How to Grow Up in Traumatic Times, with Dan Levin

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Dan Levin covers American youth for The New York Times’ National Desk. On today’s episode, he examines some of the challenges facing today’s kids like school shootings, addiction, consent, Coronavirus, and more. “My goal with writing about young people today is to really examine what it’s like to be a teenager, a kid in America, how they’re being impacted by policy and by various events that happen in the country and also how they’re responding.”

Check out Dan’s work at The New York Times and follow him on Twitter.


[01:06] Hi, I’m Dan Levin, and this is Good Kids. So I’m the American youth reporter at New York Times. I’ve covered a lot of different facets. This is kind of a new reporting beat that we created in the wake of the Parkland School shooting and seeing this outpouring of activism and voices of young people who are not even old enough to vote. And how that inspired a national movement was something that really struck us. And so my goal with writing about young people today is to really examine what it’s like to be a teenager, a kid in America, how they’re being impacted by policy, and by various events that happen in the country and also how they’re responding. 

[02:05] I think that there is a greater understanding that in order to teach kids their academic subjects, they really need to be taught how to process emotion in a healthy way, in a healthy psychological way. There’s a test now called the Adverse Childhood Experience Test, and that is something that is being, I think, applied in many schools around the country who would say they’re now teaching through a trauma-informed lens. That you can’t have kids ace their tests and get into their dream school if they’re traumatized. And that could be through poverty, it could be through seeing violence, it could be dealing with abuse. So now I think you have an increasing number of schools that are really trying to help their kids, not just heal, but learn how to heal, learn how to regulate their emotions, learn how to deal with anxiety. You’re seeing soaring rates of mental health issues among young people, not just suicide, but depression, anxiety. And it’s often left up to schools to deal with this, because that’s where kids spend most of their time. You have some schools where, you know, they’re teaching preschoolers how to prepare for a school shooting with little kind of jingles like run and hide, that kind of thing. 

[03:33] And so I guess the question is: is childhood that different than it used to be? And how do we aim to give kids today the tools not only to deal with what may seem to be a much harsher world, but the tools to keep their innocence intact so that they’re not growing up too fast and dealing with a lot of the traumatic issues that are just roiling this country. So I’ve been to many places around the country trying to examine and explore what it’s like for kids living amid the opioid crisis. And, you know, this is kind of a 20-year health crisis. And so now you have a generation coming up and coming of age who have been really affected and impacted by this kind of mass addiction epidemic. And so that’s one area where I wanted to see what it’s like for them, not just for them as kids, but also what their lives are like today will have a really big impact on who they are as they grow up. 

[05:02] You do have a lot of children who are growing up with parents and other family members who are addicted to opioids and other drugs and are so vulnerable. That’s all they know. And what is it that they know? They know being in homes where they’re not getting enough food, where they’re being neglected, sometimes they’re being abused. And that leads to severe trauma, psychological, behavioral. In many parts of the country, it’s a really serious issue that’s impacted not just their lives at home, but school, because you have kids going to school who didn’t get enough sleep. They didn’t get enough food. They might have seen a parent overdose the night before or other chaos in the home. And so then they go to school and they’re supposed to learn to read? So you have a lot of those kids going through that. As they get older, there is obviously, I think, a higher risk of them becoming drug users themselves. I spent a lot of last year in southern Ohio, in a county that has long been known as the kind of ground zero of the opioid crisis in Ohio. And I was speaking with kids, some of whom told me that they’ve had family members or friends, family members offer them drugs, you know, at 12, 13 years old. There is a real struggle, I think, and a real risk that those kids could then become addicted themselves at some point and that does happen, you are seeing this kind of intergenerational cycle occurring. 

[06:48] One of the girls that I interviewed for a story about what it’s like to grow up with parents who are addicted to opioids, she was initially really hesitant to go public. Because she didn’t want to be judged in her community and in school. But just afraid to really talk about what is happening. And we were in this girl’s grandmother’s kitchen and her mom was there and she said to her mom at one point, “are you using heroin right now?” And her mom said no. Keep in mind, she hadn’t seen her mom in like three weeks. And she said that she found needles in her mom’s purse. And her mom totally denied it. She said I don’t know what those are there for. And then she changed her excuse to they’re only the syringe, but not the needle. And then she said, well, I’m just keeping them for a friend. I just saw the look on her daughter’s face. After years of struggling and losing her mom to this addiction. Just how sad she was. And one of the things that she had to do, because her family was essentially destroyed by her mother’s addiction, was she had to become the parent. And that’s not healthy for kids, right? But kids are going to take on those roles. I mean, I talked to kids who were even, you know, at like 8, 9 years old, who were essentially the parent figure raising their younger siblings, were heating up food, were having to survive essentially on their own. And my article came out and one of the amazing things that happened was this girl, she started to get messages from other kids around the country on social media saying thank you for sharing your story, because I thought I was going through this by myself. And that has opened up this kind of pathway for her and kids around the country, but also in her community, to come together.

[10:26] I just remember as a kid getting the DARE program, which was essentially “just say no.” And when I was in sixth, seventh grade, a police officer — I still remember his name, Officer Lopez — came to speak to our class and he had this metal essentially suitcase that opened up and actually had shelves and glass on each side. So there were display cases with various, I guess, drugs. Not that we really knew what that meant. It was like things on these little shelves. And from what I recall, the lesson was marijuana and heroin and all these other things are all the same. Don’t do them. The end. And that program is extinct. They got rid of that, I think because it showed that it was a failure.

