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Ask an Expert: Risks facing teens in schools.

Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest risks facing teens in schools today? And, what can we, as parents, do to help?

A: There are many risks that are potential concerns for our teens, and some of them may be new to our experience. In Colorado, we know that substance use, depression and suicide, and bullying and harassment among our high school-age teens are three areas of risk. The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey completed in 2009 tells us about the risk behavior reported by Colorado teens. That survey of high school students found that about four of 10 teens reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, and one of four reported drinking more than five drinks in a row in short period of time (binge drinking). One of four reported using marijuana in the past month.

Parents should be alert to signs that their child might be in trouble with substance use or abuse, such as declines in school work or attendance, mood changes, dropping out of usual activities, changes in friends or appearance, or secretive behaviors. Then, take steps to get a good assessment of the seriousness of the problem and seek help.

Depression and suicide are other risks, and that concern is growing. About one in four teens reported depression symptoms – feeling sad or hopeless so much that they stopped doing their usual activities. This risk is higher in teenage girls than boys. Also, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado. About one of 10 Colorado teens reported attempting suicide in the past year. This risk was the same for girls and boys.

Parents need to be alert to the signs of sadness or depression or other mental health issues by watching for behaviors or listening for statements that may indicate the teen is depressed or considering suicide. I encourage parents to take action to get help for their kids when concerns arise. Early intervention can prevent more serious problems down the road.

Bullying, harassment, cyber-bullying and sexting are also potential risks. Colorado teens reported that one in five had been bullied or harassed at school. Nationwide, estimates of bullying by text message or phone calls is about one in four. Some groups of kids are particular targets for harassment, such as those with physical differences or other disabilities, or because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. Parents should listen and observe for any concerns their own teen may have and encourage discussion. Many times, teens may not want to tell parents about cyberbullying out of fear that the phone or computer may be taken away. They may not want to go to school. It is important to let your teen know you are aware of these issues, ask about their experience or that of their friends, and problem-solve with them.

Parents should gain as much knowledge as they can about the current issues facing their own teens, both in and out of school. They can learn from teens by asking and listening and watching carefully. Our teens today may be facing concerns that are new to adults’ experience, such as cyber-bullying and sexting. I encourage all parents to become educated on these topics in order to open the doors to conversation with your teen. Talk about your concerns with the school or others who can help. People who understand teens and their concerns can help you sort out a direction to seek help and intervene, if needed.

Many good resources now exist online and parents can also support efforts to raise awareness and address the needs in their own school and community. Our website, has resources for parents on these topics.

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