Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Take a Stand With Your Teenager

I just read a New York Times’ article “Teenage Girls Stand by Their Man” by Jan Hoffman (March 18) about how teenaged girls are reacting to the alleged assault on pop-singer Rihanna by celebrity boyfriend Chris Brown.

I didn’t know either of these entertainers until this altercation, and that probably says something about my age and the fact that I don’t spend every waking moment with 13 and 14 years olds the way I used to. But, because I spent 25 years with eighth and ninth graders, I wasn’t surprised at the reaction of these teens to this situation.

I thought Esta Soler of the Family Violence Prevention Fund made the most salient point in the article when she said that teenagers’ opinions are fluid. “What they feel in the morning can be different from what they feel in the evening,” says Soler. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be uneasy about the reaction of teenagers who think the woman is at fault when she’s been assaulted. Fluidity means that teens are open to changing their minds, listening to other points of view.

In no uncertain terms, parents and influential adults must let teens know that they abhor the violence in this relationship. If we do not speak out, we are condoning the violence.

In the absence of caring adults having conversations with teenagers about relationships and civil behavior, the media will fill the gap, defining what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is.

No matter how often adolescents roll their eyes at their parents and grandparents, and no matter how many times they stomp out of the room, teen surveys tell us that it’s their parents and grandparents who most influence their attitudes. Teens want to talk with adults they trust about relationship issues, and in many cases, we’re missing an opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship with our children by not sharing with them our own experiences with the nuances of building a relationship.

When I asked college students at the University of Northern Iowa what I should tell their parents and grandparents as I travel around the state talking about unintended pregnancy, they said, “Tell them we came to college without the tools to make wise decisions.”

We can’t let media celebrities define values for our children, but we can use their celebrity as a bridge to talking with young people. If it’s unbecoming or uncivil behavior which we don’t accept or condone, as is the case with Rihanna and Chris Brown, we can say, “I think it’s wrong for one person in a relationship to hit another.” Or, “This is not the way your mother/father and I treat each other. This is no way to treat someone you love.” Or, “How do you think Rihanna should have handled the situation? Do you think she should press charges?”

Then, we need to be quiet and listen. Teenagers have opinions, even if they’re fluid, and their opinions are important even though they may not match ours. They need to try out their opinions in a comfort zone, but it’s our job to let them know where we stand.

We have another choice: to partner with the media to broaden the conversation with teens about relationships including sexually intimate relationships. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is taking the lead in this by highlighting various popular TV shows on their website that touch on issues of unintended pregnancy and intimate relationships. For instance, they provide discussion topics for watching episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. And, you can link to a relevant episode of The Family Guy. Check out their media section.

Whether it’s dating violence, unintended pregnancy, or how to communicate with a roommate, it’s important for parents to look for opportunities to have conversations with teenagers, always respecting their opinions and recognizing their fluidity. And, if the media and its celebrities provide us with that opportunity, whether it’s Bristol Palin speaking out or Rihanna choosing not to, let’s use it to our children’s advantage.