Summer for teenagers is often a time of new life experiences. But parents often fear kids may develop bad habits during the months of relatively unstructured activity.
A new program aims to help adults and teens learn to use summer as a time when teens expand their boundaries yet develop positive life behaviors to aid the community.
Elaine Johannes, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, said, “Adults often don’t get it; it is the teenager’s job to push the envelope.”
“If teenagers don’t push a few things and take risks, then they won’t be able to develop their identity, which is one of the primary tasks of being a teenager.”
Johannes isn’t out to promote negative behaviors such as sexting, binge drinking, drug use or other criminal activity. But she believes the key to preventing teens from participating in those activities are adults who can be positive role models to help teens develop healthy lifestyles.
“People have spent their whole profession trying to answer the question, ‘How do we keep teens away from drugs, alcohol and early sexual activity?” Johannes said. “The research has been clear that programs designed to prevent negative behaviors often don’t do sustainable good.
“We need to flip it and emphasize positive development and help adults in the community to become champions by modeling the good behaviors, values and philosophies we want teens to develop.”
For the past four years, Johannes has worked with small communities across the state of Kansas as part of the “Get It, Do It” program. The program awards small grants to communities that are engaging teens and adults to work together on a healthy lifestyle project and build social capital in their community.
Social capital is the interactions among people for mutual support. It can take two forms: bonding, which is among people within a group – such as between teenagers – and bridging, which is the interaction among people across different groups – such as a teenager and an adult.
Johannes is mainly focusing on bridging. This summer she is interviewing adults and teenagers who have participated in the “Get It, Do It” program to see what worked, what did not and the effects the program has had on increasing social capital in the community.
“The more you have a teenager feeling engaged and seeing that the fruits of their work actually improve their community, the more they will take pride in their community,” Johannes said. “It turns out teenagers like hanging with these adults, and when adults foster engagement with youth, they also like teenagers and they see the teens as leaders, not burdens.”
According to Johannes, increasing a community’s social capital will reduce an adult’s stereotypical view of teenagers as problems. It also decreases teens’ likelihood to partake in risky behavior, which increases if they are isolated and bored.
Activities such as after-school programs, summer programs or summer jobs provide teens with adult role models, community interaction and activities.
With the slow economy alternate activities have become less available to the average teenager especially in economically depressed areas, Johannes said.
“Kids took the biggest hit when the economy downturned because adults have the summer jobs that kids used to have,” Johannes said. “So what do teens do when they can’t learn job skills and they can’t pay for their gas and entertainment?
They become bored, isolated and depressed. Imagine the situation of many rural teens who don’t have jobs, don’t have transportation or don’t have access to interesting, engaging activities. This can certainly lead them to want to escape through risky behaviors.”
Accordingly, role modeling by adults in rural communities is especially important. Adults are also encouraged to ask teens for their views on how to make their community a more attractive place for young people.
This can change by providing the right resources, support and encouragement, Johnannes said, so that many adults in Kansas could become champions for teens in rural communities.
“When the adults model that good stuff for our youth, our communities thrive,” she said.
Source: Kansas State University