REBROADCAST: Talking to Kids
How do you talk to kids about sex? Or drug use? Or bullying? What makes children feel comfortable enough with adults that they are willing to disclose abuse or trauma?
Having conversations with young people about difficult topics can feel daunting to any adult. But talking about trauma is an important part of healing. Sonia Manzano spent years making kids feel comfortable playing the role of Maria on Sesame Street. We listen back to a conversation with Manzano and Desiree Bansile, a wraparound partner manager for Youth ERA, Dr. Kristan Collins, a pediatrician, and Bob Stewart, superintendent of the Gladstone School District.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. How do you talk to kids about sex or drug use or bullying? What makes children feel comfortable enough with adults that they’re willing to disclose abuse or trauma? Having conversations with young people about difficult topics can feel daunting, but talking about trauma is an important part of healing. We took part in an event in front of an audience in 2019 that was all about this topic. It was sponsored by the Children’s Center, which aims to prevent child abuse, and we did it at the Lakewood Center for the Arts in Lake Oswego. We sat down with four people who have difficult conversations with kids in different professional contexts. Dez Bancel is a Wraparound Partner-Manager for Youth Era. Kristen Collins is a pediatrician at Metropolitan Pediatrics. Bob Stewart is a superintendent of the Gladstone School District. And Sonia Manzano is an author and actress, but you might not know her as Sonia. For millions of people all around the world, she is Maria. She played that role on Sesame Street for 44 years. I asked her about her childhood.
Sonia Manzano: I was raised in a household ruled by domestic violence and it was the typical cycle of violence and then we’d run away and then there’d be reconciliation and we’d come back and then we moved to another apartment. Happiness was always the next train stop away or the new apartment, where my parents would, would have another go of it. And this was a cycle that went on for I guess my whole childhood. There were four of us, and we all kind of thought it was the way things were. I remember that there was only one public service announcement that I remember. It said children should not come from a broken home. I looked to my sister and said, but that’s exactly what we want. So, it was a time when domestic violence was never spoken about.
Miller: We’re talking today about how to have important, difficult conversations. What kinds of conversations, looking back, do you wish you had been able to have?
Manzano: Well, I guess I wish somebody had said that this wasn’t normal. That this didn’t happen in all families. My only cue that it didn’t happen in all families is that I watched television and I found refuge. I believe that children are very strong and find ways of taking care of themselves and soothing themselves. And what I did was I looked at television for the answer to everything. I loved ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best.’ To me, those shows... there was order. There was consistency, and it gave me a little ray of hope that that was out there somewhere. That that kind of existence could be had. So, I’m always championing the fact that kids do have resiliency and like I found… what the heck did ‘Father Knows Best’ have to do with my life? Absolutely nothing. I never even saw people like that, but somehow I latched onto it as a reality that might someday be mine.
Miller: Did you assume that mostly adults in your life knew what was happening inside your home?
Manzano: Yes, I did. I did. I assumed that everybody knew and that was just the way of the world. Which is interesting to me because, when my book came out in Spanish, I sent it to my relatives in Puerto Rico, and they were stunned. I thought it was common knowledge what was going on in my household. But they, being my relatives, were stunned. I’d just assumed that they knew, as well. I remember going back to Puerto Rico and I was 14, and they’d say how’s your dad? And I’d say, well how do you think he is? I’m just assuming that they knew, and they were sort of in on it. Of course they weren’t.
Miller: That ‘in on it’ seems important, Christine Collins. I’m wondering, if a child assumes, for understandable reasons, that the other adults in his or her life essentially know what’s happening, especially if we’re talking about trauma here... that, they know what’s happening, and they in some way are complicit then, how do you get that child to begin to trust other people like you? For example, as a doctor, when you come along and you want to try to help?
Christine Collins: Wise people have said that trust doesn’t come from big acts. It comes from a series of predictable small acts. So, one can’t walk in the room and just generate trust. It comes from repetition and patterns. But if you’re going to start the conversation, you have to make a child feel safe. No one is going to divulge something that makes them feel vulnerable if they don’t feel safe. So for any of us, whether it’s me, as a physician, or other people who act as providers, I think the first step is to recognize that we need to set ourselves up to create an environment that speaks to safety. It’s exactly what Sonia (Maria) was talking about in some of those older tv shows; calm, highly predictable, clearly caring. And how do we convey that we care? By sitting down, getting to a high level and listening. So, most families who come from abuse haven’t had that experience, where someone stops what they’re doing completely, and engrosses themselves in the conversation that the child is presenting. It takes a lot of time and I have a lot of young people that it may take three or four years of seeing me before we really get to some level of trust.
