Preventing Risky Behavior in Children and Youth: A Different Perspective

by Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.

For over 36 years, I have worked with parents, helping them gain tools and skills that may prevent or delay the onset of their children’s risky behaviors. Much of that work was based on research by professionals whose findings came from a therapeutic perspective.

Recently, I have begun volunteering to tutor women incarcerated at the Baltimore County Detention Center as they prepare for the GED exam. The women are waiting to be sentenced for a range of serious crimes. From our conversations, I learned that all their crimes were the result of engaging in risky behaviors, including drugs, which was illuminating. I thought that talking with them specifically about their upbringing might shed insight as to the choices they made that ended in their incarceration.

In a recent session, I asked the women two questions. Their answers are below:

1) Were there specific behaviors that your parent(s) and grandparents demonstrated that you feel adversely impacted you?

  • “Being shielded from the real world to the extent that I thought I could do whatever I wanted to do without facing any consequences.”
  • “Never being asked or having the opportunity to talk about how I was feeling and what I was struggling with.”
  • “Because I was raised by my mother and grandmother who didn’t agree, I felt caught in the middle.”
  • “I never felt like I was a kid because I had to do things like helping to pay the rent when I was only 13. I went into survival mode to be able to do that.

2) What do you think would have been beneficial in terms of the care you received from your parent(s) and grandparents?

  • “If I had been forced to face consequences for my actions.”
  • “If I had had a better more trusting relationship with the adults taking care of me so I could have gone to them with problems.”
  • “If I felt they ‘had my back.’
  • “If they hadn’t been so overly protective.”
  • “If they had given me responsibilities that were more realistic for my age.”

The risky behaviors and unhealthy choices that led the women to where they are fall at the far end of a wide continuum ranging from least risky to most risky. The choices they’ve made in life are the result of many factors, and I do not want to imply that their parents did not give them the care and support they needed. There are important lessons we can all learn from what they think may have gotten in the way of a better outcome for them and what they believe might have helped them avoid incarceration, including:

  • Facing consequences “When you choose a behavior, you choose a consequence.”
  • Having someone with whom to share feelings — especially those feelings that seem unmanageable
  • Having role models including those of different generations
  • Expecting age-appropriate behaviors
  • Respecting a child’s ability to learn about the world

Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.


Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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