Could we be in the midst of that rarest of events — a genuine cultural tipping point? Well, maybe.
We women — and yes, I take the liberty of speaking for almost every one of us throughout the land — may have sighed wearily about the sexual harassment being described every day in the media, but we haven’t been surprised. Not really. Being female in this society (or perhaps any society) is to know intuitively, in your bones, where you exist in the hierarchy, at least relative to powerful senior men. So nothing really unexpected here. Men, even men we like and respect, can exploit their power. We’re still, as a species, learning to be civilized.
But things change, if ever so slowly. At Youth Catalytics, we’re thrilled that women (and some men, too) are speaking out about how they’ve been victimized. We also know that the group with the smallest voice and greatest vulnerability probably won’t be heard at all. We’re talking about teenage girls and young women.
About 10 years ago, we started hearing from our direct-service colleagues that the girls in their programs were facing new pressures to look and act in sexual ways. Sometimes these were young girls, still in grade school. While children in state care had always been at higher risk of sexual abuse than other kids, with all the attending behavioral fallout, it seemed like something new was happening. Something in the culture, perhaps.
So we began exploring the social forces that shape both girls’ attitudes about gender and sexuality, and the consequences for poor girls in particular. Using ‘Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girl,’ the 2007 study from the American Psychological Association as a starting point, we investigated what young women, social service providers and academics were thinking and doing about the issue.
‘What Are We Doing to Girls? The Early Sexualization Phenomenon and How Communities are Responding‘ was the result. We went on to conduct a girls’ video and photovoice project and to partner with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Vermont on a public service campaign aimed at parents and other adults in girls’ lives. (Why a state Attorney General’s office? Because it’s nearly impossible to catch and prosecute all of the out-of-state internet predators who manipulate and exploit girls online. Since the creeps are out there and they’re not stopping, the idea was to strengthen girls’ resistance to them.)
We also began a news roundup, collecting all media and academic reports of approaches that lawmakers, schools, communities, and social service agencies are taking to early sexualization.
We invite all organizations working with girls and young women to tell us what they’re doing to advance the healthy development of girls. If you’ve got an approach that recognizes and challenges the negative forces affecting girls, we want to know about it and share it. (Click ‘share what you know.’)
~ YC Research Director Melanie Wilson
*Photo by Chloe Hotaling, YC Girls’ Photovoice Project.
It’s not hard to create environments that actually spur young people’s emotional growth. In some ways, it’s simple and intuitive. But you do need to learn the basics.
That’s why Cindy Carraway-Wilson, Youth Catalytics’ Director of Training, is adding a new topic to her roster of trainings. Designed for faculty, staff and volunteers in schools, charter schools, afterschool programs, and residential and group homes, Mindful Classrooms, Developing Minds introduces participants to the ways that using mindfulness activities can benefit children, teens and young adults (as well as adult professionals) in any learning environment.
The body of research demonstrating links between mindfulness activities and social-emotional wellness, well-being and self-efficacy in both children and adults has been developing for over a decade. More recent research into the use of mindfulness in schools also suggests it can improve students’ academic performance. We at Youth Catalytics first began researching spirituality in youth programming 15 years ago by examining the kinds of spiritual practices that youth-serving organizations already offered to youth and whether they found them beneficial. Two follow-up reports explored how vulnerable young people themselves reported experiencing spiritual pursuits (both secular and religious), and how and why some agencies considered spiritually based practices to be an important component to any holistic therapeutic approach.
Our work sparked a partnership with Talk About Wellness (TAW), a Vermont-based initiative operating from 2004-2016 that brought mindfulness training to teachers throughout the state and other parts of New England. Conducting two evaluations of TAW’s impact on participants and writing their wrap-up report further convinced us of the promise mindfulness holds in promoting young people’s healthy development.
Cindy has 20 years of experience in the youth services field and is an expert trainer in positive youth development, youth engagement, asset building, LGBTQ+ issues and resilience. She’s been at the forefront of bringing the phenomenal new Youth Thrive model to audiences around the country. (She’s also a licensed Pilates instructor and trainer in her home state of Maine … just sayin’). With the release of TAW’s final report, Cindy was inspired to weave adolescent brain development, elements of Youth Thrive, and mindfulness research into a practical training for adults working with young people.
If that’s you … then this is a transformative learning experience you need.
Cindy Carraway-Wilson can be reached at (207) 319-6009 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ Jen Smith, Research & Communications Associate
For 40 years, Youth Catalytics’ sole mission has been to improve the well-being of vulnerable young people. Almost always, that’s involved strengthening organizations in direct contact with youth — schools, foster care systems, mentoring programs, homeless shelters, jobs programs, juvenile justice services. These settings differ in important ways, but in a fundamental sense, they’re all attempting to do the same thing: give disadvantaged young people the chance for a better future.
In our work, we’ve developed deep expertise in youth homelessness, adolescent brain development, trauma-informed care, and social-emotional well-being. In the last five years, we’ve come to specialize in another area as well: teen pregnancy prevention.
That’s why we’re so pleased to announce that, this summer, we were awarded a grant by the federal Office of Adolescent Health to help teen pregnancy prevention programs improve the way they communicate with local communities, families, researchers and funders. We join four other organizations — Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, the University of Massachusetts/Donahue Institute, EngenderHealth, and the University of Michigan/Adolescent Health Initiative — in growing the overall capacity of these programs, helping them be more efficient and effective.
Individually and as a group, we will be supporting 84 organizations around the country working with 1.2 million youth in a wide array of settings, including elementary, middle and high schools, alternative schools, college, after-school programs, teen health clinics, and foster care and juvenile detention systems. Together these organizations are implementing 27 different evidence-based pregnancy prevention programs. Twenty-four organizations are rigorously testing new approaches, and two are developing entirely new programs.
Why is this work important? In 2010-2014, OAH’s very first cohort of pregnancy prevention grantees delivered services to almost 500,000 young people. (Youth Catalytics was among that cohort, leading delivery of the Teen Outreach Program® to high-risk foster care youth in Connecticut.) In those five years, the national teen pregnancy rate fell by 29%. Were these programs alone responsible for that impressive drop? Probably not. But they certainly helped. By funding only programs that actually work, and aiming them narrowly at the subpopulations of youth most at risk of early pregnancy, OAH has created a culture of scientific legitimacy around sexuality education, taking it out of the realm of morality and into the realm of public health. And that’s been good for youth, their families and their communities.
Simply put, these programs matter. Because they’re important, helping programs operate with fidelity, establish community support, communicate their successes to others, and sustain themselves when the project is over is important, too. That’s what our work is about. We can’t wait to get started.
Adults are okay, if you have to spend your days doing professional things. But lots of times, I miss young people.
I was reminded of that while flipping through evaluations from one of our Youth Thrive® trainings in Vermont. Digging in, I could see they were amazingly good. School social workers and safety officers, substance abuse counselors, family support specialists, mentoring program directors, workforce development managers — they loved this training. Excellent.
Then I came to an evaluation from the sole teenager who had attended. She’d dutifully filled in every line, answering even the questions about her organization and job title.
I haven’t stopped smiling since I saw them.
(By the way, it won’t surprise you that she loved the training, too. I know because she adorned her compliments with stars and hearts.)
– Melanie Wilson
Over the last 30 years, we’ve conducted hundreds of trainings for professionals who work with young people. We’ve seen every trend come and go at least twice, and we’re pretty good at predicting how the field will respond to each one. In short, not much can surprise us. But something just has. Meet Youth Thrive™, the one training that has us so busy that it’s been hard to keep up. Why? Because Youth Thrive is PYD 2.0, the new, improved version that includes the latest information on adolescent neuroscience, trauma and resilience, plus practical help in applying what you learn to your particular setting. Simply put, it’s the new frontier of youth development. Want to know more? We think you need to know more. Below is one of our upcoming trainings in Maine. Join us, and find out what all the buzz is about.
Lighting the Bumpy Path to Adulthood: A Youth Thrive™ Overview
2015 Positive Youth Development Institute
& Summer Training Academy
University of New England
Research conducted by The Center for Social Policy Study has identified a set of key competencies that have been shown to help young people increase protective and promotive factors while reducing risk factors. Research shows that these supports help young people move beyond trauma and under resourced environments to become more resilient in addressing their developmental needs.
This workshop will present the key components of the Youth Thrive™ Framework including adolescent brain development and the impact of trauma on young peoples’ brain development, youth resilience, the importance of social connections, helping young people better understand their own development, concrete supports in times of need, and cognitive & social-emotional competence in youth.
- Become familiar with a set of guiding premises that support key practices with an application of the Youth Thrive™ Framework
- Explore the Youth Thrive™ Protective and Promotive Framework and key research behind each of its five components
- Learn how these promotive and protective factors, important for all youth, work together to increase the likelihood that youth develop characteristics associated with healthy adolescent development and well-being
- Consider important connections or overlaps with other important frameworks such as the Search Institutes 40 Developmental Assets
Cindy Carraway-Wilson, MA, CYC-P
Director of Training, Youth Catalytics
Hector Sapien, LCSW, CYC-P
If you think the rate at which boys experience sexual violence is relatively low, think again. Current research suggests that an estimated 25 million males in the United States experience child sexual abuse, which translates to about 1 in 4.5 boys. (Lower lifetime rates of 1 in 6 males are based on reports of rape only, and leave out other kinds of sexual violence that are no less traumatic to survivors.)
Despite the fact that males experience child sexual abuse at rates closely following that of females, cultural messages about what it means to be a man – ‘strong and silent’ – and the continuing stigma associated with homosexuality present real barriers to male survivors coming forward. It’s not uncommon for boys experiencing abuse by older males to worry that the experience ‘makes them gay,’ and that they’ll be targeted again if anyone finds out. In cases where boys are victimized by older women – just over a quarter of perpetrators are female – popular sentiment still leans toward hinting that male survivors ‘enjoyed it,’ and that boys can’t really be raped.
These stats and the tips that follow are from a recent webinar hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the National District Attorneys Association. ‘Giving Voice to the Last Silent Victims’ was led by Roger Canaff, a Fellow with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, and focused on unique issues and needs of male survivors. It’s not the fact that boys are vulnerable to child sexual abuse that should grab your attention here. Instead, be concerned that misinformation is keeping survivors from coming forward—keeping boys from getting the help they need and keeping professionals in the dark about how to stop abuse.
Perhaps the most frightening message that male survivors hear is that having experienced child sexual abuse makes them more likely to become an abuser themselves. Not true.
Men (and women) who were sexually abused are not more likely to abuse others. While child sexual abuse survivors do often act out, it’s much more common for them to hurt themselves than others, and many survivors actually heal well and go on to live healthy lives. It’s important for people working with youth to actively dispel the myth that survivors are destined to become abusers, and to remind young people they can overcome trauma, find intimacy and have families.
How do offenders find a way in? For one thing, they’re most often invited. The vast majority of sexual offenders work within some kind of institution that allows them to have access to children, an excuse for spending time with them, and protection if accusations arise. And don’t get hung up thinking that institutions have to be formal to play a role in child sexual abuse. Presenters described informal institutions – more like cultural norms – that can be a shield, too. For example, boys spending time in someone’s ‘man cave,’ or going on hunting and camping trips.
With males, as with females, grooming often begins with game-playing. In the case of males, perpetrators will often use the guise of teaching boys how to be sexual with girls – ‘so you know what to do when the time comes’ – and explain their advances as a normal or necessary part of growing up. Perpetrators may also target boys who are experiencing gender and/or sexual identity confusion. By the time sexual activity actually initiates and young people are alerted to danger, things are at a point where perpetrators can say that the youth wanted it to happen.
What can you do? Whether you engage in deep exploration with a survivor depends on your role, but the recommendations below are useful for anyone, professional or not, to whom a young person voluntarily discloses abuse. Encourage survivors to seek counseling from a qualified mental health professional, as well—therapeutic interventions do work. Not surprisingly, many of the tips for working with male survivors echo best practices for trauma-informed care, including:
- Build a sense of trust and safety by giving young people control. Your first question should always be “what can I do to make you feel safe right now?’ Avoid physical contact, especially following disclosures.
- Allow survivors to tell their story in their own way. Since memories formed during traumatic experiences are not linear, details may seem disordered or insignificant. But saying, ‘when you’re ready, just tell me what you remember’ will invite free recall and lower anxiety.
- Give survivors time and don’t rush. Avoid conversational place holders like, ‘really,’ and ‘I understand.’ If you’re restating something for clarity, don’t do it in a way that seems to minimize or trivialize what was said. Be mindful of your own tone of voice and volume; you want to be soothing, slow-paced, and nonreactive.
- Do not make assumptions about a young person’s sexuality, or feelings about sex or the abuser. You don’t know how they feel about the perpetrator, and survivors may have mixed feelings that fill them with shame. Also, many males do not identify themselves as victims (particularly when the perpetrator is female). In this case, focusing more on the power and control dynamics of their relationship can help young people understand that what they experienced was abusive and harmful.
- To help young people feel more in control, give them information, and let them lead the way. Be attuned to nonverbal signs that survivors are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and do whatever you can to lower that anxiety. If you’re accompanying them to legal proceedings, give them a tour of the space beforehand.