Miller: As a medical practitioner, is this in your mind all the time? If somebody comes in and the obvious issue at hand is that they may have tonsillitis, how much are you also thinking about these bigger picture questions?
Christine Collins: At what point in my career are you talking about?
Miller: I’m glad you brought that up. So when you started...
Collins: So when I started, it was my job to save the day. It was my job to fix the problem.
Miller: Based on the way you were trained?
Collins: Predominantly, I think it’s a mixture of things. I think when we’re younger, it’s harder to see the whole landscape and how mental health issues weave into general medical health issues. I was not trained. I was trained in a very busy environment where my job was to recognize and stomp out disease as quickly and as efficiently as I could. Because if the child was until then the child would be well. And for radio, I’ll recall that I’ve got my fingers up and well is in quotation marks. What I think I understand because of time, but more importantly because I’ve surrounded myself and had the opportunity to meet so many wholistic providers who focus on mental health, you cannot be well if you don’t attend to someone’s mental health. So now, when I see someone with a sore throat, I’m going to be highly attuned to all of those other issues.
Miller: Have you looked back on moments in your career or patients you’ve had and thought in retrospect, I feel like I missed something?
Collins: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. One of the greatest joys of my career has been working with a local organization called Childrens’ Health Alliance. In that process, we’ve taught the concept of being resilient, and trauma. And through that lens, I’ve now been able to understand why was that mom coming in over and over and over for every little illness? Well, when I finally sat down and listened, I found out that she was in an abusive relationship and the only place that she could go to be safe was to take the kids to the doctor or go to the grocery store. So, we told her she could come whenever she wants. She started bringing us lunch. And then the conversations evolved and we built trust.
We’re embarking on a new project to reduce suicide in Oregon, so that all children, 11 and up, when they come in for any visit or ask questions about depression and suicide... and we’re now week two... My very first one was a young woman who came in with a hand injury and wanted to make sure it wasn’t broken and the questions were positive. And so we were able to talk about the fact that she had hurt her hand by hitting things and being abusive in the household. And yet we, by asking those questions, we were then able to get her not only to fix a broken hand, but to a mental health provider, so she could get support. So I’m highly attuned to it and I, as someone who does teaching, etcetera, I think this is the beginning of a trend in medicine, and certainly I understand that it’s present in schools. I think the schools are well ahead of this.
Miller: Well Bob Stewart, so that’s a good way to bring you in here. You’ve had a long career at this point in education. At the beginning though, of your 45 year career in education, how much were these ideas that we’re talking about here a part of your daily thinking [and] your daily practice?
Bob Stewart: They weren’t. They weren’t part of the thinking at that time. It was only seven years ago when we had a group of administrators that attended a workshop where Dr. Feleti, who was one of the authors of the landmark Kaiser Aces research... Adverse childhood experiences are things like domestic violence, food insecurity, housing insecurity, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and an accumulation of those things, especially at a young age, can alter the biology of a child, and certainly the psychology, too.
We always knew that kids came to us with a lot of stuff in their lives. We always knew that. What we didn’t understand was the lifetime implication of that stuff. When we discovered, and listened carefully in 2012 to that research, we left that meeting going, wow, you know, we knew this, but we didn’t know it this way. Now, what do we do? Because that becomes the big question, what do we do to mitigate it?
I believe there’s three stages of places that we do, and we try to alter things. One of those is the interruption of the cycle; without interrupting the cycle, this just continues on and on, and on. Second is what we see in schools. That’s how to mitigate the damage that’s been done to children before we see them. And the third is what I would call cure. It’s how to build resiliency in kids and how to give them that adult mentor that they may not have in their lives, that can point to a different direction for their life.
Miller: Where does the ‘talking with children, having important, difficult conversations’ fit into what you’ve just been talking about?
