If you’re shying away from having “the talk” with your teen, perhaps you should reconsider. Today, social media is pervasive, and kids as young as seven may be exposed to pornography. With this sobering warning in mind, NYC-Parents in Action's Fall Seminar on October 26th addressed the timely topic of Teens, Sex and Consent. The five-member panel, moderated by Lucy Martin Gianino, answered questions, offered insight and gave guidance to parents navigating this complex and emotionally charged subject.
Justine Fonte, M.Ed, MPH and Director of Health & Wellness at The Dalton School, began the evening by explaining that as parents, the framework within which we were taught about consent has since changed. “The ‘No means no,’ that we grew up with is no longer effective,” she said. While we were taught to say “NO!” loud and clear, to not dress or dance a certain way and to not get drunk, today’s teens live in a world of nuance and mixed messages that have had significant impact on the issue of consent. The clear message from the panel was that young people need to understand that only enthusiastic consent means yes. Teens need to hear the word “Yes” from each other when engaging in sexual interaction, Fonte explained, and only a clear “yes means yes’’ can eliminate blurred lines and mixed messages. With the old “no means no,” it’s “easy to see how things get confusing, especially if there’s alcohol involved with the yes; or if one partner is silent; or says only ‘Um. . . okay.’” Kids need to understand that in most cases “all of those are ‘no.’”
Ilann Mazel, an attorney nationally recognized for championing children and people with disabilities and filing discrimination suits on their behalf, often deals with cases involving sexual assault. “Media messaging can be the root of the problem when dealing with teenage sexual consent cases,” he said. While cases don’t often involve violence at this age, many young people who have been accused of sexual misconduct don’t understand what they’ve done wrong. “Issues of consent are complicated and can be confusing at any age, but are especially so for a teenager,” he warned, agreeing with Fonte’s insistence on teens giving and receiving a firm “yes!” when consenting to sex.
When does this all begin? In answer to the moderator’s question, “When do these things start to happen for a teen?” Fonte answered that by age 10 or 11 kids start to explore their sexuality. Their natural attraction to others, due to hormones and their biology, is given far greater reach with access to a smart phone, which boosts the likelihood they will be exposed to sex by way of pornography at a very young age. Asked if the majority of our children are exposed to pornography, Emi Nakazato, a sexual-assault awareness and prevention educator, said that unfortunately, for many young people, in the absence of any other conversation about sex, porn may be their first avenue of sex education. “Pornography is powerful and the conflation of sex and violence can seem normalized, given the ease of access,” she said. “Many young men today watch so much porn that they often get desensitized.”
Rachel Henes continued the conversation. “Kids start absorbing messages about gender and sex from the day they are born,” she said. Henes, the director of Hallways, Freedom Institute’s evidence-based prevention and social-emotional wellness program serving the Independent School community in New York City, noted that all their lives, kids receive messages about sex and while sexual behaviors may not manifest until middle or high school, by the time they do, a kid’s perspective on sex is often one of sexual conquest or dominance. “These messages are in the world around us, in the air we breathe,” she said.
“We as parents need to be really clear about our expectations for our kids. Kids are confused because we’re confused,” said Henes. “Take homework for instance. We are clear in what we expect, but as adults we’re often not clear about consent and being respectful of the other person. . . making sure the other person is actively into the sexual activity. We need to look at sex as interacting with another human and care how they are doing.”
Empathy, Nakazato said, plays a key role in the sexual consent conversation. “Empathy can be taught,” she noted and is important because “when used it makes it difficult to dehumanize another person.” The lack of empathy, added Henes, “is rooted in the ideas about sexual conquest and dominance that our culture sends – so we need to address those with our kids in order to promote empathy, and that is something that parents can do.”
Nakazato delivered some humor to the somber audience, sharing a food analogy she has used as a way to initiate a sex positive conversation with her own teens. “Not every time you have sex is it going to be a five-star experience. Sometime it may just be like a snack, because you’re hungry. Food experiences can have a huge range, anywhere from a memorable Jean George experience to a simple granola bar. In extreme cases food can . . .make you sick or kill you from food poisoning. It could take a long time to experience a Jean George meal.” The same can be said of sex. You may have to eat “a lot of granola bars before you ever get to experience Jean George,” she said, her point being that sex can be experienced on a wide continuum, from exquisite to horrifying. Hence, the importance of teaching kids to communicate, listening to each other and making certain that they heard their sexual partner say “yes.”
Henes agreed that it’s never too early to offer positive messaging about consent. Speaking of her own “teachable moments” with her soon-to-be three-year-old son, she described using interactions with their cat as a tool to teach consent. “He has to notice what the cat wants,” she said. If her child wants to give the cat a hug and the cat reacts by pulling away, Henes has taught her son to respect that the cat doesn’t want a hug right now. If the cat stays put, her son can hug the cat.
