Solutions For Teens In Trouble
by Dorothy Ratusny
In Issue #2, we featured a story (Crime
and Punishment) which described the new Youth Criminal Justice
Act and the prevalence of violent crimes committed by youth.
We offer our readers this sequel in order to present essential
solutions for what has truly become a national issue.
Any teen who has served time in a
Youth Detention facility, knows that there are greater worries
to deal with than how to get along with others who are bigger
and more dangerous, or how to adjust to rules which dictate
when you can go to the washroom and when you can eat. The larger
life lessons are about how to get your life back on track, and
how to make positive, long-lasting changes that will enable
you to feel good about yourself.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to provide
treatment for a youth held in a secure custody facility. This
experience reminded me that the real solutions for teens in
trouble, lie in our ability as a society, to teach all of our
members -- self-responsibility. This article addresses the fundamental
factors influencing the choices of today's youth, and how youth
in trouble may begin to develop self-responsibility in order
to make significant changes in their lives.
Because family is the biggest influence from
birth to the beginning of teenage years, it is probably the
most significant factor in defining the plight of youth. Yet,
family is not the only factor. At a certain point (often as
early as ages11 or 12), the 'family' gets replaced with the
'peer group' as having the greatest impact on a teen. How that
teen interacts with their peer group (whether they are a leader
for the group and whether they want to gain respect from the
group), and the kind of peer group it is, are important factors
in the choices a teen makes. Teens typically want admiration
from their peer group. If the peer group has a negative influence,
then to gain respect of the group means that a teen may do negative
things. The father of Daniel* (a 15-year old teen currently
serving time in a Youth Detention for uttering a death threat)
suggests that, "being negative is easy and you get attention
Daniel's father who, along with his mother have been extremely
proactive and involved in all aspects of their son's case, recommends
that teens "choose their friends carefully. There will
be those people who nurture you - who motivate and inspire you.
When you are with these people, you have fun, you are challenged,
and you have positive experiences. There are also those people
who are negative. When you are with them you get into trouble,
you feel uncomfortable with what the group does, and you're
not having fun. It's like putting your friends on one side or
the other of a line."
Sheldon Schleiffer, a Probation Officer with
Probation and Community Services in York Region agrees that
teens need to be self-responsible. "Recognize when peers
have a negative influence so that you don't get involved in
those activities that will get you in trouble." Sheldon
suggests teens who have good self-esteem, "feel good about
what they are doing and have someone to talk to before making
impulsive decisions." He recommends that teens look to
guidance counsellors, teachers, coaches, parents (yours or your
peer's) and mentors (Big Brothers & Sisters of Canada) as
natural sources for healthy support. Sheldon also advocates
that teens get involved in organizations where there is a positive
influence, structure, and direction. Youth groups, clubs, organizations
such as scouts and pathfinders, community volunteer work, as
well as organized sports allow you to be "well rounded
while teaching you about making good decisions." Self-responsibility
means surrounding yourself with positive influences. Since it
is true that what you think about most you become, it is extremely
important that you align yourself with people who can help you
become something great.
Joshua* (not his real name) is another 15 year
old who has spent the last 3 1/2 months in a secure custody
facility. He has 3 more months of his sentence to serve before
being released. This is his second offense. Joshua explains,
"I was charged as an accomplice even though I didn't know
my friend was going to rob someone until it actually happened."
He spoke with me about how he has changed over the last three
and a half months. "I've matured a lot. I am starting to
think clearly. I know what to do when I get out. I am going
to get a part time job, go back to school, and stay out of trouble.
I used to think about what I'm going to do today and not worry
about tomorrow. Now, I'm thinking ahead and looking at my future."
Joshua offers these words of advice for other
youth who are getting into trouble, "I'm not going to preach
I would suggest that you get your head straight. Make sure that
you know what you are doing. I never thought I'd end up here
it can happen to you."
Important for all youth to remember, is that
what you do now - your actions and behaviors, does affect the
rest of your life. Even something as simple as getting good
grades will open doors for future possibilities. Having goals
to work toward, and spending time thinking about your future
are important aspects of self-responsibility.
Lisa Chotowetz, a Social Worker at Kennedy House
Youth Centre in Uxbridge, Ontario, maintains that, "if
teens really want to change and do well, they can achieve that
here." While in detention, youth attend school every day,
and participate in structured programs that accommodate their
individual needs. Yet, their future is ultimately up to them.
While Lisa, like other Social Workers in similar facilities
carry a large caseload (Lisa had 19 youth on her caseload when
we spoke), their role is to work individually with the teens
to: address factors which led them to offend, provide supportive
counselling, assist with family issues, and facilitate goal
setting for when youth are released either to an open facility
(group home), or the family home.
