Race, Racism, and Relationships: What Matters for Teens’ Mental Health?

By: Jessica Stern

Highlights:

  • Attachment styles have been shown to shape mental health, but almost no research has examined the experiences of Black teens (this is especially important in light of BIPOC Mental Health Month).
  • Our new research reveals that Black teens experience more racism in their neighborhoods, and those experiences of racism are associated with greater attachment avoidance (discomfort with emotional closeness) and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years.
  • We also explore other findings, including how attachment avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms over time, but only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black.
Source: Canva

Think back to your teenage years: Was it a happy time in your life, or did you struggle with feelings of depression? Did you lean on your close friends or family members for support, or did you deal with your feelings by yourself? And did you ever experience racial discrimination in your neighborhood?

We put these questions to teens themselves to uncover how race, racism, and attachment style — or how we feel and behave in close relationships — shape mental health during adolescence. Our new study, published in a special issue of Attachment and Human Development, explored pathways to mental health for teens with different racial-ethnic identities and experiences of discrimination in their neighborhood.

Teens’ Relationship Styles

We focused on two styles of behavior in close relationships:

  • Attachment avoidance – teens’ reluctance to trust others, discomfort with vulnerability, and tendency to deal with emotions alone.
  • Attachment anxiety – teens’ worries about their relationships and fears of abandonment.

Previous studies had shown that both attachment avoidance and anxiety foreshadow increased risk for depression— but these studies overwhelmingly focused on White college students. Almost no studies had examined the unique experiences of Black teens, for whom some aspects of avoidance (like being able to suppress vulnerable emotions when necessary) may be understandable —or even protective— in the context of dealing with racism in their daily lives.

We followed 171 teens from Prince George’s County, MD from age 14 to age 18, focusing on teens who identified as Black or as White. Each year, we asked them to report their attachment style, experiences of racism in their neighborhood, and symptoms of depression. We tested a simple but novel question:

Do the well-established links between attachment and depression differ depending on teens’ racial identity and perceptions of neighborhood racism?

Racial Identity & Racism Findings

When we looked at our sample of teens all together, attachment anxiety and avoidance predicted increasing risk for depressive symptoms— replicating most previous studies. But the story was more complex when considering race.

First, Black teens perceived significantly more racism in their neighborhoods than White teens (unsurprisingly), and those experiences of racism were associated with greater attachment avoidance and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years. Second, avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms from age 14 to 18 only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black. These effects of racial context were unique to avoidance, and not attachment anxiety.

This suggests that Black teens may cope with racism in their communities by adopting avoidant strategies to manage vulnerable emotions.

Rather than assuming that avoidance is universally “bad” for teens, we can see it instead as an understandable strategy for Black youth dealing with racism that may be protective, at least in the short term. Even so, all Black teens need and deserve close relationships in which they feel safe, secure, and supported in expressing their full range of emotion.

The findings reveal how the pathways linking experiences in close relationships to mental health outcomes can vary by racial context— highlighting the importance of considering diversity in adolescent development. Future research is needed to understand how attachment might interact with racial identity to shape other important outcomes, like coping, resilience, critical consciousness, and racial identity development.

How to Support Black Adolescents

As we consider ways to support positive youth development and mental health, it is critical to understand the unique social and emotional experiences of Black youth. Researchers and practitioners can support Black adolescents by:

  1. Advocating for anti-racist policy;
  2. Understanding that moderate levels of avoidance may be a protective strategy for dealing with racism in daily life (that is, not pathologizing teens’ avoidant attachment style); and
  3. Supporting social relationships in which Black youth can safely express their full selves (for instance, relationships with natural mentors).

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Jessica Stern is a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Psychology at University of Virginia. Her research focuses on close relationships, child and adolescent development, empathy, and anti-racist scholarship.

LGBTQ+ Youth Need Your Support

By: Lamont Bryant

Highlights:

  • June is Pride month, and as we celebrate our LGBTQ+IA2+ communities, we should also recognize that this current moment is a turning point from a policy perspective.
  • We need to support LGBTQ+ youth socially and recognize the intersection of youths’ race, sexuality, and gender identity.
  • In this blog, read more about what you can do next to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Source: Canva

Happy Pride!

Watching gravity-defying drag-queens perform acrobats in 6 ½ inch stilettos or stunning ballroom legends voguing as they battle on the dancefloor are some of my favorite moments during Pride. However, every year I spot a group of LGBTQ+ youth sporting their colorful Pride flags like superhero caps, which stirs unfadable joy and the flutter of hope. They are superheroes for daring to live and be their most authentic selves in their own right.

The fact of the matter is, LGBTQ+ youth don’t need another hero, but they need the support to thrive. Their presence is an essential reminder that Pride is not a parade, but a brave protest to proclaim equity and freedom from the normative limits of gender and sexuality at the intersection of infinite social identities. Every year we celebrate Pride during the month of June as an important reminder of resistance against the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other sexual diverse and gender minoritized individuals (LGBTQ+IA2+).