Stewart: Usually, in schools that fits in what we would we would call kids that are at the very tip of the pyramid, and they’re in crisis of some sort. So, that’s typically where that conversation occurs. Where I think we need to be is under the assumption that all kids have adverse childhood experiences. So we create an environment that’s good for all kids. Whether they have experienced a lot of trauma or not. So that that environment is just what’s been explained previously. It’s about how do we make sure that the environment is predictable for a child? It’s relational, that there are routines that they know and they can be successful with, and that they have an adult in their life that is going to find the good in that child.
Miller: Does it matter who that adult is? I mean, there’s a lot of different kinds of people in a school setting who may interact with that child. Obviously teachers, but support staff. I mean, even down to people who work in the cafeteria or clean the building. Do they all need to be trained into to have these kinds of conversations?
Stewart: Yes, they do. They need to be trained to understand what’s gone on in Children’s lives. Just two weeks ago, we had a middle school girl tell our day custodian, a female day custodian, that she had attempted self harm. So, it’s going to be a trusted adult in that child’s life, of who they will disclose to. So, all adults within a school need to be a trusted adult.
Miller: Dez Bancel is here as well. You’re a wraparound partner for youth, meaning that you managed, I’m not mistaken, peer support specialists to help young people in the tri-county area, in the Portland area, who’ve been referred for services normally because they’ve had interactions with DHS or the juvenile justice system or the state hospital. How did you get into this line of work?
Dez Bancel: Completely by accident. I went to Penn State for a degree in Biology and I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to work with Doctors Without Borders, but halfway through my college life, I got hit with a really bad bout of depression. It was a lot of trauma that I hadn’t really worked through as a child. I grew up, my dad was physically abusive to both my mom, myself and my brother. Also, just being living in a gang impacted neighborhood and having to think about drugs and stolen cars and shootings and things like that wasn’t something that was really talked about for me. So when I got to college, and I was struggling with coming out as a lesbian and also trying to figure out how I’m going to handle being pregnant. There was a lot of stress and a lot of trauma and it all kind of just came all at once for me.
So I couldn’t do it, and I kind of just took a step back. After about two years of trying to process on my own because I still hadn’t found therapy yet, I decided to apply for a job at AmeriCorps so I could pay off my student loans, and I got it. I started working with youth there just doing regular outreach work. I was like, oh my God, this is my calling in life. Ultimately, three years ago, I decided to move to Oregon because I wanted to continue to work with the homeless and runaway youth population. When I got here, I realized I’m not really being effective because I only could see them for 15-21 days max, and you really can’t do much with youth in that time.
Miller: Why not? Why is that not enough? Why do you need time?
Bancel: Well, because you need time to build trust. You need time to figure out what’s going on for them. Not all youth are just going to come out and tell you their problems right away, no matter how cool you are. They’re very wary, and a lot of times youth who end up in those shelters, they’re often dealing with a lot of trauma. Or they’re in juvenile justice or they’re in DHS custody, and it’s just a placement option until they find something better.
Miller: So let’s get to some of the nuts and bolts here. Where do you start? When, if you have the case file, I’m not sure how much information you have before you start. But if you know at least that the young person you’re trying to help has been through a lot of trauma, perhaps for a very long time. What’s your starting point?
Bancel: Well, what I usually do is I try not to read their quote/unquote file because they all have one. I try to just get to know them for them, and not know them for their paper history.
Miller: So you make the conscious decision not to not to read what you have access to, but instead to meet them first.
Bancel: Right. So, I mean, there are times when you can’t avoid that, right? When you’re at a review committee which determines who gets access to wraparound services, they talk about some of their needs and some of their strengths. You have to listen to that, but I don’t let that be the whole picture. I get to know them as a person first. Tell them why I came into it and what I dealt with, and put myself in a vulnerable position for them so that they don’t feel so alone.
Miller: You regularly tell them your story as a way to to show that you’ve been through this? You know what you’re talking about?
Bancel: Yes. In order to be a peer specialist, you have to get certified in peer work. Part of that certification is learning how to tell your story and your lived experience in the way that’s meaningful and impactful and not re-traumatizing to you.
Miller: What’s an example of that, because that seems like a difficult line to walk... to be honest about your story, but to do it in a way that’s not re-traumatizing for the person you’re talking to?
Bancel: Well, I talk in stories. One of the youths that I worked with, she noticed that I always have rainbow beads hanging from my rear view mirror because I am out and I’m proud. But I don’t... I’m not singing it from the heavens, you know? But I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m just generally a private person. I would always see her out the corner of my eyes staring at them intently. One day, she worked up the courage to ask me where I got them from and I said I got them from a pride parade. She was like, you went to pride? And I said, yep, I went to pride when I was 24, because that was the year I had the guts to come out. That prompted the courage for her to tell me that she also wanted to come out and didn’t know how to talk to her parents about it.
