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.

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.”

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.

A Teen’s Date’s Social Circle is Powerful Influence

I call still recall my disbelief when a dad at a parent presentation told me he had not yet met his 13-year-old son’s girlfriend of 3 months.  I urged him to get to know this young lady pronto (and wanted to tell him that I thought dating in middle school at all was a bad idea).  It seems that I could have also added, “and get to know her social network as well.”

A recent study showed that the friends of a teen’s significant other are more influential with regard to alcohol use that the teen’s own friends or boyfriend/girlfriend.  My mind flashed back to the point at which I began to get drunk at parties in high school.  It was when I was with my new boyfriend and his friends.  When that boyfriend exited the picture (replaced by one who was not a drinker), my drunken episodes ceased.   Similarly, when another date used pot, I did as well.  Parents, it’s not enough to know your teen’s date; you need to know about their friend-group as well.  Asking questions (“So have you made new friends now that you’re dating Alexa? Tell me about them….”) is a good start.

Positive vs. Negative Attention

I had the pleasure of observing one of our parent educators teach a workshop yesterday. During the hour or so that I was there, a very interesting question came up. Our educator was discussing healthy dating strategies with the parents, and one parent raised her hand and inquired, “What do you do when your teenage daughter believes negative attention is better than no attention at all?” (In other words, what do you do if you see your daughter dating guys that treat her poorly, simply because she feels that any boyfriend is better than none?)

 Great question – and our educator handled it beautifully. His answer was twofold. First, surround your teenager with positive attention. Second, help her identify the consequences of negative attention.

Positive Attention: Parents, first you may want to ask yourselves why your teenage daughter is seeking out attention in the first place. Can you see where she feels as though positive attention is lacking in her life? Make an effort to fill that void. Learn her love language (see Gary Chapman’s book here) and use it to encourage her. Make an effort to spend time with her. (If you feel very busy, start with small chunks of time – a car ride here, a cup of coffee there.) Choose one of her hobbies or pastimes in which to take special interest. Cheer her on. Take stock of the media in your house and the body and relationship messages that are being communicated to your daughter. Does something need to be eliminated?

Identify Consequences of Negative Attention: Your daughter may not be able to see the consequences of negative attention in her own life, but she may be able to identify it in her peers or in the media around her. As you spend time together, ask open ended questions (not directed at herlife) that will help her see the truth. Questions like, “Why does SoAndSo spend time with her if they aren’t friends?” or, “Why do you think That TV Character keeps dating him?” Listen to her answers first, and withhold that parental advice until she seems open to hearing it. Perhaps you will be able to transition into more personal topics and give personal advice after you’ve gained her trust as a good listener.

Parents of tweens and younger – it’s never to early to start surrounding your kids with positive attention! The sooner they recognize and appreciate that, the sooner they will shy away from the negative!

Girls’ Sex Boundaries

A great article appeared this week from Connect with Kids.

Points of interest from the article include the fact that teenage sexuality, according to some studies from the Center for Disease Control, has actually decreased, thanks in part to abstinence programs and positive messages about self-esteem.

The article also includes some tips for parents, so scroll all the way to the bottom!

Sex won’t hold it together…

As a parent, it is important that you dispell many of the myths that your child could believe about sex and relationships. Here’s a fact for you to discuss with your teen:

Eight out of ten first time teen sexual relationships last six months or less, and one quarter are only one-time occurances. That is according to surveys done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Sadly, sex does not increase the commitment in a relationship and “taking a relationship to the next level” usually means taking it one step closer to a break-up. Make sure your teen knows that sex won’t hold a relationship together.