Kennedy House teaches self-responsibility by
exposing youth to a graduated consequence system. As John Scott,
Program Supervisor explains, "a graduated consequence system
means that they control their own fate. We only respond or react
to what they don't do." John describes one of the goals
at Kennedy House as creating positive change through behavior
modification. "By teaching them to get into the 'habit'
of making their bed, or referring to adults as 'Ms' or 'Mr',
you are creating habits that hopefully will remain habits when
they get out."
Family, Community and the Media
Sheldon Schleiffer maintains that half of his job is already
done if parents are willing to get help. Yet, many parents are
still in denial. "They think that this is an isolated incident
that is going to go away on its own. A lot of the time it doesn't."
Sheldon reminds parents that "usually the school has picked
up on a child's history of behavioral problems or delinquency
early on. The issues, however, don't always get addressed by
the parents." The reason? Sheldon, himself a parent of
two teenage girls, insists that, "it is very difficult
for parents to admit that it's their own kid. They tend to blame
the school system." Sheldon encourages parents to advocate
for services within the school system before their child gets
into trouble. "Parents need to look for solutions that
can help them such as modified programs or special education
Similarly, Lisa Chotowetz sees a need for more
community support and more transition planning. "While
the youth may work on his or her issues in youth detention,
often they go back to the same environment and the same circle
of friends. There needs to be changes made within the family
in order for the changes to be longer lived. The teen may have
good intentions, good expectations and high hopes that things
will be different. Yet, the truth is that if they return to
the same environment with all of a sudden no support, no one
pushing them to do well, and no positive feedback, they often
re-offend right away. Some basic needs are not being met out
there." Changes within the family may include changing
less effective parenting habits, establishing consistent rules
and discipline in the home, and family counselling.
According to John Scott, whose career at Kennedy
House has spanned 28 years, "80-95% of youth that we see
come from broken homes." The modern family lacks many of
the supports of the nuclear and extended families of twenty-five
years ago. Because many parents work outside of the home, teens
are expected to become self-responsible but perhaps without
the skills or knowledge to do so. Daniel's father agrees, and
claims that "single parents are overwhelmed. It's a horrendously
difficult job to raise kids."
One of the solutions posed by Daniel's father
(who took matters into his own hands and hired a therapist to
provide treatment while his son was in custody), is to teach
teens skills. "It is important for teens to learn how to
think. We also need to teach kids Cognitive Therapy -- it's
incredibly useful." Daniel's father also faults the media
as, "giving us a very poor example of how teens should
be. We see teens being rude with each other and there are no
consequences. The media portrays authority figures in television
shows as not really deserving respect." John Scott recalls
that, 'it used to be the average kid that got caught doing something
wrong. Now we are seeing horrendous crimes." John attributes
this to the fact that "we've lost a fundamental respect
toward people." As youth, if we want to be respected, both
by our peers, as well as adults, we need to be respectful of
others. That is a basic life lesson for all of us to practice.
Cognitive Therapy Explained
Cognitive Therapy is one of the most widely
researched and practiced psychotherapies in the world today.
Cognitive Therapists work with clients to understand the origin
of problems by assessing thoughts, (beliefs, images, memories),
moods, behaviors, physical reactions, and environment (past
and present). Cognitive Therapy places particular emphasis
on identifying and evaluating thoughts and on behavioral change.
The process of Cognitive Therapy allows you to bring meaning
and understanding to your life experiences, and subsequently
you develop effective ways of solving problems. While originally
developed to treat depression, Cognitive Therapy is used to
successfully treat anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, relationship
issues, alcohol and drug dependence and abuse, eating disorders,
and a wide range of other issues clients bring to therapy.
Self-responsibility begins out of self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is the ability to be
comfortable with who you are, as how you currently are. While
the majority of teenage years are spent trying to be accepted
and respected by peers, truly the most important person that
needs to accept and respect you - is you. Self-acceptance often
takes years to actualize yet it remains a fundamental component
of self-esteem and self-concept (how you see yourself and how
you feel about yourself).
If you can be happy with aspects of yourself,
the acceptance and respect of others will be far less important.
Practicing self-acceptance also comes from acknowledging your
accomplishments and achievements, personal triumphs, and most
importantly, 'being compassionate with yourself'. Allowing yourself
to be who you are in the presence of others, and being honest
with yourself about what you want for your life are two incredibly
valuable life lessons.
Websites to Check Out
OACCPP Ontario Association for Counsellors, Consultants, Psychometrists
and Psychotherapists to locate a Psychotherapist in your area
who specializes in Cognitive Therapy
Ontario Association for Marriage and Family
Therapy (a division of the American Association of Marriage
and Family Therapy www.aamft.org)
Canadian Psychological Association
Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada
For info on the Youth Criminal Justice Act
Dorothy Ratusny, B.Sc., M.A., (C). OACCPP is
a Psychotherapist in Toronto, specializing in Cognitive Therapy.
Dorothy works with adolescents and teens, as well as adults
and couples on a wide range of issues. You may contact her directly
at (416) 490-9970 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*While the stories are real,
the names of the teens and their families have been changed
in order to maintain confidentiality.