During the 2019-2020 academic year, Wellesley College student Nora Pearce ’22 was awarded the Morse Fellowship through the Class of 1967 Internship Program at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She worked alongside WCW Senior Research Scientist Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., as her mentor to co-author an academic journal article about when and why extended family members talk to teenagers about sex and relationships. In this video, Nora shares findings from the study, which she also wrote about on the Women Change Worlds blog.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The purpose of the study:

The goal of the study that I worked on with Dr. Jennifer Grossman was to better understand the family network of communication. Specifically, when extended family members talk to teenagers about sex and relationships. We looked at four themes to better understand this type of communication as told from the perspective of extended family members. We looked at why teens talk to the extended family member, family engagement in these conversations, consistency of messages, and family communication about the teen and these conversations.

Nora's role in the research study and the journal article:

I had the pleasure to be involved in every step of the process, beginning with reading interview transcripts and coding the interviews, which looked like organizing the data and synthesizing it into cross-cutting themes and bigger, bigger pictures that we saw popping up in different interviews.

I took part in writing a proposal for the American Psychological Association for the conference of 2020 and later making a poster to present at the conference. And most recently I worked on writing drafts for our final paper. I was there from the first drafts that we wrote and edited together, myself and Dr. Jennifer Grossman, to when we workshopped our article and through the submission process.

Findings of the journal article:

So our study first calls for future research on teen sexual development and family communication to be more expansive, to include extended family members, because we found that extended family members, this includes cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, et cetera, that they play a vital role in the development of adolescents and their sexual health and behaviors, that extended family members are not necessarily substituting in for parents, but they had their own role to play.

Moreover, there's not just one role for an extended family member. When it comes to having these conversations, we found in our study a big variation in the types of messages that teens would receive from different family members and the amount of communication and coordination taking place within the families. We saw how families and individual family members mobilize their own knowledge and their own experiences and beliefs to have these conversations with adolescents.

Nora's take on how this research can impact lives:

Our research supports that extended family members are invaluable resources when it comes to teenage sexual health and development. I think something super important and interesting about this work is that it is applicable to anyone. It's an invitation for everyone to consider their family network and their family systems to reflect on the messages surrounding sex and relationships that are being passed around in their families. It also encourages thinking about your own position within that family and what kind of role you could play in the lives of teenage family members and younger family members.

While doing this work, I was inspired and motivated to begin having more intentional conversations about sex and relationships with my 16-year-old cousin. Even though we don't live together, and the majority of our communication is through FaceTime, being able to step in and take on almost a new role, a new dimension of our relationship, has been very impactful for myself and for my cousin. And that's thanks to realizing that I have something to share. And I have my own experiences and knowledge that I can share.

February 9, 2021

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