How a Bad Apple can change a School

Rotten Apple

Most of the stats that we include on our site, in our blogs, or in our classroom instruction refer to the general population of the US. While they are generally accurate, and I can confidently say they reflect many if not most situations, there are always exceptions. We teach at over 35 schools whose health classes vary in size from 5 (yes, 5) to 90. In almost a decade of experience, I have seen a school’s cultural attitudes about sex shift in both positive and negative ways. My experience has taught me a lot about the power of one Bad Apple.

In any given school climate, regardless of how hard teachers, parents, and administrators have worked to instill good values in their students, you occasionally run across a cluster of kids making poor decisions at a disproportionately greater rate. This can happen in both public and private schools, though ironically I find the power of a Bad Apple is more potent in the private schools, simply because they are smaller. It might look like this: at a middle school that almost always has “good” kids, where hardly anyone has actually had sex, suddenly a class comes along that misbehaves more in 6th grade, rebels more when they get to 7th grade, and by 8th grade, the principal is dealing with cases of oral chlamydia.

I don’t have time or space to dissect the sociology behind the phenomenon, but I do want to discuss what parents should consider and how they can help inoculate their child against it. First, I should say that there isn’t always just one “Bad Apple.” I use the term to refer to how an attitude or idea can slowly seep into a population and turn an otherwise positive culture into an unhealthy one. It might start with one person, but one could rarely actually pinpoint that person. So be slow to point fingers.

Parents do need to recognize, however, that the power of a bad apple makes it impossible to completely shield their child from negative influences. For example, I had a friend whose parents sent her to a Christian school, hoping for the environment to shield her from the worst of popular culture. In hindsight, however, she had a harder time making good choices than a similar friend at a public school. In the small, private school, a few bad apples had introduce and normalized oral sex among the students. My friend had been taught to follow the Christian culture of her school, so when oral sex was normalized among her supposedly Christian peers, she felt like it was okay to go along with it. In contrast, my friend at the public school had been taught not to go along with the crowd and to expect to stand out (she was also from a strong Christian family), so when her friends started engaging in oral sex, she figured it was another thing to avoid rather than follow.

The difference between the two is that my friend in the private school had not been taught to recognize and steer clear of the influence of a bad apple. When parents ignore the possibility that an otherwise positive, healthy culture can suddenly become hijacked by a bad apple, they can fail to teach their child to make good decisions despite an unhealthy culture.

What can you do? Talk to your teenager about how the poor decisions of others can influence their thinking, normalizing unhealthy behavior. Here is an example of a small high school of about 300 that suddenly faced 20 cases of Chlamydia. My guess is that a bad apple influenced the school’s cultural attitudes about sex, resulting in high rates of risky behavior. Would your teen know what to do if 20 of their friends were making unhealthy decisions? How would they respond?

Parents Survival Guide to 50 Shades of Grey

Dr. Grossman
Dr. Grossman speaks out about the dangers of unhealthy portrayals of sex in movies like “50 Shades of Grey.”

Miriam Grossman is a psychiatrist, author and speaker who has been speaking out about the dangers of unhealthy portrayals of sex in media. Her books are included on our list of resources for parents. I was recently made aware of a series of blog posts she is producing for parents leading up to the Valentine’s Day release of 50 Shades of Grey. You may want to check them out here!

Family Ups and Downs

I often receive questions from parents about how to communicate less than perfect personal and family histories to teens. As we’ve been talking about sharing family narratives with children, many parents out there are probably thinking of a few stories they’d rather not tell. There may even be whole sides of the family that you don’t want to encourage your teen to spend time with due to the potential for bad influences. This week, we’ll examine ways to talk about the family ups and downs.

The same research that looked at the importance of teens knowing a lot about their families also looked at the types of stories told. There were the positive family narratives, of how the family just keeps getting better. The negative stories of how a family lost everything. And then, there are the oscillating narratives, which are the healthiest, according to the researchers:

“‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

When a teen sees himself as part of something bigger, he can take on the experiences of previous generations as his own. When that bigger picture includes good times and bad, a teen can develop a sense of being able to overcome – to ride the ups and downs in her own life just like the generations have been riding the ups and downs of the family. That healthy sense of being able to navigate both successes and failures without being defined by either one can build confidence and resilience.

