Family Ups and Downs

I often receive questions from parents about how to communicate less than perfect personal and family histories to teens. As we’ve been talking about sharing family narratives with children, many parents out there are probably thinking of a few stories they’d rather not tell. There may even be whole sides of the family that you don’t want to encourage your teen to spend time with due to the potential for bad influences. This week, we’ll examine ways to talk about the family ups and downs.

The same research that looked at the importance of teens knowing a lot about their families also looked at the types of stories told. There were the positive family narratives, of how the family just keeps getting better. The negative stories of how a family lost everything. And then, there are the oscillating narratives, which are the healthiest, according to the researchers:

“‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

When a teen sees himself as part of something bigger, he can take on the experiences of previous generations as his own. When that bigger picture includes good times and bad, a teen can develop a sense of being able to overcome – to ride the ups and downs in her own life just like the generations have been riding the ups and downs of the family. That healthy sense of being able to navigate both successes and failures without being defined by either one can build confidence and resilience.

The upshot is, less than perfect families still benefit from sharing their stories and building a family identity. Yes, it is important to look for positive stories – or at least a positive spin on some of the stories that are harder to tell. But it isn’t actually helpful to pretend like the hard times didn’t exist. Sharing the lessons learned from a job loss, a divorce, or a family member’s drug addiction can be invaluable for a teen.

That being said, sharing the negative stories can require some finesse. Here is a helpful blog with 5 suggestions for successfully sharing past mistakes with kids. In cases of family members who provide a bad influence, it may help to find ways to incorporate those family members’ stories into the bigger narrative without necessarily encouraging your child to spend time with them or see them as a role model.

Furthermore, it is occasionally necessary for a parent to experience emotional healing or closure before he or she is able to share pieces of family history in a healthy way. This relates closely with #1 from the above link. If a parent has never processed the pain of a past mistake or past wrong with an adult, it is unlikely that they are ready to discuss it with their children. In the case of larger issues (abuse, divorce, a past abortion) it may even be necessary to seek professional counseling or a support group before sharing with your children.

Using Movies to Talk to Teens

OReel of Filmne of my favorite summer activities was (and still is) watching movies. Whether it is catching up on older movies no longer in theaters or splurging on seeing the latest blockbuster (and enjoying the theater’s air conditioning), summers and movies go together like macaroni and cheese. Since we at Amplify are always looking for ways to help you in the daunting task of raising teens, I’d like to share with you a great way to use movies this summer to have meaningful conversations with your children.

Amplify Youth Development has created a free e-course called “Using Movies to Talk to Teens.” If you sign up, you will receive two emails a week for the next five weeks. One email discusses strategies for how to effectively use movies to address difficult topics with your teen. The second email each week discusses a specific film and which topics could be addressed with your child during or after viewing the film together. The movies included are all available to rent or from your local library and cover topics such as bullying, pregnancy, dating and marriage, and internet safety.

You can learn more or sign up here. There is no cost for this e-course! Comment below if you have any questions or to share your experiences with the movies.

Are the Duggars Crazy or Brilliant?

Ben Seewald, Jessa Duggar, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, Jill Duggar and Derick Dillard
Discovery / Jim Bob Duggar, from

At a workshop for parents of middle schoolers last week, I got a question about the Duggar family’s rules on dating. The Duggars, I was told, don’t allow kissing or even hand-holding in their daughters’ relationships. (I went home and looked up the story, which you can read here.)

The parent asked, “Is that extreme, or do you really think there is a method to what they’re doing?”

Certainly, compared to the vast majority of today’s dating couples, the rules sound extreme. But to be fair to the Duggars, I thought I would share a little bit about the science that might make their methods make sense.

Physical touch is a powerful component in any relationship. Studies of infants who grow up with little or no physical affection have shown us that touch is even more complex and powerful than we could have imagined, affecting everything from the ability to heal cuts and bruises to the development of social and emotional skills. Touch has the power to evoke sexual arousal, to increase feelings of trust and attachment, and to solidify more positive memories with a person. All of these things should cause us to think carefully about who we touch, how and when.

Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, developed a helpful diagram for understanding how to build a healthy relationship. His main idea (which we teach in all of our classes) is to get to know someone first, before you start to trust them. Trust someone before you rely on them. Test that person’s reliability before you commit to them. And make sure your level of physical intimacy is lower than your level of commitment. In the Duggar family, saving a first kiss for marriage means the level of physical touch will be much lower than their level of commitment, until the end of the marriage vows. Does that make them crazy, or brilliant?

As parents, we would do well to help our children understand the power of physical touch. Talk with your child before he or she starts dating about setting physical boundaries and why those boundaries matter. For example, how long should a couple wait to hold hands? Is it appropriate to lay in bed together watching a movie on the second date? What about on the tenth date? Should a couple ever kiss on a first date?

What are your guidelines for dating and physical intimacy?

He’s Hot, She’s Hot. Judging a Book by its Cover.

I wonder…how much do we really judge based on externals?  “He’s hot,”  “she’s hot” are frequent descriptors teens use in everyday conversation. We’re not immune as parents.  Why do we secretly enjoy it when our kid dates an attractive guy or girl? Don’t we want our teen to believe it when we say “character counts”?

If we want to direct our teens to think about how they might be affected by a culture that values looks, perhaps the following provocative sayings might lead to interesting conversation around the dinner table tonight:

Boys think girls are like books. If the cover doesn’t catch their eye they won’t bother to read what’s inside. – Marilyn Monroe

That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful. – Ninon de L’Enclos

You can take no credit for beauty at sixteen. But if you are beautiful at sixty, it will be your soul’s own doing. – Marie Stopes

One story I tell in the classroom is about my 20-something friend who married a young woman who is attractive, yes, but not drop-dead gorgeous.  Because he’s a really good-looking guy, his own  mom didn’t show up at the wedding because he could have done better. Yet his bride has the kind of character we would all want in a daughter or daughter-in-law!  Our culture says he lost out…but I say, “Well done!”

Girls Aren’t the Only Ones Who Feel Pressure to Have Sex

One activity I do in classrooms reveals that teens THINK that guys always want the level of physical intimacy in a relationship to go “all the way.”  But I’ve also had boys reveal their real thoughts privately…and they’re much less cavalier in their attitudes about sex than everyone seems to think.  Indeed, I found a fascinating study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that talks about what boys think about sex and relationships.  I’ll be sharing findings in future blogs, but for starters, take a look at this advice from the report:  “Girls aren’t the only ones who feel pressure.  Reassure your son that he does not have to have sex. Nearly 8 out of 10 guys say there is way too much pressure on them to have sex—from society, from their friends, and from girls. More than half say they are relieved when a girl doesn’t want to have sex and 45% say they’ve had sex and regretted it afterwards. One in five (21%) say they have been pressured by a girl to go farther sexually than they wanted to. Boys can say ‘no’ too—even if they’ve said ‘yes’ before.”

Sexual Pics Reposted

This article from TechCrunch reveals a phenomenon that isn’t all that surprising, although it is something that I am sure we all hoped wouldn’t happen to such an extent. Sexual pics, including those teens take of themselves, are reposted. Of course, that’s what we all feared would happen and was one of the reasons we told teens not to take such pictures in the first place…but was there any evidence that it was actually happening?

Now, the Internet Watch Foundation has given that evidence. Up to 88% of teens’ sexual pictures are reposted by “parasite websites,” even if the original picture was in a “safe” place. Teens may feel a false sense of security when they share an image via a social network that they think is secure, but once a digital image exists, in can be nearly impossible to erase entirely. So whether or not you have already discussed the dangers with your teen, talk to them again about protecting themselves by never taking sexual pictures in the first place. There is simply no safe way to take, store, or share such images!

And one more thing to keep in mind and discuss with your teen — why? Why take such pictures? The two main reasons that come to mind are peer pressure and the desire to be cool (as defined by a culture rife with pornography). So when you talk to your child, make sure they understand that no one, not even a boyfriend or girlfriend, should ask them to take sexual pictures. If someone asks them to do so, report it to an adult. And if they think it is cool, help them to understand that sexuality is not a tool to be used for fortune, fame or respect. That might be difficult in today’s age, but we must stop defining people by their sexuality and start holding up role models who exemplify something other than sexual appeal or prowess.

