- Unexplained absences from school, as described under intermediate signs.
- Initial use of alcohol and drugs as a means to cope with life. I should also caution about a new trend that we have recently become aware of, which is one of the early signs. How many of you who are parents buy those 250 tablet bottles of Tylenol, aspirin, and so forth. Are you paying attention to how quickly they are being used up? Over-the-counter pain medication is yet another area of substance abuse among young people. This is something I learned about coincidentally during a counseling session with a teenage girl. I was holding my head because I had a painful headache, and she said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Oh, I just got a headache.” She said, “Oh, here!” and she opened her purse, “You want Tylenol? You want aspirin? You want this? I got this, How about this?” as she pulled out various non-prescription pain relievers from her bag one after the other. I asked, “How many pills do you usually take?” “Well, if I had a bad day, I’d take 4-6. If it’s a really bad day—like if I had an argument with my boyfriend—I’d take about 12.” And so we are seeing this over-the-counter pain medication abuse as a way young people are trying to cope with life. But kids will often remark, “Pain relievers are not drugs. Beer is not a drug. Tobacco is not a drug.” This can start as early as 10-13 years of age.
- Wanting to wear gang-related clothing. Right now it’s pretty popular because it’s in style. Don’t blame it on rap music, because Walt Disney just released a cartoon with Mickey Mouse in baggy-saggy pants, “Yeow, the mouse is in the house, Mickey Mouse rap.” So it’s not something that you’re going to be able to get rid of just by censoring music. The clothing is an important factor, but you can’t stop it simply by saying, “I will not allow you to wear clothes like that.” Also, look for gang-related graffiti on books, notebooks, or clothing, and sometimes on the sides of their tennis shoes.
- Grades start to fall in some subjects.
- A pattern of absences from school begins to form. Parents need to be aware of their children’s school attendance records, and they need to know their children’s whereabouts when they are not in school.
- Curfews sometimes not observed. This is something that needs to be caught and dealt with as soon as it first begins to occur.
- Possession of a household weapon—pocket-knife or a sharpened screwdriver. This is another sad statement of the current situation on school campuses. I have never in 17 years of working with young people had a teenage tell me that his or her reason for carrying a weapon on campus was for the purpose of intentionally hurting or killing somebody. But when the question was asked, “You knew you’d be expelled if caught. Why did you bring this weapon on campus?” they always give the same answer: “Just in case. I wanted to be prepared.” This means there’s something wrong with the environments these young people are finding themselves in. This needs to be discussed and dealt with at the community and campus levels. It has to be discussed. Remember that a perception is just as veritable to these youths as reality, and sometimes the twos are indistinguishable. The fact that young students all share the perception that they need to protect themselves on campuses needs to be addressed.
- Constant complaints of boredom. That is because there really are no meaningful activities in which these students may participate.
- Argumentative at home regarding the rules, and often unclear about the rules.
- A change in their circle of friends to people who especially do not have any contact, or who avoid contact, with their parents.
- Initial experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. At first they are just trying it out. That is not the same things as abusing, which is not the same thing as addiction.
- Low self-esteem/self-hatred, including racial or cultural conflicts at hone or at school. This is a difficult one to talk about, because it involves many serious issues. This could include the attitude, “I can’t stand my parents because they’re this, and this, and that…,” to “We don’t have a mutual communication in the same language.” Some parents have told me, “Oh, he understands me when I use Cantonese or Mandarin.” And then their kids tell me. “Oh, my mom and dad understand English well enough.” But they cannot communicate with each other at an emotional level. Sometimes a bilingual cultural broker is needed to help the communication.
The self-esteem, self-hatred issue is extremely important. For example, a 14-year-old girl, walking to high school—lovely, attractive, used to be a 4.0 student—with the worst scum of the earth on her arm. He is her boyfriend. He hits her and kicks her and beats her. I would ask her, “Why are you with this guy? What happened last week?” “He kicked me down the stairs because I accidentally embarrassed him in front of all his friends, so I kind of deserved that.” And I wonder, “Why are you with this guy!” And when that question is articulated very clearly, the girl says, “Because I’m lucky to have him.” Or, “No one else will have me.” This is a really dangerous combination: a beautiful girl with low self-esteem. Yet we don’t take it seriously. “Oh, she spends six hours in front of the mirror preparing herself.” One hour is okay. Six hours is a problem.
The racial conflicts happening at home may be a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger community. Young people are most vulnerable for recruiting during a racial conflict. This has happened to every racial and ethnic group in history. A typical scenario: A Latino kid and an Asian kid got into a fight. The Asian kid might have gotten beaten up by the Latino kid. The Asian kid’s lying on the ground with a bloody nose. A gang member comes up to the kid lying on the ground, and he says, “I told you that you needed backup.” They have a recruit. Because those racial conflicts issues have not been dealt with in the community or in the school form elementary through high school, gang leaders will take advantage of these opportunities to recruit people.
Another example, a Latino gang member will put up anti-Latino racial epithets in the bathroom to make the other Latinos think, You’d better join us.” I’ve seen the Asian kids do that; I’ve seen the African-American kids do that. It‘s an effective techniques for recruitment. I first heard about this technique from a reformed white supremacist who had used it in the past. These people are skilled at reaching kids.
The lack of role models who are appropriate, accessible, and approachable. This is another extremely important early sign. I will ask the student if he or she ahs a role model, someone with whom he or she has affinities or at least respects as an adult and who is accessible any time. “I don’t mean I can really talk well with my Aunty Germaine any time I want to.” “Where does she live?” I asked. “She lives in Chicago.”
To be continued