The upshot is, less than perfect families still benefit from sharing their stories and building a family identity. Yes, it is important to look for positive stories – or at least a positive spin on some of the stories that are harder to tell. But it isn’t actually helpful to pretend like the hard times didn’t exist. Sharing the lessons learned from a job loss, a divorce, or a family member’s drug addiction can be invaluable for a teen.

That being said, sharing the negative stories can require some finesse. Here is a helpful blog with 5 suggestions for successfully sharing past mistakes with kids. In cases of family members who provide a bad influence, it may help to find ways to incorporate those family members’ stories into the bigger narrative without necessarily encouraging your child to spend time with them or see them as a role model.

Furthermore, it is occasionally necessary for a parent to experience emotional healing or closure before he or she is able to share pieces of family history in a healthy way. This relates closely with #1 from the above link. If a parent has never processed the pain of a past mistake or past wrong with an adult, it is unlikely that they are ready to discuss it with their children. In the case of larger issues (abuse, divorce, a past abortion) it may even be necessary to seek professional counseling or a support group before sharing with your children.

Using Movies to Talk to Teens

OReel of Filmne of my favorite summer activities was (and still is) watching movies. Whether it is catching up on older movies no longer in theaters or splurging on seeing the latest blockbuster (and enjoying the theater’s air conditioning), summers and movies go together like macaroni and cheese. Since we at Amplify are always looking for ways to help you in the daunting task of raising teens, I’d like to share with you a great way to use movies this summer to have meaningful conversations with your children.

Amplify Youth Development has created a free e-course called “Using Movies to Talk to Teens.” If you sign up, you will receive two emails a week for the next five weeks. One email discusses strategies for how to effectively use movies to address difficult topics with your teen. The second email each week discusses a specific film and which topics could be addressed with your child during or after viewing the film together. The movies included are all available to rent or from your local library and cover topics such as bullying, pregnancy, dating and marriage, and internet safety.

You can learn more or sign up here. There is no cost for this e-course! Comment below if you have any questions or to share your experiences with the movies.

STD Prevention that starts early — but not how you think!

STD prevention can, and should, start in elementary school — but not by distributing condoms or teaching explicit sex ed. Data from the University of Washington looked at risk factors from early in life that predicted a higher number of STDs during the later teen years. There have been many correlations drawn between early sexual debut (the definition of “early” in this study was before age 15) and higher numbers of sexual partners as well as higher numbers of STDs. According the article, “Of youth in the study who became sexually active before age 15, more – about a third – had an STD compared with about 16 percent of those who were older when they started having sex.”

Correlations were also found between youth who grew up in well-managed households with rules, discipline and rewards and later sexual debut. Students who were engaged in school and had positive feelings towards school and their teachers were also less likely to have sex early, as well as students whose friends did not get into trouble. So the secret ingredients to STD prevention (or, some of them, anyway) seem to be a positive, well-managed home environment, strong school engagement, and friends who have a positive influence. Not a huge surprise to those who work with youth, but helpful information nonetheless.

What can YOU do? If you are a parent, continue to learn about positive models of discipline, and don’t shy away from the tough battles during the early teen years. Some of the critical years looked at in the study were ages 10-14. Also, try to find support from one or two other parents who can encourage you in your disciplinary efforts. Raising teens is HARD. You’ll need friends who can act as both coach and cheerleader to make your job a *little* easier.

If you are NOT a parent, look for ways to support positive youth development in your community. Support local schools, volunteer with after school programs, or simply be a friendly, encouraging face to the teens bagging your groceries.

And if you have influence in the community or local school system, support programs that encourage early family engagement and youth development — as early as elementary school. Find ways to encourage teachers and administrators to create positive school environments and fund efforts at early intervention. The earliest STD prevention may look nothing at all like sex education, but if you can help families start off on the right foot and get students engaged in school, it makes a difference!

