Actress and comedian Ali Wentworth moderated a lively panel about new challenges of modern parenting at the annual Child Mind Institute Spring Luncheon on Wednesday. She and Child Mind Institute clinicians Jamie Howard, PhD, and Dave Anderson, PhD, discussed the changing face of childhood in the era of the #MeToo movement, school shootings, pervasive porn and social media.
No topic was off limits, and Wentworth led by example, opening up the panel by describing how at dinner recently her 15-year-old had asked her husband George Stephanopoulos if he’d ever watched porn.
Because pornography is now accessible to nearly any adolescent with an internet connection, it’s more and more likely that a 15-year-old has. In fact, Dr. Anderson noted that a Canadian researcher attempting to study the effects of porn on men in 2009 had to scrap the study when he realized he couldn’t find any 20-year-old males who hadn’t watched porn to make up a comparison group. The takeaway, Dr. Anderson said, is that parents shouldn’t be surprised to have these conversations, and they shouldn’t shy away from them, either.
The importance of talking to kids about challenging and sometimes queasy topics was a theme that came up again and again. But Dr. Howard said that it’s also okay if parents don’t immediately know how to answer a tricky question. “You can take some time to collect your thoughts,” she said. “You can say, ‘That sounds like an important question; I need to think about the answer.’” But she emphasized that you do then need to get back to your children with an answer, because if you don’t they might look it up online, and the answer that they find might not be developmentally appropriate or even accurate. She also said that parents shouldn’t feel like they need to explain everything all at once.
Dr. Anderson agreed, saying that as a parent, “You want to stay a step behind them, but always be introducing topics that may come up for them.” For example, if you’re watching a movie with your kid and the characters are engaging in casual sex, Dr. Anderson suggests saying something like, “Man, I hope there’s condoms in that dresser.” It’s an important opportunity because, as Dr. Anderson puts it, “The movies don’t show the types of things we want to have conversations about. We know teenagers are going to respond with, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you just said that,’ but at the same time, that might be a discussion you can have later on, that they know you’re open to having.”
Both clinicians also advocated for using moments where you’re taking a walk or doing the dishes to do a little check-in. Wentworth put in that she has the best conversations with her kids while they’re in the car. “There’s something where you’re driving the car and your kids are back there — it’s almost like confession with a Catholic priest!”
These conversations are important for topics like sex and relationships, and big stories in the news like #MeToo and school shootings, but they’re also important just for regular mental health check-ins.
Wentworth told the audience that mental health was never really mentioned in her house when she was growing up, despite there being a family history of depression. “There was never any ‘Are you okay?’ she said. “I like the fact that as a parent I’m having these conversations.”
Part of this means countering stigma that still persists today. “I think we as moms right now need to lose the whole stigma of mental illness,” noted Wentworth. “By talking about these things, you’re sending the message that it’s good to talk about your mental health, and you’re making it easier for kids to verbalize their own concerns. The more we verbalize it and are open about it, I think our kids will be more comfortable with it themselves.” And that’s the ultimate parenting success.