By Stephen Treat
A young man from a suburban prep school sits in a circle of his peers and several parents from the community. He tells them that he feels really depressed, but that he cannot talk to his parents about it because they are too stressed themselves.
This is clearly hard for him. He is not used to sharing such feelings so openly, but for some reason, this seems like the right place. This place: a school science lab turned into a breakout session for SpeakUp!
SpeakUp! was born of the struggle of a prominent local family, the Gillins, who were coping with their young gay son's death from AIDS in 1992. Bob, their son, envisioned a future when youths, educators, and parents could talk openly about tough topics. He wanted people to realize that they are never alone in their thoughts or feelings, and it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.
This year, SpeakUp! will bring Bob's vision to 35 diverse schools across the Philadelphia region. The sessions give teens a safe place to discuss their fears and feelings in an era when drugs, sex, and depression permeate their lives. Remember, these are not bad kids. But this amazing and talented generation is under an incredible amount of pressure, and they don't always have the coping tools they need. Many feel crushed under the weight of expectations to be honors students or star athletes or otherwise perfect mini-adults when what they really need to be is themselves.
The main thing I have taken away from 15 years of SpeakUp! is that parents, teens, and educators all have the same goal: to help young people arrive at adulthood safe, healthy, and prepared.
To achieve this shared objective, we all have roles to play, and the best way to understand and appreciate our individual roles is through open and honest conversation.
For the most part, kids want to talk to their parents, and SpeakUp! offers a safe, nonjudgmental environment for intergenerational dialogue. Session participants are not just talking, but listening and probing for insight and understanding.
Here's how it works: Parents and students choose a topic and are assigned a room for the discussion. Each room has students, parents, educators, and a professional facilitator who helps keep the conversation moving. Students are not with their own parents, but instead with their peers' parents, to encourage more open conversation.
The issues are usually not the kind discussed openly between students and parents - hooking up, drugs, alcohol use. But they also discuss some of the underlying factors - grades, social media - that can increase the stress that may, in turn, contribute to certain behaviors.
What happens in these rooms is powerful and enlightening. In my career as a family therapist, I have had patients who take months or years to reach the same level of openness that I find in these breakout rooms.
Parents, students, and educators all contribute, offering their insights and learning from each other.
From the feedback we have received, we understand that the teens usually leave with a newfound appreciation of their parents' perspective, feel reassured that they are not alone, and develop a genuine desire to go home and continue the conversation with their own parents.
Parents usually leave realizing that their children's experiences growing up today are remarkably different from their own, that they don't know all of the answers, and that they may be able to learn as much from their kids as their kids will learn from them.
As they leave the sessions, both parents and their kids can be heard saying, "I never realized ..."