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Health Coalition and RSYP unveil ‘Talking with Teens,’ new video series for parents about alcohol, drug abuse

The videos stress the importance of nonjudgmental communication, and the scientific facts regarding human development and drug and alcohol use.

Great Barrington — Organizers had to bring extra chairs downstairs into Mason Library’s meeting room on Monday night (Oct. 15) to accommodate a larger-than-expected crowd. The South Berkshire Community Health Coalition under the auspices of Railroad Street Youth Project, along with the Great Barrington Libraries, was sponsoring a free workshop titled “Talking With Teens.” Teens also led the effort, to help adults communicate with youth about drugs and alcohol. Mae Whaley, a Monument Mountain Regional High School senior, and Megan Smith of Mount Everett co-chair the coalition’s monthly meetings, and they led off and wound up the Mason Library meeting.

About 40 attendees including local school principals, parents and godparents were present for the rollout of a series of videos by filmmaker Joshua Briggs designed to assist adults in having difficult conversations with teenagers. After viewing several of the brief, sensitive, light-hearted videos, which starred local actors and non-actors in the roles of youth and adults, Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D., of the Center for Motivation and Change in New Marlborough then provided further background on evidence-based approaches to handling what are, for many parents, frustratingly difficult talks about high-stakes issues.

The Coalition is funded by a state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services grant. Youth leaders, along with SoCo Creamery owner and longtime community volunteer Erik Bruun and Railroad Street staff, facilitate monthly meetings of a “loosely bound group” of school district personnel, town police chiefs and representatives from agencies such as the Brien Center and Construct Inc.

The idea for the video series evolved from the results of 2017’s bi-annual Prevention Needs Assessment Survey results, on which eighth-, 10th– and 12th-graders self-report on a range of behaviors and their perceptions of the risk and protective factors in their schools, families and communities. On the most recent surveys, as on previous ones, respondents reported that the adults in their lives have a low perception of risk associated with substance use. Unsurprisingly, South County teens are 50 percent more likely not to perceive harm associated with substance use as compared with their counterparts nationwide.

Erik Bruun and daughter Rebecca. Photo courtesy Rural intelligence

As Bruun put it: “Kids were letting us know, via the survey, that they feel supported in their use of substances by their parents, in much higher rates than in other parts of the country. We wanted to raise awareness about the perception of harm, and health impacts on brain development. We wanted to equip parents with the knowledge to be better informed and able to engage with teens about substances.” And as Whaley framed the big picture question, a lot of the most helpful ideas that have been suggested have nothing to do with drug and alcohol use per se; they just reflect good communication and how to see each other’s point of view.

Briggs had served on the Coalition in his role as director of curriculum and instruction for BHRSD and, when he left that position for Jacob’s Pillow, he stayed on as a community member and parent. He says that with the videos — role-plays of realistic scenes between teens and adults based on real-world feedback from teens — he was trying to take the heaviness out of the topic and ground it in reality. He came at the project to provide supporting materials and useful tips for conversation starters, with youth leading the way. Multicultural BRIDGE partnered to provide translations; six of the eight videos are in English with Spanish subtitles, and two are in Spanish with English subtitles. Said Briggs: “We want people to use them as they see fit. Now the question is how to get these out to groups like PTAs, and how to have conversation about it.”

The videos stress the importance of nonjudgmental communication, and the scientific facts regarding human development and drug and alcohol use. The teen brain, for instance, is hard-wired to make reckless, short-sighted choices. The 16-year-old son is not trying to hurt his mom’s feelings, in other words, when he breaks rules about pot use in her house: He’s doing what comes naturally.

Adults should use respect and facts and have a real conversation, not offer fear-based ultimatums. Helpful hints: Know that the conversations won’t always go well. Be understanding, not judging. Ask questions that invite authentic responses, such as, “Do you think it would be OK for me to share some of the reasons why I think it’s a bad idea for you to be using drugs?” If the response is “yes,” that is an invitation to explain, for example, that teens are affected more adversely than adults by drugs because their brains are still in development.

Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D.. Photo courtesy Center for Motivation and Change

Foote has been working in the addiction and recovery field for 30 years and, after viewing a few of the videos, was clearly impressed, saying, “This effort is awesome.” He was eager to encourage adults to give themselves a break in regard to these difficult talks. As he said, no one takes the college course on how to talk to teens about substance use, because there is no such course.

