- This is the second in a two-part series
- Read the first part: How to broach tough topics with your kids
Last week, we explored how parents can talk to their kids on various sensitive subjects, from curfews and consequences, to make-up and body shaming. The consensus from the psychologists we spoke to was a ‘talking rather than shielding’ approach. Parents often struggle to start a conversation with their kids on subjects that could be sad, scary or serious in nature. But experts insist that doing so is necessary to adequately help your little ones deal with all the difficulties life could fling at them periodically at some point in their life.
This week, we ask experts how to take forward a conversation on some tough topics of life, including helping kids navigate a big transition in the family such as their parents’ divorce or the death of a loved one, and lessons on body safety...
1. Sex, body safety and consent
It is of great importance to raise this topic with your child because either you do, or someone else will. As parents, you have a responsibility to provide your children with the facts around sex and body safety. If you don’t have these conversations with them, they will get to learn about it on the playground or via social media – sources that might not necessarily hold the same values as you do. Children need to know about their rights when it comes to their own bodies and how to protect themselves.
It is important to start with the basics, such as how no one should be touching them without their permission. A proactive and preventative approach is key. Parents often wait until their children ask them about sex because they don’t want to ‘plant a seed’ or ‘give them any ideas’, but this is a common myth. Children who are not educated around the topics of sex and body safety are in fact more vulnerable and at higher risk of falling prey to predators.
Even though your family may have very clear values, and be surrounded by a community where values are held very high, your children may still be exposed to others’ viewpoints on sex, and you will need to equip them with information to be prepared for any eventuality.
As with self-defense, we teach our children techniques to protect themselves ‘in case they have to use them’. If our children find themselves in life-threatening or difficult situations, they will know how to defend themselves. The same principle then applies to sex and body safety – parents need to be proactive about equipping children with the necessary information if they are ever put into an uncomfortable situation.
Children can be taught about body safety before two years of age – before they are verbal. The topic can be introduced during bath time where they are taught the names of their private parts, just as they are taught body parts such as "knees" and "toes". The earlier parents start having these conversations, the less awkward it will be for both parent and child when questions crop up about the subject.
The notion that ‘you should have the conversation as soon as your child asks about it’ is outdated and very risky. The truth is, your child may never approach you on the subject of sex, which means that they then learn about it through their peers or on social media platforms. This also makes them easy targets for predators. Children should be taught about sex from a young age and this should be done in an age-appropriate fashion (e.g. using children’s books as a medium for explaining sex to younger children).
How to start the conversation
It is important to highlight that parents should be having multiple conversations with their children about this. We know children learn through repetition and the more you speak to them about these topics, the more likely they will stick.
Parents also have the opportunity to have these conversations anchored in their own values, so that the first bits of information their children are receiving are value-based.
Take on a non-judgemental position of curiosity. It is important to adopt a stance of openness in order to be approachable and make your children feel comfortable speaking with you about these difficult topics. Give your children the message that you are always available to have these conversations if and when necessary.
When initiating difficult conversations with your child, acknowledge the awkwardness. Preface your conversation with: ‘I understand that this is an awkward conversation to be having and that it makes you feel uncomfortable, but the truth is, we need to speak about these things…’ Be open to hearing their points of view too. Make sure to have the conversation in person, avoid doing so over WhatsApp or Messenger.
By having the conversation in person, you are allowing your child to get a sense of your tone (which is caring, genuine and firm). This will prevent any miscommunication from occurring and you will be able to read how much information your child is absorbing and whether they are comfortable with having this conversation in the first place. And allow space for circling back – often these conversations may need to be continued and it is important to be able to check-in with your child afterwards (e.g. ‘We had quite a heated conversation yesterday, and I understand that this is a difficult topic for you, but I want you to know that I am always here to hear your concerns or thoughts about this’).
What areas to focus on/avoid
Focus on the language used: Refrain from using language such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ touching as this will make a child feel ashamed if someone has touched them inappropriately. Rather speak to your child about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ touching and explain that nobody should touch certain parts of their body without their permission. To be clear about what their private parts are, you can say to your child: "nobody should touch you on the parts covered by your bathing suit, neither should you touch anybody on the parts covered by their bathing suit".
Avoid using threats: Children should feel comfortable to speak with you about such topics so it is important to refrain from threatening or frightening them with statements such as: "if that ever happens to you, I won’t let you go out with your friends again!"
