Profiles in Mentoring: Ariana Rivens discusses new study on intergenerational disclosure

Ariana J. Rivens is a clinical psychology doctoral student in the University of Virginia Graduate Schoolof Arts and Sciences under the mentorship of Dr. Noelle Hurd

Rivens, A. J., Billingsley, J. T., & Hurd, N. M. (2021). Understanding Factors Associated With Intimate Disclosure Between Black Youth and Nonparental Familial Adults. Journal of  Research on Adolescence.

Reposted from the Society for Research on Adolescence

This #MustReadMonday, we are excited to highlight a recent paper by Ariana Rivens: Understanding Factors Associated with Intimate Disclosure Between Black Youth and Non-Parental Familial Adults. This article examines youth intimate disclosure to non-parental adult relatives among Black youth and outlines implications for adults looking to support Black youths’ disclosure.

By Society for Research on Adolescence and Ariana Rivens

What would you say is the main takeaway from your article?

I would say the main takeaway is about non-parental adult relatives and how intentional they are about making space for youth in their lives to disclose. Not only making space, but also staying engaged throughout the disclosure process. The paper describes how these adults encouraged youth to share by creating a positive atmosphere, being really supportive when youth were disclosing, and then, afterwards, taking steps to honor youth disclosing by validating them, giving them advice, and advocating for them. That’s the biggest takeaway—adult relatives play an active role in the process.

You mention in your article that there are differences between the content disclosed by older and younger adolescents—specifically that “older adolescents may disclose more information about their peers to adults compared to younger adolescents, but they may have similar rates of disclosure about other topics such as school”. Could you expand a bit on why this is the case?

The findings of our study are actually consistent with previous work. Between most of the early- and middle-adolescents (that was the majority of our sample—we only had one late-adolescent, so we didn’t do any comparisons between them and the other youth) it was similar in terms of whether or not they discussed a topic. The only distinct difference was that some of the older adolescents (again, middle-adolescents in this case) talked about romantic interests and connections in relationships and none of the younger (or early adolescents) did. As we mention in our discussion section, this may reflect that romance is a topic that becomes more salient in later adolescence, so middle-adolescent youth are therefore more likely to have something to say on the topic. It’s important to note our comparisons were conducted using the subsample of 18 youth who intimately disclosed, but prior research suggests these differences can be, at least in part, explained by the developmental period and what may be most salient to youth.

Could you expand on what information management strategies are and the role that they play in self-disclosure by adolescents?

It’s a broad term that refers to how adolescents make decisions about whether they share with others. Examples are an adolescent voluntarily sharing on their own, responding once they’re asked to disclose—or even sharing inaccurate information, also known as concealment or lying. It’s also very possible—and this is kind of the motivation of the study—that the adolescent might not share anything at all. In short, it describes how adolescents manage their information in ways that make sense for them. Like we discussed in the paper, models of decision-making suggest the choice that youth end up making is dependent on a lot of different factors such as who they’re talking to, what they’re talking about, how they think the other person will react, and how they’re feeling at the time.

You also talk about reciprocity and how people may be more willing to share their thoughts and feelings with others who also reveal personal information about themselves. Is this the case in relationships between youths and trusted non-parental adults as well, or is this something that occurs more so between youths and their peers?

Yes! In our study, both youth and non-parental adult relatives talked about times when the adults self-disclosed to the adolescent and participated in reciprocal sharing. This was really interesting to us, because adult disclosures were typically age-appropriate and relevant to what youth were sharing. When asked, relatives also talked about being really intentional about making sure that what they shared had the maximum positive impact on youth. They weren’t overburdening the youth by asking them for emotional support or looking to them for advice. It was more along the lines of: “You brought up a topic, so here’s a time that I’ve experienced it growing up” or “Here’s how I’m experiencing it right now as an adult”. It really speaks to what we believe—and research suggests—is one of the key reasons why having non-parental adults in youths’ lives is so helpful. It’s because they can pull on that lived experience and wisdom and can also share how they currently navigate situations. These adult relatives do that not by minimizing what kids are going through, but by emphasizing how this might be something that happens throughout life.

You and your co-authors found that youths were willing to disclose information about themselves when the familial adults in their lives actively created the space for them to disclose. Extending this to the public beyond the study’s sample, how might adults incorporate this finding into their own lives to encourage the adolescents within their families to be comfortable coming to them for discussions that involve their personal thoughts and feelings?

This is something we’ve thought about a lot—how our findings could be useful and translate into actual practice. The first recommendation is for adults to reflect on how they might already be making space for youth in their lives naturally. This is part of what we were interested in—seeing how disclosure did or did not already happen between Black youth and their non-parental adult relatives without intervention. For example, adults can ask themselves: Am I already initiating conversations with my nieces and nephews? Am I spending time together with youth at a family event or talking on the phone? If you are a grandparent, have you already encouraged your grandchildren and other youth in your family to come to you with any issues? Are there times you validated their emotions when they were really excited or really upset about something? These are the things that are happening every single day. If adults reflect and realize that they’re already doing this stuff, we say keep doing it.

Another suggestion is encouraging or reinforcing what you would like to see. Our findings suggest that by listening attentively when youth are disclosing all types of information and supporting them, adults may make youth more willing to go to them if they want advice.

