How To Talk to Kids about Sex
Some Top Tips for Parents
One of the areas I support schools with more than any other is Sex and Relationships Education or SRE. It is an area of concern to professionals and parents alike, both worry that keeps yet the best education they can have in a way that will not either encourage experimentation or put them off for life!
Many parents of boys simply don’t bother with any sex education as such, they explain the biological processes the ‘pipes and plumbing’ aspects but leave all the rest to school or the media. In this day and age more than any other, boys get a lot of their viewpoints and understandings about sex and relationships from pornography which is so readily available via the Internet, mobile phones, even the digital TV channels between 90 and 100! (If you didn’t know they were…
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After nearly 40 years spent working with schools September will always be the start of a New Year for me, January 1st is just another day in my diary, and this September has its unique set of stories as thousands of parents prepare their young people to move on with the next step in their lives. After the tense excitement of the exam results in August many families are creating survival kits for their son or daughter’s first term living away from home while others are worrying about how to get their child motivated enough to maintain or improve their grades over the coming year.
September is also the start of the empty nest syndrome for many, where parents and particularly mothers feel a sense of loss for the family life that was and their role within it once their children have left but there is a new syndrome to be found in Britain today for over 3 1/2 million families, the endless nest. More and more young people are staying at home with Mum and Dad even whilst they’re studying and a great many more return once their studies are over. Whether this is due to the high cost of housing as many newspaper reports suggest, to do with young people’s expectations of a certain standard of living or my own personal favourite the result of changes in the way young people are parented the result is often the same – a young adult sharing a space with the older adults who raised them.
When my writing partner Alison Baverstock and I decided to write a book for parents of 16 to 23 year olds it was clear through my workshops and conversations with parents that whilst some wanted to move on in their lives and felt held back by offspring who were determined to stay put or unable to move on themselves there were other parents who with the very best of intentions created a home environment that anyone would want to stay in -free food cooked to order, a well-stocked fridge and open bar, free rent, no expectations and responsibilities, a free taxi service and laundry and ironing on demand. A wonderfully comfortable home but one which can create a dependent or helpless young adult in order to satisfy a parents desire to still feel needed.
‘Later, a guide to parenting a young adult’ is both a handbook for parents who want to do the best for their young person by helping them become an independent and self assured adult as well as a comforting and encouraging support for parents to take the next independent steps in their own lives. So much so that Alison, who has experienced the bittersweet leaving, the joyful return and the endless negotiation of boundaries that comes with all stages of parenting young adults with her 4 children, though not all have yet made the step to full independence, is now backpacking around South America with her husband for their first holiday alone since they became parents.
Whilst Later doesn’t claim to make you into Alison it can help you negotiate boundaries in your shared home, prepare your young person for the world of work or study and potentially a family life of their own by offering wise insight and advice, top tips, case studies, quizzes and the ever popular question and answer sections.
You can read Alison’s blog of her trip so far on the later Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Later4parents)
An interesting moment of serendipity happened just as I was preparing to write this post in the form of an article from the BBC website all about bullying and over protected children. The gist of it was that children who have been over protected and thereby stopped from learning the ropes of social interaction by trial and error are more likely to be bullied than their more practiced peers. I love an article that can quote research and I particularly love an article that backs up what I have been telling parents for a long time but couldn’t prove.
I have been observing the details of this behaviour for so long I have even come up with my own name for it, ‘over-adulting’. To me there are several components of this behaviour but in essence it is all about adults wanting their child to be perfectly behaved around others. in case you think it can’t be done, it most certainly can as long as you are prepared to be constantly supervising everything they do. The downside is that children do not learn to manage complex social relationships or behaviour from adults telling them adult solutions to problems. They learn from watching, particularly interactions between other children slightly older than themselves, and from how others react to their choices. When we take away their choices by giving them ours and interfere in the consequences too learning simply doesn’t take place. essentially children learn many of the complexities of social relationships from a very young age so children who have not been allowed to mix freely with others of differing ages ( without hovering adults) before they are four or five may well struggle throughout their childhood and adolescence. This is particularly important for eldest and only children who don’t have an every day older child to learn from by watching and interacting with.
I work with parents in a range of ways both with individuals and with groups through my workshops, (www.gillhines.co.uk) and by far the most commonly presented problems I get to hear about are children and young people who simply cannot manage the cruelty of other children, the cat and mouse games, the push-me pull-you emotional behaviour and the compromise and negotiation required to play or socialise in groups. So profoundly lacking are the skills of many of today’s young teens that a new code of behaviour exists whereby nobody really tells anyone else the truth to their face. Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting they should be rude or insulting to anyone, I’m talking about far more simple truths.
I recently worked with a 14 year old girl who was devastated that her friends constantly made plans to do things she did not like. She felt that they were showing their disdain for her in making such choices and that her only options were to put up with their ideas or find new friends. She felt that her friends should take her thoughts and feelings into consideration, even though she wasn’t expressing them, and that by not doing so they were rejecting her as a friend. This poor young woman was exhausted by constantly trying to read the nuances of her friendship group and to find her place within it. Her lovely and caring Mum, who was her role model in life (her words not mine) was constantly giving her helpful advice such as”Why don’t you ask Grace why she thinks Emily said that?” everything was being done underneath the surface with lots of texts, each with their own subtext, social networking updates containing subtle clues to their writers true meaning and entire language of small gestures and verbal slights. The entire silent friendship group was doing the exact same thing, mind reading, asking others’ opinions and looking for subtle clues, slights and inflections everywhere. You may think this is normal teen behaviour in girls and whilst there is some truth in that viewpoint, the degree of silence and subtlety is far greater now than I have seen in the several other generations I have experienced.
Whilst this young woman’s ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ attitude was extreme I have seen similar distress in children as young as four-they simply have no idea of how to create meaningful shared experiences with others. I call it ‘red pencil syndrome’. when a child at home is playing with a sibling or parent and wants to use the much coveted red pencil the adult will either hand it over or create a fair system of sharing. When a child without an adult present wants the red pencil there is a good chance they will not get it. Simply telling children to think about others does not teach them how to do it-empathy is learnt through trial and error with reflection after the event.
My rule of thumb in dealing with children’s behaviour is that adults should back off but make sure the children know that they can choose to be with the adults if they wish. This does not mean that the adults will play with them or interact with them, simply that if they need to be somewhere to quieten down, feel safe or get a breather they can. When playing with other children they cannot come and ask an adult to sort out a problem for them but they can come and get a cuddle if upset. Even as I’m writing this I can imagine the horror on some people’s faces at the idea that children should be left to get on with it. If you are someone feeling that way then perhaps you are exactly the kind of parent I’m talking to.
I have some simple tips for helping children deal with the behaviour of others and the first and most important is simply “ask don’t tell”. When you ask a child a question their brain lights up like a firework, when you tell them what to do there is much less brain activity and what we are really trying to do is grow their brain. Questions might include;
“What could you do about it?” – And if they say I don’t know that is shorthand for ‘you do the thinking ‘.
” What are your choices right now?”- And always make sure you get several answers to the question by repeating it several times.
” What would you like me to do about it?” – This makes them use their brains but allows them to get the support they need.
My second tip would be to learn how to take your child through a process of reflection to enable them to learn. A good reflection session does not contain too much emotion, no child will answer honestly if an adult is angry with them or shows disappointment. Wait until any incident is over and everyone is calm again before reflecting on it. Reflection is where the true learning takes place so however uncomfortable it may be, however tempting getting back to normal might be remember that a good parent helps their child learn. Reflection sessions should not be about adults telling children everything they did or didn’t do, nor should they contain the word ‘why’ in relation to the child’s own behaviour. What we want them to notice is the chain of events that caused upset or hurt regardless of where that chain of events started. We also want them to consider how they could make different choices next time a similar event occurs rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past-we cannot change the past but we can change or influence the future.
And finally my third tip for helping children deal with the behaviour of others is to show sympathy rather than offering a solution. “Poor you, that sounds horrible” is sometimes all that is needed. If the child then asks for a greater involvement then offer to help them find their own solution rather than giving them yours.
Parents generally believe that they know their child better than anyone else in the world and of course they are right, no single person knows your child as well as you do but don’t be fooled into believing that this means you know everything about them because if they are in school, you don’t. you might hold the largest block of knowledge but you don’t hold all the knowledge. The biggest area in which parents do not know their child’s behaviour is when they are mixing with large groups of people without a parent present, it stands to reason they cannot possibly know this, but children change dramatically when they are with large groups particularly of their peers-they become social beings who manage complex social relationships and standing in groups using all manner of techniques and understandings that parents have never seen.
In schools we are constantly confronted by parents insisting that their child could not possibly have done this or that, could not possibly have said this or that, is not capable of this or that behaviour. We regularly have to deal with parents, sometimes many of them, who come to school determined to battle for their child’s rights because they believe some fundamental wrong has taken place because their child has told them so. If I had a pound for every parent who had indignantly said to me “are you calling my child a liar?” I’d be writing this from a villa somewhere hot and sunny right now. I’m not implying that parents are wrong, they are not, they really do know their child very well, but all of us when we give an account tell our story from one viewpoint only – even when there may be many others to consider. Parents may know their children very well but children also know their parents very well and they know how to tell a story to get the reaction they want, they know how to minimise their own responsibility and they know what their parents will believe.
At this time of year many children are starting school for the 1st time and many of these are starting secondary school for the 1st time. This brave new world will both accelerate and accommodate the child’s transition into young adulthood and with it the inevitable slow transit away from the established parent-child intimacy of previous years. It’s hard for parents to let their child go, especially when they still see the moments of vulnerability, insecurity and neediness that children exhibit in a loving, caring home but they need to recognise that most children at 11 are ready to go into a bigger arena and to explore all the other aspects of self, many of which parents have never seen in their child. Many parents overcompensate for the growing distance in family relationships by making themselves as indispensable as possible (whilst blaming it all on their child for being so needy, lacking independence, or being disorganised) by making sure they are the one to get their child out of bed every morning, to get breakfast on the table, to do the laundry and pack their bags, to make sure they have their lunch money, letters, home work and everything else. I am often asked by parents how to manage a disorganised teenager, how to make them take responsibility for themselves bt there is only ever one answer-don’t do it for them any more. I understand why people do it and I understand why teenagers don’t but rather than trying to break a difficult and well entrenched cycle it’s better off not to start it in the 1st place! When they go to big school it is the perfect time to expect them to start taking more care of themselves by simply letting them do it. All over the world there are children managing families at 11, going to work at 11, caring for sick relatives at 11. Some of these children are in our society too and though I would never support such huge responsibility for a child I mention it simply to remind us all that children are capable of tremendous things when they need to be so remembering to take their homework really shouldn’t be such a big stretch for them. However its not that much fun and so they will never do it (and neither would I have that matter) if somebody else is there to take up the slack and do it for them.
It’s hard to let children grow away from us, it’s hard to allow them to have a life in which we have no part and to accept that there are elements of who they are that we no longer know but the job of the parent is to help a child grow into a responsible and capable adult who can manage their own lives and relationships effectively and if it hurts to let them go maybe we need to look at our own needs for support at facing such a major life change for ourselves. A parent never stops being a parent but a child does stop being a child.
Photo: Mark Godwin, The Guardian
I’ve recently been watching filmed observation sessions of families being themselves, as far as they are able in front of a camera anyway, and I’ve found the experience really interesting and humbling for any number of reasons not least that these brave souls have volunteered to be filmed for no other reason than to help people like me have a little window into family life in all it’s diversity and richness. Some of the families have been just two people and the largest so far was eight people, some are quiet and gentle with each other, others loud or boisterous, some have strict codes of behavioral expectations others are quite ‘anything goes’, some seem relaxed and some seem stressy.
What everyone knows of course is that all families have their good times and bad and that even the tightest knit and supportive family has occasions when members have arguments or falling outs as well as others when events from outside the family cause tension and upset. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years working around resilience for children and what helps and supports the development of it and without any doubt how families handle those stressful feelings and events makes all the difference. Whether they help an individual contain and process their problems, whether they belittle or dismiss problems or whether they blow problems out of all proportion and over complicate matters may well set the pattern for a child’s future behaviour.
Today I’m having a bad day because yesterday I lost my diary or rather yesterday I realized my diary has been lost. After taking my house apart and phoning everyone I can think of who might be able to help me find it, I am trying to piece together the next two months of appointments, meetings, training sessions and bookings as well as trying to remember the last month in order to invoice and get some money in. I live alone and in the middle of last night I was overwhelmed in my sleepless concern and replaying of events by the need for some comfort. I really would have liked someone to help me get some perspective, some comfort, some reassurance. I wanted a family around me and all the things they bring.
Today watching another film of a family arguing, whining, criticizing and generally being a bit mean to each other I suddenly felt extremely stressed, just looking at it all from my already stretched and sleepless state. I suddenly wondered how it would be to be in that family and lose my diary or anything else for that matter. I doubt anyone would have understood the enormity – to me – of what had happened as everybody vied to receive sympathy and attention and gave none out. I suppose when it comes down to it living in a family is tough sometimes but so is living without one.