Miller: But you let her, in a sense, come to that on her own. You followed her lead.
Bancel: I followed her lead. It’s like a moth to a flame. You know, you can’t really, you don’t really want to drag them into it. But you have to create a space where they feel comfortable enough to bring it up to you.
Miller: Or a young woman to a rainbow.
Bancel: Yeah. There you go,
Miller: Kristin Collins. What about you? Where do you, where do you start?
Collins: Well, my settings are going to be much more formal than Dez’, because that’s...
Miller: ...a challenge in and of itself, I mean you are… and do you have a white coat on?
Collins: No, I, I forsaked that many, many years ago for this reason…
Miller: ... so that there would be less of a hierarchical power structure?
Collins: That, and I did my training in Houston and it was really hot. Always a practical consideration.
Miller: Okay. But you are in an office, and you’re the MD in charge.
Collins: Exactly. And people have... I don’t room the patients. They’ve already come to the counter and checked in and filled out a wide variety of forms, because that’s best practice now, and for better or worse. I come in with a computer, and so when I have the actual luxury of meeting all these young teens that I know nothing about. There’s data in that computer, and it’s so fascinating because you don’t know people by the data that’s in the computer. Adjectives have gone by the wayside. So, I will just start off with that. I may have reviewed the file, but this doesn’t tell me anything about you. I want to hear about you.
Miller: You would say that?
Collins: Absolutely. Always... tell me about you. It’s fascinating to see where they go, whether they become nervous and uncomfortable, or whether they instantly relax because now somebody’s going to listen to me. I think it speaks so clearly to the fact that we don’t get to the real meaning of people’s experiences if we don’t hear the adjectives, if we don’t hear the emotion. Who better to hear about it than the actual person. It clearly breaks the ice, almost always.
Miller: Are parents in the rooms for these conversations, or caregivers? And does that make a difference?
Collins: Sure. Especially for someone older than 13 or 14, it does make a difference. There’s a lot of power [in] seeing a young person with a parent and seeing them independently, because you learn a lot about their relationships. I also will ask about their family and ask parents the same questions.
Miller: Bob Stewart, you were saying that, just seven years ago when you really got religion about adverse childhood experiences and the effects that they have, you started instituting changes in the district. What are some other concrete changes you put in place that you think are really making a difference?
Stewart: So a couple of things. One is at our elementary school we have done a lot of in-service and training with staff as to what trauma is and what strategies they can use in classrooms that will create a calmer and safer and more predictable environment.
Most recently, we have added to that. So, an event that’s happening in schools in the last five years, and you can talk to any principal in the state and they would tell you the same thing, is that there’s more disruptive behavior on the part of children in a really dramatic way that causes what we are calling “classroom clearing events”. The classroom has to be evacuated because that child is so disruptive. At that time, they might be tearing things off the wall, tipping over furniture, [there] can be all kinds of things that are going on.
So this year we started a next step. In schools, like in health care and other professions, we typically talk about things in a pyramid... a green zone, yellow zone, and red zone... with the green zone being where you want most people to live most of the time. Kind of that safe place. Doing the cross training across the classrooms is trying to drive more kids down into the green zone. The next question is, once you’ve done that, what do you do with children that don’t respond to that environment in the positive way that you want [them] to?
Now you moved into the yellow zone. This year, we created a skills learning center. We have a teacher in the classroom who has a mental health background and teaches children on a one-to-one basis daily with a certain group of children skills for self regulation. There’s some mindfulness training, there’s some yoga, there’s some movement strategies, there’s different manipulatives that kids can learn to use. It’s all done in a very prescribed way in and the effort is to teach children strategies that they can then use when they feel themselves reaching certain anxiety levels or stress levels within their life to help calm them down. A group of children that are involved in that program were involved in many classroom clearings a year ago.
There have been no classroom clearings this year, so it’s been a remarkable change. It doesn’t mean all the behavioral issues are gone, but it means that the most severe behavior issues are gone. Children, when they have those instances, they feel really bad after it’s over. They don’t have to feel really bad now because they never get to that place.
