Growing from a child to a teenager is an exciting time, but it can also be stressful — not just for youths but for their families.
Youths are learning to become independent but can also face peer pressure. How do they stay on the right track? How can they talk about these issues with their parents? And how can parents help?
Penn State Extension is offering support through a program called “Strengthening Families’’ that teaches compassion, communication and problem solving. Using facilitators who lead discussions and offer practical advice, “Strengthening Families’’ is aimed at families with children who are 10 to 14 years old.
“What’s really great is it’s helping parents and youths open those lines of communication,’’ said Jennifer Deichert, of North Union Township, a Penn State Extension assistant. “The parents are getting a perspective from the child, and the child is also getting the parents’ perspective.’’
Deichert said families might not yet be aware of what situations will come up in their lives.
“But by the youths going through role-playing scenarios and the parents interacting and networking among themselves, they can imagine themselves in those situations and practice how to deal with it before they are in those situations, when it is very stressful,’’ Deichert explained.
Fayette County is in the third year of a five-year CYFAR (Children, Youth and Families At Risk) grant through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to offer “Strengthening Families.’’ Thirty-three families have participated so far.
Held in seven-week installments, the program is free and open to any family in Fayette County. There are no income guidelines. Child care for younger siblings is also free.
Each session begins with a family meal before separating participants into two groups: adults and youths. Facilitators lead each group in discussions and exercises. Everyone joins together for the last part.
Deichert said officials originally offered the program evenings in local schools but eventually moved it to the Uniontown Area YMCA at the invitation of Dr. Jacquelyn Core, CEO.
The Y also offers families an hour’s free use of the facilities at the end of each weekly session so they can enjoy activities together.
“Our whole mission is to strengthen communities,’’ said Core. “It was a real, easy decision for us.’’
At a recent session, the Rev. Patty Roddy of Uniontown, an adult facilitator, explained the evening’s assignment to the adults: “We’re going to talk about feelings — how you’re going to listen when someone responds.’’
A DVD played a scene of a husband talking to his wife about his concern of being furloughed from his job. The wife brushes it off, saying, “Don’t worry.’’
Roddy asked the parents, “How did that make him feel?’’
Another scene showed a wife worried because her husband’s parents were coming for a visit, and she was afraid of not being able to clean the house enough for their standards.
“You just have to run the vacuum,’’ said the husband.
Roddy asked, “How did the husband respond?’’
The parents agreed that not acknowledging concerns left the worried spouses feeling overwhelmed. Discussion continued.
Meanwhile, the youths talked about peer pressure.
“What kinds of peer pressure are there?’’ asks Ashley Pennington, a youth facilitator from Uniontown.
The youths responded: “Fitting in.’’ “Buying things you don’t want.’’
“What does peer pressure do?’’ Pennington asked.
The youths told her: “You get very stressed.’’ “You get migraines.’’
Pennington and Matthew Crutchman, another youth facilitator from Uniontown, used role-playing to give advice. For example, they pretended to be youths as Pennington invited Crutchman to come over and drink alcohol when her mother is not home.
Crutchman doesn’t want to do it. He follows a series of tactics:
Ask questions: “Why would we want to do that?’’ Identify the problem: “It’s illegal.’’ Point out consequences: “We could get in trouble.’’ Offer alternatives: “Why don’t we play basketball instead?’’
The facilitators and youths try these tactics on a number of situations.
“Your friend might get mad at you,’’ said Crutchman, “but you’re helping your friend as much as yourself.’’
Before heading back to the adults, youths and facilitators offered opinions on “Strengthening Families.”
Jeremiah Lehman, 11, of Lemont Furnace said, “I like that we learn to communicate with activities.’’
Megan Nicklow, 12, of Smithfield said the sessions are fun and that when it comes to discussing her feelings with the group, “I feel safe.”
Crutchman is impressed with the youths. “They’re always thinking.’’
Pennington said, “I like that every week is a different lesson — goal setting, peer pressure. We talk about adulthood and how things they do now can affect their future.’’
Deichert noted some families enjoyed the program so much, they repeated it.
Michele George of Dunbar and her daughter, Anna, 13, were so enthusiastic that they became further involved. Anna volunteers with the youth group while Michele became a local arranger to help sessions run smoothly.
Both Michele and Anna eagerly promote “Strengthening Families.’’
Michele said, “It gives you tools to use to keep communication open with your children. You don’t overreact. You don’t yell. You talk to them as if they’re an adult but keeping in mind there’s all these pressures as they’re growing.’’
Anna said, “I really like this program because it helps the kids become more connected with their parents. For instance, before this program, I was close with my mom, but I wasn’t as close. And now that we went to this program together, we’re very close and I feel I can tell her anything.’’
More information on “Strengthening Families’’ is available by calling Penn State Extension at 724-438-0111 or the Uniontown Area YMCA at 724-438-2584.