Turning Point

This year, over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ state legislative bills will loom over Pride. More importantly, is the fact that this historic surge of anti-LGBTQ+ bills is made up of 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that adversely affect LGBTQ+ youth. While a quarter of these bills aim to criminalize lifesaving medical care for transgender youth, approximately 75% of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills enable the discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth in schools, particularly transgender youth. [1]

We stand at a curious junction. The introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ school policies threatens decades of youth advocacy and work within the educational system to increase greater protections for LGBTQ+ youth. As such, schools with LGBTQ+ affirming policies have become a refuge of acceptance and empowerment for many LGBTQ+ youth who may face rejection at home or within their community. By and large, most LGBTQ+ youth identify schools as LGBTQ+ affirming (55%) and gender-affirming (51%) spaces in stark comparison to affirming homes (37% and 32%, respectively). [2]

The Importance of Social Support for LGBTQ+ Youth

By addressing the systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ youth, schools can become grounds for fostering social support networks and relationships. Research has found that creating affirming environments through Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) school groups and LGBTQ+-focused school policies impede peer bullying and foster higher levels of support from classmates and teachers. [3]

The association of LGBTQ+ affirming schools with lower rates of attempted suicide is important to preserve, given that 45% of LGBTQ+ considered suicide within the past year.

While student organizations like GSA’s do not guarantee psychological wellbeing, efforts to support and affirm LGBTQ+ youth are interrelated to feeling connected to their school.

Many of the anti-LGBTQ+ efforts in schools will threaten the viable connection LGBTQ+ youth have with their schools. Anti-LGBTQ+ school policies isolate youth by prohibiting transgender youth from competing in student athletics, limiting age-appropriate discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and denying youth access to school facilities that align with their gender identity. Furthermore, many of the anti-LGBTQ+ youth initiatives also include language that will criminalize the discussion of racism within schools. However, discourse around LGBTQ+ youth and school and social support often neglects meaningful discussion at the intersection of race.

The Importance LGBTQ+ Youth at Their Intersections

Let me spill some real tea that may be obvious to many Black folx in the LGBTQ+ community; It is simply impossible to discuss any LGBTQ+ issue without addressing race. Period. However, the discussion of Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults often occurs within the context of sexual-transmitted infections, HIV, and PrEP adherence. It is important that we continue to discuss how systemic barriers to health that target sexual and gender minoritized youth disproportionately affect Black LGBTQ+ youth and youth adults. However, I cannot help but wonder how the historical hyper-sexualization of the Black body may exclude Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults from conversations about social well-being, connectivity, and other forms of positive interpersonal engagement. 

The Intersectional Pride flag was introduced by Danial Quasar in 2018 to underscore the importance of greater inclusion within the LGBTQ+ community. A black and brown chevron was added to the LGBT Rainbow Pride flag to represent racially marginalized LGBTQ+ community members, and the colors pink, light blue, and white-colored chevrons were borrowed from the Transgender Pride Flag. Source: Canva

Black LGBTQ+ youth face discrimination at the intersection of their race, sexuality, and gender identity both at school and at home. I find the complexity of Black LGBTQ+ social support interesting because seeking support from both inside and outside their families can be both beneficial and potentially harmful. For instance, there is a link between LGBTQ+ affirming schools and reduced attempted suicide [4]; however, Black LGBTQ+ students attending majority Black schools were least likely to have a gender and sexuality alliance support group. [5]

In conjunction, Black young adults place great importance in connecting with their family compared to other racial groups; however, Black LGBTQ+ youth continued to experience greater rejection from their family and Black peers. [6] However, dialogue about the social support from their family of origin and close friends (i.e., chosen family, fictive kin) often assumes that these support systems operate independently.

As systemic changes propose a threat to make schools less affirming spaces, it will be increasingly important to understand how to aid Black families in their efforts to support their Black LGBTQ+ youth. My current research seeks to understand the role of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support networks play as they navigate oppression that targets their racialized sexual and gender identity. Furthermore, I hope to shed more light on the interconnectedness of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support network.

What Can We Do Now?

  • For most LGBTQ+  youth, the best way for parents and caregivers to demonstrate their support is by accepting and welcoming their LGBTQ+ friends or partner(s).
  • When LGBTQ+ youth choose a name that better reflects their gender identity, avoid “deadnaming” (the name given at birth).
  • Pronouns are essential tools that validate LGBTQ+ youth and young adults’ gender identity. When in doubt, use their name and ask about their pronouns.
  • We all make mistakes. If you misgender a person, it is important to acknowledge your error and apologize without making it about you.
  • LGBTQ+ youth of color may be more reluctant to report harm or harassment, so be proactive by offering your support while also bolstering their autonomy.
  • Listen, reflect, and talk respectfully with LGBTQ+ youth about their identity. Supporting LGBTQ+ youth may mean finding help and resources to process your personal feelings, expectations you developed as a parent, prejudices (we all have them), and identifying areas of growth with other adults.
  • Keep learning! The GLSEN national network provides resources for students and educators, including research and educational webinars. Also, the LGBT Family Acceptance Project is a great resource for research, training and readings.
  • Race and ethnicity are important to understanding sexual and gender identity. The National Black Justice Coalition provides great resources including a terminology workbook, a gender justice toolkit, and culturally informed dialogue and reports.
  • The Trevor Project LGBTQ+ young people can access free confidential crisis counseling via chat, phone, and text through The Trevor Project.

References

[1] Freedom for all Americans

[2] Trevor Project: 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

[3] Day, J. K., Fish, J. N., Grossman, A. H., & Russell, S. T. (2020). Gay‐straight alliances, inclusive policy, and school climate: LGBTQ+ youths’ experiences of social support and bullying. Journal of Research on Adolescence30, 418-430.

[4] Trevor Project: 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

[5] Truong, N. L., Zongrone, A. D., & Kosciw, J. G. (2020). Erasure and resilience: The experiences of LGBTQ students of color, Black LGBTQ youth in U.S. schools. New York: GLSEN.

