We go through transitions all of our lives. Probably the most traumatic is birth and death! Think about your lives….the normal individual physiological changes--birth, growth, walking, talking, writing, working with numbers; then there’s physical relocations and social challenges--leaving home for school, making friends, then from school to work or more education; lastly, transitioning into full adulthood-- falling in love, having children, moving to a new city, changing jobs; and on it goes to old age, retirement etc.
Amidst all of our expected transitions, we recently experienced a sudden and dramatic transition in our lives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which caused loss of jobs, threatened illness and death, closed schools, restricted public gatherings, limited most recreational past-times and thus added tremendous stress to all of us. While everything changed in regard to norms, behavior, expectations, life-plans, and simply daily activity, we recognize that with the advent of vaccines and other public health safety features, we will soon be facing more challenges in a transition to a ‘new-normal”—children back in school, or perhaps going for the first time; adults returning to the workplace rather than working from home, or now permanently telecommuting as the ‘new’ workplace; looking for work, perhaps after losing a job and being at home taking care of family needs…; you can fill in the blanks. We don’t have all the answers but perhaps prevention science can provide some guidelines for prevention professionals helping their communities transition from the stresses of the COVID restrictions. We start with a discussion of how we address normal transitions and then draw on what we know about evidence-based prevention programming for families and schools as examples of what we as prevention professionals can do to help.
So how do we usually handle transitions in normal times? Our parents and family, our teachers and schools, our peers and colleagues, prepared us for life transitions as part of the socialization process. Socialization involves learning about our culture, attitudes, beliefs, language, behavior—usually from our prime socialization agents—our moms and dads, other close relatives, our teachers, our religious instructors, our youth leaders. Socialization is a lifelong process, and it generally helps to prepare us for these transitions in life. Socialization takes place through observation and guided learning in a positive environment. Socialization is enhanced when children form warm attachments and feel bonded to the socialization agent. Being raised in a positive family environment, feeling successful in school or faith-based organization, having acceptance among peers creates feelings of belonging and bonding. Having poor or failed interactions can promote feelings of alienation or not belonging and may drive individuals away from family, peers, school or faith-based organizations. This is a complex process because it depends on the socialization skills of those who guide us throughout life. It is also complex because of the interactions among our socialization agents that may be positive or negative. What does this mean as we transition through life?
But some of us are not well prepared for these transitions and our adaptation to them may make us more vulnerable to risky behaviors such as substance use or to depression and suicide ideation or to child or partner abuse. This graphic describes the process of adaptation to changes. Preparation even for ‘normal’ life transitions offers us the opportunity to respond appropriately in order to improve the outcomes of the transition and make us more resilient. In this chart we can assume that an unprepared person will have negative outcomes through their life transitions, while the prepared person will have positive outcomes through the same life transitions.
Prevention Can Help
Today prevention professionals can serve to provide the support that is needed by all of us through these transitions. But what does this mean?
Socialization and prevention programming share similar processes. They both use evidence-based practices to help individuals interpret cues in their social and emotional contexts; they help individuals learn and practice new behaviors, such as how to resist offers to use substances; and they help individuals weigh the potential outcomes for the performance of these behaviors within their own social and emotional context.
Prevention professionals are often involved in training key socialization agents—parents and teachers for instance—to help improve parenting, family management, and classroom management. These are called behavioral interventions as they directly focus on behaviors that are important in helping to support children and adolescents.
In positive socialization, parents or caretakers use appropriate parenting skills. This helps their children understand the “right and wrong” behaviors of their society; supports prosocial attitudes and behaviors; and helps their children choose prosocial friends and succeed in school and in their other positive pursuits. Good teachers help students understand their role in the classroom as students, encourage learning, and develop social and life skills.
Through these processes, parents and teachers not only provide the skills, but also the opportunity to ‘try on’ new behaviors and thus help children ease through life’s transitions. Of course, having these behaviors and skills reinforced in different settings and circumstances even later in life, in university and the workplace, for instance, continue to support positive transitions. Evidence-based parenting skills and family management programs such as Strengthening the Family-10-14 and Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) provide parents and all family members the knowledge and skills to support each other and children. These programs have not only shown positive program outcomes but also positive outcomes as children and adolescents transition into adulthood (Steiner et al., 2019).
But prevention professionals become socialization agents themselves by directly engaging in the socialization process for example through an evidence-based school-based prevention curriculum such as LifeSkills Training. Through the school curriculum, they help individuals understand expectations in different social and emotional contexts, practice new behaviors, and collect and interpret information to make informed decisions about their behaviors. When prevention interventions address children and adolescents directly through a school-based substance use prevention curriculum, they are socializing the students to make sound decisions about their behaviors such as the use of psychoactive substances. There are interventions available for those at higher risk, such as the school-based program, Project Toward No Drug Abuse or addressing individual psychological vulnerabilities (Conrod et al., 2011); while for young children at lower risk, the Good Behavior Game helps prepare children for transitions and reinforces appropriate behaviors. For middle and high school age, most EB interventions underscore the following:
Substance use is not an acceptable behavior for their age group and that the majority of their peers do not use substances;
Demonstrate the negative effects of substance use on their social and academic lives, as well as on their health; and,
Provide opportunities to practice refusal skills in relevant scenarios in which they may be offered alcohol, tobacco or some other substance.
Furthermore, through macro-level environmental interventions, prevention professionals can create environments that help to reinforce positive decision making and behaviors. Some of these involve changing policies or laws regulating access to substances, controlling their use in public places, raising taxes on purchasing and other environment-based actions.
Conrod, P.J., Castellanos-Ryan, N., & Mackie, C. (2011) Long-term effects of a personality-targeted intervention to reduce alcohol use in adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(3), 296-306.
Steiner, R.J., Sheremenko, G., Lesesne, C., et al. (2019). Adolescent Connectedness and Adult Health Outcomes. Pediatrics, 144(1), e20183766