Miller: That’s Bob Stewart. He is a Superintendent of the Gladstone School District. We have more coming up about how to have difficult conversations with kids. After a short break from the Gert Boyle studio at OPB.
This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking today about having difficult conversations with kids... about why they’re important, and how to have them. We recorded this show in the show in 2019 in front of an audience at the Lakewood Center for the Arts in Lake Oswego. We had four guests, each of whom had a different perspective on these kinds of conversations. Bob Stewart is a Superintendent of the Gladstone School District, Dez Bancel is a Wraparound Partner Manager for Youth Era, Kristen Collins is a pediatrician at Metropolitan Pediatrics, and Sonia Manzano is an author and actress. She played Maria on Sesame Street for 44 years. At one point during the event, we actually listened to a clip from a famous episode of the show. The one when the adults saw Big Bird’s friend, Snuffleupagus, for the very first time. Before, most of those adult characters thought Snuffleupagus was only in Big Bird’s imagination.
[Clip from Sesame Street] At last! Oh Joy, Joy! I told you there was a Snuffleupagust, and at last you’ve seen him and you gotta believe it, right? I told you all along that there was a Snuffleupagus. My best pal. He’s not imaginary, but you never believe me.
But Maria and Linda and I believed you, Big Bird.
Yeah, but the rest of you didn’t.
Big Bird you have a right to be angry.
Yes, you do. Because after all this time, and we didn’t believe you. That must have been very hard for you.
Well, yeah, it was.
Well, Big Bird, from the bottom of my heart, I want to apologize because I’m really sorry.
Big Bird, you know what? From now on we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.
Maybe we should get that in writing. Yeah.
Miller: What was the reason behind this? Why did the writers and producers decide we need to make him visible and we need to have humans embrace the fact that he does actually exist?
Manzano: Well, we had to resolve the problem. As you might have guessed, we did the whole season where nobody believed him, and then a season where some of us believe them, but we still never saw the Snuffleupagus. And at that time, all of a sudden, there was a whole slew of child abuse cases that were reported in the newspaper. Now there mightalwasy have been a lot of child abuse cases, but for some reason they were all being reported.
The way that the parents and the authorities would talk to the children who complained about being treated like this, was to say “oh it’s all in your imagination.” Uncle what’s-his-face didn’t really mean it, you just thought he did. We were using that same terminology with Big Bird. It’s all in your imagination with the Snuffleupagus. We realized that that was certainly something that we shouldn’t do any further. We stopped it straight away and had that lovely scene where Susan apologized to Big Bird for not believing him. We reacted to what was going on in the newspaper. It was getting to be an old gag, as well.
Miller: Christine Collins. There’s another part to this, when they tell Big Bird that he’s right... it’s okay for him to be angry. What’s the significance of that?
Collins: You’re validating feelings. So as Amy Stober pointed out at the beginning in her introduction, that being heard is akin to feeling loved. When a child or a person is able to present how they feel, if others acknowledge it, then there’s a sense of shared community and trust begins. Now you can repair... in that situation, they repair it a relationship. But in any situation it allows you then to take the next step to maybe even a bigger and more important feeling.
Miller: Dez… she’s talking there about being heard. We’ve focused a lot on conversations and talking, but what role does just being present, being quiet and listening, play?
Bancel: It could be really powerful. Not everyone responds to, ‘I’m gonna sit and talk and have a three hour long conversation about your feelings.’ Sometimes people just want to have someone in their space and just to feel seen, and just to feel not alone. It takes a lot of work to determine when you’re in that situation, when someone’s telling you something so powerful, how do you react to that? You just take a moment and let it sit and, let’s show them that it’s ok to sit with these feelings. I’m not afraid of you and your feelings, and we can sit here and talk about it, when you’re ready.
Miller: Bob Stewart, I’m wondering how much you can do that in a school where your overall job there, as everybody in the district, is to teach people about the world, about math, about English, about science and all of that. How much room is there for being quiet, for being patient, for listening?
Stewart: There’s always room. I would just say that listening doesn’t always have to be that long conversation. Sometimes, it’s listening for the word or the sentence that’s important. An example I will give... A few years ago, I was meeting with the group of seniors, talking about their experience in schools and there’s always a ground rule. They can’t talk about individuals in that setting, but they can’t talk about an individual after the setting. So the meeting ended and this one young man who I had asked, what your plan after high school, and told me he’s going to Joseph, Oregon to be a cowboy. Well, I never heard that one before. So I was curious. I wanted to know more, and he stuck around afterwards. He said, I really want to tell you my story.