[6] Hailey, J., Burton, W., & Arscott, J. (2020). We are family: Chosen and created families as a protective factor against racialized trauma and anti-LGBTQ oppression among African American sexual and gender minority youth. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 16(2), 176-191.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Lamont Bryant (they/them) is a community psychology doctoral student at the University of Virginia. Inspired by Black feminist and queer/quare theory, Lamont seeks to understand the development of psychosocial-informed protective practices. Specifically, their research examines Black women, and sexual and gender minorities’ formation and utility of social support, both in-person and online. Lamont is a first-generation student and the recipient of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department Diversity Recruitment Award and the Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship. Before attending UVA, they lectured for several years at the University of Baltimore and Towson University’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. At the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, they coordinated specialty health educational assistance and professional development for youth and LGBTQ-serving organizations and providers. Additionally, Lamont mentored a team of Black LGBTQ+ young adults through an empowerment framework and utilized community-based participatory research methodologies and systematic tools to gather community input for targeted interventions created for and with LGBTQ+ youth of color.

Student’s Legacy Art with Historical Representation

Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) in Newport News, VA has a Youth Development Department whose primary goals are promoting student success, student wellness, and creating productive collaborations with stakeholders to implement quality programming that promotes overall wellbeing for all students.

The Youth Development Department operates on the premise that all young people will be successful when offered the right combination of opportunities, supports, and services. NNPS Youth Development is also dedicated to the wellbeing of young people, no matter what circumstances they may face.

Recently, NNPS Youth Development shared art from the walls at one of their High Schools. Shared here is that art in celebration of Youth Art Month

Hallway Artwork

Woodside High School, Center for Arts and Communications Magnet program for Newport News Public Schools, fills their halls with legacy art work pieces. Magnet and AP students have the option to leave a legacy piece that will be rotated in the hall galleries. Legacy pieces have historical representation of the students and talents that have come through the school’s magnet program. The hallway artwork is a unique feature to the building and overall culture of the school. Department Art Teachers include Rick Shelton, Bill Kaoudis, Cathy Hilton and Heidi Bogan.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Art Can Be a Force of Change

By: Maya Koehn-Wu

Maya also took over the Youth-Nex and Equity Center Instagram accounts to talk more about this blog and her experiences with the Sound Justice Lab.

Highlights

  • Maya is a second year undergraduate majoring in Urban and Environmental Planning with a minor in Dance. 
  • In celebration of Youth Art Month, Maya shares more about how she was encouraged to be creative and engaged with her community during her teen years.
  • Now she is bridging art and social justice issues as she continues using her creativity to change the world.

I consider myself an artist across multiple mediums. I draw, I paint, I dance, and more.

I began making art when I was young. In high school, I developed my own style, where my artwork depicted gestural figures in motion, dancing in a time-space continuum of energy. Creating and making such pieces became a way for me to create action in a space of stillness. It was a way in which to communicate the complexity and chaotic dimension of movement within a controversial space, within everyday life, within a dance piece.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

My dancing simultaneously – whether it was within the studio or at community events (where our dance company would put on productions that told Latin folktales in order to share and teach about Latin Culture), became an extension of my art; bringing a shared energy of pastels and color to moving about on a stage. Dancing Flamenco became a passion; where stomping to a rhythm also was a way to tell a story through movement and not words.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

Why Be Creative

Art for me has always been about creating a space for self expression where words often can’t, which is true for many young people. My high school teacher always said, “it is important to create something everyday.” I have since taken those words to heart.

Whether I am sewing, cooking, dancing, painting, drawing, or creating graphics for internships, I have always taken it upon myself to create daily.

I think adults should encourage youth to find creative outlets, to explore different avenues for expression, and foster the development of young artists to be creative.

In a world of standardized testing and schooling, there is often little room for subjective creativity and emotional intelligence. Creativity fosters skills that move people, skills that bridge people together, skills that foster empathy and emotion. It is this power to foster emotion and share common humanistic values that makes art so powerful.

Being an Active Community Member

Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to give back to my community. The Latin Ballet, the studio I danced at, was centered around bringing in the community. After each production we would bring the audience on stage with us to come learn some steps of Bachata, Salsa, or Flamenco.

This helped me connect with kids younger than me, but also share my talents to inspire the next generation of youth artists.

I became passionate about being an even more active member of my community. I worked as a kayaking instructor on the river, where I grew to understand the importance of conservation. I became an activist on fighting to mitigate issues surrounding Climate Change and became empowered by the power of Greta Thunberg’s voice shouting:

Youth CAN make a difference.

Within Richmond, VA I then began interning at a project directed towards studying urban heat islands, where I learned that impoverished neighborhoods and certain streets of Richmond were often 10+ degrees hotter than other parts of the city due to limited tree coverage. From that experience I learned that green space, poverty, equity, and resource access are all interconnected.

I became emboldened to be a voice and advocate for equitable change.

Bridging Art & Social Justice

It wasn’t until I learned that art and equity development can be connected that my perspective on the world transformed.

I have begun to work in a space where dance, music, and art drive my social justice projects. Today I work as an intern at the Sound Justice Lab, a social justice project affiliated with the UVA Equity Center and centered around amplifying voices of gender discrimination. I create graphics, flyers, website material, and visual content that incorporates my artistic passion to present expressive visuals that are measurable and meaningful.

I also work on a project called Project Drumline, where we teach kids rhythm with bucket drumming, music, and dance through City of Promise.

On my journey to become an active and artistic citizen, I have learned that art brings in a level of emotion and depth that sparks conversations amongst people, and conversations are the key to beginning to enact change. I have learned of the power of expression behind a piece of art. I have learned that being creative is a way for me to fight for change and to bring profound meaning to my causes.

Youth are looking for a place to express themselves, to find their own voices.

We want to be a force of change, and sometimes all it takes is putting some color on a piece of paper and other times it’s turning on music and moving your body.

