ParenTalks: Why Healthy Relationships Matter

With a focus on ‘Supporting Your Son to Build Healthy Relationships and Positive Surroundings’, the fourth edition of ParenTalks at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) was held this month, during Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week in Ontario.

It featured Dr. Debra Pepler, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University, Co-founder of PREVNet, mother and grandmother, as well as Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07, MD, family physician, and hospitalist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

The event was held before a live audience and was also livestreamed.

Dr. Mark Broussenko '07 and Dr. Debra Pepler speak to parents at the fourth edition of ParenTalks

Here are some key quotes from Dr. Pepler’s presentation:

“I struggled as a mother, probably in most of the same ways that you are struggling.

What is your “noble vision” for your son?

What do you really want for your sons? Think about when they are 40 or 45, what do you imagine for them. What’s important to you in terms where you are helping them go in terms of their lives?

We really wanted our children to love and be loved. In the last three decades, there has been massive research to show how important that is. How important relationships within the family are, how important friendships are, how important community relationships are. And the fact is that they shape every aspect of children’s development.

I have done this work on aggressive children and bullying for 35 years now. But the biggest changes have really happened in the last 10 or so years, when we started look at what is happening in children’s development.


Dr. Debra Pepler speak to parents at the fourth edition of ParenTalks at SMCS.

The whole field of epi-genetics has developed. It is about how the experiences that we go through change our genetic expression. So, relationships are tremendously important because they shape the way genes express themselves.

If children grow up in caring, loving, relatively stress-free environments --- and by that I mean they are not exposed to high levels of conflict or separation from the important people in their lives or other kinds of stressors --- they’ll thrive to the best of their ability. But it’s the stressors that create problems.

They are all the kinds of experiences that undermine well-being, And, people who have had those experiences or form more of those experiences really struggle in terms of all kinds of chronic disease and mental illness. So yes, relationships are massively important. And we, as the adults in children’s lives, whether we are parents, or teachers, or grandparents, or coaches are responsible for those relationships.

Exposure to violence undermines the very integrity of DNA. It shapes the expression of DNA and relationships are really important to pay attention to.

Experiences within the family lay the foundation for healthy child and youth development. There is no question of that.


Dr. Mark Broussenko '07 and Dr. Debra Pepler speak to parents at the fourth edition of ParenTalks.

A child’s need for a secure base and a child’s need for safety and comfort are absolutely essential for survival. These attachment needs -- we used to talk about it only for infants --- these needs never go away. We, as adults need somebody who will comfort us and be supportive of us when we are struggling or just having a tired day and we need people who will back us up if we go out and risk and try something new or do a new venture and that’s what the two processes are. The child moves away and needs to know that they come back to safety if they have gone and explored something that is unusual and they need to know that there is a place to come when they are frightened, or afraid or angry that somebody will help them to stabilize.

A healthy relationship is one in which a child feels valued. And that’s tremendously important cause they won’t go out and risk and they won’t try new things and be willing to make mistakes, which is how so many of us learn all the time – unless they feel valued, unless feel that they can return and not be judged.

They need people to support them, to learn a wide range of skills and healthy relationships enable them to do that. We scaffold, we support children as necessary, as they move through childhood and adolescence and learn all of the things that they have to learn.

We also need these relationships to not add stress to children’s lives. So, these relationships need to be ones where children can feel safe, deeply safe in coming home and not feeling destabilized and criticized and at risk of being harmed. They also help to buffer the stresses that are inevitable in life.”

Dr. Mark Broussenko '07 and Dr. Debra Pepler speak to parents at the fourth edition of ParenTalks.

Below are some quotes from Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07 MD, during the question and answer portion: 

“These relationships are going to be enduring. The relationships of the family unit, even if the family eventually breaks up or if there are changes, those parent-child relationships are enduring and often life-long.

The way that you treat your two-year-old is going to continue onto being the way you’ll treat your four-year-old is going to continue onto being the way you’ll treat your 14-year-old. There is this idea that once my kids are older, they’ll be able to understand what I am doing more and we’ll be able to talk like adults, I generally never have seen (that type of transformation).

It’s a learned behaviour and it’s a learned power dynamic and if that power dynamic starts off being conflicting and hostile, it’s going to continue being conflicting and hostile, irrespective of your best intentions.

If there is ever conflict in your inter-personal life, if you want your sons or daughters to deal with it in a positive way, I would suggest that you model how to deal with it positively and if you want them to intervene, then I would suggest that you model how to intervene. And if someone is being mean to someone else and you could do something about it ---  do it --- because why are your kids going to do it if you are not going to do it.”

The recorded version of ParenTalks is available here.

The next edition of ParenTalks at SMCS will take place on Thursday, February 6, 2020