Interview: Mary Minott

Shop Girl by Kitty Kaufman

Mary Minott is the coordinator for B-CASA, Brookline's Coalition against Substance Abuse and Violence. I didn't know what to expect before we met. "That's not uncommon," she said, "People think when they meet a substance abuse counselor that I'm going to be someone in recovery who says no one should ever use drugs and alcohol for the rest of their life. It's not at all what my mission is about. What happens in adolescence sets the stage for adult development. How do you get teens to step back from a pattern of unhealthy behavior? If I can help change their direction, this is the time to do it."

KK: When I was growing up, my parents set boundaries. Are parents setting boundaries?
We have a huge range of opinion on that. Some of it comes from how we were raised. Even parents with clear boundaries are overburdened at times so they're not able to be as strong a front for their children as they wish they might be. We're only human. If we had more time and energy, we'd probably be better parents than we are.

Do parents expect school to set boundaries?
They expect school to be part of the partnership. Some parents actually don't want the schools to set as many boundaries as we do. Other times they ask us to step in and support them.

When parents say, "Stay out of it," are they really saying, "It's none of your business?"
It could be some parents feel they have a handle on it and they're concerned about information getting out. And sometimes parents enable by ignoring problematic behavior and not wanting to deal with it. It can get a lot worse.

What's the reality versus perception?
In a recent survey, about 60% hadn't used alcohol or drugs in the last 30 days. This is a much higher number of kids not using. Kids assume "Oh, everyone is drinking" because the ones who do boast about it on Monday. If your child goes to the movies with friends, they don't come to school and say, "Guess how sober I was this weekend." It is perception. If kids think everyone is using, they're more likely to.

Kids just don't think they will get caught?
I agree with that.

What about experimenting at home?
A lot of parents want to introduce alcohol at home, not at an unsupervised house party doing shots. We have a big problem when kids find out parents are away, one phone call leads to another, and there are 160 kids at your house. It happens every school year. Parents think, "Oh, this will never happen to me." It's something to be hyper vigilant about.

What does prohibition or "Don't ever do this" do?
It depends on how you say it: "Let me explain the health and safety risks of alcohol and marijuana." Teens don't drink the way adults do, going out to dinner with a glass of wine. They go to parties and do shots or have six beers and get drunk. So you're not saying, "I never want you to have alcohol." You're saying, "I don't want you to engage in this risky behavior." They know the difference.

You're approachable. Do you talk to the kids the same way?
I try to. It's about empowering kids to make healthy decisions. Mom and Dad aren't there so they have to rely on their own good judgment. These are wonderful kids with great moral sense who like to think about complicated questions and come up with interesting answers.

Do you use the same approach with parents?
Yes, I see a lot of parents and my heart goes out because it's such a tough job. I've raised teenagers myself. You never know what's around the corner. We see thousands of kids and thousands of parents so their issues are not new for us.

Do you teach abstinence?
I don't teach a specific message. It's not my job to say what values should be. I ask kids what their family values are and how they factor in to their behavior. We all like to avoid conflict. My job may be to get kids to experience the conflict inherent in their decision-making. When kids are communicating and making healthy decisions, there's a wonderful level of trust that develops so parents don't turn gray.

It's such a fine line: talk about sex or not, try it or don't try it.
I'm not sure talking about it encourages it. Research shows that talking values with your children regularly is a good prevention tool. When you talk about sex or alcohol, it is protective. Sometimes parents don't realize just how significant their role can be in preventing alcohol abuse. It's hard work to be vigilant and there's new research coming out all the time.

I read in the NY Times about the new findings on teen brain development.
As parents we need to respect and understand that when they're making poor decisions, it doesn't mean they don't love us.

So it's more: "Oh, I'm not doing a bad job, he looks big but he's still small."
Yes, the brain isn't all connected yet. With parenting, it's not like there's one right or wrong way to do it. It's more a process of staying in the moment.

Where did you study?
I majored in philosophy and religion undergrad at Princeton. And my masters in social work is from Simmons. I've also been a therapist at a community mental health center.

When you're not here, what do you do?
I love my free time. Staying physically active is important when you're talking about balance. I play on a tennis team, I run and try to incorporate being active with how I take care of myself. I advocate that for students: how do you find activities that you'll stay with after high school so it's not a chore?

You're so busy. How do you make the time?
You have to move it higher up that priority list. When all is said and done, eating healthy and staying active is pretty important. And I love what I'm doing. It's really exciting.

© March 2008 for Our Town Brookline
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