Norms and social stereotypes that contribute to unhealthy ideas about masculinity affect both boys and girls. “The messaging is very limiting to boys,” said Fonte. “They often feel like they’re expected to have sex by a certain age, and when terms like, ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘don’t be such a pussy’ are tossed around,” it makes them feel like they are supposed to be part of that culture. “Stereotypes don’t stop there,” said Henes. Teen boys tend to repeat back phrases they think describe what being a boy means (“Be aggressive;” “Never cry;” “Be awesome at sports;” “Have sex;” “Never show emotion”) or suffer being teased or mocked.
“The more that boys are tied into these ideas of traditional masculinity, the higher the likelihood they may perpetrate some of these [negative] behaviors or be silent about others who do,” added Henes. But rather than focusing on these messages, we often focus on girls’ behaviors by sending messages like “don’t drink, don’t wear certain clothing, don’t act certain ways.” These messages don’t promote consent – they promote victim blaming. We need to notice this, and instead, spend our time challenging unhealthy ideas that connect sex and dominance/conquest, and linking sex with kindness, compassion, and respect.
Parents of girls, Henes continued, need to have ongoing conversations with their daughters, to mitigate pressures that girls often feel. She suggested parents start by asking, “What do you think this ad is saying?” and provide supportive commentary, like “‘I think this sends a message that a girl’s worth is in her body and how she looks and I want to make sure that you know that I don’t feel that way. You’re so much more than that.’ Conversations like this chip away at the onslaught of media messaging.”
So as parenting experts have said time and time again, talking to our children early is a vital part of the job. Keeping lines of communication open is fundamental, especially when it comes to sex and consent. It’s never too early to initiate the talk.
Towards the middle of November, days after the surprising results of the presidential election, Perri Peltz and Dr. Carrie Wilkens talked about their new documentary Risky Drinking, to be aired this January on HBO. The film’s about alcohol use disorder and “was born of people asking, ‘I drink at night and I only drink red wine and I never drink on Sundays…am I OK?’’ Ms. Peltz said. “We started hearing that question so much, that’s what gave birth to this film.” The two, who spoke at the annual fall benefit lunch on behalf of Parents in Action, explained that alcohol use disorder is best described on a spectrum. In answer to the question, “Do I have a problem?” the film profiles four people along the alcohol use disorder spectrum.
Risky Drinking is co-produced by HBO, the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). Peltz is the mother of three boys and a well- known media presence in New York. She’s reported for NBC, ABC, CNN, has been an anchor on a number of networks and is a public health advocate. Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., is one of the featured experts in the film. She’s the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires, and is the co- author of two books about addiction, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use.
Two five- minute clips from the film were played, the first profiling a 26 year-old woman from Denver, Colorado, who binge drinks. The segment follows her, hour-by-hour, one night over Halloween weekend. Ms. Peltz introduced the segment by saying this young woman did not consider herself to have a drinking problem; the subject went on to describe why she drinks before going out. “Drinking definitely eases the dating world, the whole point of drinking is to turn off your brain for once and not think of anything. I didn’t drink at all this week knowing I was going to drink a ton this weekend.” The film follows her through the night as she consumes somewhere near sixteen drinks (the amount of alcohol in each shot or drink is hard to determine), including vodka, vodka jello shots, tequila, whisky and beer. Around 1:30 in the morning we see her sobbing while apologizing to a friend who brings her home.
The second clip follows a group of stay-at-home moms from Fayetteville, Arkansas who found each other through the blog, “momwhodrinksandcusses.” “We started doing Happy Hour every Thursday,” one said. “It’s like a therapy session. We get together and we drink wine.” For them drinking is bonding, and the pleasure the friends take in drinking and drinking with each other is evident. Some of the exchanges between the mothers in the film were greeted with recognizable laughter from the audience, most of who were also mothers. But the seductiveness of alcohol to ease the tedium, frustration and challenges of raising children, sometimes alone, is cause for concern. Ms. Peltz said the segment was originally intended to represent alcohol use disorder at the beginning of the spectrum but when one friend asks, “What do you do when one of your friends seems like they’re in trouble? How do you know when things have gone too far?” it’s clear the solace found in drinking can tip towards alcohol abuse. The troubled mother says, “I know without alcohol who I want to be, I want to be Oprah…I want to be amazing, I want to be a rock star. When I drink I’m not that awesome and I don’t remember. You think I’d stop.” Towards the end of the segment she says, “ Drinking impacts my relationship with my kids. I want to be able to moderate. I want to be able to function. I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job at functioning right now, (but) I don’t think I want to be completely sober.” As described by Ms. Peltz, the remaining segments of the film feature stories about a 59-year-old man “well on his way to becoming a full blown alcoholic,” and an end stage alcoholic who has been in and out of detox thirteen times over the course of two years.
