The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Internship Reflection: Studying How Extended Family Members Talk to Teens About Sex and Relationships

Nora Pearce, Wellesley College StudentSex education in the American public school system varies from state to state and from school district to school district. The lack of standardized sex education makes family education and conversations about sex and relationships all the more important for teenagers and their development. It is often assumed that parents are the default—that they are the only family members responsible for initiating these conversations. In my research conducted with WCW Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., and Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, M.A., on how extended family members talk to teens about sex and relationships, we learned how communication about these topics spans beyond parents.

For this qualitative study, we interviewed 39 participants in the U.S. who identified themselves as extended family members who talk to a teen in their family about sex or relationships. (We include siblings in the extended family member category because studies suggest there are significant similarities in the way siblings and cousins talk about sex or relationships with teens.) Within our sample, participants reported a wide range of involvement in the teen’s sexuality development. Their diverse experiences showed us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to talking about sex or relationships with teens.

More than 90% of our participants reported that having a personal connection with the teen enabled them to talk about sex and relationships. One of our participants, Jennifer, recounted how she once asked her teenage cousin if she talks with other family members about these topics. “She’s like ‘No,’ she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them anything,” shared Jennifer. “And she feels more comfortable with me. Because we just have that connection.” Qualities such as trust and closeness resonated with other participants who said their close connection with the teen was key to their open conversations.

Some of the extended family members we interviewed coordinated with other family members on what messages they wanted to convey. Lucy and her sisters decided together that they needed to ensure their brother knew about the health risks of being sexually active. “We actually made a slideshow about, um, the different, you know, sexually transmitted diseases and infections,” she said. “And we included — I mean it had to be graphic, but we really wanted to get the point across of, like, why I buy the condoms every month. It’s just you have to protect yourself. So we made him sit down and, like, go through all of our slides.” Other participants said that they were the primary or even the only family member who would talk to the teen about sex or relationships.

Working on this research project prompted me to reflect on my own position in my family network. Reading the interviews inspired me to be more open and intentional in talking about sex or relationships with my teenage cousin. My conversations with her came at a critical time when she was receiving unhealthy and unhelpful messages from other family members about sex or relationships. Building off of our pre-existing family bond and knowing well her family history and living situation, our conversations felt more meaningful and effective for both of us.

This research is an invitation for everyone to reflect on their own family networks and the communication that takes place in the family about sex and relationships. Because as extended family members, we can play a critical and positive role in the lives of teens by having these conversations, even during the pandemic.

To learn more about this study, watch my short video about our findings or check out the article I co-authored with the researchers in the journal Sexes.


Nora Pearce is a student at Wellesley College pursuing a degree in Education Studies and Art History. She was awarded the Morse Fellowship to intern with Dr. Jennifer M. Grossman at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the 2019-2020 academic year.

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Parents' Communication with Teens About Dating is Changing During the Pandemic

Father talking to daughter on couchThe pandemic has altered family life in unexpected ways. Some kids are happier now that they’ve gotten a chance to slow down; more people are cooking; and men have discovered housework. Parents’ conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and their monitoring of their teens’ behavior, have also changed.

My research team — which included WCW Associate Research Scientist Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., WCW Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Ph.D., of Lynch Research Associates — surveyed 328 parents of high school students throughout the U.S. between March and June of this year. We asked questions about how they communicated with their teens about dating and relationships before schools closed due to COVID-19 as compared to afterwards. We also asked questions about their stress levels and whether and how they monitored their teens’ behavior.

What we found was a significant drop in parent-teen communication about dating and relationships once COVID hit. This makes sense: parents reported higher stress levels as many deal with sick family members, essential work requirements, financial difficulties, and the general anxiety of the pandemic, which likely leads them to focus on the immediate day-to-day needs of their families and put off these types of conversations. And with many teens stuck at home, parents may assume that relationships and physical intimacy in particular are on hold, so the need to talk about them is not as critical.

For example, one parent explained, “Having the added stress of constantly being together, and now having to not only be his parent, but his makeshift teacher, and then trying to talk about serious things too, has all been just too much.” Another parent shared, “The fact that kids are not interacting, thus there is no "dating" taking place, which is a little bit more difficult to talk about and put in context when it isn't happening.”