Refrain from becoming emotional: Try remain calm when having such conversations and communicate your message in a caring yet firm manner. Check-in with yourself before you have that difficult conversation with your child to make sure that you are feeling grounded and ready to deal with their possible resistance to the topic at hand. Be sure of your stance when it comes to these topics and clarify it with your spouse if need be, to ensure that you are both on the same page when it comes to your family values.
How to address kids’ questions/ fears on the issue
Be aware of your own attitude towards body safety and sex: It is important that you are conscious of your own feelings around these topics and that you do not project any of your fears onto your children.
Spend quality time with your child every week, so as to create a platform for them to share their concerns with you.
Share a journal together: Invite your child to share a journal with you, where you can write to each other and they can share any concerns, which they’d like to speak with you in person about, in the journal first.
Acknowledge and validate their feelings: don’t assume that you know why your child is feeling guilty about something that happened at a birthday party. Rather be curious, for example: ‘I can see that you are feeling uneasy about what happened at the party, what is making you feel this way?’.
Avoid shutting them down: If your child asks you ‘what is sex?’ see it as an opportunity to experience a learning moment with your child where you can share information with them (age-appropriately) on the subject.
— Advice courtesy of Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia
2. Tolerance and compassion
The world can seem a scary place, especially to kids. More often than not, some media highlight the negative aspects of our species over the positive ones and it could feel that the world is full of intolerance, misery and violence. Of course, this is not a balanced view. The majority of people are good and just trying to do the best they can, regardless of their background, gender, race or creed. So how do we protect our children from too much exposure to what could feel frightening while at the same time ensure that they begin to understand that the world is a complex place?
Tolerance is a quality most people admire in another person. It means that an individual understands diversity and respects and accepts that others might live their lives in a different way. Fundamentally, developing tolerance in your child is about showing tolerance yourself. Be the person you want your child to be and practise what you preach. If you don’t want them to be negative and cynical, don’t be negative and cynical around them. This may sound easier said than done, but it is possible for us all to reframe how we say things, especially around our kids.
Adults find it easy to get caught up in negativity, probably because life is not always a bowl of cherries and can sometimes be a truckload of lemons. However, moderating our responses and keeping things in perspective can help kids to see that positivity and resilience are more likely to result in solutions.
Teaching tolerance really needs to start early on in a child’s life for it to become embedded into their own behaviour. Learning how to share with others as a toddler, managing anger when things don’t go our way, showing resilience when times are tough, being kind, fair and thoughtful and respecting people from other cultures and backgrounds are all part of this. Giving your child this guidance is like giving them a gift. It will see them through life and they, in turn, will re-gift those solid values to their own children. And 2019 being the Year of Tolerance in the UAE gives us adults the perfect opportunity to start conversations with our kids and role model those values in every aspect of our daily lives.
At the same time, we need to protect children from seeing too much too soon. It is wise to monitor what your child is seeing or reading when it comes to world events. Very young children might become frightened by stories of violence – they don’t have the emotional capacity to process the information in a reasoned way, so it’s a good idea to shield them from things that could upset them. Of course, as kids grow up, they become much more worldly wise, so don’t shy away from questions they might have, but be prepared to explain in a way that links back to those values you want to instil in them. Talk openly about compassion and explain and model the idea of empathy.
Books are also a great way to help you deliver these messages. Both in fiction and non-fiction, there are some great titles out there to help children of all ages understand social issues. Reading them together, exploring characters and situations, will give you a way to develop conversations around issues such as racism, poverty, social background, and gender. Equally, it can help them explore responses to difficult situations by looking at how characters, real or imagined, tackle them. It will also have the added bonus of enhancing their literacy and give you both a chance to spend some quality time together. Whether you read to a small child or read the same book as your teenager is studying at school, it gives you the chance to listen, talk and keep talking (there’s that motto again!)
There is no one-size-fits-all advice when it comes to parenting. Every child is different, even within sibling groups, and that means it’s really important for parents to feel empowered about making the right decisions at the right time.
— Advice courtesy of Russell Hemmings, a life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist
3. Healthy technology use and online safety
Technology is here to stay, so it is key for parents to set boundaries and relevant limits to ensure children learn how to use technology as a tool, rather than become a slave to it in all its various forms, particularly where social-media platforms are concerned. Along with the many positive aspects to technology, it also comes with safety risks that we all need to be aware of – from social media posts to online gaming and cyberbullying, nowhere is online exempt from potential dangers.
All children – no matter their age – should be regularly supervised and monitored when using technology. Most teenagers nowadays will have an online presence, so it’s really important to discuss the many risks involved with social media platforms and posts, whether it’s Whatsapp, Snapchat or Instagram. Parents need to remain as clued in as their children are if they are going to be able to highlight the dangers and set relevant boundaries.
How to start the conversation
Be honest and clear about how technology can be healthy and progressive and how it offers so many opportunities and experiences, and then provide a clear and concise explanation about how technology can also have its drawbacks and limitations. Try to provide examples of potential risky scenarios and the right course of action to take, to help them better understand what they are up against.
What areas to focus on/avoid
It’s essential that parents warn children about the importance of privacy when using technology and the inability to monitor and limit the access people have to information once posted. Act as a role model by demonstrating a healthy technology usage as well. Focus on the necessity of personal interaction and the use of technology as a benefit and tool, and not as a substitute for communication and dialogue. Focus on the need to ensure a healthy balance between virtual interaction and physical interaction.
Address children’s questions and fears on the issue with honesty and facts. Do the research on the risks together and develop a plan that you are both happy to stick to in order to ensure a healthy and safe use of technology.
4. Life changes such as separation, divorce, illness and death
Children are extremely perceptive and know when something is not right. It’s very important to talk to them about death and illness to avoid any confusion, fear and anxiety. It’s also vital to reassure them that whatever happens, they will be supported and are not alone.
Honesty is key – kids need to know when the event has occurred. Otherwise, they may hear about it from elsewhere, which can cause a sense of the unknown and feelings of fear, betrayal, confusion and anger.
How to start the conversation
With honesty about what has happened and with clarity so they too can work through it and obtain closure. Use the correct words, for example, ‘Your uncle died this morning’, and explain what death means. Simple and straightforward statements such as ‘your mum and I are getting a divorce from each other’ are far better than using terminology like ‘your mum and I are going to live away from each other’, which can cause ongoing fear or create false hopes and a lack of closure. Be open with them and help to validate their emotions. Emphasise on how you too are feeling the same emotions, such as ‘this is a hard time for me too’ or ‘I am missing your uncle too’. Always try to present information in clear, simple language.
What areas to focus on/avoid
Focus on reassurance and help to normalise their fears and concerns but avoid minimising their emotions. Let them know that you too may be sad or distraught about a loved one’s passing or illness as this will allow them the space to express their concerns in a safe place. Before you start the conversation, acknowledge how it will elicit uncomfortable feelings within yourself as well. Try not to rush the conversation as this can leave many questions unanswered and cause yet more fear and anxiety. Ensure enough time to have the conversation in a quiet and private place, away from any distractions.
Tell them when the separation or divorce will happen and reassure them that both of you love them and will always be their parents. Let them know that staying together is taking away from your ability to be a good parent but recognise that there will be confusion and anger – it’s crucial that parents acknowledge this and validate it.
Do not say ‘it will be OK’, as for the child who has just found out their parents are getting divorced it is not OK. By seeming to minimise the impact of the situation you will only seek to remove their ability to express their emotions in a safe space.
Avoid placing blame on anyone and do not involve the children in the finer details of the divorce – quite often kids are exposed to the parents’ anger and disappointment and are used as a tool to hurt each party. This leaves the children as collateral damage, which is extremely distressing for them and will have serious repercussions on their ability to have a healthy relationship with either parent in the future.
Be mindful of when and how you break the news to your children – it is something they will remember for a long time and will, understandably, be a traumatic moment in their life. Always try to tell siblings at the same time. It’s not fair to let one child carry the burden of a secret alone. It will also cause immense hurt and resentment among the other children when they find out.
How you manage the pain, hurt and suffering caused by the loss of a life or the loss of a family unit as you know can be a life lesson and one that you can all get through in a supportive manner.
How to address kids’ fears on the issue
Honesty is key but remember to explain and discuss the situation in an age-appropriate manner. Be factual, non-judgmental and reassuring. Normalise their fear of death and acknowledge that we all die at some point but how you plan on living a long and happy life.
— Advice courtesy of Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai