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I was curious whether the Claudia Conway story was coming up in family therapy sessions, so I called psychologist John Duffy, who specializes in adolescence and anxiety (and is my podcast partner).
“Every kid was strictly talking about this,” Duffy told me Tuesday night, still at his office. “Some adults too. Every once in a while the narrative in here shifts entirely to one thing.”
This week, that one thing has been the Conway family.
I wondered not because the story’s particulars are all that relatable — former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is accused of sharing a topless photo of her 16-year-old daughter, Claudia, on Twitter after months of family drama including, at one point, Claudia tweeting that she was pursuing emancipation from her parents. (Although Duffy said parts of the saga feel extremely relatable to kids, especially the fear of having compromising photos leaked.)
I wondered because the Conways’ situation involves mental health and peer support and technology and privacy and all sorts of topics that young people are marinating in daily, and I wanted to hear how young people are talking about it all — and how parents might wade into those conversations.
Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of “The Depression Workbook for Teens: Tools to Improve Your Mood, Build Self-Esteem, and Stay Motivated,” told me parents have been reaching out to her this week with questions as well.
“How do they talk to their teens about abuse?” Hurley said parents are asking. “Is it fair for Claudia to put that stuff out there? Is this what TikTok is all about? What else might they be seeing that isn’t as high profile?”
To recap, a now-deleted photo of Claudia was posted to Kellyanne Conway’s official Twitter profile as a Fleet, a Twitter feature that disappears after 24 hours. On Monday, Claudia shared a now-deleted video message with her more than 1 million TikTok followers saying, “I’m assuming my mom took a picture of it to use against me one day and then somebody hacked her or something. I’m literally at a loss for words. If you see it, report it.”
On Tuesday, George Conway (Kellyanne Conway’s husband and Claudia’s father) tweeted a TikTok video of Claudia saying, “This isn’t forced. This is coming completely from me, Claudia. I have faith, and I know that my mother would never put something like that on the internet as well as me. We would never do that. ... Please do not incite hate or violence on my family. Please, no threats, no calls to authorities. I love my mom and she loves me.”
It’s tempting to tune out the whole sordid tale. But that may be a missed opportunity.
“A lot of kids relate to her,” Duffy said. “A lot of kids love her, in part because she shows that you can lean on social media and get a ton of support from other kids and other people. And in some ways, that’s a healthy instinct.”
Particularly when a lot of kids are isolated from friends and peers because of the pandemic.
“She gets tremendous support and some esteem-building,” Duffy said. “Most people are validating her point of view. Kids are showing me in real time all the comments — ‘You’re awesome!’ ‘We love you!’ ‘You deserve better!’ And that carries a kid for a while.”
But it comes with a significant downside.
“Nobody’s really giving her useful guidance,” he said. “She’s just hearing a lot of, ‘Yeah, your parents suck.’ And then there’s the trolling of her parents, and she’s with them and she doesn’t have any real safe space to be.”
Duffy said some of the teenagers in his practice post about the fights they have with their parents on Snapchat and TikTok. Some of them feel supported by the responses, some of them feel disappointed.
“It’s an issue of emotional safety,” he said. “I usually caution kids to have some sense of boundaries, to think about what you want to share about yourself and your family. Because now this whole (Conway) family is kind of wrecked by this — nobody more so than Claudia, no matter what the truth is.”
He tries to get kids thinking in more self-protective ways. “What do you think today is like for Claudia Conway?” “If this were your girlfriend, how would you feel?” “If this were your best friend, how would you feel?”
“I have no problem with kids turning to their community online,” Duffy said. “But part of my goal is to get kids to be more discerning about what they post. You’ve got to think about the line that crosses into overly personal or feels like, ‘Maybe somebody in a more professional capacity ought to be helping me through this. I’m going to hold off on posting this.’”
Hurley said she offers similar counsel to parents.
“I say that it’s important to acknowledge what they’re seeing and ask questions about how they feel about the videos,” Hurley said. “The more we listen and the more questions we ask — instead of lecturing or telling a bunch of stories — the more they can process their own responses. A gut reaction from many parents is, ‘Don’t watch too much of that; it’s negative, it’s not healthy.’ But they’re curious about it for a reason.”
She tells parents to open a conversation with, “How can you help a friend who is struggling at home?”
Or, Duffy said, just ask, “What have you heard about this Claudia Conway thing?”
“If you’ve had any reluctance about talking to your kids about any of this — about what they post online, about sex, about nudity — this is just being handed to you,” he said. “I’m sorry this is happening to this family. But for the skittish parents, this is a chance to talk to your kids, and you’ll learn something.”
Especially, he said, if you go light on the lectures and heavy on the listening.
“Every kid has an opinion on this, and it can make for some really rich family dialogue,” Duffy said. “Then, effectively, the message is, ‘We can talk about these things. You can come to me and we can talk about these things and I won’t freak out on you.’”
Which may be one positive thing to come out of this sad saga.