After the film clips the women talked about alcohol use and binge drinking, which has been normalized to some extent, but greatly affects decision-making and risk-taking behaviors. Ms. Peltz pointed out that men and women process alcohol in very different ways. “We can get drunker faster,” she said. “Women have more fat in their bodies while men have more water,” explained Dr. Wilkens. Because women also lack the stomach enzyme that helps the body process alcohol it becomes more concentrated in women’s bodies. Estrogen seems to play a role too; taken all together long term alcohol use poses greater risks to women’s health in general - their organs break down faster, leading to breast cancer and other diseases.
In response to a question from the audience Dr. Wilkens defined drinking level limits. For women, low risk drinking is “no more than three drinks on any one occasion during a week for a total of seven drinks. For men, low-risk drinking means up to fourteen drinks a week and no more than four drinks on any one occasion. Binge drinking consists of four drinks in one setting for women and five drinks in one setting for men “or a .08 blood alcohol concentration that is typically reached after four or five drinks within a two-hour period,” said Dr. Wilkens. She continued, “Intoxication is determined by the rate you consume and how big you are. Little girls can react differently to the same number of shots than the 6’2” guy next to her. She’s probably going to get drunker.”
Will college kids develop drinking problems? “Their drinking is so out of control, so off the spectrum we don’t know if they’ll develop a drinking problem,” said Ms. Peltz. Dr. Wilkens added, “People will say if he’s drinking like that in college isn’t he destined to become an alcoholic? In reality most (college kids) grow out of it, they just stop, life gets more complicated and they go back to normal drinking.”
“Part of what you’re trying to do as a parent is protect your kid’s developing brain,” said Dr. Wilkens. “The brain’s a fragile thing and anything you can do as a parent to keep drugs and alcohol out of that brain, so it can develop, is a good thing.” As a young person, “You’re also learning so many things, you’re learning how to interact with people, you’re learning your physical and emotional boundaries you’re learning how to take care of yourself, what you can accomplish,’ she said. The take away: when you’re young, learning can be disrupted by choosing substances; when you’re older, by choosing substances you can disrupt your life.
Your Child: Risk and Protective Factors, and How Parents Can Help
By Melanie Wells
The question that haunts every parent - how can I help my children avoid risky behavior? – is not a simple one to answer. According to Rachel Henes, Director of Hallways, a prevention and social-emotional wellness program through the Freedom Institute, the key is to start early, even before Kindergarten.
Henes, addressing an attentive luncheon crowd of PIA School Reps and guests on January 24th, identified some of the potent forces that put our kids at risk:
Media/cultural (exposure to porn, and other sexualized images, perpetuate unhealthy norms);
Social & Academic pressure (the immense pressure to succeed, a constant in affluent culture, has been shown to enhance risk);
Gender norms (pressure to conform to these norms can lead to stress/anxiety and a host of harmful attitudes and behaviors, including harassment and assault).
These forces are complex and not easily overcome. Although Henes acknowledged there is no “magic bullet,” she said parents should begin counter-strategies early. Communication, empathy, prosocial values, emotional support – these take time to build. As protective factors, begun at an early age and practiced regularly over years, they can serve your child well from pre-teen years, through the high-risk adolescent period, and into adulthood.
Henes offered a bit of background on Freedom Institute’s Hallways Program and how its presence in the NYC independent schools has provided insight into the risks that may lead to unhealthy behaviors. Hallways, serving the school network through classroom workshops, faculty training, parent presentations, assessments and counseling, has been in a good position to observe and assess the student population. The program’s focus has moved from primarily substance abuse to a more holistic comprehensive approach that encompasses a broad social-emotional wellness range, with an emphasis on prevention. Through its involvement with the schools, the Hallways program has had a window on the factors that put children at risk.
Although vulnerability to the risks may begin before the teen years, “adolescence is a critical period,” said Henes. Offering a look at “what we know” about high-risk behavior and its origins, she outlined factors that have an impact on the adolescent period:
1) Neuro-pathways in the brain are in formation during adolescence, and BRAINS ARE VULNERABLE. (The more delay in initial use of alcohol or drugs, the better.)
2) Nine out of ten addicts began using before age 18.
3) Teens are exposed to porn, sexualized images, and unhealthy norms; Henes noted that 20% of Middle School students have received a “sext.”
4) Gender norms are a risk factor, with pressure on girls to achieve “effortless perfection” on all fronts, and a corresponding pressure on boys to restrict/suppress emotion.