We also found an interesting change in gender roles among heterosexual parents. Mothers reported having fewer conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and fathers reported monitoring their teens’ behavior more closely than before the pandemic. This increase in fathers’ monitoring may in part reflect fathers’ shift from working outside the home to being at home during the pandemic (61% of fathers made this transition compared to 39% of mothers). While mothers are still monitoring and communicating more than fathers, it may be that since many fathers are spending more time at home, parents’ roles have shifted, and fathers are taking a more active part in their teens’ lives.

More research is needed to delve into what this data means, but it’s an important reminder that parenting roles aren’t set in stone. Sometimes a crisis can prompt unpredictable and even positive changes. The way parents have communicated with and monitored their teens in the past doesn’t necessarily dictate their future actions. Thinking outside the box can help; though mothers are often assumed to be the ones in charge of having these conversations, my research has shown that fathers play an important role, as do extended families.

October is National Family Sexuality Education Month, which is as good a time as any to reassess family communication about dating and relationships. Even if teens are at home, they’re likely chatting with peers online, and may be forming new relationships or continuing existing ones. They may have different questions now about what’s appropriate or comfortable in a relationship. Maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them, and consider with fresh eyes who might have that conversation.

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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Guest — Reshu
It's nice... N of course social media now a days is matter of concern. Some parents keep their children away from it forcefully, b... Read More
Friday, 04 October 2019 02:07
Guest — Manish
Social media good for everyone one.
Sunday, 05 January 2020 15:27
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The Lessons We Should Learn from Settlement Houses

Hull House in Chicago during the 1900sAs a country we seem to be moving far away from the nurturing and sustaining activity of the settlement houses of our past. The first settlement house, established in New York City’s Lower East Side – Neighborhood Guild – was founded by Stanton Coit, and just a few years later came Hull House in Chicago, materializing through the passionate vision of Jane Addams. Settlement houses were the cornerstone of communities as they over time took on the task of educating citizens, providing English language classes for immigrants, organizing employment connections, and offering enrichment and recreation opportunities to all in the neighborhood. A most significant beginning to the current child and youth development field, settlement houses provided childcare services for the children of working mothers. The Immigrants’ Protective League, The Juvenile Protective Association, The Institute for Juvenile Research, The Federal Children’s Bureau, along with Child Labor Laws can all trace back to the persistent national efforts of settlement house founders and advocates.

Today, the health and wellbeing of thousands of children are in peril.It has long been established in the field of child and youth development that caring relationships are key factors in the positive and healthy development of children and youth. Separating children from their primary caring relationship--their parents--is critically detrimental and traumatizing. To grow up healthy and be productive citizens of whatever community and country they attach to, children need to acquire, practice, and effectively apply the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Adolescents who were besieged by trauma as children cannot undertake successfully the daily tasks of growing-up. Nor can a hostile environment possibly support positive mental health and trust in adults, for even the youngest. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that “children torn from their parents experience serious short- and long-term health consequences.”

Decades of research in the child and youth development fields have made it clear that children need to be surrounded by appropriate structure, safety, supportive relationships, skill-building, high expectations, continuity, and predictability. It is imperative that we do not detach ourselves from these important tenets of caring for all children. We could use the more collective and holistic approach of the settlement house in our methods of organizing immigration. Former first lady, Laura Bush has asked, “In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis?” I believe we can and we must--immediately.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Hall specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs, settings, and learning experiences.

 

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To put a human face on this and to inspire the Wellesley community, what if the Wellesley Center for Women were to build a series ... Read More
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13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide

By now, parents and professionals have reacted to the new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Mental health advocates and school administrators have highlighted the risks of depicting suicide as a means of revenge, of dramatizing teen suicide, and of showing school counselors as uncaring and ineffective. I would be remiss if I did not add my voice to others' by expressing my dismay that this program exposes teens to such unhealthy messages about such an important topic, and that teen depression is presented as a malady that can only be addressed through suicide.

Rather than repeating the many critiques of this series, my purpose here is to share correct messages about adolescent depression and suicide that we, as professionals and parents, should know and should be sharing with our children. Of course this is a difficult topic to broach with adolescents, but given that so many teens have watched this series already, we must embrace this opportunity to teach our children, and ourselves, about youth depression and suicide. This conversation is particularly important now, in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month.

In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are particularly high among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual youth. While youth depression and youth suicide are distinct concerns, approximately half of all teens that die by suicide have a mood disorder, such as depression, at the time. Adolescent depression is quite common, with approximately 11 percent of all teens experiencing depression during adolescence. Although youth depression is prevalent and impairing, we now have available numerous depression prevention and treatment protocols that work. Thus, most teens who struggle with depression go on to lead healthy and productive lives.