[11:20]  On some level, I think kids are getting better drug-prevention education. But what’s concerning is that, again, in Ohio, they weren’t getting proactive knowledge. They weren’t getting proactive tools for addressing not just the risk of addiction, but to undo the stigma around addiction. And so you had all these kids in one high school that I went to who were dealing with parental addiction, family addiction at home. Some told me that they had seen their parents’ overdoses. Some tell me that their parents had offered them drugs. And, you know, had parents in prison or general kind of ramifications of that addiction. But they were so ashamed of it that they really never talked about it in public. And during one assembly that I had with about 30 high school students, I actually asked them, “who here has a parent or family member who’s been addicted to drugs?” And they all raised their hands. And one girl said, “this is actually the first time I’ve ever talked about this out loud.” And everyone else nodded their heads. They all felt like they were going through this alone when, in fact, they were going through this together. And what struck me is how much kids know and how little adults often want to listen to them and give them the voice to talk about what’s going on in their lives. And I think that’s that’s really concerning because if they’re keeping it inside, then where does that go?

[13:08] More and more schools are recognizing that if their kids are going to succeed, it can’t just be based on a report card. You have so many kids who are showing up at the beginning of the school day who haven’t had breakfast, didn’t have a stable home to do homework, are coming to school severely traumatized by whatever has been happening in their home lives. And schools are seeing that if they’re able to give those kids a safer environment where they can learn how to read and write and do calculus at the same time as they are able to learn about how to process their emotions in a healthy way, that will make these kids more successful later on in life. And so one of the one of the areas I think you’re seeing this also is in the efforts in various states to implement what is called comprehensive sex-ed. So not just, “this is intercourse, and this is abstinence, and this is how to practice safe sex.” But looking at it from the point of view of relationships. So you have schools now, and states — Colorado recently passed a comprehensive sex-ed bill, California has — that is aiming to teach kids everything from this is your body, and this is what consent is, to this is what a healthy relationship looks like, and this is what an unhealthy relationship looks like. And in talking with teenagers, that has had a profound positive impact because if you don’t know what a positive relationship is, and you don’t know how to treat other people, and that includes your boyfriend or girlfriend, with the respect and dignity that they deserve, that can obviously be very damaging. And so, you know, I was talking to a girl who in Colorado had both sex-ed programs. And I remember she said that after the comprehensive sex-ed program — and she’s in high school — learning how to identify what emotional abuse is, what an unhealthy relationship is. That actually didn’t just impact the people who were in romantic relationships, but also friends. I mean, there was a ripple effect in having that knowledge. And so, you know, I think that’s one example of where schools are saying, like, we’re trying to teach kids to be better human beings. 

[16:16] I think to really make sure that your kid is doing OK starts with creating a place of trust. And just listening to them where they’re at now. And maybe holding off before giving instruction just to get a sense of what they know. And I think the conversation you’re having with a six-year-old is very different than you’re having with a 16-year-old. But in the reporting I’ve done, you know, certainly around some really traumatic issues was kids are quite resilient and a lot of times are afraid they’re going to be judged, whether it’s by a parent or a peer. But, you know, they want someone to talk to. And knowing that they have an ally in their parents, or whoever is raising them, I think that’s the most important. There’s no need to fear, you’re not going to be rejected if your parents dealing with addiction or if you’re dealing with LGBT issues or you don’t feel safe in a relationship.

[17:21] Like, for kids to know that there are people they can trust and they can turn to for not just guidance, but support. I think that’s so key. When I was a kid, I think I was in middle school and we had an assembly where a Holocaust survivor came to talk to us. We were all sitting there and listening to this old woman talk about what happened to her as a child in the Holocaust. And one of the things that I remember is she told us that at one point, I think it was in one of the concentration camps, she was made to work for one of these Nazis as a maid. But I just remember sitting there thinking to myself, this woman was around my age when she had to endure the worst of society and the worst trauma anyone could ever imagine. And it stuck with me how lucky we are, but also how important it is to give kids the tools to thrive and why a healthy society, why a society that cares for all people and it’s a place of safety is so critical. I can’t imagine what she went through. But I felt really blessed afterwards to know that I had a loving home and a loving family and a society that I didn’t have to fear. And I think that we’re seeing in many ways that there are scary things out there. And kids are learning about them. I mean, even something like the coronavirus. I was talking to a mom yesterday who was saying that she has had to kind of carefully talk to her girls, who are 9, 11 and 13, about this in a way that educates them but doesn’t freak them out that there’s a global pandemic that’s going to just like fill their sleeping hours with nightmares and traumatize them further. So I don’t know if it’s that things are worse off now or feel scarier than they did, say, you know, 20 years ago. But there certainly seems to be some kind of reaction happening. 

[20:03] And so I think my takeaway from this is these kids are going to grow up regardless, and they’ll either do it in the best way possible or they can really be coached and shaped with love and compassion and wisdom to handle all the challenges that are out there, the myriad challenges seem to just grow more severe and more numerous every day. What kind of world do we want these kids to grow up into and who do we want them to be? And I think to have the real profound change that’s necessary, we’ve got to meet them where they’re at now, and not just dictate who they should be, but really let them set that tone and encourage them and give them the love they need to get there on their own. 

[21:03] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.


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