Monday, December 7, 2009

It's Time To Talk

Last Thursday I was thrilled to attend an amazing event on dating abuse and domestic violence, as part of Liz Claiborne's “Its Time To Talk Day.” I interviewed an incredibly diverse bunch of experts about teen dating abuse, domestic violence and cyber-bullying; a sort of crash course in subjects I knew very little about. After all, like most of you, I’m not a parent of a teenager (though Seconda has some distinct adolescent qualities).

In fact, now is the ideal time for parents like me to get educated about these issues.

Because to help protect kids from various kinds of abuse, you’ve got to talk to them early. As Dr.Jill Murray, psychotherapist in Southern California and author of three books on the subject, put it, “It is much easier to prevent this than to solve it”

So, what can you do to help prevent dating, digital and domestic abuse from happening to your kids? Here are the big-picture points, the things you’ll be working on for years, and can never start too early:

  • Talk about and model healthy relationships

Everyone I spoke to highlighted the importance of this, no one more persuasively than Ann Burke, whose 23 year-old daughter Lindsay Burke was murdered in 2005 by her jealous ex-boyfriend. Burke is an educator and a founding member of MADE, (Moms and Dads for Education) to Stop Teen Dating Abuse, and she says that you shouldn’t assume your kids know what a healthy relationship is, just because you have a happy family. Our kids get so many negative, confusing, misleading messages about what love is from the media that it's crucial for you to talk to them about what behavior is acceptable between two people that care about each other. Teens are especially susceptible to dating abuse because when they experience love for the first time, says Ann Shoket, editor-in-chief of Seventeen, it is so overwhelming, so new, so unchartered, it can be hard to know what behavior is OK and what's not. So you need to tell them just that – and you can start early by talking about this in terms of friendship, giving them guidance about what it means to be a good friend.

Talking is important but it won't be effective if you don't practice what you preach. If you're in a relationship that allows for physical intimidation, violence, or emotional abuse, children will grow to understand that that's acceptable, and all the preaching and urging to "do as I say and not as I do" will prove ineffective. Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of NY Times bestseller Crazy Love, a memoir of her abusive marriage, gave me a startling statistic: over 50% of people who admit to abusing their spouses admit to abusing their children, too. If you're in a relationship where you are suffering from physical or verbal abuse, chances are, your children are, too.

  • Help kids build self esteem

Kids who have a strong sense of self will be better protected against abusive relationships. But children aren’t born with esteem, says Murray, they get self esteem by doing something difficult and suceeding at it or by failing and figuring out how to succeed the next time. Helping kids build confidence is not the same as constantly affirming everything they do, she cautions – they’re not going to be self-assured because you tell them how much you love the way they blink. But you can celebrate their individuality, help them come to know who they are as a person, what they deserve, and that they can succeed at things even if they fail at first .

  • Keep lines of communication open so kids know they can come to you

Abuse thrives in secrecy, said Steiner: whatever it is -- domestic violence, sexual abuse, cyber-bullying – if the victim doesn’t talk about it, they become more isolated, more alone, more desperate. If they tell people about what’s going on, its really opening the door to stop it. Steiner said that part of why she was able to get out of the marriage which almost killed her was that on the night that she decided to leave, she told everyone. She needed every last person in her network to know about what was going on to help pull her out of what had become a living nightmare. Keeping lines of communication open with your kids is not as easy as it sounds, and it means that you have to suspend your emotionality when they tell you about things that make you livid and disappointed and sad, but its crucial.

Abuse doesn't have to be physical, either. Emotional abuse-- insults, humiliation, having every part of your life controlled -- can be just as devastating. We should remember too that our children are susceptible to a form of abuse we never had to grapple with, and that's digital abuse. Because so many forms of social media are so new, we don't yet have systems in place to protect users from abuse, and we are only now starting to understand the important of teaching kids online ethics.

Shoket says that 38% of girls polled in Seventeen say they wish they could escape social media. That's more than a third. And it makes sense, because abuse is so easy and seemingly without consequence on the computer screen. I spoke to Jason Rzepka, VP of Public Affairs at MTV, who just launched a big campaign against digital abuse called A Thin Line, and he explained that many teens who are participating in what we'd consider abusive language and behavior online, view what they're doing as no more than a joke. Part of what makes digital abuse so pervasive, he says, is that people are also emboldened to say and do things on a computer screen that they'd never do in person, because it just doesn't seem real. Of course, the effect on the people targeted is real, not only real but relentless, because today we have our phones and computers and iTouches with us 24/7, day and night, so that there is really no escape.

So what can you do about digital abuse? The first step is to teach children online ethics: that social media is not a game, but has real consequence for real people. Respect and kindness are as important online as they are in person. Hitting delete when you get a humiliating message or compromising photo of someone is as easy as hitting forward. We have to go over the basics, because if we don't, no one will.

The second thing you will want to consider is setting limits on technology use for kids. Murray says it is a really good idea to set up a system where phones and computers are handed over to parents or taken out of the bedroom when its time for sleep. Most digital abuse, she asys, happens between the hours of 12 and 5am, when you won't be aware of what's going on.

What it boils down to is its a big, bad world out there. But you're not defenseless against it. And if you have children that are still young, and still open to hearing what you have to say, you're in a tremendously exciting position to prepare them for the challenges they might face. Talk to them. Teach them about respect and kindness and ethics; show them what a healthy, loving relationship looks like. And if you run out of wise words you can tell them that I spoke to Tim Gunn --yes, the "Make it work" superstar of Project Runway fame -- and he said:

"Respect yourself, respect those around you and be a good citizen of the world."

For more information, you can visit Love Is Not Abuse, MADE, A Thin Line, Dr. Murray's website.

*I received a $50 Juicy Couture gift card in conjunction with participating in Liz Claiborne’s “It’s Time To Talk” day.