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Creative Coping

Teenage mothers use journaling techniques
to reduce stress and prevent child abuse
Sunday, April 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:14 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Kim Webb is helping to fight child abuse. Not with legislation or as a lobbyist, but with pens and notebooks.

As coordinator of the Adolescent Mother Journaling Program and a mother of four children, Webb travels the state teaching strategies that help teen mothers cope with the stress of parenting without turning to child abuse.

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The program was created in 1999 and is part of the University of Missouri Extension, a branch of the university that reaches out to Missouri residents beyond Columbia with distance learning programs and other outreach efforts.

Teen mothers are especially prone to abusing their children, Webb said. The relative lack of maturity, the shock of the rapid transition from teen to parent and family histories can predict possible abuse by young mothers. Webb estimates that 66 percent of the teens in her program have suffered some sort of abuse, primarily sexual, which puts them at risk of continuing that cycle of violence.

The journaling program was designed as an eight-week workshop to teach young mothers how to funnel their thoughts and feelings into creative outlets, such as writing or drawing. The creative release can be an effective way for the mothers to understand the abuse they have suffered and to understand the feelings of fear, anxiety and stress that accompanies being a teen mother.

The benefits of journaling to physical and mental health are well-documented. James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychologist, said that regular journaling can strengthen the immune system and decrease the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Other experts say that journaling lowers stress levels and therefore results in a lower likelihood of stress-related health problems, such as heart attacks or ulcers.

For young mothers, journaling is especially useful because of its active nature, Webb said.

“We felt like by using journaling and art and fun things, that it would engage the young women because it’s hard to keep them interested in any program that’s beneficial,” she said. “This was an opportunity for them to kind of be a child again, and use crayons and pencils and draw and cartoon.”

Each session has a specific objective designed to help the mothers become more self-aware. After a warm-up period and presentation of the day’s exercise, a meditation period helps the mothers to focus, followed by the actual journal writing.

“A lot of these young women have come from utter chaos at home, and we want to give them a chance to unwind and really focus,” Webb said.

Raising young children is just one of the challenges many of the mothers — some as young as 11 — face. Because of their young ages, some mothers cannot find gainful employment. Also, many lack the education required for many jobs and end up dropping out of school.

Housing is also a problem for teen mothers. Because of their pregnancies, many young mothers have strained relationships with their parents, who often force them to leave home. Many homeless shelters require parental consent for those under 18, Webb said. That consent is often impossible to get from estranged parents, leaving the girls with few options.

“It is such a challenge working with these young women,” Webb said. “There are safe houses and more residential facilities for young pregnant women, but they are few and far between, and in a lot of rural communities, there aren’t those opportunities.”

After writing and drawing in their journals, the mothers share what they created. Although sharing is optional, Webb said the benefits outweigh the nervousness the mothers may have about sharing their work.

“Sharing has incredible value among the peer group because then they don’t feel so isolated, and they realize that other people are struggling with the same things and have gone through the same life experiences,” Webb said. “We do the training with the young women in a group setting so they have that opportunity.”

During the final session, the mothers create a piece of jewelry to help them remember what they learned throughout their training.

Webb said the effects of the program go far beyond simple journaling techniques.

“To see their cognitive growth over that period of time is incredible. It’s really rewarding to them to see their own personal growth as well,” Webb said. “A lot of what we do in the journaling is to set goals and make good decisions, so we see a lot of mothers going back to school or trying to finish their education.”

Webb and others travel around Missouri to local counselors to run their own journaling programs. Such training is concentrated in counties with the highest risk for child abuse, neglect and teen pregnancies— much of it in rural areas. With fewer sexual education classes, limited recreational outlets and inadequate resources, rural areas are increasingly likely to have high rates of teen pregnancy and child abuse, Webb said.

Webb estimates that about 160 agency providers have been trained. Each person who completes the training promises to teach the journaling techniques to at least five young mothers in their communities.

Penny Jackson has kept that promise. She completed Webb’s training in 2003 and implemented her own journaling program through the Butler County Community Resource Council, which serves Butler and Ripley counties in Southeast Missouri.

Since then, nine mothers have gone through her program, and she is planning another workshop for May or June. Jackson said the feedback to her program has been positive and that once they learn the techniques, many of the mothers continue to journal after they complete the program.

Tonika Hill, 20, is a graduate of Jackson’s program. As a wife, a student at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff and the mother of a 2-year-old , Alexandria, Hill said her life was hectic before she learned the journaling techniques.

Hill learned she was pregnant at 17. She was excited to hear the news despite her apprehension about being a young mother. Already a part of Jackson’s mentoring program, she decided to give the journaling exercise a try.

“It sounded like it would be an interesting experience and fun to do,” Hill said. She completed the program in 2004, and said life has been much more organized since.

“I get a lot more done during the day,” Hill said.

Other mothers like Hill have gained control of their lives as a result of the journaling program. While all indications are that the program is successful, Webb said it is difficult to gather data on the mothers that go through the program because they are a transient population. “We’ve never had someone fail, and I think it’s because we do offer so many opportunities to journal. Journaling doesn’t mean just writing,” Webb said. “Since there are so many options, everyone can have something to do to express themselves.”

Webb also credits the accessibility of the journaling techniques as part of the program’s success.

“A lot of times we offer resources and different things that are very hard to access,” Webb said. “This is something they can take anywhere and be spontaneous.”

Webb said that the program is not an absolute remedy for child abuse, rather it is one part of a larger, interdisciplinary support system for the mothers and their children. She is working on a grant to help extend the program to other members of the community, specifically caregivers who deal directly with teen mothers, such as grandparents helping to raise their young grandchildren.

“Journaling is really good as a care for the caregivers program,” Webb said. “We’ve worked with a number of different agencies, those that work directly with these young women, and they’ve said it’s wonderful because they are in the midst of the stress with the mothers.”

Regardless of who completes the program, its focus is clear.

“Ultimately, it’s billed as a child abuse prevention, and that’s what we want to continue to do,” Webb said.

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