The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 7, 2001


Psychologist asks parents to model healthy relationships

"At no time in the past has the media normalized violence and negative relationship patterns to the degree it does today," said Catherine Steiner-Adair at the Education Forum December 1. "The task of adolescents is to join the culture at large," she observed, noting a "toxic media environment" has made that journey fraught with peril.

Over one hundred parents, teachers, and school administrators attended this year's Forum, a wonderful turnout in spite of sixty-degree temperatures that invited everyone to be outside. This was the seventh in a series that each year features a speaker of note on a subject pertinent to educators and parents in Carlisle. Steiner-Adair, director of Education, Prevention, and Outreach at Harvard University, this year spoke on the topic "How to Avoid Courting Disaster: Encouraging Healthy Relationships Among Children and Teens in a Less than Healthy Media Culture."

According to Steiner-Adair, many confused teenagers, using the media as compass, engage in behaviors that are contrary to their goals of achieving loving, connected relationships with members of the opposite sex. She raised the alarm with descriptions of negative behaviors she has seen among teens even in well-off suburban towns. These include "friends with benefits," a pattern that sexually victimizes girls; "there is no friendship, only benefits for the boy."
Organizer of the Education Forum Amy Mestancik, psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair and school committee member David Dockterman all played roles in the Education Forum. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

The antidote? According to Steiner-Adair, children need much more information from parents. In a survey, most teens reported their parents have never spoken with them about relationships or peer pressure and they wish they would! She suggests parents talk about what a connected versus a disconnected relationship looks like, and model how to stand up to pressure, even to the point of rehearsing what to say ("I don't care if you hate me"). Parents should be persistent, even though kids will often resist.

Dinner conversation encouraged

Parents can help in other ways. One study suggested successful college students were likely to have shared dinner conversation with their parents when they were growing up, conversation that welcomed input from the child and showed his or her opinion was valued, even if not agreed with. But parents should avoid trying to be their teen's "best friend," Steiner-Adair says. "Too many parents are afraid to set and hold limits" and therefore allow kids to be exposed to influences or thrust into situations they're not ready to handle. She congratulated the parents present, saying, "You've already shown your commitment to your children by choosing to live in Carlisle." Noting the small-town atmosphere is healthiest for teens, Steiner-Adair added, "I think long-term you'll find you made the right choice."

Steiner-Adair also believes parents help their kids when they model respectful behavior, particularly in interactions with teachers and schools. In her work across the country she has seen disheartening examples of parents rude in their communications with teachers, aligning themselves with the student against the teacher, or professing to know more about teaching than the teacher. She also cited disobeying school rules, including taking kids out of school for vacations, as actions that show "a profound disrespect."

In conclusion, a teen's first relationships with the opposite sex profoundly influence his or her ability to enter into future positive relationships, according to Steiner-Adair. Parents can encourage future happiness by helping kids manage those early relationships and avoid self-destructive behaviors and involvements.

Break-out sessions following the talk focused on related topics and opened interaction between parents and school staff. All agreed the Forum was extremely thought-provoking, and several parents expressed a renewed committment to communication with their children.

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito