Simi Valley Family Magazine --
Fall 1995 issue
Deborah Tucker, M.A., M.F.C.C.
For years, the standards of what we consider to be acceptable advertising have been challenged and systematically lowered. "Pushing the envelope" is the current term for the media treating us to more and more erosion of anything close to a "family value". It is hard to realize how jaded we have all become, how much it takes to shock us now. What is even more difficult to gauge is the effect of the constant media bombardment on our teens and younger children.
For many years now we have been watching the teen pregnancy statistics climb, and wondering why. My opinion, shared by many others, is that the steady increase of explicit sexual themes in all areas of our culture has sent a very different message to our teens and young adults than at any other time in recent history. We seem to be telling them that their sexual feelings are uncontrollable, and that sexual behavior is something relatively unimportant that happens between most couples as they date. Is that what you really believe?
I think one positive thing, perhaps the only one, that has come out of the AIDS epidemic is that it has caused all of us to re-evaluate our thinking about sexual issues. Parents who may have been swayed during the seventies and eighties to think that "teens are just going to have sex anyway" have been galvanized by the specter of their child contracting a fatal, non-curable disease.
There are two psychological "truths" about teens with which we all need to reacquaint ourselves: first, teens need to feel rebellious against authority (parents), as a way of asserting their sense of self, regardless of how strict or lenient that authority is; second, teens typically feel immortal and "above the rules" -- the "it can't happen to me" mentality. Keep these two thoughts in mind as you consider the following.
What are the likely results, given the above assumptions, if we as a society decided that teens rebelling against certain standards meant the standards were worthless? What if we also began to listen to advertising as instruction and decided that sexual needs, unlike any other we experience, were largely uncontrollable and imperative to give in to, rather like scratching an itch? What if we decided that any manner of sexual expression between any two consenting adults was fine, as long as "no one got hurt"? Does this sound familiar?
What if we then began to notice that older teens wanted to have consenting sexual expression? Would we change the standard and revise the acceptable age for sexual activity downward a little? What if "middle-aged" teens, and then younger teens wanted to follow along? They have sexual needs too, you know, and if both parties "consent" and "act responsibly" ... well, how can we say they shouldn't? Where does this line of reasoning end?
I believe teens still need us to draw some boundary lines for them in terms of our expectations and values. Yes, they will want to break our rules and challenge us ... they always have. Even Socrates wrote about the "rebelliousness of today's youth". Their need to assert themselves doesn't mean we should move the line; that just makes them have to work harder to rebel. They need to rebel somewhat to become mature adults, which is just what they aren't yet. Teens don't think like adults, they don't view relationships or sexual behavior in an adult way, and they aren't ready for the responsibilities incurred by sexual behavior. Teens aren't ready for a mature, healthy, committed sexual relationship. Why, as their parents, would we want them to even chance having any other kind? Why are we now afraid to say to our teens, "You're not ready for this yet?"
We need to teach our children how to make the choices about their sexuality that are going to keep them healthy in all ways: physically, emotionally and spiritually. To make these choices they are going to need tools. They need to learn how to apply critical thinking skills to the omnipresent media messages about sexuality used to sell products. They need to know that sexual behavior is something that doesn't come at the beginning of a relationship, as a way of "getting to know each other." They need to know that the ability to have relationships is a learned process that takes time to develop and practice, and that learning time is what the teen years are for. They need to know, too, that movies, television, videos, and other media lie when they imply that sexual feelings, when experienced, must be acted upon.
Let's admit as a society that our line of reasoning (teens are going to have sex anyway) has been absurd, and that it is based on fear ... fear of taking a stand, settings a standard, letting our children feel rebellious without changing that standard, and most of fear that we are unable to make the choice to control our impulses. Let's put our energy into helping our teens strengthen and develop their ability to choose, their ability to decide to do what is truly healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually Let's allow our children to know that sexual behavior is adult behavior, and that it is considerably more special than the media makes it out to be.
Phyllis Wilson, MA, MFCC
The more we study and learn about relationships, the more we can feel overwhelmed by how much work it takes to have a healthy one; what with men and women coming from different planets, having different communication styles, different focuses in life, etc.
Although it sounds pretty complicated, I'd like to share with you a rather simple technique that does wonders to help any relationship in your life -- be it with your spouse, child, parent or friend. It's called "validation", and it means:
1) Acknowledging the other person,
2) Letting them know that you understand what they're thinking and feeling, and
3) Accepting those thoughts and feelings in them.
Why is validation an important part of a relationship? We all want to feel loved and accepted by those close to us. We want to feel heard. We want to feel safe -- accepted warts and all--for that is the climate in which intimacy develops. And validating each other creates this climate of safety and acceptance and understanding. It's true between marriage partners, between parent and child, close friends - any relationship that is important to you.
How do we go about validating our partner? It begins with focusing on him or her, putting aside temporarily what we've been doing and directing our attention to the thoughts and feelings being conveyed. It could be frustration at as boss, sadness over a friend moving away, worry about how a child is doing in school. Or it could be a problem that's arisen between the two of you. Ask questions, encourage him/her to tell you more, say something like, "I can understand that you'd be angry about that", "I accept that you're really sad right now", "I can see why you'd be worried". I understand and I accept. Those are magic words as far as helping the other feel validated by you.
It's helpful to remember what validation is not. For one thing, it is not always agreeing with the other's point of view. If the two of you have different thoughts on raising kids, for example, disagreements will arise periodically. Validating your spouse's viewpoint simply shows your attempt to understand and accept his or her thoughts; it does not necessitate changing your own.
Validation is also not necessarily having the same feelings yourself. Your spouse could be upset because plans for the weekend had to be canceled, yet it's really no big deal to you. No matter. Validation is about conveying your understanding of how your partner is feeling, independently of how the situation affects you.
Lastly, validation is not about problem-solving One of the most common mistakes we make is to rush in and try to "fix" whatever the other is upset about, or to present our own point of view before we have adequately validated the person. Even when we have the best of intentions, this often comes across as a dismissal or a put-down.
There is definitely a place for discussion and problem-solving; however, the act of validating first is what allows the other to feel heard and understood. Once you've accomplished that, there's a much greater likelihood that your partner will be open to hearing your suggestions, comments, disagreements, etc. At that point, it's your partner's turn to validate you!