Questions Teens Have About Sex

Perusing the internet for ideas for this blog, I could’t help but notice how MUCH interest teens have in sex.  Not like it’s a surprise or anything…but they certainly are curious!  So, parents, who’s going to fill them in?  Their peers are certainly giving advice, much of which you wouldn’t agree with.  TV shows aimed at teens tell them what’s “supposed” to be normal…often not messages you’d like your teen to absorb.  Or they may look online, and that would open up a whole world of mostly bad ideas.  SO…how about YOU giving them some answers?  You could wait forever for your teen to approach you.  So be proactive.  As always, look for opportunities, and be prepared by thinking through how you want to address questions you teen might have about sex and dating.  Here are some questions teens have, according to National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:

  • How do I know if I’m in love?
  • Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • How will I know when I’m ready to have sex?
  • Should I wait until marriage?
  • Will having sex make me popular?
  • Will it make me more grown-up and open up more adult activities to me?
  • How do I tell my boyfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him or hurting his feelings?
  • How do I manage pressure from my girlfriend to have sex?

It wouldn’t be too hard to think of a LOT more questions teens have, but this is a good start.  Remember, expressing a strong expectation that your teen will wait to have sex, makes it more likely that he or she will!  But helping teens think through the reasons WHY waiting is healthier is the best way to make your advice hit home.

I Can’t Trust My Child Anymore

I never thought I’d find myself quoting Lady Gaga, but I like this (edited for decency) saying:  “Trust is like a mirror:  You can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that reflection.”  I know what she means.  Once our child loses our trust, it’s VERY hard to get it back.  In a real way, the person I thought my son or daughter was, is no more.  My image of my happy family has perhaps even been shattered.  The betrayal (even when forgiveness has been asked and given) can color our every upcoming interaction with our child.  Do I really know her?  Is he telling the truth…today?  Or lying again?  I’ve even wondered (maybe you’ve been there too)…will this cloud ever lift?

Our children will let us down.  They will deeply disappoint us. They are our greatest joy, and the cause of our greatest pain.  But their future is not written yet.  They need us to believe they can change…and to give them the hope that they can and will be restored in their relationship with us.  But they have a job to do too…and it’s to work hard at regaining our trust.  I found a great article that answers a teen’s question “I Lost My Parent’s Trust. How Can I Get it Back?”  If your teen is frustrated because things aren’t “back to normal,” this can help them understand what they need to do…and why it takes time.  Talking over the article could help the healing, and set the family on the path back to trusting them again.

Supervision and Communication Critical to Reducing Teen Sex

After again perusing the literature about teen sexual activity, I’ve culled out a few bits of helpful information in list form.  These facts may help you as a parent, as you guide your teen:

  • Most teen sexual activity happens in the boy’s home, the girl’s home, or a friend’s home.
  • Teens who date earlier, have sex earlier, and have more partners.  They also are more likely to contract STDs and get pregnant.
  • A teen who dates someone 2 years or more older is much more likely to have sex, and get pregnant.
  • More teens lose their virginity in December and June than other months. (Lack of supervision? Prom?)

And finally, to give you some ideas for positive “action items,”

  • Teens whose parents monitored them more closely were less likely to become sexually active.
  • Teens who had more family activities (including family dinners) per week were more likely to abstain from sex.
  • Teens whose parents communicated the risks of sexual activity and expressed the expectation that their teen would wait, were less likely to have sex.

For more helpful facts about parental influence on teens’ sexual choices, click HERE

Talking About Sex: How Parents Handle the Conversation (Part 2)

At the last parent presentation I did, a parent asked for advice on how to talk to a VERY reluctant teen.  It seemed that this teen stonewalled, disappeared…in short did anything possible to avoid having any talks about sex and dating.  I remembered an insight from the article,  referred to in past blogs, about parent-teen conversations about sex.  The authors pointed out that some teens may be “embarrassed, uncomfortable, are afraid of tarnishing their parent’s image of them, and do not want to be judged or looked down upon.”  With that in mind, and remembering the tactics of some parents in the study, I suggested this strategy:  Talk about someone else.  It is much easier to discuss “that poor girl who was drinking and driving and killed her best friend who was in the passenger seat” or to mention “Remember Danny, who you used to play with when you were in grade school?  I heard his girlfriend had to drop out of school because she’s pregnant.”  The conversation (and parental input) can then continue in the context of someone else’s poor choices, in a much less direct way.  It is assuredly best to be direct, but for those teens who just can’t bear the embarrassment of talking about such things with Mom or Dad…give the indirect route a shot.

What makes teens happy?

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