Just remember, art can change the world.


Maya and her sister founded an organization, SistersProjectPeru, who’s ultimate hope is to build a sustainable medical clinic in rural Huacahuasi Peru in the hopes of increasing healthcare accessibility and empowering women on a global scale. Maya recently held an auction of her art to raise money for the organization. To learn more, please visit https://www.sistersprojectperu.org/.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Maya Koehn-Wu is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Her intersectional identity as a multiracial female inspires her exploration of different cultures and drive to constantly be making global connections and impacts.Through dance, art, and creative social justice work, she seeks to experience the world outside of where she lives. In addition to being a globally minded, assertive, and politically vocal citizen, she is working as an environmental activist seeking to work within the global community to tackle climate change.

The Power of Intergenerational Activism

By: Celina Adams

Highlights:

  • In spring 2021 I worked with the Teachers in the Movement project during my final semester as an undergraduate.
  • During this time, I reviewed and conducted oral history interviews that explored teachers’ ideas and pedagogy inside and outside the classroom during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
  • In this original blog post, I reviewed an interview with Mrs. Flora Crittenden and reflected on the power of intergenerational activism.

Mrs. Flora Crittenden is a remarkable woman who positively impacted her students and community throughout her lifetime. She worked as an educator, guidance counselor, and politician during the Civil Rights Movement. Her incredibly deep involvement in her community speaks to her determination to facilitate racial justice in every aspect of life. I reviewed an oral history interview from Mrs. Crittenden during my involvement with the Teachers in the Movement Project, and a major theme that arose in the discussion of her career is the importance of support systems. This yielded intergenerational progress that is evident in the lives of Mrs. Crittenden, her family members, and her students.

Role Models & Background 

While attending the only school that accepted Black students in her county in Newport News, Huntington High School, Mrs. Crittenden interacted with teachers who maintained high standards for her. This high school was established around 1920 with the intention of providing quality education to African American students, and in Mrs. Crittenden’s experience, it did exactly that. Mrs. Crittenden specifically recalls the impact her high school biology and chemistry teacher, Mr. Hines, had on her. While in his class, she was assigned projects that she found uninteresting. She was determined not to complete her assignments; however, Mr. Hines pushed her to conduct the necessary research. Mrs. Crittenden believes that educators like him were the reason she attended college and excelled academically. Mr. Hines was one of the many resources Huntington High School afforded Mrs. Crittenden, and his impact in her life extended beyond his classroom. Years after she graduated, Mr. Hinesbecame the principal of George Washington Carver High School which is located in Newport News. He alone was responsible for the school’s opening and operations due to the lack of resources provided by the School Board. As a result, he recruited Mrs. Crittenden to help develop the school’s curriculum and hire faculty. Mr. Hines garnered her support prior to the school’s unveiling in 1949. He went to her home, and he said “Mrs. Crittenden, get dressed—we got to go make a school.” This simple statement coupled with his guidance radically affected Mrs. Crittenden’s life. It gave her the opportunity to invest in a school in a way that most teachers are unable to do.

Educating during the Civil Rights Movement 

Even though the subject matter Mrs. Crittenden taught (girls’ physical education and occasionally biology) did not easily align with the ideas promoted by the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Crittenden made an effort to remind her students that they were valued, citizens. She wanted them to know that neither their age nor race made them inferior to anyone. Mrs. Crittenden worked predominantly with young women since “physical education classes were separated by gender but not the academic classes.” It was not until 1972 that all classes were required to be coeducational as a result of Title XI. Therefore, the majority of Mrs. Crittenden’s students had to navigate a society that praised whiteness and masculinity. This challenging situation made the affirming messages Mrs. Crittenden taught increasingly necessary. Additionally, she encouraged her students to be an active member of their communities despite social norms. This approach was rooted in her belief that:

Educational institutions have the ability to strengthen both families and nations by producing educated and thoughtful citizens.

Mrs. Crittenden was determined to ingrain these ideals in her students. Her teaching style suggests that activism can occur in any environment. It is not limited to certain subject matter, locations, or age groups. She suggests that “it just so happened that [she] was a teacher” who used her career as a platform to promote Civil Rights. Mrs. Crittenden’s work suggests that activism is rooted in an understanding of the humanity of people.

Life Beyond Teaching 

Mrs. Crittenden sought opportunities to enact change in the lives of young people and community members beyond teaching. This led to her decision to become a guidance counselor. This new position allowed her to counsel students in a more personalized manner; she could tailor her approach to individual students rather than classrooms with multiple people. Mrs. Crittenden was invested in the lives of her students. Furthermore, she was able to engage directly with students and parents creating an environment that fostered student success. Thursa Crittenden, Mrs. Crittenden’s daughter, recalled an experience in which a student received a scholarship to an excellent university, but he did not want to attend that institution. Mrs. Flora Crittenden knew the school would afford him numerous opportunities, so she traveled to the students’ homes to speak to his parents and compel him to accept the university’s offer. He ultimately decided to attend the university, and he attributes his success to Mrs. Crittenden’s persistence. This situation highlights Mrs. Crittenden’s deep desire to support her students.


Read more in the original blog post on how Mrs. Crittenden’s family shaped her view of education and ultimately led to her deep appreciation of teaching, her educational background, her life after retiring from teaching which include becoming a representative for the Virginia House of Delegates, and references.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Celina Adams recently received a Bachelors of Science in Education in May 2021 from the University of Virginia. She double majored in Youth in Social Innovations and American Studies. She currently works on the Counseling and Equity team at ReadyKids, a local nonprofit that provides educational, developmental, and counseling support to children and families. This position embodies Celina’s interests in racial justice, culture, and mental health. She hopes to continue her studies in order to learn how to highlight the stories of marginalized people and promote positive racial identity development. 

