Mom's passion is working with teens
Christina Conte remembers the eye-opening discovery she made when her daughter entered her teen years. "I was shocked to see how little respect teens receive in our country and how intimidating they are to most adults," Conte says.
So Conte, a self-employed advertising and design art director and copywriter, began reaching out to teenagers in several ways. She started volunteering in a Shoreline shelter for runaway teens and through Art With Heart, an organization composed of graphic design professionals serving at-risk youth through art therapy. She worked as a facilitator for TechCorps of Washington, leading workshops in public schools on workplace-related communications, conflict resolution, self-esteem and team-building.
When her daughter, Brett Mathewson, left home to study drama at Smith College two years ago, Conte found she missed the regular parent-teen interaction. So the Bothell mother started a "Teen Care" business (in-home care for teens so parents can get away on weekends, evenings and holidays). "It's not a way to make a living; it's more for love, but it fills me with joy to be with teens again and I continue to learn about myself in the process," she says.
Because of her commitment to helping teens in a variety of ways, ParentMap recognizes Conte as our hero this month.
Q. You are very involved in volunteer work with teens. How did that start, and what inspires you to continue?
A. When my daughter became (a teen), I reacquainted myself with the issues of those challenging years. I saw a real need, even amongst her friends, for healthy parenting, mentoring and most importantly, listening. Instead of (providing) more love, understanding and empathy, I saw parents, teachers and other adults doling out more judgment, more authority and more punishment. To me it seemed that every teen in our culture is "at-risk." Their issues with their parents might not be about drugs or being overly sexual, but so many were being forced by parents to follow their ideas of what their child's future should be, without consideration of that high-schooler's own talents and passions.
I began to volunteer in a shelter for runaway teens a few times a month, arriving at dinner time and staying overnight until 7:30 am. Now this was an education in extreme behaviors and called on every ounce of tolerance and openness I could muster. I soon found that my stereotypes of these kids were completely off-base. These were 13- and 15-year-olds who left home, siblings and even their state without a dime in their pockets to start a new life because conditions were that bad. They were resourceful and creative and avid readers. And they wanted to tell their stories. I'm still volunteering at the shelter over four years later. The lessons I learned helped me to parent my own teen with more compassion and skill.
Q. Describe the "Art With Heart" project.
A. Art With Heart is an organization composed of professionals from the graphic design community who offer mentorship to teens in various areas, from preparing a great dinner (called "Soul Food") at a youth shelter once a month, to leading workshops on art and writing. I've been involved with the self-portraits workshop, in which a team of artists encourages the kids to express how they see themselves in paint and write a poem or prose about who they are. I was amazed at how many street teens kept journals and had years of poems to work with.
Q. You have substantial training in areas related to violence prevention/anger management. Does that help in your work with teenagers?
A. Most of my work in these areas comes from the teen shelter and from assisting at workshops that focused on violent behavior in children. At the shelter, I learned that the quickest way to de-escalate a teen who is agitated is to acknowledge his/her feelings and allow them to vent in a safe way. My years of study and practice of Nonviolent Communication have proved priceless in being able to truly listen to a teen and reflect back what he/she is expressing without trying to fix their problem or move to strategy.
Q. Tell me about your TeenCare business.
A. I started TeenCare because I missed my daughter so much when she left for college. I am not married and have no other children, so I particularly felt the sting of her absence. Friends started to ask me to care for their teens when they took vacation and they offered me money. I thought: Am I in heaven? Most families have a difficult time finding someone to be with their teens and accommodate the kids' busy schedules. And the teens don't want to be left with someone who is too strict or who treats them as less than equals. I seem to have found the right mix of structure and openness that teens relate to.
I believe teens are the greatest teachers. If you let them be themselves, they teach you about possibilities and humor. And with their acute power of observation, they'll show you what you're doing to close yourself off from the world.
Teresa Wippel, the managing editor of ParentMap, lives in Edmonds with her husband and two teenage children.
Originally published in the September, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.