Time for an Auntie-vention?
Special Guest Writer: Dr. Tara Cousineau is a clinical psychologist, mother, and Aunt. She is founder of BodiMojo.com for teenagers, a health engagement platform for teens leveraging web and mobile technologies to inspire healthy living. The use of BodiMojo.com by teen girls has shown to have a significant effect on improving girls’ attitudes about their own body image. Tara also blogs at BodiMojo.com/blog and TeensInBalance.com.
What happens when you notice that your dear niece or nephew reveals a belly in a cropped top, sports multiple piercings, or dresses like an MTV star rather than an eighth grader? Do you say something to his or her parent that might provoke a defensive spat? Do you comment to your niece or nephew, when he or she is already caught up in a hormonal firestorm? Or do you sigh and chalk it up to a normal adolescent growth?
As a concerned Auntie, it’s a tough line to tow. Today’s tween and teen nieces and nephews are hit with thousands of messages every day – they spend more than 10 hours a day in front of some kind of screen, which spews out blatant and subtle messages on what it means to be cool, sexy, and grown up. They are at risk for a host of adolescent problems unique to this stage of life. Middle school, in particular, is a phase when conformity is vital to surviving the unspoken rules in hallways and playgrounds. High school can offer more diversity and avenues for self-expression, but it can also lead to more risky behavior. On the whole, as they grow up, kids are under a lot of pressure to look and act a certain way.
Our nieces, in particular, are vulnerable to the unrealistic and restrictive messages about what is beautiful in our culture (i.e., tall, skinny, angular, flawless, sexy and beautiful). However, boys are not immune to body image issues (think of the bulked-up superheroes in The Avengers, just released this week). Both nieces and nephews get the idea very early on that they are expected to succeed in life by getting stellar grades, going to college, getting married, having kids, and making more money than their parents. Teens know that being “average” is a liability in our society. It’s no surprise that our nieces and nephews all aspire to be superstars.
How can an older, wiser, been-there-done-that Auntie make sure they are a comforting, positive influence, helping nieces and nephews navigate the complex puzzle of teenage life?
One simple way is to hang with your nieces and nephews every once in a while. Immerse yourself in their space. Chill out with them. Join in what they love to do without being nerdy: go to the movies, slouch on the couch in front of a reality series, listen to music or read the latest young adult lit (check out some suggestions here). You could invite them to watch something they may have already seen and love, or introduce them to something new you think might be interesting. You are in a much better position to use this tactic than a parent, who they may view as totally uncool, or an embarrassment.
At least once a year, a blockbuster teen cult movie will appear, like The Hunger Games or Twilight, which many teens are happy to see a second and third time – after they have viewed it with their BFFs. If The Hunger Games isn’t a metaphor for competing in a confusing, adult world with arbitrary rules, I don’t know what is! There is a reason that this film appeals to both boys and girls, and it’s worthy of a thought-provoking chat (discussion guide).
You may even want to take a leap and invite them to watch the award-winning documentary, Miss Representation, just out on DVD. This movie is part of a call-to-action campaign that “gives women and girls the tools to realize their full potential.” However, the educational messages are just as important for teenage boys. Through interviews with well-known women (and a few men) in media, journalism and politics, and a number of high school girls and boys, the movie depicts the enormous challenges young people face today as a result of the influential messages media sends about beauty, acceptance, and success. It isn’t pretty.
One key to an open discussion: do not start the discussion by pointing out something negative about your teen niece or nephew. Teens are very sensitive to any hint of criticism no matter how good the intention – even if you didn’t mean to criticize! A work-around is to notice and talk about other things in their world, and eventually work the conversation around to something that concerns you. One exception to this rule is if you observe something that may indicate a serious problem, such as self-harm or poor judgment that puts others at risk, then parent/adult intervention is necessary. Today’s teenage nieces and nephews need to know that there are caring and connected adults in their world. As their savvy Auntie, make yourself one of them!
Here are some resources for Aunties on starting the conversation about media and tough teen topics:
What is Media Literacy?
Underage Drinking and Media Literacy
Understanding Eating Disorders (Signs)
Teen Attitudes About Pregnancy
Suicide Prevention: Save a Friend
PBS, In the Mix: TV Media Literacy
Published: May 7, 2012