Over the past few months I’ve noticed a real change in the issues that parents have been coming for support with, particularly those parents I see privately. There was a time when most of the issues I was asked to support centred around kids who simply wouldn’t do what they were asked or told and kids who were rude or disruptive with their parents or siblings at home. Whether these issues have lessened or whether people are more willing to just put up with it I cannot say but more and more I’m being asked for support for children and young people who are anxious and fearful, children and young people who are finding it difficult to cope with the world they live in from the rough-and-tumble of school to the demands of boisterous siblings or just fear of the outside world and all the people in it.
Parenting children is always a balancing act between encouraging them to be independent and self-reliant and instilling in them a healthy respect and appreciation for the risk. Get it wrong and you may end up with a young person who by the time they are 14 or 15 is sexually active, drinking, smoking and using drugs, has little interest or respect for school and what it might offer and who will fight physically or verbally with anyone who tries to restrict their freedoms. These streetwise kids may feel that managing the difficulties and dangers of their world is what makes them special, doing what other kids may not be doing means they are braver and more grown-up, a leader not a follower in the world. How they got to be this way can be the result of many different experiences but the one thing they have in common is that they do not fully appreciate the potential consequences of the choices they’re making which is alas quite normal for a 14 or 15-year-old.
The other end of the continuum is a young person who finds it difficult to mix with others, shy and retiring or anxious about everybody and everything. A child or young person who constantly thinks about the negative potential consequences in anything, even a car journey can be full of danger as they visualise the car engulfed in flames and a walk to the shops is impossible when even their quiet neighbourhood hides knife wielding hoodies in every dark space. By the time a child reaches 11 or 12 the things they are afraid of tend to alter from the physical to the emotional and social so it is not unusual for a child who was overly afraid of traffic to become terrified of criticism or teasing, or just of getting it wrong in front of others. Fear of social inadequacy or mockery can take many different forms from school refusing to obsessive computer use or gaming, even obsessive study. The child who spends every lunchtime at school tucked away in the library working or researching may well be academically driven but they may also be avoiding as much social interaction as possible
It is not always easy to help a child or young person differentiate between risks that cause intensely painful feelings in the here and now and those that can impact on their life for ever. As I write I’m remembering a 14-year-old girl I met some time ago who was reflecting on why she had become pregnant after sex with a relative stranger whose name she did not even recall. When I asked her why she had not used a condom she looked at me open eyed and said “God that would have been so embarrassing!”
it is one of the key jobs of the parent to keep their child safe and this means keeping them close, restricting the choices and decisions they get to make for themselves until they can demonstrate the maturity of behaviour to be given more freedom. It also means teaching them how to manage the world they find themselves in and people they meet rather than trying to cushion them from all the blows and knocks that social interaction involves.
It might be hard to convince the 12-year-old boy who is regularly eating his lunch locked in a toilet stall that it doesn’t matter what other people think of him when he sits down in the dining hall because to him it matters enormously and if there is a way that he has found to avoid that hurt then he will take it.
Part of the role of a parent is to take a child’s fears and anxieties as they grow and put them into perspective for their child. Not listening or ridiculing their worries can alienate them from you but dwelling on their anxieties and rushing to their aid can make small things take over the world. How many children learn that they get the full attention of their parent/s when they relate how unfair others have been to them today? Or how difficult they are finding life? It may be during adolescence that the difficulties materialise but the ground work is put in place from a very early age. I’ve never met her parent yet who wants their child to be over anxious but I have seen first-hand how the parents fears get transferred to their child. Many years ago I had a friend who had experienced a violent attack which left her terrified of being out, even with others, after dark. At 5 her daughter was a confident child, bright and chirpy-the sort of little girl who chats about everything to everyone. By the time she was 7 she was terrified of being out of doors after dark which was difficult in the winter time when even a slight delay after school meant darkness, and by the time she was 8 she was terrified of anyone she did not know speaking to her or getting physically close to her. On a lesser note my sister has a phobia about wasps, which has lessened considerably over the years as her children have grown up, but when they were small she was overwrought and unable to stay still in the presence of a wasp and her little daughters would tease her about her fear. Now my very sensible grown-up niece is unable to eat out of doors in summer because of her own terror (against all reason as she is well aware) of wasps whilst her mother is pretty much fine!