Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

Stop The Cycle

The Children Are Not All Right

The Children Are Not All Right

Posted Oct 25, 2011

From the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the dawn of video games and heavy metal music in the ‘80s, adults have had multiple reasons to worry whether the next generation of kids will grow up to be "all right."

Though concerns about rock music's malevolence or the ability of video games to spawn psychopaths usually turn out to be unwarranted, some surprising facts about today's children - and the environments in which they are being raised - are valid causes for concern.

Children who grow up in physically, cognitively, and emotionally substandard living conditions are at a much higher risk for school failure, behavior problems, violence, delinquency, substance abuse, criminal behavior, and symptoms of mental illness. From both a statistical and historical standpoint this is true. Case studies of Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson, and many other violent criminals provide additional evidence. With this in mind, consider the current problem that the U.S. has on its hands:

• There are 6 million children (about 8%) in homes where they were alleged to have been abused or neglected.
• There are 15 million children (an astonishing 20%) living below the poverty line.
• There are 1.5 million children who are homeless every year.

All of these situations can create unhealthy environments for children. The more negative the environments, the more likely negative outcomes become for children, their families, and society.

While most kids will likely be exposed to a physically and developmentally healthy environment when they first enter school, here's the trump card: Waiting until age 5 or 6 is already too late. Living in a predominantly unhealthy environment for that amount of time has a huge impact on kids.

Children who do not receive the necessary support in early developmental phases are at an immediate disadvantage. Those living in poverty enter school approximately 1.5 years behind grade level, while children from middle class homes enter school 1.5 years ahead of grade level - that is equivalent to the gap between a first grader and a third grader.

It is not just about money, either. Children need nurturing, caring adults that can teach them life skills and set solid boundaries. Children need adults who are emotionally healthy themselves - who don't abuse alcohol and refrain from drug use. The rest of kids' lives depend on it; so does the health of society.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2009 "there were over 7.2 million people on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end - 3.1% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 32 adults."

Think about it: Most people do not wake up one day and decide to become violent criminals. The unhealthy environments in which they were raised put them at risk to develop that way. "More criminals" aren't why jails and substance abuse programs are filling up. Child abuse and domestic violence are.

The current justice system primarily waits until people develop severe problems before it takes action. Delinquent behavior that's been going on prior to age 12 becomes much harder to treat in adulthood, hence why so many people are incarcerated. The older they are, the more ingrained their ways become, and the harder the bad habits and delayed development are to change.

It is far more effective, and far less expensive, to develop an understanding of the underlying causes of the behavior, catch the problem early on, and help kids who may be at risk for developing violent tendencies later on in life.

Assessments and research are available to diagnose which kids are at higher risk, as well as determine how severe the impairment may be. Several programs have been found to effectively provide kids with the nurturing care that they need, including home visiting nurses, healthy families programs, and pre-school with parent involvement. The solution lies in making these services as universally available as possible.

Also, therapists can help children understand the circumstances of their lives, overcome problems, and learn new skills to help them function well in their families, schools, and communities. Placing public mental health therapists in schools rather than the community clinics is efficient and cost effective. Follow-through also tends to be higher for school-based services than for community clinics.

It is up to adults to help the next generation of children grow up "all right." From a personal standpoint, this means understanding early childhood development, acting upon that knowledge, and providing a caring and safe environment for kids. From a civic standpoint, this means fighting to make sure the right programs are in place so that all children - not just the ones born into the best circumstances - are getting the stable, healthy and enriched environments that they need.

Armed with additional information and inspiration, it is time for all adults to do their part in reversing the trends of crime and punishment. The focus needs to be on prevention. Starting with today's children, it is time to "stop the cycle."

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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