He started to tell his story about how he had been kicked out of his home, how he had gone to several different high schools, he has gone to several different schools over his life and he was always a mess wherever he went. During his sophomore year and a short stint at our high school, he was in a classroom with a particular teacher and that teacher said to him, how are you doing? He thought that was different. He told him a little bit, but he said, I didn’t really tell him about my life. He said, from that point on, every trimester when the schedule would come out, he would try to make a guess of what classes that teacher might be teaching that trimester. He forecasted where he wanted to be, [so] he could be in that teacher’s classroom because he felt safe because he was asked how are you doing?
It strikes me that there are a lot of ways to ask that question. Some ways sound like they’re really sincere and open ended and that the person who’s asking it really wants to hear the answer. Others can feel perfunctory or just... almost like hello, except instead of saying hello, we say how are you doing? There are a lot of different ways for a couple words to be taken in. I guess the question is, how do you ask that question in the way that teacher asked it?
Children that have experienced a lot of trauma when they’re in their middle school and high school years. They’re able to distinguish between what’s real and it’s not. They have antennas that are different than everybody else’s antennas. They know when it’s not real and it’s a tone. It’s how you look at the person, how you pause to hear an answer. It’s all those little things that make the difference.
Miller: Christine Collins, as the doctor here, we can get into brain science for a bit. How does a child’s or adolescent’s brain affect everything we’re talking about here, affect the way they process information, the way they deal with trauma and the way they interact during these kinds of tough conversations?
Collins: I think, many years ago, there was a sense that children were just small adults and they would just follow an adult pattern, and we could approach them like an adult. Now we know that children aren’t just little versions of big people. They’re different as science is evolving. We are beginning to see the children think and recall information in different ways than adults. We certainly don’t approach children expecting the logical, straightforward series of answers. If you expect them to say X plus Y plus Z, that’s not gonna happen. It’s usually an A. And then over here to X. And then over here to Y. It’s because children were beginning to understand that children store information in memory batches, and I’m starting to get this sense of thinking about it as little mini YouTube things.
If you’ve ever watched YouTube, it’ll suggest the next YouTube and the next one. There’s always something weird kind of interjected in there. Kids, as they’re storing information, they store it in a whole memory batch there. They’ve got the visual cueing, the auditory queuing. They may remember smells, they remember touch, they remember feel. As information is asked to be recalled, when it comes back up, that association may seem random to us. But because bacon was frying in the other room the last time dad yelled at me, the next time I smell bacon, I might be afraid because I remember that dad yelled at me. That gets fine tuned over time. As Bob wisely points to it, these kids who’ve had a lot of trauma begin to build walls around constant associations because it’s so painful. Then when we sit down to talk to a child, we have to put ourselves in their space. We have to understand that they don’t think like an adult, and really slow things down and try to listen and allow it to unfold in that very random, circuitous, delightful, sometimes really long way.
Miller: Dez, I think one reason that people… a lot of you are your professional kid talkers, this is your job. But for a lot of other people, one reason they may be apprehensive about starting these kinds of conversations is they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. What advice would you give to the non-professionals among us?
Bancel: I would say don’t be afraid. I mean, yes, we’re all professionals, but we’re all human too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really just put my foot in my mouth, in talking with the youth. The key is acknowledging that you messed up and saying, you know, my bad. I take ownership of it and then moving on. You don’t wanna sit and dwell in that horrible space. You don’t want them to feel weird and awkward because now you feel weird and awkward. It’s really just being vulnerable and taking ownership.
Miller: Yeah. How do you navigate if, because I think, in so many of the answers you’ve all given, there’s a sense of wanting to be affirming and not judgmental and giving the young that you’re talking with the chance to express themselves. But what happens if you think that they’re really going in the wrong direction? How do you steer them right, without jeopardizing the trust that you’ve built up?
