Do you have a middle schooler? Lexington expert advises parents on helping kids cope

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comAugust 8, 2012 

  • To learn more

    Dr. Hatim Omar is organizing an all-day conference: Staying Alive Kentucky 2012, Responding to Youth in Crisis, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21. Registration is $75 for physicians; $60 for health professionals; and $10 for students, parents, UK faculty and others. Contact Nicole Lyvers at nabrow0@email.uky.edu or (859) 257-1160.

Michelle Coates sat in the front row of class, diligently filling lined paper with neat notes on how to survive sixth grade.

Or, more precisely, how to help her sixth-grader survive.

Coates' oldest son, Griffin, is starting at Lexington's Winburn Middle School next Wednesday, and "it's all new to me," she said.

Dr. Hatim Omar, who runs an adolescent clinic at the University of Kentucky, spent an hour Wednesday speaking to parents as part of a daylong parents' boot camp at Winburn.

Omar guided Coates and about 30 other parents through the challenges of raising adolescents — generally ages 11 to 14.

His frank talk ranged from the standard parental worries about kids' exposure to drugs and sex to more emerging dangers. For example, inhaling household chemicals for a high, called huffing, is on the rise.

In his UK clinic, Omar said, he is seeing more and more kids who've been harmed by the "choking game," and some teens have died. Also called "suffocation roulette," it involves near-strangulation with a belt or scarf to achieve a brief "high." It deprives the brain of oxygen and can prove deadly if a child passes out while trussed up.

Most of the time, these activities attract high-achieving students, "good kids" who think these types of risks are harmless because they don't involve drugs or breaking the law, he said.

That mentality points to the challenge of dealing with adolescents, he said. They look increasingly like adults, but the part of their brain that thinks of long-term consequences is not yet completely wired. They are growing into the bodies of adults and are coping with surging hormones, "only their brains have not caught up."

Omar cautioned that it's wrong to assume that today's kids are any worse than those of previous generations. He quoted Plato, Confucius and William Shakespeare all bemoaning the youth of their day. The Bard wrote: "I wish there was no age between 10 and 23."

Today's kids do face new challenges, Omar said. Families tend to be more isolated from neighbors and relatives, and technology amps up everything from bullying to marketing pressure to buy the next cool thing.

Sending a child into middle school without having talked through issues including sex, drugs and peer pressure "is like going to stay in the jungle when you don't know how to camp."

"The lions will kill you," he said.

That doesn't mean parents should lecture, said Omar, who has a teenage son. It means helping children prepare a strategy for coping with what is almost inevitable.

Talk to them, for example, about what they might do if someone starts drinking alcohol at a party or if they're being pressured to have sex.

This is where parents have to do some work themselves, he said. Universally, parents don't want to think their children will experiment with drugs or sex, or feel the stabbing despair that can lead to suicide.

He has rarely met a parent who doesn't think "not my kid," he said. But most kids cope with those things to some degree, and they need a parent's help to work through it.

He knows it's hard when you are talking with a teen and get back only that thousand-yard stare that says, "Really, you're still talking?"

But, he said, "even when your kid looks like they don't listen, they do hear you. They do care. They keep in the back of their mind what you've said."

The teen years can seem treacherous, he said, and there are three things that children need to make it through: They need an adult who cares about them, they need a safe place to be connected with people, and they need be involved in an activity they enjoy.

For Coates, boot camp "was eye-opening," and she felt better equipped to broach difficult subjects with her son after hearing Omar.

T.C. Johnson, Winburn's youth services coordinator, said parent boot camp was added to coincide with student boot camp a few years ago. She saw too many parents who just didn't know where to start in dealing with their teens, she said. As she told the group after Omar finished his session, "the most important part of this is sharing with other parents."

"We've got to get this word out," she said.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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