Talking with Kids About Healthy Relationships
Reflections by PCC Staff Psychotherapist, Stefani Adair, LPC, on Harvard School of Education's Study: “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment”
To read the Harvard study, click here.
As therapists, we sit with others and are privy to some of their hardest stories. In my own work—especially with young women—I’ve heard, all too often, accounts of abuse, mistreatment, and general misogyny. Much of what is echoed throughout this article rings sadly familiar. In the counseling room, we have a unique place and voice to not only hear but also to reflect back, call out what is not right or appropriate, and help guide. Sadly, a message is being propagated in our culture that has normalized misogyny, violence, hyper-sexualization and degradation against women. It’s heard in our song lyrics, our popular TV shows, movies, advertising and social media. As popular culture promotes and buyers confirm their acceptance of these norms, the problem is only being fueled.
Pornography has become something truly epidemic, and youngsters are being exposed earlier and earlier. What has been written off with a wave of the hand as just a “boys will be boys” attitude is tragically not being called out for what it is—the engine behind this machine generating abuse, including molestation, rape and sex-trafficking. Porn is more addictive than crack cocaine and the wiring in the brain, even more pervasive. Unfortunately, though, a majority of our world is either unaware, uninformed and/or disinterested. As kids become sexualized at younger ages, they are also learning that violence is appropriate—even desired—and without proper adult instruction, they are modeling this behavior.
I have listened to many young women describe historical accounts of rape, yet did not label it as such because they blame themselves for being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Other young women have sent compromising photos of themselves to men in exchange for compensation. They are allowing themselves to be called shameful names, and they have been desensitized to terribly inappropriate norms.
Misogyny and harassment should not be plainly accepted as “just a fact of life,” yet many young women agree that it is. As counselors, we need to sit alert with antennas up and guide dialogue that helps facilitate empathy for both sexes. When clients speak in labeling or misogynistic ways, that is our “in” to ask some tough questions and help expose something that is unhealthy. We can help strategize and role-play various ethical scenarios. We can help educate regarding what truly is a healthy versus an unhealthy relationship. The authors point out that “silence suggests support,” but we have a unique opportunity to highlight for our clients what is not okay. It is our job, I believe, as parents, educators and leaders, to help educate kids. Otherwise, they are merely absorbing unhealthy messages from peers, pop culture and media; this should concern us.
Finally, we cannot underestimate the importance of work that addresses the topic of identity, self-worth, self-esteem. So many of the matters addressed in this article stem from root issues of identity. For example, what does she allow in? How does she allow herself to be talked to and treated? How does she allow her body to be devalued? Why does he feel a need to dominate by mistreating? How does name-calling enhance his masculinity? The theme of identity and personhood underscores this entire discussion, in consideration of both aggressor and victim.