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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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.
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!
This week I was the guest of honour at a prize giving ceremony in a local secondary school, which was a first for me. To be fair their super famous ex-teacher turned comedian speaker let them down at the last minute so they came to me because I’m cheap (free) have time (free again) and am seldom fazed by large groups of mixed ages. I really enjoyed myself and anyone who knocks young people only has to see an event like this to realise how splendid they really are! I’m sure not one of them would have wanted anything much to do with me if I had met them at the same age but older and wiser we got along famously.
The Head teacher had instructed me to be funny, tell some personal anecdotes and be inspiring in my address so being willing to please I did just that and I think I can safely say I amused many, moved many and even inspired a few too if the comments from older and young alike are anything to go by. I chose to talk about 3 inspirational quotes that have had meaning for me in my life which were selected from a short list of ten as time was finite. Afterwards several people asked me what the full 10 were so I promised my top 10 list of inspirational quotes – and here they are.
This is for anyone who loves a good quote but in particular the parents, students, staff and Headteacher, Jo Longhurst of Orleans Park School in Twickenham.
The three already quoted were:
‘It’s not how long you live but how much you live that counts’ – Eric Ray Evans, actor and mentor
“Things you own end up owning you” Chuck Pahlaniuk, Fight Club
“Where you stumble, there your treasure lies’ Goethe
My other seven are as follows – and I’m more than happy to talk about any in detail should you wish!
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” Eleanor Roosevelt
“There are two great ways of spreading light: To be the candle or to be the mirror that reflects it” Edith Wharton
“As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live” Goethe again
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” Mahatma Gandhi
Security is mostly a superstition, it does not exist in nature …Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” Helen Keller (Who as I’m sure you know was born blind and deaf)
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” Marcel Proust
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” Carl Yung
Put all together like that they seem to lose a little power but each one of them could form an excellent basis for a family chat some meal time. As if. I’d love to hear your inspiring quotes.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am always banging on about resilience, aspiration, independence and self-esteem and how interlinked they are in creating confident,capable and self-reliant young people. a couple of weeks back I had two great examples of all my beliefs made real-though nothing to do with me!
On a Sunday afternoon when their door banged I almost didn’t answer it expecting it to be someone trying to convince me to share their beliefs but I like to be polite. When I opened the door there was a youngish mum with her little 3-4 year old daughter beaming away at her side and clutching the handle of a big red plastic bucket. Mum asked if they could wash my car for me but unfortunately I don’t have one so I asked instead if they would wash my very dirty bike which only gets to see water when it rains. I wheeled it out into the front garden and filled up the bucket with hot soapy water and left them to it, though with the door ajar in case they needed anything. I could hear mum telling her daughter how to clean properly and they chattered away whilst they took their time and did a really good job. When I was called back I asked about payment and mum told me that it was entirely up to me as they were working for donations only as the little girl wanted a scooter and Mum was teaching her a lesson in how to get something you want! I was rather thrilled to be part of the plan, even if unintentionally, because it seemed to me a rather bold but exciting lesson to be teaching and learning although I can imagine many people would not approve. The mum said that she wanted her daughter to learn from the word go that getting the things you want is about the choices you make and the work you put in and not about getting someone else to do it for you or give it to you.
The second example from the same week is a bit of a cheat really as the young woman concerned is certainly no longer a child but I have known her since she was born so to me she will always be my friend’s daughter as well as a lovely young woman in her own right. Alice studied music at university and though a talented musician the work she really wants to do is to manage or produce for a choir or similar. Such jobs are like gold dust and of course there are no real qualifications for them, you simply have had to learn by doing and there is the catch-any job that needs experience rather than qualifications takes time and opportunity and will almost certainly not pay very well even if you are lucky enough to get your toe in the door. So Alice has worked in any job she can find that provides her with experience in her chosen field coupled with enough money to live but instead of ranting against the unfairness of the system that tends to keep out newcomers very effectively she helped to create a small opera company with talented singers actors and musicians to bring unusual opera to unusual venues. All the members of the group are professionals working together to create something unique and I was really impressed by the performance, the full house and Alice’s wonderful production. I have no doubt that both she and my little bike cleaner will go on to have the lives they choose in their different ways and they are both wonderful examples, at different ends of the growing up process, of what happens when parents and other adults support children to become fully self actualised and independent.