Bancel: Well there’s a couple ways. First, I use collaborative problem solving. If you guys don’t know what that is… it’s a tool that you use, it’s a conversation tool that you use where you allow the youth to state their concerns and validate their concerns and opinions while you also state your concerns. The keyword there is how do we address both of these needs together? I use that, in any and everything that I do. There’s a lot of times when I have a youth who is smoking weed for an example. I say, hey I’m not going to judge you. You’re going to smoke weed if you want to smoke weed. But what are some of the ways that this is harming you, and what are some of the ways that you feel like it’s good? Help them really connect and make informed decisions and informed choices, and really understand that there’s gonna be consequences no matter what your choices. Those consequences are good and some are bad, but there’s always going to be something. So, when you make that decision, really think about what is going to happen afterwards.
Miller: Sonia, we have been focusing largely on how to talk to young people who have experienced a lot of trauma, but there’s a lot of different varieties of difficult conversations. I think a related one is how do we talk to young people about big societal issues, traumatic societal issues like terrorism or war or poverty or homelessness or climate change? I mean the list sadly goes, on and on. How do you think about that in the context of what we’re talking about here?
Sonia: One of the things that one of the initiatives that Sesame Street created was right after 9-11. I mean, what could we possibly explain or what, what light could be shed on this for kids when we were all so stunned by this horrific event? But the creators came up with a video called You Can Ask. And it was exactly that. It was four little scenes that had to do with intolerance. Big Bird has a new friend, another bird who will not tolerate speaking to humans. That was we bullying, where there’s a bully that comes on to Sesame Street and Gordon comes to the rescue; Loss, where Big Bird loses his pet, a turtle, and feels terrible about it, and Firemen and Fires. And there was a fire in Mr. Hooper’s store. And we just tried to show those four kinds of events that were in the media. There were firemen all the time and there were people talking about intolerance and racism. And we just tried to illustrate those events, and then had a study guide that the parents could look at and have conversations with their kids about it. And you know, I think we were successful. We didn’t have all the answers. This was totally new territory for us and you never know what kids pick up there doing like this, They’re looking at the bottom of their shoe. And then it turns out that they have really been listening to everything that’s been going on. So we think that they absorbed a lot of information
Miller: Bob Stewart. We could add other sort of parenting issues to that list. To talking to kids about sex or about drugs or about bullying. How do you think about the best ways for parents to engage in this kind of difficult conversation?
Stewart: Be real? Don’t be afraid. It’s questions kids have. So I’ll be real with it and answer him forthright.
Miller: Kristen Collins. What advice do you find that you give most often to parents about these kinds of issues about conversations with their kids?
Collins: So one of the first pieces of advice that I would give a parent is sit and figure out what the question is.You know, there’s the old joke of if I, the little boy comes in and says daddy, where do I come from? And he embarks on this great conversation about sex and the little boy just wanted to know if he came from Maine or Iowa? You know, it’s not, he didn’t hear the question. So kids will ask what they need to hear. And it’s not our job to necessarily inform them beyond what they’re ready for. But it’s our job to listen keenly, and quietly and patiently to figure out what that real question is. The other thing is when kids are asking about these difficult topics, the single thing they want to know at the end is, am I okay? And so that wrap around, that final piece, that every parent needs to offer at the end of that conversation, whether there’s short little conversations in the car or a big one in tears in bed at night is I love you, I will be here, or these people will be here, and you will be safe now in building resilience. I think we also need to teach them what they can control. So the way that I approach these conversations, when a parent says, how do I handle? I recently had a parent ask about relative, about how to talk to their Children about a relative with an ongoing mental health issue that comes and goes. And so when this relative is in treatment, things are going well, but when he’s out of treatment, things can be very scary and the kids are now old enough to understand that. And so rather than embark upon a discussion about bipolar disorder, it’s more like, listen to what their questions are, and focus on how they can feel safe with you and then how they can still have some relationship with that person who is also important to them because what is that point that they can control. If we feel that we have some control over a situation and people to support us, anything can be achieved, entertained and fixed.
Miller: You mentioned, almost in passing, having a short conversation in a car. Is there something magic about driving where it somehow enables meaningful conversations? Not always, but it seems to do in a way that other things don’t?
Collins: Well, I would love to be able to have those meaningful conversations staring face to face across a computer with a patient. I know it’s never gonna happen like in the car, over dinner, peeling carrots in the kitchen, shoulder to shoulder, walking on a hike. It’s those times when we let our guards down and there’s probably biology to the to the rhythm of movement that allows our brain to unfold. There’s certain times where things really unfold, car being a huge...
