BUILD PROTECTION AGAINST RISKY BEHAVIOR

04/23/2015  |  By Charles Mendez III
SEL
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Where would we be without goals? When we are convinced things in life happen to us and not by us, we surrender to the choices and priorities of others. Without claiming a stake in our own future, we become drones obediently consuming information to populate a worldview designed by others. This is not to suggest malice on any party, but instead, without a thoughtful consideration of what we are exposed to, we assign ourselves to follow the tune of the piper. 

Is risky behavior only catalyzed by outside pressure? It probably is not. Pressure can also come from within, and it often does.

We are social creatures for sure. The thoughts and behaviors of the people in our lives influence the thoughts and behaviors we develop as we mature from childhood into adulthood.

Adolescents equipped with higher social emotional competencies are more likely to value themselves and their opportunities. It is essential, then, for us to teach adolescents from an early age to recognize and apply their capacity to set and fulfill reachable goals. The willingness to stake a claim in one’s own future provides something to lose, something to protect. If their future holds promise, the choices they make suddenly have more relevance, because they are more interested in the outcome. A capacity for self-awareness enables adolescents to see where their priorities align with and differ from those of their peers and others around them. They will in turn have more confidence to pursue their goals, which will ultimately lead to better decision-making.

Adolescents who set reachable goals also develop a more positive expectation for their own futures. The intrinsic confidence to reach the goals they set provides a sense of hope. Certainly the capacity to set and reach goals does not remove significant social and financial obstacles, but obstacles can only be overcome through the resolve to try. And in many cases to try, fail, and try again. Of course, the support and encouragement of the adults in their lives maximizes the effect of this capacity.

Once the spark has been lit to inspire their aspirations, adolescents can begin to reach higher as the fundamental elements of setting and reaching goals can be scaled to larger, more complex, and life-affecting ambitions.

To be sure, these ideas are not particularly novel when applied to an adult. Years of experiences, maturity, education, and trial and error inform adults to think through their decisions in order to protect their desired outcomes as well as other assets. The development of this capacity in children, beginning with the fundamentals at a young age and with systematic development through adolescence, attempts to frontload the capacity of the adult into the adolescent.

So, how do these skills and characteristics help build protection against risky behaviors? Adolescents with higher social emotional competencies,including the capacity to set and fulfill reachable goals coupled with increased self-awareness and social-awareness, are better able to navigate external influences as well as the internal influences of thoughts and emotions. The confidence and self-worth that comes from the capacity to do for oneself can provide a foundation for other positive social and emotional constructs to work.

The idea of resistance in prevention education posits that adolescents and young adults equipped with the knowledge of the negative effects of substance use will see its incompatibility with their health goals and other life priorities. Children, teens, and adults make more thoughtful decisions regarding substance use when they put their goals into the context of short-term decisions about use. Understanding the direct effect short term decisions have on long term goals provides a clarity to the decision making process. Consider, for example, the long dreaded bogeyman of peer pressure. We have all seen the posters, ads, and afterschool specials depicting the innocent pressured vigorously to join in on the fun the other kids are having. “Go on, everyone is doing it. You know you want to be cool like us.” Without a clear expectation of what saying “no” would provide, or for that matter what saying “yes” would provide, the argument to resist is weakened. Coupled with a lack of ways to get out of the situation, it becomes easier to give in. However, children equipped with the capacity to evaluate their priorities over the influence of negative peer pressure are in a sense inoculated against the effect of the pressure.

Is risky behavior only catalyzed by outside pressure? It probably is not. Pressure can also come from within, and it often does. The behavior of those we admire or aspire to be like has a huge influence on the goals we set and the choices we make. Of course, we are not always conscious of our silent admiration. Instead, we almost pathologically model the behaviors we attribute to the success of those we admire. Social emotional competency enables the presence of mind we all need to evaluate the consequences of our decisions. The trick is to turn that light on in adolescents early so they can begin to see what is happening.

Take for example the young teen that wants to join a group of popular boys. He has noticed they meet regularly behind the gym to sneak a smoke. Associating behavior with status, the teen assumes smoking to be an entry point to this group. He determines he should smoke so he will be perceived to be like these boys. At that moment, the behavior of the other boys influenced the teen’s decision making. The boys are not directly pressuring him to smoke; rather it is his own internal desire to be accepted by the group that prompts him forward. In this way, the teen is thinking of the “positive” outcome of smoking as an entryway to the group, rather than the real negative health consequences of smoking. Without a capacity to evaluate his thoughts and emotions and how they are driving his decision to smoke, this internal influence could turn into smoking quite easily.

Now consider the above scenario but with a confident teen who has set a solid, reachable goal for himself. He is much more likely to reflect on the negative consequences of smoking instead of simply yielding to what seems appealing in the moment. Future plans are at stake. The cross country runner knows his lungs will be impaired, limiting his endurance and performance, and the college bound student knows the ramifications of getting caught smoking on school grounds could result in suspension and compromise his grades.

Adolescents who bond with and associate with pro-social peers are more influenced to engage in positive behaviors as they assimilate the positive social norms of the positive peer group. Like often attracts like, and those who have set goals for themselves are prone to being drawn to others who are striving toward their own goals. They are stimulated by others who share their level of drive. Pro-social bonding keeps adolescents in check with their aspirations, because positive peers inspire one another to keep moving forward by deflecting harmful risks. Positive peers challenge each other when they make poor choices or are about to do so.

Social-emotional skills are interlinked, hinging on one another to prepare the child for life’s challenges and opportunities.Setting reachable goals leads to responsible decision-making, which enhances resistance to negative peer-pressure while promoting pro-social bonding. The development of these skill sets is fundamental to building protection against risky behaviors, because adolescents who think for themselves are less likely to veer off their own course due to the influence of others. With social-emotional skill sets firmly in place, adolescents can lay claim to their futures with a realistic expectation of success.

Charles E Mendez III is the managing director of the C.E. Mendez Foundation. For more information, visit www.mendezfoundation.org
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