Re-Engaging Youth in Out-of-School Spaces

By: Ashlee Sjogren

Highlights:

  • Engaging students in out-of-school spaces is critical to supporting the whole student. Peers, families, program content, and a fun environment all serve as sources of engagement that programs can optimize on.
  • However, both interpersonal tensions and repetition of content can be reasons that middle school students decide not to engage in afterschool programs.
  • In this blog, we provide recommendations for afterschool stakeholders as they consider how to encourage youth engagement.
Source: Youth-Nex

The role of afterschool and summer learning spaces is perhaps even more critical in our mid-/post-pandemic world than ever before. With the rise of online learning, social isolation, and student mental health issues,[i] afterschool spaces serve as a needed additional support to students’ achievement and development.[ii] However, as we re-embark on in-person learning environments, one question stands out: How do we re-engage students, particularly middle school students from historically marginalized communities[iii], in productive afterschool programs?

Sources

In a recent report of middle school students’ engagement in afterschool programs, students identified three key sources and two key barriers to engagement[iv]:

  1. Program Content – Variety in program content is initially appealing for students who are interested in trying new activities that are not traditionally offered in schools. While some students feel that their afterschool program “is fun because you have activities you would be interested in that you can do, like gym kind of things;” others focus on how afterschool programs expose them to new activities, skills, and classes that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to explore. In this way, afterschool programs can provide space for students to explore new interests, gain new skills, and continue to invest in their personal identity development.
  2. Friends & Family — Personal relationships with peers and family also serve as an additional source of engagement for many students. While many elementary-aged students engage in afterschool spaces because their parents sign them up, middle school students tend to “vote with their feet.” In this way, some may choose to engage based off of parental encouragement whereas others are highly influenced by their peers’ engagement decisions.
  3. Fun Environment – Finally, afterschool spaces are different from school. There are fewer rules, more opportunities for student choice, and ultimately often more fun than a traditional school-day environment. This is critical for many adolescents who are seeking autonomy in their decision-making and opportunities to spend time with peers. If we are seeking to promote afterschool engagement for our middle school students, we must be meeting them with fun environments comprised of various activity options, freedom to select their activities, and opportunities to learn new skills and meet new people.

Barriers

Even in the presence of a well-designed and thoughtful afterschool program, there is still the risk of creating unintentional barriers to adolescent engagement. For example, the following two barriers rose to the surface:

  1. Repetition of Content—Although program content is initially appealing to many middle school students, it can run the risk of developing into a barrier if not adequately differentiated. Students voice that afterschool programs are boring when “we just keep doing the same thing.” Thus, we must not only diversify our course offerings in afterschool spaces but also think critically about keeping the day-to-day content and activities fresh for students.
  2. Interpersonal Tensions – Lastly, given the prominence and importance of peers during early adolescence, it is important that educators are keenly aware of peer relationships. Although the afterschool space provides a unique opportunity for continued engagement amongst peers, it is not immune to the school-day tensions such as name-calling, nagging, and other forms of bullying.  These interpersonal tensions can unintentionally push students out of the afterschool space.

Further, it is important to note students’ experiences with these sources and barriers of engagement varied based on their reported level of engagement.

For example, students who reported lower levels of engagement more often reported interpersonal tensions as a barrier, highlighting how they may be the group most at risk for alienation in educational contexts.

Given this, educators should think critically about the impact of barriers on students who may appear to be on the margins of the program such as those with sporadic attendance.

Moving forward, afterschool educators, parents, and teens can adopt the following suggestions to promote youth engagement across formal and informal learning contexts.

  1. Ramp up family outreach/engagement efforts to ensure families are adequately informed of program offerings.
  2. Provide tangible spaces for student feedback to be voiced, considered, and implemented in day-to-day programming decisions.
  3. Develop leadership opportunities for students such as 1) serving as peer recruiters; 2) serving on a student leadership council; 3) mentoring younger students; and 4) serving as a Teaching Assistant in a course they have mastered.
  4. Adopt a culturally sustaining discipline approach that seeks to solve the root of interpersonal tensions (i.e., CRPBIS, Restorative Practices).
  5. Adopt leveled approaches to programming which allow youth to continually refine their skills over time.
  6. Provide various class opportunities (through community partnerships) and hold program providers accountable to fresh and engaging lesson plans.

Strategies of this sort address adolescents’ need for autonomy and belonging, and further foster their identity exploration. In doing so, they foster spaces that middle school students genuinely desire to engage and promote continued participation.


References

[i] CDC, 2020

[ii] Durlak et al., 2020

[iii] Afterschool Alliance, 2020

[iv] Sjogren et al., 2021


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Ashlee Sjogren, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral research associate at Youth-Nex: Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, University of Virginia. Her research is broadly focused on equitable education both in- and out-of-school. Most recently, Dr. Sjogren has investigated student access and engagement in out-of-school contexts. As an educational psychologist, Dr. Sjogren often brings both a social context and motivation lens to understanding questions of equity, access, and motivation.

