Wednesday, October 28, 2009


You think Wall Street’s CEOs are under stress these days? Our kids start suffering from stress in early childhood, whether or not there is an economic downturn. The emotional pressure from stress builds in them over the years, compressing any emotional space they have for happiness and filling them instead with anxiety and anger.

Popular culture would have you believe childhood is carefree, filled with joy, free time to play with friends, and the comfort of having a stable home with two parents who love you unconditionally. That is the image presented by media: it is not the reality for many youth.

For the kids I serve as a Partnership with Children social worker, stress is an everyday emotion. It is the underlying emotion that provokes other pervasive feelings I help my kids cope with, like anger, depression and fear. What is causing all of this stress among inner-city children? I see a lot of it as being tied to poverty and the associated effects of poverty: living in low-income, dangerous neighborhoods; being itinerant or even homeless; having bad diets and sleep habits; experiencing parental discord and/or living in single parent homes; and other issues like substance abuse and gang violence.

Imagine trying to navigate your way through all of these issues as a young child. It is no wonder my kids show up to school already at the breaking point. The smallest things can set them off, like having a teacher who reminds them of a parent who they have lost or an adult who harmed them. Many of my kids also do not have relationships with their fathers - or, their fathers have been killed or incarcerated - and they are teased relentlessly by other students because of this. Their reactions are predictable: angry outbursts, physical fights, or skipping school altogether.

I feel I’m painting an overwhelmingly despondent and hopeless picture of life for poor, urban youth. But, to tie back into my first blog post, one of the most powerful things I have learned as a social worker is that children have an incredible ability to rebound from emotional and social trauma. In fact, I think they are much better at overcoming trauma than adults.

This is why you can see a young man like Jose go from nearly failing out of school to becoming a positive school leader, responsible young adult, innovative thinker and dedicated student. In fact, he even came up with the name for our Job Readiness group this year, and the name was so good none of the students voted for their own suggestions – everyone knew his was the best: Scholars on the Rise. And rising they are, to the task and challenges presented to them in school, in society, and in life.

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