Friday, March 9, 2012

Cinnamon, Peer Pressure and Low Self-Esteem - Nasty Brew for Teens

"The Cinnamon Challenge." Young teens dare each other to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon in less than a minute without water. Many teens see it as a popular way to have a lot of fun. Part of the excitement is to make a video of yourself doing it and post it on YouTube. I checked and found this video, viewed over 6 million times. Pay close attention and you'll see the camera recorded two really cute animals. One of them clearly has more common sense than the other....

It's not only hard to do, but apparently dangerous. One teen, Dejah Reed, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, reported that she almost died from the experience. The powder got into her lungs and her right lung collapsed. She couldn't breathe and her father rushed her to the hospital, where she stayed for four days. It caused a lung infection and she had trouble breathing normally after she left the hospital.

My wife: "Why would anyone do anything so stupid?"

I had a ready answer: "Honey, these are teenagers. It's not so easy for them to analyze the consequences before they act because their prefrontal cortex is under construction. So they do silly things for no good reason. Plus, many of them are being dared to do it. They're vulnerable to peer pressure."

I once knew an adolescent who wanted to demonstrate how cool and smart he was. So he yanked his pants down, pulled out a cigarette lighter and ignited the jet stream as he passed gas. No, we didn't have to take him to the hospital. The trick worked. But even though some of his friends were awed by this act of daring, I remained unconvinced that he was either cool or smart.

And so it goes.

Why are teenagers so desperate to be considered cool by other kids? Why are they so vulnerable to peer pressure that they tattoo and pierce their bodies, have sex with people they don't like, and spend hours every day texting each other?

When I was in high school I remember a couple of really smart, confident guys. Even though I made straight A's, I knew these guys were a lot smarter than I was. One of them achieved a maximum score of 1600 on the SAT. He was a good-looking, low-key, confident and considerate fellow. But he was definitely not a member of the cool crowd, and I knew he absolutely didn't care. I admired that.

He would have felt sorry for anyone who wanted to make a video record of himself trying to eat a spoonful of cinnamon.

Why are some kids so self-assured, and others so desperate for the approval of others?

The answer is that some kids don't have strong self-esteem. This is one of the perils of being young. They haven't had much time or opportunity to do things that prove they are capable and worthy individuals. Also, the young lack knowledge and experience, so they make a lot of mistakes. So they may crave respect and friendship, but deep down they doubt that they are worthy of it.

So in hopes of being accepted by kids they think are cool, they desperately conform to whatever is expected of them.

If you want to prepare a child for the gauntlet of adolescence, help build his or her self-esteem. I'm not talking about praising every little thing the child does. This misguided tactic doesn't work because the child isn't stupid. He quickly figures out that the praise has no credibility or value because it's awarded regardless of whether the child put forth a strong effort.

Self-esteem can only be earned. First, the child accomplishes something at his or her own level. Next, the child acknowledges the value of the achievement. Adults can help by noticing and by confirming the achievement with feedback.

Imagine a scenario in which an adult family member describes a situation to a child, maybe something that's been in the news. He then asks the child what he thinks about it. The adult listens and encourages the child to continue, asking open-ended questions. He shares his own thoughts without trying to contradict what the child has said. He asks the child what he thinks of that. He then concludes by saying something like, "You know, I really like talking to you. You have some very interesting ideas."

I know this kind of conversation between adult and child is relatively rare in our culture. But if adults consciously tried to affirm kids' capabilities and worth, maybe by the time puberty arrived they would feel a strong sense of self, a liking for who they are.

And when their teenage peers encouraged them to do stupid things, they would feel comfortable not going along with it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

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