Center for Parent-Teen Communication Sees Adolescence as Age of Opportunity

Not a single piece of material from the new Center for Parent-Teen Communication (CPTC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will start with the words “survival guide.”

According to Ken Ginsburg, MD, the Center’s co-founder and a physician in the division of Adolescent Medicine at CHOP, it’s time to chip away at the ongoing and undermining narrative about adolescence that’s as potent and played out as an old wives’ tale: In that narrative, teenagers are destined for disaster and riding on a frenetic wave of poor decisions. Fueled by decades of research and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the CPTC will re-frame adolescence not as a time of impending disaster, but one of opportunity.

“Adolescents quite literally represent our future, and it is critical that we create the right developmental milieu for them to become their best selves,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “Core to that development is their relationship with their parents. With so many undermining messages about that relationship, we want to give positive developmental messages that will change the tone and tenor of the conversation.”

The CPTC received a three-year grant and will consist of a multi-disciplinary effort between researchers, clinicians, and experts to promote the health, character, and well-being of adolescents through education, research, and advocacy. Alongside Dr. Ginsburg, Carol Ford, MD, chief of the division of Adolescent Medicine at CHOP, will co-lead the Center. It will house two cores that focus on two very different but equally powerful places where researchers believe they can improve parent-teen communication: the doctor’s office and the web.

Dr. Ford will direct the Research Core (RC), conducting primary parent-teen research in clinical settings, while Dr. Ginsburg will direct the Translation and Dissemination Core (TDC), translating the best of what is known from parenting and character development research into practical information that will be disseminated widely, including through a comprehensive website (set to launch online at the end of 2017) and across social media platforms. The two cores share one goal: Foster effective parent-teen communication so that parents can help adolescents become young people prepared to thrive.

“I think that people feel like it’s difficult for parents and teens to communicate,” Dr. Ford said. “One of goals of the center will be to make parent-teen communication easier.”

Clinicians’ Role in Parent-Teen Communication

Doctors and nurses have a unique opportunity to help adolescents make responsible decisions about their health. They have face time with both teens and their parents during one-to-one appointments, which might be used to facilitate effective and open parent-teen communication.  Much research has been done on how to improve teen health in clinic settings, but researchers have not yet dug into the specific ways physicians can help parents and teens talk about health and what to expect from high-quality healthcare, according to Dr. Ford. The CPTC’s Research Core hopes to change that.

“We tend to overlook the power of parents to help us do our job, which is to improve adolescent health,” Dr. Ford said. “Parents and doctors both want the best health outcomes for their teens, and we really need to understand how doctors and nurses can better partner with parents, while also respecting their values, cultures, and parenting styles.”

One of the CPTC’s first agendas under Dr. Ford’s guidance is the Strengths Intervention Project led by Victoria Miller, PhD, director of research in the division of Adolescent Medicine at CHOP. Dr. Miller and Dr. Ford will study how clinicians can help parents foster better communication strategies with their teens about teen strengths. While studies are just getting on their feet, current and previous research from CHOP demonstrates precisely why this is a potent and promising field of study.

Recent Research Sets the Stage

A study of 136 teens and their parents recently presented by Dr. Ford found that teens and parents have dissonant views on the tone of their conversations: On a weekly basis, parents reported that they communicated with their teens more about strengths rather than weaknesses, while teens generally believed that they talked with their parents about their own weaknesses more than their strengths. The findings highlight the need to uncover why such a perception gap might occur, and how it influences teen’s development.

In another paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Dr. Ford found that amongst 91 parent-teen pairs, the majority of parents and teens had moderate to high levels of interest in learning not just about health issues like weight, driving safety, or acne, but also about how to increase parent-teen communication about a wide range of topics including teen strengths. The paper cites previous research reporting that adolescents generally don’t receive the recommended US Preventive Services Task Force screenings and services for conditions like obesity, depression, obesity, tobacco use, or sexually transmitted infections. If we can improve parent-teen communication about why the recommendations matter, we might improve a teen’s chances of utilizing these primary healthcare services. Dr. Ford believes that the research will also benefit health professionals alongside parents and teens.

“I think physicians will appreciate having help knowing what to say, how to say it, and having research-based materials to give to parents and teens to help them with their communication,” Dr. Ford said. “That’s something that we haven’t had at this point in time.”

Using Social Media to Translate and Disseminate Research

Besides primary investigations, the CPTC will also dig into existing research about positive youth development, parenting, and character development, and deliver it to parents via a comprehensive website and through a space almost all of us visit every day: the online social community.

Seventy-five percent of parents use social media, with mothers using it more so than fathers as a parenting resource, according to a Pew Center Research report. Seventy-nine percent of the parents in the report stated that they garnered beneficial information from these platforms, with 59 percent stating that they came across valuable information specific to parenting in the last 30 days.

Fueled by this new method of communication and information-sharing, Dr. Ginsburg hopes that the CPTC can become the “credible source” from which social media influencers draw their information and that parents come to rely on to learn how best to communicate with their child.

“Social media now sets the discourse for conversation,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “It’s where people now turn to for information. The challenge is that the information is not always rooted in research and doesn’t always give the most productive advice.”

The TDC will translate evidence-informed information into easily accessible, consumer-friendly written and video materials. Based on existing research and clinical expertise, the content will empower parents to build on the foundation of strength in their teens rather than highlight the negative aspects of adolescence. Social media strategists will help present the materials online in a way that stimulates parents to share it with other parents.

Plenty of Topics to Empower Parents and Teens

The topics that Dr. Ginsburg hopes to inform parents about range far and wide, but all share a positive and empowering spin. For example, the CPTC will share research about adolescent brain development, which is an exciting area of science ripe for translation. It will also disseminate information about supporting youth to make wise decisions, and prepare them to lead us in the future. It will offer information about the benefits of balanced parenting, described by Dr. Ginsburg as “parenting that is both loving and warm, and appropriately monitors the children.”

Finally, it will distribute the best evidence-informed strategies to everything from how to build character strengths like integrity and compassion, to how to support the internal resilience of young people. These topics only touch the tip of what the CPTC hopes to share with parents. Future plans include responding to new developments in the emerging research on parenting and youth development.

Both Dr. Ginsburg and Dr. Ford have confidence that by shifting how society perceives adolescence – that is, from a negative narrative to a positive one – we can impact how teens themselves view the world.

“The center is going to work on helping parents, and all of us, really think of teens and adolescent health with an opportunity framework,” Dr. Ford said. “We have this wonderful chance to establish a Center over the next three years, and just grow.”

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