Addressing the Suffering of Children

I was recently sent a link to The Mistakes Kids Make website. While taking the quiz, I was reminded of the difference between the negligible costs of my mistakes, from the potentially life-changing payment my black, 22 year old son might face for making the same mistakes. Though it is a difference that Stoneleigh strives to erase, it is a reality that was repeatedly mentioned at the Stoneleigh Symposium, From Risk to Resilience: What Youth Need to Thrive.
On May 8, representatives from all segments of the Philadelphia community came to discuss what it means to be resilient and how as individuals and a community, we can help youth thrive by making them so. Attendees came to hear from an adolescent pediatrician who has spent his career building on the strengths of teenagers by fostering their resilience, a young man from Boston who benefited from an ecosystem of youth development programs, one of his mentors who has spent 40 years serving youth and their families in Boston’s poorest and most violent community, the Deputy Commissioner of Philadelphia’s DHS who oversees the Division of Juvenile Justice Services and is a passionate advocate for fairness and equity in that system, and a Stoneleigh Fellow who developed and directs an alternative approach to dealing with violent crime.
Each of our speakers provided unique perspectives on what it means and what it takes to develop resilience in youth. Each of them addressed the reality that young black and brown boys and men are treated differently for the common mistakes they make in childhood and adolescence. However, all of the speakers agreed that it is never too late to transition youth from risk to resilience and that first and foremost all youth need to feel loved.
When we developed the symposium, this was not the core message I expected to hear from a scientist, a bureaucrat, or our friends from Boston. Though resilience is a basic human capacity, nascent in all children, and something that can be developed even in the most hurt children, it doesn’t just happen. In fact, for children who have faced a lifetime of social, racial and economic injustice, it demands intentional practice change that starts with caring adults.

All of the speakers commented on the importance of a caring adult who will listen carefully to a hurt child, focus on his or her competence, rather than what is “wrong” about their behavior. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg explained how stress and trauma feed a cycle of problem behavior and that youth choose behaviors that manage stress in their lives. He cautioned the audience that if we are to reduce worrisome behaviors, we need to address those stressors. Adults must be willing to change the way we talk to a troubled young person, to be more like Emmett Folgert-- a facilitator, not a shame inflictor.
Our speakers spoke of the need to allow youth to be accountable for their mistakes and for adults to set high expectations. They shared the belief that it is during the process of reflecting on a problem or harm caused that the youth acquires the important opportunity to “know better and do better” as Casimiro Cabral mentioned.
Dr. Ginsburg’s 10-point plan for stress management resonated with Deputy DHS Commissioner Timene Farlow, who emphasized the need for the juvenile justice system to reform practices that ignore the connection between trauma and behavior and thus, do harm to youth in care. She acknowledged the need to train staff and require providers to be trauma-informed in order to address the fundamental factors driving the behavioral issues of many youth in care.
Stoneleigh Fellow Danielle Sered connected accountability to resilience and demonstrated how it helps the responsible parties of her program through their healing process. Several of the speakers suggested that by removing youth who have committed minor offenses –some 95% of all youth detained—from their communities, they are denied one of the basic elements of behavior change, the opportunity to make things right.
Quickly, it became clear that five unrelated speakers from different sectors and even different cities had the same message: Youth need to be allowed to make mistakes and when they do adults need to treat them with care and dignity. For at the bottom of the problem behavior is often stress, trauma and tragedy. That this is felt disproportionately in high poverty and low resourced communities renounces, rather than justifies, consequence disparity. Without adults understanding the correlation between stress and behavior, troubled youth will continue to cycle through our legal and welfare systems. With resilience, children can triumph over trauma, without it, trauma triumphs.
All youth need adults who promote resilience and make family and institutional supports available. They need adults to encourage them to become increasingly autonomous, responsible, empathic, and altruistic and to approach people and situations with hope and trust. Though it is still a reality that my son and I will most likely face different consequences for our mistakes, loving family, connections within our community and a sense of hope for the future will protect us both from being overwhelmed by adversity.

The piece above is reprinted with permission from the Stoneleigh Foundation

Cathy Weiss took the helm as executive director of Stoneleigh Foundation in August 2010. A recognized expert in philanthropy and public policy, Cathy has more than twenty years of leadership experience in family foundation management, strategic planning, organizational and resource development, philanthropic collaboration and research. Before joining Stoneleigh Foundation, she was senior consultant with The Burd Group, executive director for Claneil Foundation, and program officer for the Rockefeller Family Fund and The William Penn Foundation. Cathy was also finance director for Governor Edward Rendell’s first gubernatorial campaign, and served as assistant to Mayor Ed Koch of New York and Mayor W. Wilson Goode of Philadelphia.

Updated: July 17 2013