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Partnering with parents

Ten years after the horrific massacre at Columbine High School sharpened the nation’s views on youth violence, Mary Muscari sees cause for optimism — and for deep concern — about the way adolescents are growing up in America.

“Many things have gotten better. School shootings are horrible things, but they’re incredibly rare,” she said. “Schools are still basically a safe place. However, we have enormous issues with bullying and cyberbullying. We have too many kids who don’t realize these are nasty things to do.”

Mary Muscari

Muscari, associate professor of nursing at Binghamton University and a nationally known expert on parenting, has worked with juvenile delinquents since the early 1980s. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, she has also worked with healthy children throughout her more than 30-year career. Muscari, author of five books for parents, has conducted parenting workshops around the country on topics such as keeping kids safe from predators, bullying and how to raise nonviolent kids.

She approaches the problem of youth violence using a public health model, she said.

A note from Mary Muscari

“We have primary, secondary and tertiary prevention,” Muscari explained. “We have kids without any issue at all, and you’re trying to keep them on an even keel. We have kids who are at risk and need more early intervention. And then we have kids who are already having problems requiring more intensive interventions.”

Muscari recalls vividly how the Columbine shootings, in which two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded 21 others before committing suicide, changed her professional life. She was scheduled to lead a youth violence workshop for teachers and counselors the week of the incident in April 1999 and was expecting perhaps 10 or 15 people to attend. After the shootings, organizers moved her to a room that could hold 75. It filled to capacity, and Muscari began making plans for what became her first book, Not My Kid: 21 Steps to Raising a Non- Violent Child.

The no-nonsense book, written in language any parent can understand, includes ways to help children build self-esteem, manage stress and develop tolerance. It also encourages parents to watch for warning signs such as aggressive outbursts in preschoolers or mistreatment of animals in adolescents — and get help when they need it.

Amnimation of a parent and his child

A typically reassuring passage from the book tells parents: “If raising a teenager makes you feel like you’re losing your mind, don’t worry. It’s normal — and temporary. Sparked by raging hormones, adolescence is a period of rapid physical and emotional transformation that can create a tenuous sense of balance for both teens and parents.”

Muscari continues: “Some degree of teen-parent friction is expected, but disruptive family conflict isn’t normal. Neither is persistent defiance, fighting or property destruction. This turmoil represents pathology, and it will not be outgrown. The early appearance of antisocial behavior is associated with more serious problems later in the adolescent period and on into adulthood.” She goes on to list some behaviors that warrant professional attention, including early experimentation with alcohol or drugs, a lack of close friends and themes of violence or death in writing or artwork.

Muscari’s ability to address these concerns clearly and directly has made her not only a sought-after writer but also a popular speaker with several national organizations.

“She’s one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve met,” said Dolores Jones, director of practice, education and research for the 7,000-member National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. “She has real-life examples that she’s able to bring about kids that she’s seen in her practice. She’s able to talk about the children she has helped already.”


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