand but that cannot be the excuse we use to avoid engaging with our youth. There is a lot you can do within your own community to increase the health of your community. It starts with you. It starts with making sure the youth are coming up into a community which gives them hope rather than one who shows them they are not a priority.