Sometimes children and teens hide behind a mask, feigning self confidence and boldness when in truth they feel vulnerable and are in need. These masks are hard to recognize until the cheerful and resilient youth gets into trouble, abuse substances, or have an emotional or physical outburst.
In his book Real Boys, William Pollack proposes that parents can get behind the mask with the following steps:
- Become sensitive to the early signs of a change such as substance abuse, poor grades, symptoms of depression, rowdy behavior, or becoming a perpetrator or victim of violence.
- Ask questions in a way that does not make a young person feel ashamed or afraid; instead of asking “What were you thinking?” ask, “Are you okay – what’s going on, can you tell me?”
- Accept that youth, just like adults, have their own “emotional schedules” – give the youth time to sort out their thoughts and open up to you.
- Connect through action – instead of having a sit down conversation in the living room, go for a walk or play a game, engage in an activity together that creates a connection and makes the youth feel comfortable to share.
- Share stories about your own experiences, show you can relate and empathize with the experience and associated feelings, showing that you understand and respect the youth.
Schools can get behind the mask by providing you with a mentor. One of the youth in our group homes found a mentor at his high school and the relationship has made an immeasurable difference in his overall well-being. Another youth in our foster care program found a mentor at school in his football coach who has helped him develop a sense a belonging and a sense of community, and inspired this young man to invest in himself.
Everyone has the ability to make a big difference in a young person’s life. We need to be aware of changing behaviors, anticipate challenging situations and provide support, and don’t always believe that “everything’s alright.”