Sonia: I just want to add quickly to that backstage, there’s a jigsaw puzzle that somebody’s working on and I remember I had the most wonderful conversations with my own child when we were working on a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle because as you said, we were really doing something together that was outside of both of us and that relaxed us, and we were able to kind of talk about whatever we wanted to talk about and learn more about each other without the onus of staring at each other. We’re working on this thing outside of us.
Bancel: I can attest to conversations in the car as peer support, that’s about 80% of what we do. We’re either driving to go get coffee or driving to go get food or just driving and listening to music. And the key, there is no one’s really staring at you because the driver has to pay attention to the road. And there’s other things that occupy you, right, and you’re able to enter in and leave conversations when they get too heavy.
Miller: That was Dez Bancel, who’s a Wraparound Partner Manager for Youth Era. Before we go, well, here, one question that came from the audience:
‘Hi, my name is Scott Overton and I’m the President Oregon PTA. But I’m here, so I’m a parent of twins who are 26 now, so we’ve made it through all of the trauma, but I’ve participated as a mentor, for, academic mentor, for middle school children, and the building trust and ongoing relationship is a big part of that, but I’ve also been somewhat frustrated in that often, there’s a response of anger when you’re trying to achieve a goal and you’re working together and things seem to be going really well and then they are, their their attitude has shifted, and you, everything you do makes them angry. The children get angry with you for, you know, pushing that or whatever, you know, you’ve got this relationship, it’s, you seem to be working well and at some point it always happens and you try to work through it, but I’d love to hear your, how you work through that?’
Stewart: Well, I’ll give you a short answer what you just described as a middle school child, they love you one day and they can hit you the next. And that’s what’s so fun about middle school kids. They, of all the age groups, that’s my favorite age group. They’re unpredictable, but they’re so transparent and they’re these little kids that are trying to be an adult and it’s really fun to work with school kids. The one thing I’ve learned about traumas is if you ask people that are successful adults that have had a lot of trauma in their life before they, before, during their childhood. And you ask, so tell me, how did that work for you that you’re like this? But you may have a sibling that’s like this. What’s the difference? And almost invariably the answer will be there was a meaningful adult that came in their life and their pre adolescent or adolescent years and gave them a new hope for the future. And so what you’re doing, even though it can be frustrating at times, it’s the right thing to do.
Bancel: I think, a lot of times we, as adults, we forget what it’s like to be that age, and have so many things going on for us in that moment. And almost often it’s more often than not that if a youth has changed their behaviors, it’s because something has happened that you aren’t asking them about, and they’re upset with you because you’re not asking. And they don’t know how to just come out and tell it to you. And so what I would say is just call it out and say, hey, I noticed that we used to do this, but now it doesn’t seem like you want to do that anymore. What’s up with that? Or let’s chat about it? And really give them the opportunity to talk to you, and just remember like, they’re not gonna like you all day every day. You know, sometimes I don’t like myself all day. And so it’s going to ebb and flow and you don’t always like everyone around you 100% of the time and the key is to love them even when they hate you, because that’s how trust is built. I heard this really good equation and I use it all the time. That trust equals transparency and consistency over time. And so even when they’re being, you know, just little attitude and whiny and you’re just like I can’t deal with this today, that’s when you have to love them the hardest because they it’s the fear they don’t they feel too comfortable with you and they’re too safe with you and they feel like you’re going to leave them. And so it’s better that they leave on their terms versus on yours.
Collins: And that’s just the last bit there on human brain development, during 11 to 15, 16, most of the cognitive processes of the brain go offline while the prefrontal cortex is developing and we get executive functioning to come along and so what’s left is your amygdala and your amygdala is a ball of emotions. And so during this time, kids lose the ability to process and they don’t understand it so they react, and so that those, those reactions for all the reasons that have been listed can be very intense and it’s our job to just sit there and take the emotion, the emotional outburst,prove that we will be there no matter what.
Miller: That was a pediatrician, Kristen Collins, you also heard Dez Bancel, a Wraparound Partner Manager for Youth Era, Bob Stewart, the Superintendent of the Gladstone School District, and Sonia Manzano who played Maria on Sesame street for 44 years. Special thanks to Tom Soma, the executive director of the Children’s Center for helping us put this conversation together. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app, on Apple podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at 8p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to think out loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow. Support is provided by the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust.
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