Dating Gone Bad

Just today, I asked a class of junior high students to stand up if they either knew someone who had dated a jerk, or had dated a jerk themselves.  EVERY student stood up.  By the time we see kids at the end of high school, there are a lot of cynical, bitter young men and women who don’t hold out much hope for finding someone kind and respectful to date.  So how can you help your teens recognize bad behavior…before they get themselves deep into a relationship?

From, the “Power Wheel”  provides an amazing and powerful tool you can use to help your son or daughter recognize various examples of bad behavior in relationships.  Each segment of the wheel has a video you can click on, where teens act out a story line which illustrates various abuses of power (such as intimidation, controlling behavior, isolation and exclusion, jealousy, etc.).  This could be especially helpful if you suspect your teen or a teen you know might be in an abusive or controlling relationship, or might be heading toward BEING that controlling, abusive dating partner.  Watching the videos together, and discussing them, would be a great talking tool as you prepare your teen to insist on and expect respect in his or her current or future relationships.

Teaching Teens to Recognize Abuse

Do you know if your daughter or son would recognize when a relationship is in danger of becoming abusive?  A personal story  I tell to teens is about the time I was physically abused by a boyfriend.  I had the good sense to break the relationship off at the first incident, but in retrospect, there were warning signs that the physical abuse was coming.  I saw my boyfriend lose control of his temper with his family, and he had already begun verbally abusing me before the incident of physical abuse.

February is Teen Dating and Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and I found myself wondering how we can prepare our sons and daughters to recognize unhealthy patterns in a relationship before it gets to the point of emotional or physical damage.  I found a wonderful document, written to and for teens, about the warning signs of potentially abusive relationships.  It’s put out by the American Psychological Association.  I would urge every parent to print this out, and ask their teen to read it and then discuss it together.  Every teen (guy or girl) will either be abused, or know someone who is.  Let’s equip them to be strong and courageous in insisting on being treated with respect, and be advocates and wise guides for their friends who may be suffering an abusive relationship.

Kissing…no big deal?

There is often spirited debate among teens  when they are asked if kissing is a big deal.  The final answer is…it depends.  More girls than guys seem to think it “means something.”  And with regard to where it leads, well that seems to depend on what KIND of kissing.  Is it the kiss on the cheek at the end of a date, or the kind where you are rolling around on the sofa with lips locked and limbs entwined? It seems, according to teens, that one is a lot closer to sex than the other.

A blog by a friend, Dave McDowell, described some of the history of kissing this way:  “Up until the 18th century in Europe, everyone kissed everybody all the time–like shaking hands–but apparently it created a real problem between men and women. Still does. In 1837, an Englishman, Thomas Saverland, brought suit against Caroline Newton for biting his nose after he had jokingly tried to kiss her. The judge ruled in her favor. In Puritan New England, Boston’s Captain Kemble was forced to spend two hours in the stocks as a punishment for his “lewd and unseemly behavior” of kissing his wife in public on the Sabbath after three years at sea. My how things have changed!”

Both of my children at some point have made conscious decisions not to kiss in a dating relationship.  One of them managed to have two high school boyfriends, lasting more than 8 months each, without kissing. She had no regrets, and said that it enabled her to keep her commitment to abstinence.  To find out how kissing can affect the body, and the emotions, click here for some interesting facts.  Besides the fact that kissing causes elevated levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, this article points out new facts you might use to open up a conversation with your son or daughter.  Maybe you could start by asking them this question:  “Do your friends consider kissing a big deal?”  It might lead to an interesting conversation during which you can encourage them to consider holding off on this intimate behavior in the interest of  maintaining a clear head, an unscathed heart, and the ability to keep a relationship from going farther than planned.

Dating Violence Affects Many

Part of the story I tell teens in the classroom is that I experienced dating violence in my relationship with my “first love.”  Luckily, I recognized that physical aggression was a deal-breaker, and I broke the relationship off.

According to one study,  about 12 percent of teens reported being hurt by a teen they were dating, and 9 percent say they were forced to have sex.  The thing that stood out most to me in the article, is that more than half of parents have not talked to their teens about this issue.  I am actually encouraged that almost half have, of course, but think it’s a good idea to urge ALL parents to include this topic in their conversational “to do” list.  Besides talking to our kids, another bit of advice is to “encourage teens to double date to help prevent violence from occurring,” and  “know a date’s plans for the evening and the expected return time.”