Suicide is Preventable: What You Can Do to Support our Youth in Crisis

By: Laura Handler

Highlights:

  • As Director of Prevention Services at Region Ten Community Services Board, I know suicide is preventable and there are steps adults can take to help youth in crisis.
  • It is important to recognize the warning signs that a young person may be experiencing thoughts of suicide.
  • Next understand how to ask questions and listen nonjudgmentally to the response in order to seek further help and support that is available 24/7.
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week 2021 and is dedicated as a time to promote suicide prevention awareness and share resources. While it is not a topic most people prefer to discuss, suicide remains the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control.[i] We do not yet fully know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates, but there are indicators that emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents ages 12-17, particularly girls, have significantly increased.[ii]

Know the Warning Signs

Suicide is preventable and everyone can play a part in helping a young person. One of the most important ways teachers, parents, mentors, and other caring adults can support our youth is to recognize the warning signs that a young person may be having thoughts of suicide. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Feeling no reason for living, no sense of purpose in life
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Changes in appearance
  • Giving away possessions
  • Reporting thoughts of suicide that are active (i.e. “I want to die”) or passive (i.e. “I wish I could just fall asleep and not wake up”
  • Seeking access to pills, weapons, and other means to kill themselves
  • Increased substance use

What To Do Next

If you do notice warning signs, start by telling them that you are concerned and what you have noticed. Next, listen nonjudgmentally and ask open-ended questions to hear more about what the youth is experiencing. Hear them at their own pace and manage your own feelings of worry or concern. The next critical step is to ask the question

“Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are you thinking about suicide?” It is best to avoid using a vague question such as “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” because they may not know what you mean, or respond with a vague answer.

Be calm, specific, and direct because you want a direct answer.

Youth who are having thoughts of suicide often report a feeling of relief that someone noticed their pain and was willing to ask and hear more about it. If they are not thinking about suicide, your question will not “plant the idea in their mind.” For more tips on having the conversation, check out this resource from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): “If Someone Tells You They’re Thinking About Suicide: A #RealConvo Guide from AFSP

If a young person does report thoughts of suicide, it is important to connect them to professional help. There are many resources available locally and nationwide.

Specifically, I encourage everyone to put the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (741741) into your phone’s contact list right now so you have the contact if you ever need it.

Both of these national resources are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have trained crisis counselors available to talk with you or the young person to help address these thoughts and develop a safety plan.

Ongoing additional support will also be important for a young person with current or recent thoughts of suicide. Reach out to their primary care doctor, a counselor, or other treatment professional who can more thoroughly assess what treatment or other supports might be most helpful.

While it can feel scary and anxiety-provoking to notice warning signs of suicide, it is important to ask the question, and get help. These steps can save a life. Showing the young person you care and are available for them when things are difficult is vital not only in moments of crisis, but every day.


References

[i] Deaths: Leading Causes for 2019. National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 70, No. 9. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr70/nvsr70-09-tables-508.pdf

[ii] Yard, E., Radhakrishnan, L., Ballesteros, M.F., Sheppard, M., Gates, A., Stein, Z.,…Stone, D.M. (2021). Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12-25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic-United States, January 2019-May 2021. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 70, 888-894. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7024e1.htm


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Laura Handler, LPC is the Director of Prevention Services at Region Ten Community Services Board. She has worked at the CSB for more than 12 years serving adults, youth, and families in the Charlottesville area. The Prevention Team offers trainings and presentations to support suicide prevention, substance use prevention, and promotion of mental health and wellness. If you are interested in learning more, please email prevention@regionten.org

Understanding the Well-Being of LGBTQI+ Populations

By: Charlotte Patterson

In September 2021, Youth-Nex hosted a virtual panel with some of the authors of this report. You can view this panel discussion online.

Highlights:

  • Over the past decade, there have been remarkable changes in the social, political, and legal status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, especially in the United States.
  • There are over 11 million LGBT individuals in the U.S., but many data collection efforts lack measures that capture the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • To address these and other issues, I co-edited a new report that identifies the need for heightened attention to the social and structural inequities that exist for LGBTQI+ people and argues for new research on the full range of sexual and gender diversity.

In the fall of 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a landmark report on the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, intersex (e.g., persons with differences of sexual development), and other sexual and gender diverse people (LGBTQI+). The study updates and considerably expands a 2011 National Academies’ report on the health of LGBT people by also examining life experiences in multiple domains, such as law, education, public policy, and employment.

In a recent opinion piece for JAMA Pediatrics, my colleague and I shared the report’s review of the current state of knowledge on children and youths in several areas and offer some considerations on these subjects for pediatricians and other healthcare providers who work with children and youth. I highlight here a few areas of focus that may be of interest to educators, developmental psychologists, and other researchers.

Demography

Demographic data on sexual orientation and gender identity for people younger than 18 years remain sparse, since many data collection instruments still fail to assess these in pediatric populations. However, surveys that do collect this information show a consistent pattern of increasing disclosure of sexual orientation and gender identity (coming out) by adolescents over time. For example, findings from 10 US states using the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System show significant increases in adolescents (ages 14-18 years) identifying as nonheterosexual (lesbian, gay, bisexual, other, or questioning) over time (ie, 7.3% in 2009 and 14.3%in 2017). This change reflects greater affirmation of minority sexual and gender identities by younger people. This is happening in a context of growing societal acceptance of sexual and gender diverse individuals that has been characterized by increased visibility of sexual and gender diverse populations, more positive media coverage, improved legal protections, and more supportive school policies.

Education

By reinforcing societal expectations of sexual and gender normativity in behavior and appearance, schools play vital roles in the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children and youths. Educational environments that are not inclusive, supportive, and protective of sexual and gender diverse students expose them to stigma, violence, abuse and other mistreatment that may promote negative academic outcomes, such as delinquency, lower academic achievement, and lower high school graduation rates. For example, a study matching 900 LGBTQ students with a comparison group of heterosexual youths found a higher rate of school suspensions among LGBTQ students that were not explained by punishable behavior at school. In contrast, schools that offer supportive policies and practices, training for teachers and other school personnel, and support for gender-sexuality alliances (sometimes called gay-straight alliances, or simply GSAs) have been shown to have less bullying. In these schools, LGBTQ students report feeling safer and having higher self-esteem, fewer mental health problems, less substance use, and less suicidal ideation.