We also suggest adults be thoughtful and think about when and why youth are coming to them, which I think is a principle that applies in all of our interactions. Sometimes people share to get input or guidance about the next step they should take. Other times they just want to be heard, validated, and be able to express themselves without being criticized or judged. To that end, none of our youth mentioned being dismissed or being cut down for things that they were saying as a positive, so it’s important for adults to respect that. Take things in non-judgmentally and ask youth if they want advice or just want to talk about it. This can be hard, especially depending on the topic, so we adults should be patient with ourselves, especially if it’s something that we’re just learning and trying. You don’t have to be perfect, but putting in the effort, our study suggests, matters.

The findings from this study are also incredibly powerful when put into the context of prior research, which, as you mentioned, suggests Black youths’ relationships with natural mentors may be protective of psychological distress associated with racial discrimination. Do you think that youths who lack such relationships face the risk of greater vulnerability to racial discrimination?

Previous research suggests adults can be really helpful when youth are experiencing all types of marginalization. We’re focusing on racial discrimination and the effects of racism in this study, but these relationships could be really helpful for other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ youth who might be experiencing rejection or difficulties with their parents. Having a family member or another adult outside act as a buffer against these negative effects from interpersonal issues as well as the more systemic ones. To answer your question more specifically: yes, we know that these supportive relationships have buffering effects against the impact of racism, and we know that youth who experience racism-related stressors in our world and don’t have supportive connections that they can turn to process the event, get support, and to be reminded how important and valued they are, are more likely to feel isolated. While supportive relationships are so important and a rich resource, though, the cumulative adverse impacts of things like racism and other structural inequalities aren’t really offset by having these supportive relationships—that’s not going to solve it all. Even the most supported Black child is at risk for some adverse outcomes based on these issues, so, regardless of their mentor status and whether or not they have these relationships, youth are going to benefit from the dismantling of racism and other inequitable systems.

That’s a great point—there are definitely bigger issues at hand that we have to solve, and not just for people right now but also for future generations down the line. If we look at it from a more individual level as well, in terms of the discrimination youths are facing, if they don’t have these natural mentors, what is something that they can do to seek out mentors in their lives?

My study is just one of many our lab has conducted on supportive intergenerational relationships and their formation, maintenance, and impact. There’s other great work going on at the University of Virginia at YouthNex, which is a center that is focused on positive youth development. There’s also evidence to suggest that formalized programs that ask youth to identify someone they already know as a potential mentor yield success in developing these important connections. One example is an intervention our lab has developed, which is called Project DREAM (Developing Resourcefulness, Engagement, Acceptance, and Mentoring), where we have middle school students reaching out to teachers, neighbors, family members to participate alongside them. The pairs meet for several weeks as a group and learn about different skills and build their relationship together with the hope that these connections are maintained after the program ends. Given we know that up to a third of Black youth don’t have these relationships, youth-initiated programs like ours can be a way to close this gap.

In a more general direction, what is something that you wish people knew more about this topic?

I wish they knew the power of non-parental adults in kids’ lives, especially those within the family. Adolescents, like all of us, benefit from having support from a variety of sources. What we try to make really clear in this study and in all of our work is that it’s not an “either”/”or”, it’s a “both” “and”. For Black youth, in particular, having non-parental adults who understand their familial context and what it’s like to be moving through the world in the way they do is a valuable resource as they grow up. I wish that was more well-known and understood, so I’m proud of research like ours and that being conducted by the folks across the globe. Another point is that it’s important to study normative processes among Black adolescents and their families. Foundational work on many psychological phenomena we consider essential was primarily conducted with White, middle class, Western populations and then applied to groups who don’t have the same lived experiences. When conducting our study, we were really able to specifically examine how disclosure—a universal process of sharing about yourself—manifests among Black youth and their families, and what may be specific as well as what may be common among adolescents in the US. It’s a worthwhile contribution to examine foundational concepts from a culturally inclusive lens.

What are some of the next steps in this line of research that you’re most excited about?

It would be great to see more examination of how non-parental adults (and, specifically, non-parental adult relatives) can play a role in youths’ well-being and functioning more broadly. One thing I’m really glad about is that our paper honed in on actions of adult relatives from youth and adult perspectives. I’m also excited to learn more from my co-author, Janelle Billingsley, about youths’ perspectives about how they make those decisions to disclose to adults. Our paper discusses how that might be associated with certain actions of non-parental adults, but her work and the work of other researchers who center youth autonomy is necessary since they drive the sharing. It’s important to hear their side and have them describe their own actions.

In regard to my interests, I’d like to explore how other factors such as the role of the adult relative influence youth disclosure to adult relatives. In our study, we had grandparents, aunts, adult siblings, cousins. I’m curious to know: Is what you’re disclosing to your grandma the same as what you’re sharing with your sibling? If it is the same, is it different in how you’re framing it? Are you expecting different reactions based on who you’re speaking to? That would be a great next step. More generally, given my clinical interests in working with Black youth, and other adolescents and emerging adults, I want to explore how disclosure applies to youth sharing about psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide) to adult relatives and other important others in their lives.

Is there anything else you might like to add before we conclude our Q&A?

I feel like we covered a lot; the only thing I would add is that Black families in general, and Black youth specifically, are really incredible. I’m also grateful to the families who shared their lives with us, and for my co-authors and lab for supporting this project.

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