- Don’t risk breaking trust by making promises you can’t keep. Don’t promise this will never happen again, or that they won’t have to testify, or that you won’t tell anyone.
- And finally, thank young people for their courage and for telling you about what happened. ‘Thank you’ is a powerful gesture that can help raise a young person’s self-esteem.
Presenters ended the session by reminding us that there’s a big difference between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of healing. Survivors want to be heard, to heal and to feel safe. If you’re working with a survivor, you should always put the young person’s wellbeing above ‘the case.’ Make sure that preserving his/her sense of emotional and psychological safety comes first.
For more resources on working with male survivors of child sexual abuse, click here.
~ Jen Smith, Research Associate
This just-released PSA, produced by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont and Green River Pictures in partnership with Youth Catalytics, makes a powerful point about the prevalence and ease of internet exploitation of young teen girls. It’s one of the factors that plays into the ‘perfect storm’ scenario that puts girls today at heightened risk of abuse. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the early sexualization of girls and the commercial and media environment that shapes and exploits girls, but not a whole lot of practical action. There’s been some, though. We’ve spent the last few years finding out what’s going on in agencies, schools and communities around the country, and report on it in What Are We Doing to Girls?. We have some additional recommendations for your community or organization, too — concrete, positive and empowering actions that you and the young people you care about can take today. Find out about them here.
A few weeks ago I went to hear Janine D’Anniballe, PhD present on the neurobiology of trauma. As you know, there is a continual stream of new news about our brain and how it functions. One colleague remarked that at this rate psychiatrists will be out of business, replaced by neurologists and dare I say “mindfulness workers”? Indeed, it’s no longer “what if”. The data is in — we’ve got the evidence.
So whether you’re clinical area of interest is trauma, addiction, obesity, pain, personality disorders or child development, we are now consumed with where we light up or go dark in the deepest recesses of the our brain, the chemical compounds released in our sympathic nervous system with names like oxytocin (sound somewhat familiar?) and how it all impacts our emotions, cognition, behaviors, and ultimately, our prognosis.
Fueled by technology, growth and development in every sector today is exponential, but in brain science it’s dazzling. There is so much more we know now beyond the initial big discoveries — that the brain itself develops into our twenties, the key role dopamine plays in regulating alertness and motivation, and that low serotonin levels are correlated with depression.
So following this extensive and extremely energetic presentation, I found myself pondering a few things:
- That the tiny amygdala (size and shape of an almond) which is part of the primitive limbic system stores our memories of fearful experiences, regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and activates our fight, flight or freeze response, is happily connected to our frontal cortex whose job it is to inhibit our stress responses, but sadly shrinks (literally) in the face of PTSD;
- That pro-longed stress set us up for exposure to adrenal steroids among other things, resulting in cognitive impairment and auto immune disorders, ala the indisputable mind/body connection.
- And that whether this damage is permanent is still being debated.
But on to the good news:
- That oxytocin and other brain chemicals are linked to bonding and relationships making for strong attachments;
- That strong attachments actually rewire the frontal cortex to the limbic system to mediate our emotional response;
- That ‘making decisions’ develops the frontal cortex, thus involving our clients in their case planning is growing their brains;
- That while controversial, a comprehensive pediatric review suggests that in severe cases, the benefits of anti-depressant use outweighs the risks;
- That ‘neurobics’ exercises your brain, by doing something as simple as using more than one of your senses at a time in an everyday task. Try getting dressed with your eyes closed – a small price to pay for the different color socks;
- That touch lowers cortisol and increases limbic bonding – and that includes animals (wag-wag). And it was suggested that as a clinician, you’d provide a lot more therapeutic benefit to your client by arranging for a massage vs. sitting and talking, despite your skill and good intent.
- And then there is all the rest. Practicing mindfulness thickens the cortex and restores synapses; yoga improves heart-rate variability and manages stress; exercise rebalances melatonin, releases endorphins, promotes tryptophan – making you a generally nicer person to be around; in sleep dopamine and serotonin rise; and eat well because the brain reads a drop in blood sugar as “danger” and produces adrenaline, which can exacerbate mood swings, feelings of panic and anger.
So now that we’re seeing all of this activity in the brain and putting it together with behavior, training is on the rise, as are some mobile apps for home use. Health insurance? The final frontier?
I’d like to know, is there something in the new brain science that is rocking your world? If so, please share it here.
~ Melanie Goodman|