(Long Island, N.Y.) When I was a teen, I really thought I knew it all. As I got older and wiser–I knew I should have listened to the adults in my life. The teen years can be difficult for families. All too often, young adults are seen and not heard. But if you’re a parent, here’s one 18 year-old you MUST sit now and listen to.
Ryan McElhaney is a typical busy 18-year-old who recently graduated from Lincoln Park High School in Chicago where he was an International Baccalaureate Student. He was also a member of Junior State of America, America’s oldest and only student run political organization, National Honor Society, and served as president of the Ecology Club. Ryan also volunteered as a tutor helping fellow students with their physics school work.
While these credits are quite impressive, here’s why you should listen up: He is a National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) front-line team member, a volunteer position he has held for more than a year. NRS serves as the federally-designated national communication system for homeless and runaway youth.
As an NRS front-line team member, Ryan has handled nearly 200 crisis calls with runaway and at-risk youth and their families, providing solution-focused crisis intervention, information and referral, message relay and other related services. Ryan volunteers at NRS because of “the constant feeling that I am giving back to a community that is so often forgotten.”
I asked Ryan McElhaney to share his unique perspective on teen issues.
Long Island Exchange: In your experience, what are three of the biggest problems teens are facing today?
McElhaney: 1. Communication problems both with parents and peer. 2. Lack of understanding on the part of the older community 3. Inability to cope with difficult situations
Long Island Exchange: What are some things parents can do to help?
McElhaney: Parents need to talk to their teens as much as they can. So often teens feel misunderstood and don’t know whom to talk to. This is when teens call NRS (1-800-RUNAWAY). It would help if parents can express to their child that they may not understand them, but that they are willing to listen and willing to try to understand. If a parent is having trouble communicating with their child and they are looking for help, they can always call 1-800-RUNAWAY.
We’re here not just for runaway youth. We are also here for all youth in crisis, parents, relatives, teachers, law enforcement officials, and anyone who cares about youth. NRS also offers an online Parent Chat program for adults to discuss and share solutions to challenges they may be facing with their child. Parent Chat is a twice a week, hour-long session hosted and monitored by an NRS Crisis Intervention Specialist who has expertise on the particular topic being discussed. Parents interested in participating in a chat can visit www.1800runaway.org and click on the Parents & Adults tab to learn more. It’s a great resource.
Long Island Exchange: Why are teens running away?
McElhaney: Teens are being put into situations in which they don’t know how to cope. Without the ability to cope with the situation they do the next best thing and leave the situation – run away. Sometimes this choice is understandable and is best for the teenager while other times it is not. It is important to realize that teens who run away are typically not bad kids, they are good kids running from a bad situation.
According to 102,144 calls handled by front-line team members of staff and volunteers in the NRS Call Center last year, 48 percent of youth ran from home because of family dynamics such as divorce, remarriage and problems with siblings; and abuse such as substance, physical and sexual.
Long Island Exchange: What are some things you know about teens that parents simply do not?
McElhaney: Teens are more willing to talk, to open up, and to explain their anxiety, fears and feelings more than parents think they are. As long as parents don’t approach teens in an aggressive way, there’s a better chance of teens opening up. And even if a teen isn’t willing to talk, if they know that their parents are willing to, it can make a world of difference.
Long Island Exchange: What are some big mistakes parents are making these days?
McElhaney: This is hard to say because each situation is different, but in general I think parents are giving up to easily. I cannot count the number of times I have heard parents ask for the phone of a boot camp, or complain about how distant their child is being, only to later reveal that they barely tried to talk to him or her. Parents are often looking for a quick solution to a difficult problem. That isn’t always possible. Parents need to try harder to both relate to their children and not be easily downhearted.
Long Island Exchange: Any other words of wisdom you can give to parents of teens?
McElhaney: Talk and Listen. You may not always be able to relate. You may not always be able to say the right thing. But be there and try to understand and help. Don’t be overbearing but be parental. Just talk to your children and more importantly listen.
Our mission at NRS is to keep America’s runaway and at-risk youth safe and off the streets. We’re here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I encourage parents to go to www.1800runaway.org, or to call 1-800-RUNAWAY if they’re looking for help.