The Center for Motivation and Change has a nonprofit arm whose aim is to disseminate best practices in the field. This is how Foote became connected with Railroad Street and the Coalition. They work to provide evidence-based resources to parents, who, they hope, will share those resources with other parents, and so on. It is difficult work, Foote acknowledged: “The thing we come up against, and have not figured out how to solve, is that people don’t want to talk about their kids’ substance use problems with other parents.” Another frequent obstacle is that people often don’t like to talk to treatment professionals since, “they fear they will be talked down to, and they will be.”

Developing a network of parents who have been in the trenches, and who are trained in effective communication techniques and can train other parents, is a step toward destigmatizing the subject. Parents can call into a national network through which they are assigned to a coach. They can start groups face-to-face and train parents in these ideas. “This is not rocket science,” said Foote. “It’s not easy, but you can get trained and do it. Lots of parents have been through lots of hell on the path to understanding.”

To help the audience understand how teens view substance use, he compared it to the fact that no one voluntarily puts their hand on a hot stove, because it does not result in any benefit. Teens smoke pot, drink alcohol and use other drugs because those activities provide them with tangible benefits. Substance use works to, among other things, “Mellow out, feel less depressed, feel good, take away boredom, help you socialize, make you funny, get you a good sleep, help you face the day.” It’s not crazy to want these things, so the answer to the question parents frequently demand of kids, “What were you thinking?” is self-evident.

Foote quoted the Scottish proverb, “They speak of my drinking, but never of my thirst.” If there isn’t another way to get the benefits of substance use, which is quenching a real “thirst,” why would anyone stop doing it? Adults can offer new alternatives and options but, if all you’ve got to say is, “You gotta stop smoking pot, or else,” the pot smoker has nothing to turn to. “An ultimatum will buy you a few seconds of compliance,” he said, but that’s it.

Data from the 2017 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey shows the percentages of South County students who have used alcohol, tobacco and other drugs during their lifetimes

Among other pieces of advice Foote suggested is “Catch ‘em being good.” With a teen whose behavior is problematic, it might be the last thing on your mind to notice what they are doing “right.” You want to feel betrayed and angry, and to express your anger and betrayal, but pointing out something small like, “By the way, I appreciate you getting home on time tonight,” can set the stage for understanding and further conversations and connection.

And, as with any other difficult skill, it takes practice, practice, practice. Keep at it. The patient, calm, understanding, try-and-try-again approach is worth it in the long run because positive communication can do a lot of good. It can turn down the heat, encourage positive behaviors, and shift someone’s ambivalent attitude in a more active direction.

The bad news is, Foote reminded his audience, being connected to someone you love is painful, especially when they do stuff that scares you. If our goal is to make the scary stuff go away, you will miss the boat.

Data from the 2017 Massachusetts Prevention Needs Assessment Survey shows the behavior and substance use percentages of South County students in Grade 12 who have used alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

One attendee relayed a success story of an effective conversation with her daughter about her pot use. Mom discovered in the process that she was self-medicating to deal with anxiety. The mother went in to school and talked to her daughter’s guidance counselor, who then called in the daughter for some collective problem-solving, which worked.

Among the questions posed at the end of the session was one around the recreational marijuana shops that will shortly be going up all over town, and how to square that fact with adults in a room talking about how to convince teens not to smoke pot. Briggs said that very issue would be on the table in future sessions.

Youth attendance at monthly coalition meetings varies from two to three teens to as many as 12, depending on the topic. Teens are charged with leading discussions. This is because, as Bruun explained, “They are the ones best able to understand the impacts of the work. When you have a young person as a member of an adult group, they often don’t have the standing to challenge to speak to what is really going on for them. Putting them in the place of directing the conversation changes the construct of teacher to student, or provider to providee. They have a credibility that adds amplitude to their voices.”

Whaley rounded out the evening with a reminder that substance use is a stress reliever, and she walked the audience through her own day on Oct. 15: Up at 6 a.m., at school at 7:20 a.m. for a club meeting, in school until 3 p.m., work from 3 to 6 p.m., rehearsal until 7 p.m., help run the Mason Library workshop until 8:45 p.m., then home at 9 p.m. to do calculus homework.

The next Coalition meeting is at MMRHS Friday, Nov. 2, at 8:30 a.m.

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