As a Certified Prevention Specialist for Wasco County, I am often asked at what age should a parent start talking to their child about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.  My answer to that question has dramatically changed over the last several years and it has to do with a combination of 6 letters … SEL and ACE’s.

SEL stands for Social Emotional Learning and ACE’s stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.  These two acronyms are receiving attention individually but YouthThink believes that the real power is in connecting them through awareness, education and action.

When you team SEL and ACE’s together there is the potential to create a magical word known as RESILIENCE.  I love this word and love to think of it as the “bounce back effect”.  But what does this all have to do with my original question … when do you start talking to your child about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs?  My answer … the sooner the better but don’t stay focused on talking about risky substances but instead focus on building resiliency within yourself and child.

Why is this so important?  Let’s start with SEL.  A key component of SEL is emotional literacy and it’s pretty tough to be resilient without some form of emotional literacy.  Emotional literacy is the ability to deal with one’s emotions and recognize their causes.  Emotional literacy was my own personal “A-ha” moment when it came to the work of substance use prevention.  My community was trying to reduce risky behaviors such as underage drinking, tobacco and marijuana use.  We incorporated evidence-based strategies but felt like we were more or less “chopping off the top of the weeds instead of getting to the roots” in our efforts.  Sure, you can educate youth on the dangers of substance use but did that intervention get to the root of the issue … the reason why?  They know alcohol and tobacco are not great for them and that they are against the law but they still choose to use, but why.  One 16-year-old youth shared with me why he continued to use marijuana, (in his words) “I’m addicted to the feeling of not feeling”. Marijuana was his way to deal with the way that he felt and his solution was to dull the ability to feel.[/vc_column_text]

Our youth were shouting loud and clear through their actions, “help me know how to deal with the feelings that I have”.  In the absence of a helpful answer, they were turning to behaviors that are biologically known to numb the brain.  They were turning to alcohol, drugs, and sex.  Our youth even came up with our new organizational tagline … “Do Something”.  They wanted help and we wanted to answer the call but we knew we had to dig deeper and we needed to start sooner.

Dr. Ann Corwin, a parenting and attachment expert, introduced YouthThink to emotional literacy.  She shared that feelings are biological and that whenever a feeling comes a behavior will follow.  It’s just that simple yet also so complicated because often we do not really know what our feelings are and may choose unhealthy ways to deal with those feelings.  Dr. Corwin has created an amazing tool for parents to share with their children which focuses on increasing emotional literacy; this tool focuses on 3 key steps:

  1. Identify the troubling behavior
  2. Discover the actual feeling that is driving the behavior and
  3. Discover new ways to deal with the feeling that lead to healthier results if needed

This tool introduces children to “Otus and the Wise Guys”.  “Otus” is the wise owl that helps children learn to “do something” about the 16 core feelings (“Wise Guys”) that we all could use some extra help in learning to deal with.   Through the utilization of this tool, we began to realize that we had the potential to create a potential “vaccine” against harmful future behaviors.  This SEL “vaccine” could eventually help prevent adverse childhood experiences.

We concentrate on making sure our children know their colors or are able to sing the alphabet song before they enter kindergarten, but do they know how to stop or deal with the feeling of frustration and or boredom?  Do we brag about how they can operate a ‘smartphone’ but neglect the time to provide the real ingredients necessary for attachment; touch, talk and eye contact?   

The “A-ha” moments continued and YouthThink launched the T2T Parent Boot Camp project.  In just two short hours parents were able to gain an understanding of emotional literacy and begin practicing on their own at home.  Parents were enthused.  One parent shared, “I found a lot of value from the knowledge gained from the boot camp and I have a much better understanding of how extremely crucial it is as a parent to be aware and be educated so that we can do our best to provide exactly what our children need”. 

Our parents understand that they are not able to control every situation that their children find themselves in, but they can promote the understanding of their feelings in those situations by developing the skill set needed to know how to deal and “do something” with the way that they feel.  By so doing they are empowering their children to choose the behaviors that will promote positive relationships with everyone.  This will give them the ability to “bounce back” when the curve balls of life come their way.

The majority of parents indicated that they were excited to share what they learned from Boot Camp with their children but they also felt that they personally needed to use it first … for their own emotional literacy development.  Those statements got us thinking.  Was there more we could do?

At the same time that YouthThink was learning about emotional literacy, our local school district began to stress the importance of trauma-informed care and introduced us to ACE’s.  We were intrigued by the science and research that indicated that the more ACE’s one had the more likely they were to suffer mental and or physical health issues later in life. We realized that many of our parents were coming to our boot camps with an inner desire to heal and deal with their own traumatic experiences.  One parent shared that she thought this SEL tool would be great for her daughter but that she was the one that really needed it.  She wanted to find a new way to deal with her own feelings of disappointment and mad so that her daughter would not experience the same type of adverse childhood experiences she had.

At YouthThink we have come to believe that in incorporating our knowledge of emotional literacy (SEL) and ACE’s we can better provide the “bounce back” skill of resiliency necessary for our children to thrive and help determine how our biography (what has happened to us) becomes our biology (our mental and physical health outcomes).  And who knows, with the magic of social emotional learning and understanding of Adverse Childhood Experience, just maybe, that three-year-old child who learns about “Otus and the Wise Guys” will be the one who is able to heal an emotional trauma that has plagued his ancestors for centuries and rewrites the history for generations to come.

Debby Jones, CPS
Wasco County Certified Prevention Specialist
YouthThink Director
The Dalles, Or.