Health

Consistent with earlier studies, recent research on the physical health of LGBTQI children and youth reveals their earlier initiation and higher prevalence rates of cigarette smoking, use of alcohol and other substances, as well as higher risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. There has been a significant increase in research and knowledge of mental health over recent years. These data extend earlier findings of significant disparities in depression and suicidality, demonstrating higher rates of anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and suicide attempts compared with heterosexual youths. In addition, there is now evidence that mental health disparities in adolescence can persist into adulthood, increasing the risk of LGBTQI adults for mood, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Final Thoughts

The current report underscores the urgent need to integrate measures of sexual and gender diversity into major public and private survey instruments. The report also emphasizes that while acronyms such as LGBTQI are used to describe this population, LGBTQI people actually have many other identities as well, and they are more diverse than this acronym suggests. I hope that our report will deepen understanding of the experiences of these youth and help to support constructive discussions among LGBTQI youngsters and their family members.

To read the full opinion piece, please see the JAMA Pediatrics Viewpoint entitled “LGBTQI Youths Today—New Knowledge, Better Understanding.” The views represented here are those of the authors.

To read the full report and highlights from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, please see Understanding the Well-Being of LGBTQI+ Populations. Note that the report can be downloaded free of charge from the National Academies Press website.


References

Patterson CJ, Sepúlveda M-J, White J, eds; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Understanding the Well-Being of LGBTQI+ Populations. The National Academies Press; 2020. doi:10.17226/25877

Sepúlveda M, Patterson CJ. LGBTQI Youths Today—New Knowledge, Better Understanding. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online May 24, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.0893


Youth-Nex also hosted a virtual panel discussion on this topic on September 17th, 2021. The video from this panel is now available online. You can also download a copy of the slide deck (PDF).

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Charlotte J. Patterson is a Professor in the UVA Department of Psychology. Her research focuses on the psychology of sexual orientation, with an emphasis on sexual orientation, human development, and family lives. In the context of her research, Patterson has worked with children, adolescents, couples, and families; she is best known for her studies of child development in the context of lesbian- and gay-parented families.

Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville

Highlights:

  • Recent 2021 opinions from the Virginia Supreme Court have allowed the City of Charlottesville to consider acting on Confederate monument removal.
  • These statues have been a topic of petitions and rallies since 2016, including the deadly Unite the Right Rally in August of 2017.
  • New research sheds light on how adolescents were making sense of the rally and events that unfolded within their community in 2017.
Source: Journal of Research on Adolescence and the UVA School of Education & Human Development

In the spring of 2016, Zyahna Bryant, a 15-year old high school student at the time, wrote a petition to City Council calling for the removal of the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of Market Street Park (then still named Lee Park) in downtown Charlottesville. Although the park has changed name twice (first to Emancipation Park, and then to its current name, Market Street Park), the statue remains in place despite calls for and multiple attempts at its removal.

In addition to being home to the statue, Market Street Park was the main site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally where members of white supremacist and affiliated groups gathered to protest the statue’s removal. At the time, this was one of the largest and most violent U.S. gatherings in decades.

In April 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion to reverse previous circuit court rulings that had prevented the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. As the City of Charlottesville starts a process to act on the monument removal, Youth-Nex is revisiting new research findings about adolescents’ perceptions of the Unite the Right rally that occurred in their own town, during the summer of their middle school years.

Dr. Joanna Williams, a Youth-Nex faculty affiliate, was interviewed by Kalee De France and the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) to explain this unique and important research of how young adolescents were making sense of the events that unfolded within their community.


Question: What, in your opinion, is the main takeaway of the article?

Williams: I’ll start by saying there’s like a lot of context to this paper. All of the authors were living in Charlottesville in 2017 when the Unite the Right rally happened. We were about to start year two of a mixed-methods project that was focused on investigating diversity and social relationships in early adolescence. The Unite the Right rally happened in August of 2017, about two weeks before the school year started and, because of the focus of our project, we decided to ask students about their understanding of what had happened.

One of the key takeaways is that we should expect heterogeneity in how youth process events like this. There was a lot of heterogeneity in how kids interpreted and were responding to the Rally. One group of students said things along the lines of “Yeah, I know what happened, but it’s not really on my radar.” A second group knew a lot of the details of what happened but didn’t feel personally impacted – they sounded like news reporters in their accounts.

Another group of students had spent a lot of time processing and talking about what happened. And for some of them, their processing led to disillusionment, like “I can’t believe that stuff like this still happens” or “I thought we were beyond racism”.

There was a fourth group who were feeling, either at the time or a few months later, a sense of fear and vigilance. They said things along the lines of “We know why the KKK was here, and I’m Black. And I know that they were here because of people like me”. These students shared feelings of anger, fear, or just general concern. And, finally, there was a smaller subset of students who were sort of dismissive—they felt like people were overreacting to the situation. They said things like “I’m embarrassed to live in Charlottesville because we’re getting so much attention because of things like this”

The second type of heterogeneity that we saw was in relation to who belonged to these groups. On one hand, the group of students who expressed fear and vigilance were all students of color and most identified as Black. On the other hand, there were also many Black and other students of color who did not express any personal stress or concern, but there were White students in this group as well. White students made up the bulk of students who sounded like reporters or who expressed disillusionment or sympathy. The small group of dismissive students all identified as White.

