My parents have stated that my experiences have shaped and opened up their own paradigms. For instance, prior to becoming a therapist, I worked at a church for five years, a church that had quite different social and theological perspectives than the church I grew up at. Each time that they visited my church, they acknowledged new things that they hadn’t thought about before, opening them to explore the impact of, for example, feminism and the church.
The reality is I didn’t teach my parents anything; we experienced life and grew together based on these circumstances. Glen Elder, professor of sociology at UNC, describes this phenomenon, where the parental and sibling generations of a family experience similar things at the same time, as “linked lives“.
As family therapists, we generally witness the unproductive ways generations link their lives. The anxious child who struggles to set boundaries with her peers often have anxious parents who struggle to set boundaries with their peers. Siblings who fight incessantly often have parents who have high conflict. “Linked lives” speaks to the parallel processes by which parental and sibling generations respond to significant events and stressors.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Katya Ivanova of the University of Amsterdam chaired a study of restructured families (families where partners have separated or divorced, for instance) to determine the impact the process of restructuring has on adolescents and their sexual development. Her research team learned that teenagers are more likely to have earlier and higher quantities of sexual experiences as their mothers initiated romantic relationships. The interviewed adolescents reported less physical supervision and opportunities for emotional connection when their mothers pursued romantic relationships, so they sought emotional support from their peers, often by creating their own sexual experiences. A repartnering custodial parent’s life becomes linked through his/her child’s as they both sought out emotional and sexual confirmation.
This research isn’t intended to prevent custodial parents from dating again; rather, it seeks to accentuate the presence of this parallel process so that parents and teenagers can have more healthy conversations about sexuality. Here are five tips that can improve communication and adolescent sexual development for restructured families:
1) The needs of your children come first. If you decide to pursue a dating relationship, let them know about your decision. Rather than giving reasons that support your decision, ask about their feelings concerning you dating. Conversations about relationships and sexuality need to be initiated by the custodial parent.
2) Prioritize dates with your teenagers before you prioritize dates with your significant other. Take your teenager out for a meal or movie, or have a game night, and make sure that the first dates you put in your calendar are important events to your teenager (i.e. sporting events, concerts). Teenagers view “time with” as a far more valuable commodity than “money spent on”.
3) Focus on the functionality of sex, not the morality. For example, If you intend to have sex with your dates, but promote abstinence toward your teenager, you’ve placed them in a double bind. Your teenager will figure this out and either call you on it and/or increase the likelihood of accessing their own sexual experiences. Discuss with your teenager what anatomical parts are and how to put on a condom.
4) Involve the non-custodial parent. Involving both parents and genders increases the likelihood that teenagers will have a higher competency around sexuality and remind teenagers that both parents are emotionally supportive.
5) Set appropriate boundaries around your own relational/sexual experience. On the one hand, your teenager doesn’t need to know that your new partner kissed you (or, for that matter, had sex with you). Your own home doesn’t need to be the place of sexual encounters as long as the teenager is home. On the other hand, your teenager needs to if you’ll be out for the evening.