How do we know if a teen might be experiencing depression or considering suicide? Among other symptoms, signs of youth depression include low mood or irritability, lack of interest in activities, a change to sleep or eating patterns, reduced concentration, fatigue, low self-esteem, and thoughts of death or suicide. Of course all teens experience such symptoms now and then. We worry about teens that experience a cluster of these symptoms, and when these symptoms persist over a period of at least two weeks.

Likewise, we worry about teens that exhibit signs of suicide. Sometimes these signs are subtle, such as giving away prized possessions, withdrawing from friends, or exhibiting significant behavioral changes, such as intense fights with family and friends. Teens thinking about suicide may also provide verbal cues, such as, “I wish I were dead” and “It’s not worth it anymore.” Also, many people who contemplate suicide do so because they believe they are a burden to others, and that they will be doing others a favor if they are no longer here. Thus, if you hear a teen say, “My family would be better off without me,” it is important to take action. Remember that 50-70 percent of people who make a suicide attempt communicate their intent prior to acting, mostly through such actions or verbal cues. Thus, if you recognize any of these signs, it is important to ASK. Although many of us find it scary to ask about suicide, or worry that asking about suicide will give someone the idea to attempt suicide, we know from numerous studies that talking about suicide will not lead to suicidal behavior.

How do you ask a teen if s/he might be thinking about suicide? Ask the question directly. It is okay to ask a teen if s/he has ever felt like it would be better if they were dead, or if, when very upset, they have experienced suicidal thoughts. If a teen acknowledges suicidal thoughts, s/he should be provided reassurance that help is available, and should be brought for an evaluation and treatment immediately. It’s important to remember that most people who talk about suicide do not really want to die. In fact, most suicides are not impulsive acts, and most people who contemplate suicide give many cues of their intentions, making suicide a largely preventable form of death in the United States.

The primary danger of 13 Reasons Why is that it reinforces damaging myths about youth depression and suicide. Now that this series has been released, and knowing that our teens may well have watched it, our best course of action is to counter those damaging myths by sharing important truths about teen depression and suicide.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Avenevoli, S., Swendsen, J., He, J., Burstein, M., & Merikangas, K. R. (2015). Major depression in the national comorbidity survey–adolescent supplement: Prevalence, correlates, and treatment. Journal of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(1), 37-44. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.010
Berkowitz, Larry (2017). Suicide Assessment and Intervention Training for Mental Health Professionals [PowerPoint slides]. NEAS, 2400 Post Road, Warwick, RI.
Burton, C. M., Marshal, M. P., Chisolm, D. J., Sucato, G. S., & Friedman, M. S. (2013). Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(3), 394-402.
Gould, M.S., Marrocco, F.A., Kleinman, M., Thomas, J.G., Mosstkoff, K., Cote, J., & Davies, M. (2005). Evaluating iatrogenic risk of youth suicide screening programs: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 293(13), 1635-43.
Joiner, T. (2009). The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status. Psychological Science Agenda, 23(6).
Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Hawkins, J., Harris, W. A., ... & Whittle, L. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Surveillance Summaries. Volume 63, Number SS-4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nadworny, E. (2016). Middle School Suicides Reach an All-Time High. www.NPR.org
Nock, M.K., Green, J.G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K.A., Sampson, N.A., Zaslavsky, A.M., & Kessler, R.C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicide behavior among adolescents: results from the Nation Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-10.
QPR Institute. QPR Online Gatekeeper Training for ORGANIZATIONS [Training modules]. Retrieved from https://www.qprinstitute.com/organization-training
Robins, E., Gassner, S., Kayes, J., Wilkinson Jr, R. H., & Murphy, G. E. (1959). The communication of suicidal intent: a study of 134 consecutive cases of successful (completed) suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 115(8), 724-733.
The JED Foundation. (2017). 13 Reasons Why: Talking Points [Leaflet]. Retrieved from https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
World Health Orgranization. (2004, September 8). Suicide huge but preventable public health problem, says WHO [Online forum post]. Retrieved from WHO Media centre website: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2004/pr61/en/

 

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I was encouraged to read about this powerful, creative response by some Michigan high school students: "13 Reasons Why Not." https... Read More
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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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