It’s important to make sense of this heterogeneity in the context of what we know about young adolescents: they’re making meaning of important and abstract concepts, like racism and white supremacy while also trying to make sense of their own identities.


For more from this Q&A including the experiences of Dr. Williams’ team when asking these tough questions and what she is looking forward to seeing in upcoming research, please see the SRA blog. For more on these research findings, please see the Journal for Research on Adolescence article entitled “From Apathy to Vigilance: Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Youth Action Lab: Undergraduates Reflect on Leading and Learning with Local Youth

By Anya Pfeiffer, Kennedy Eagle, Olivia Burke, Kate Price, & Alexis Allen

Highlights:

  • Youth Action Lab (YAL) helps young people develop social science research skills to transform their lives and communities.
  • YAL uses a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) framework to engage youth as researchers who systematically explore community issues they care about.
  • In this article, undergraduates serving as mentors in the YAL reflect on their experiences working with local high schoolers to design research studies, gather and analyze data, and take action to address the issues they explored.
Source: Students participating in YAL created this video to explain the YPAR framework.

As Youth and Social Innovation (YSI) majors, we joined Youth Action Lab (YAL) as our community-engaged project for the YSI capstone class, an accumulating applied course required for all seniors in the YSI major. The goal of YAL is to equip young people with research skills to transform their lives and communities.

Youth Participatory Action Research

In YAL, we used a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) framework where youth become researchers, systematically exploring issues that impact their schools and communities. Building on their lived experiences and expertise, our high school students develop research questions, design social science studies, gather and analyze data, and then take action to address the issues they explore. YAL uses a mentor-led approach, where we, as undergraduates at the University of Virginia, teach a YPAR curriculum through interactive lessons tailored to meet each group’s needs and objectives. By building community and promoting equity and inclusion, YAL empowers youth through research and collaboration.

Tackling Virtual Learning

One of our first tasks for YAL was researching best practices for virtual learning. Some strategies we found helpful were using digital collaboration tools and providing opportunities for flexibility and student choice. Collaboration tools (such as using breakout rooms and Padlet) allowed students to work together in smaller groups and participate in interactive experiences.

Allowing students to co-construct our lessons by asking what they’d like to learn or how we could support their project also created a more engaged learning environment. Sometimes, this looked like just showing up to listen and provide a space to discuss current events instead of a lesson. Most importantly, we learned to make a plan but be open to adjusting — extending a meaningful activity or discussion is much more important than doing scheduled activities.

YPAR in Action

We applied our research on virtual learning as we started working with two high school student groups, Charlottesville City Youth Council and Albemarle High School Black Student Union. Throughout the year, our team meets with each group biweekly to help guide them through lessons that support the research process.

Youth Council (YC) decided to explore why some students attend private middle schools instead of Walker and Buford but then return to Charlottesville City Schools for high school. Here are some highlights from their research project:

  • The students created a survey to ask local high school students about their middle school experiences and perceptions of different schools. The survey received over 70 responses.
  • YC is now in the process of interviewing adult stakeholders including parents and school board members. Conducting a mixed methods research project has allowed them gain experience with surveys and interviews and engage with different community stakeholders.
  • By the end of the year, YC will present their research findings to City Council and/or the Charlottesville City School Board. YC hopes their research will push the City to implement more programming to address the stigma around public middle schools.

Our team of facilitators have loved working with this group. They are wise beyond their years and show a high-level understanding of societal issues including classism and racism which they are mindful of in their research.

Black Student Union (BSU) is a student organization focused on sharing and supporting the culture and experiences of Black students at Albemarle High School. During our first meetings, BSU identified several issues at their school and decided to examine the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in Dual Enrollment (DE) and Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Since most BSU students have experienced being one of few Black students in higher-level classes, they had a personal connection to the issue. Here are some highlights from their research project:

  • With support from their principal, BSU recently sent surveys to students, teachers, school counselors, and families and are planning interviews to help identify potential solutions. 
  • One idea they have is a summer program that will serve as a bridge to prepare students to transition to more advanced classes. BSU’s overall goal is to make higher level courses more accessible and ensure students of color are prepared to succeed.
  • BSU plans to present their research findings to the Albemarle High School staff and leadership and are also exploring the possibility of presenting to the Albemarle County School Board.

In addition to conducting this research project, BSU continues to advocate for Black students and has held multiple events for their school community to celebrate Black culture and history. Our team has been beyond impressed by this group of motivated and passionate students.

Final Thoughts

Working with two very different and incredibly inspiring groups of high school students has been such a wonderful opportunity. As YAL facilitators, we teach high schoolers how to frame and investigate real world issues through social science research, but we undoubtedly learned just as much from them about framing and addressing problems in our own lives and communities.


YAL is supported by the Equity Center and Youth-Nex. We are always looking for new partners interested in bringing YPAR to the youth they serve. To learn more about YAL and YPAR resources, please visit our website.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Anya Pfeiffer is a fourth year Youth & Social Innovation Major and a first year candidate for a Master’s of Public Policy and Leadership from the Batten School. After graduation, she hopes to work on education or housing policy.


Author Bio: Olivia Burke is a 4th year Youth and Social Innovation major and Public Policy minor who is passionate about education research. Next year she will pursue her M.Ed. in Quantitative Analytics at UVA. 


Author Bio: Kate Price is a fourth year student majoring in Youth & Social Innovation in the School of Education. She is extremely interested in applying youth developmental frameworks to practical settings which help prompt adolescents to critically reflect, use their voice, and make a difference in their communities. 


Kennedy Eagle and Alexis Allen are also YSI students.