5) Affluent culture, with its focus on “external success markers” is a strong risk factor, with affluent suburban settings exhibiting higher rates of substance use, depression and anxiety than the average. Psychologytoday.com/articles/201311/the-problem-rich-kids
Henes acknowledged it is not known “precisely how the [suburban affluent culture risk] translates” to the NYC independent school community, but “we assume risks are as high or higher.” With the pressure to succeed intense and unrelenting, and the accompanying anxiety and stress such pressure engenders, young teens turn to substance use in a misguided effort to cope. Henes noted that traditional prevention efforts using “scare tactics” will often backfire; while the scary stories and stats may “impress adults,” they are more likely to “arouse curiosity, even excitement” among teens. Effective prevention, she said, focuses on understanding risk and protective factors, with intent to equip kids with critical skills such as empathy, decision making, and stress management.
What can parents do at home to support their children in avoiding risk, and to help build key skills? One of the most important foundations is effective communication. Talking about “difficult” subjects with children and teens, such as perfectionism, anxiety, stress, fear of failure and low self-image, can help to build their social-emotional skills, such as coping and resisting peer pressure, as well as send messages about important values and expectations. Henes recommended a “daily practice” that is based on effective communication. Try daily to:
EXPRESS care. Check on what’s “important to your child right now” - ask who their friends are, and what they value.
DEMONSRATE care. Put your phone away to talk.
ASK questions – about a variety of things! (The “doing” of “asking the questions” is more important than just the reply.)
FOCUS on effort as well as outcome. Focus on who your children are, not just what they do. (Counter the tendency to constantly track and measure “achievement”.)
FIND quiet moments to be together and communicate. TALK!
TEACH that mistakes are normal – they are “how you learn.”
SUPPORT your children in making their own decisions.
MODEL your own healthy coping. Let your kids see you take stock of your own errors. And let them see you be “kind to yourself” when you deal with your mistakes.
One area critical to emotional wellness, Henes noted, is the development and practice of empathy, or the “valuing of others and their lived experiences.” Empathy, compassion, kindness and self-worth are tightly interwoven and crucial to psychological-emotional health. Henes noted that in many schools, emphasis on social justice and the value of diversity are strong, but the children do not learn how to enact these values. For that, kids need to develop an ability to really listen to, and empathize with, others. Insensitive behavior and low empathy usually go hand in hand. Issues of consent, for instance, arise in a culture of low empathy. Healthy sexuality develops in an atmosphere rich in empathy.
To encourage healthy development of empathy, what can parents do?
If you see an act of empathy (from your child, on TV), call it out, with praise.
Give your children the vocabulary to label/express emotions in healthy ways.
Explicitly communicate your values regarding treatment of others.
Set clear boundaries and expectations. Kids know they’re expected to bring home good grades. Tell them clearly you also have high expectations in how they treat each other; how they counter a micro-aggression. Talk specifically about your expectations regarding consent and respect in relationships.
Explain the “why” behind values. Include kids in setting rules of empathic behavior.
Follow up with consequences if they break these rules.
Challenge harmful gender norms. Talk early and often about healthy gender, by “taking apart” gender stereotypes. “Unpack” notions that set gender-based limits on your child.
Address mixed messages your child may be receiving. Remember your child is growing up not only in your home, but in the surrounding culture.
Recognize and check your own biases and discomfort. Model the ability to speak up if you hear, see, or know about offensive behaviors, jokes, and comments.
Help your child think through healthy decisions. Be there to support your child and brainstorm options, but resist the urge to “fix” their problems.
Last but not least: ask for help and support - for yourself. Connect with other parents. Do what you ask of your kids: talk, discuss the hard stuff. Use your parental network to feel connected and supported in the difficult, but rewarding, task of rearing children who have a healthy capacity for empathy, compassion, self-care and sound decision making.
These skills, though time-consuming to build, will more effectively equip your children to avoid risky behavior than any set of scare tactics, and will serve them well into a mature and healthy adulthood. The effort is worth the reward. Embrace the difficult. Go boldly!
Rachel Henes is the Director of Hallways, Freedom Institute’s evidence-based prevention and social-emotional wellness program that serves over 40 Independent Schools in the New York City area. To learn more about Hallways’ programs, please visit www.hallways.org
Date: January 24, 2017
Time: 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
921 Madison Avenue at 73rd Street New York, NY 10021 Map and Directions
Thank you to all who attended PIA's signature Teen Scene event on February 6th where teen panelists talked about how the recent election has affected their schools, and their political involvement, and also shared the key things parents can do to forge close and lasting relationships with their kids.
Watch this space for the full article, coming soon.