A Conversation: Navigating Difficult Conversations with your Kids
After conducting several workshops to parents, counsellors and caregivers on topics like Teen Sexting, Navigating Social Media, Pornography, Anxiety, Attention Disorders and the impacts of ongoing technology I have often been left with the question: Howdo I talk to my kid about these subjects?
As a family therapist I have had many, manyconversations with children as young as five, teens, parents and counsellors surrounding these issues. If you have attended any of my workshops you will know that the key to reaching kids lies in the ongoing conversation parents initiate with their children. We can talk about the scary impacts, the what if’s and the fears of it all, but when all is said and done the relationship between parent and child (foster parent, grandparent, primary care giver included!) is what provides the resiliency children need to navigate this increasingly complex world.
For this reason, I will be writing a series of short articles to help caregivers navigate these sensitive subjects. I call this series ‘A Conversation’ with the hope of encouraging parents to try new and important conversations with their children. The hope is not to mimic the phrases word-for-word but to try out a few new (and often scary) topics with your kids.
As always, my articles will include research, parent and child feedback, training as a therapist and personal and professional experiences. Topics to look forward to will include: 5 Helpful Hints on How to Start the Conversation, Pornography, Teen Sexting, Cyber Bullying, andInternet Safety.
I look forward to starting this conversation with you!
Experience Change Counselling
The teen culture surrounding sexual expression and expectations has changed drastically since the 90’s. With almost unlimited access to technology comes big, powerful, and instant change. Those of us who grew up as teens in the 90’s (or earlier) learned to navigate relationships through hand written letters, folded nicely and passed along friends. Now the messages come through phones or tablets. At first glance this doesn’t seem all that different. Both create needed distance to risk vulnerability, both use emoji’s (hearts, wink faces, smiles), and both lack the maturity to initiate relationship face to face. Unfortunately, there are two MAJOR differences between then and now.
1. Instant results with impulsive minds
Instead of reading a note written on paper and tucking it away to write back later, cell phone messages can be instant. You read the message and can reply without much thought. The time between writing (or snapping) a response on cell phones is gone. This is very unfortunate for tweens and teens as their brains need time to process decisions and troubleshoot. Between the ages of 13 and 17 years our brains are particularly vulnerable to impulsivity. This makes it even more important for children of this age to take time, write, review and rewrite responses.
2.Online privacy does not exist
While hand written notes weren’t exactly private they generally stayed within your circle of friends. Media messaging is not private and is not time limited. Once you send a message it is no longer your property. It feels private but is not. Once the message is sent it is now public, can go viral and can stay on the internet forever.
The Perfect Storm
Teens do not have the capacity nor the brain development to be able to assess a situation, wonder what the consequences are in the future and make a decision out of this information. Instead their brain will priorities exploring boundaries, relationship rules and try to find a place in the world. This creates a heightened need for deep and powerful yearnings such as belonging, freedom, and connection.
As you can see, this combination of impulsivity, yearnings and lack of privacy creates the perfect storm.
This perfect storm becomes a hurricane when sexual exploration goes online. Especially when a teen is willing to send, receive and distribute images and videos with explicit sexual content. It is important to note that sending, receiving and forwarding such images and videos falls under ‘possession and distribution of child pornography’ under the Canadian Criminal Code.
Yes. Possession and distribution of child pornography. This is illegal. This is serious. While it makes perfect sense as to how a teen can get caught in this perfect storm the results of teen sexting are not to be ignored. Teen sexting can result in a criminal record, anxiety, depression, isolation, expulsion or much worse. In extreme cases suicide ideation and jail time.
What do I do?
Parents need to be initiation conversations with their teens about appropriate cyber etiquette. Etiquette always includes boundaries. This is now essential to healthy parenting. No longer is it ok to stop at the sex talk. Parents should be adding in appropriate sexual exploration boundaries, pornography use (see previous articles) and sexting.
If your teen comes to you with an image someone sent them do not view the image. The image is child pornography and it is illegal to view. Instead:
- Advise your child to send a message letting the sexter know that they do not appreciate the image/video/sext request and if this continues they will have to report them
- If the images/videos/requests continue let your child know they need to report it to an adult (yourself, school counsellor, principle, the police non-emergency line or Community Police Office (CPO) in your area).
Inform your teen:
Sending nude or semi-nude photos of yourself to anyone is illegal
Receiving nude or semi-nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal
Forwarding or keeping nude or semi-nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal
Let them know what might happen if they are charged and have a criminal record:
- Inability to cross the boarder
- Difficulty getting a job (criminal record check)
- Difficulty getting into some colleges or universities
- In extreme cases: Inability to go to parks or be in public areas where children reside and/or jail time (in Queensland state, more than 450 child pornography charges were laid against 10- to 17-year-olds)
Finally, as mentioned in my previous article, there is president in the courts pointing to the responsibility of the parent to be monitoring devices and teaching children appropriate boundaries and behavior on and off line. You are responsible for what your child is doing online. When speaking to families about this, parents often state that it is not their device so they have no right to enforce monitoring. That is not how the court sees it. It does not matter if the device was a gift, your child paid for it themselves, or a co-parent gave it to them, the legal guardian(s) are expected to take the safety of their children seriously, and this now includes adressing teen sexting.
If you feel stuck and have questions I encourage you to reach out. This can be a very difficult conversation to have with your kids. Find a local counsellor (http://bc-counsellors.org/counsellors/) or contact your local police through the non-emergency line or walk into your community police office and ask an officer.
I have full faith in you. You can do this!!
Alisha Stobbe; RCC
Marriage & Family Counsellor
See previous Articles:
- Parenting in a Media Saturated World
The world where children have access to shows, games, instant messaging, pornography and skype is an intense world to be a parent. This world, the one with reality and virtual reality, is foreign to most parents. Sure, we’ve navigated it ourselves as young adults, learning what it means to create dating profiles, Facebook accounts, and the overwhelming information while internet browsing but parenting in it is a whole other beast.
How do we parent in a media saturated world? The first step is to be intentional about how we choose to guide our children in appropriately use of technology. This can be difficult because many parents did not grow up with technology in their pockets. We were never taught how to navigate our young and impulsive social lives, boundaries, repairs, and sexual exploration online. For many, there is a big gap between what we have experienced as children and what our children are experiencing; often leading us feeling inadequate when approaching this subject. I want to encourage those of us who fit this demographic of parenting to take a deep breath and know that we do not have to understand everything about technology to have this conversation well.
Know Your Basics
First, it is important to know that as the parent of a minor (a child under the age of 18) we are responsible for our child’s technology use. This includes misuse. If fact, courts have found parents liable if they did not limit or supervise their child’s actions. It is now your job to guide your child in the appropriate use of online profiles (Facebook, Instagram…), online ‘chat’ conversations (texting, Snapchat, WhatsApp…), online privacy (hacking, impersonations, identity theft…), online bullying and online sexual exploration and expression (pornography and sexting). In order to do this, you need to have access to this platform. For this reason, I advise parents to openly monitor all the devices their children are using.
Openly Monitoring Devices
It is tempting to want to monitor your child’s devices without letting them know. This way you can avoid the awkward conversation and really see what they are up to. This backfires in big ways. I have sat with too many parents who have done this and when their child steped over the line they were stuck. Do they now tell the child they have been eavesdropping? How will this impact the relationship? Will they ever trust me again? As a counsellor I have experienced many parents who waited to long to intervene and take the opportunity to parent in this sphere because they felt the cost was to high. This can have devastating impacts that may include legal action or child predator invasions.
When you choose to openly monitor your child’s devices you are building trust instead of tearing it down. Liken this scenario to your parent reading your diary. Doesn’t feel good. In fact, it can break trust in the relationship all together. When you choose to openly monitor your child’s devices you are letting them know that they have parents in all aspects of their life and that they do not have to navigate very complex, ethical and personal dilemmas alone. You are communicating to them that they are not alone.
I know what some of you are thinking, “Ya, easy for you to say. You don’t know my child. They would never let me do this!”. Let me be clear. Your child Will Not want your eyes on their screens. Some deep and healthy desires in childhood are independence and freedom. They will want to preserve this. But this is not a matter of ‘letting them’ do anything. As the parent YOU are responsible (personally and legally) for their activity on their devices. Even if your child bought their device with their own money you are the legal guardian of the minor and your guardianship extends to their devices.
So, make this is non-negotiable. Be clear with them, if they have access to devices they will be monitored. If they refuse, then they do not get access to their devices.
How do I Start this Conversation?
I suggest sitting your child (or children) down to have a ‘family meeting’. If your children live in two separate households try your best to be on the same page as the co-parent before this conversation. If at all possible have all parents (mom, dad, step-parents) in the room at the same time to set the ground-rules. Ideally you have this conversation the moment your child starts using devices (approximately one third of preschoolers use tablets unsupervised). Likely your child has been on devices and unmonitored for some time. This will make it more difficult but more important to start the conversation now.
A conversation example might sound like this:
It has been brought to our attention that we need to start monitoring your devices (phone, computer, iPad etc.). Not because you have been doing anything wrong but because as your parents we would like to be more involved in your life and need to be parenting all aspects, and this includes online. So, we will be sitting down with each of you individually to go through your phone and computer (iPad etc.) once a month at a time of our choice. There will be no warning. We will expect that at this time you will guide us through the different APP’s and sites you are using and we will be checking that your internet history is not deleted. Also, we will be installing monitors that will flag us if questionable sites arise. Our hope is not to read every text or conversation you have with your friends, but the conversations you are having should be kind and considerate. I know this might feel shocking. I want you to know though that everything you do online is not private already. Even when it feels private it isn’t.
What to Expect
As stated in my previous articles, your child will likely not have the response you are hoping for. Instead of staying in the room and having a back-and-fourth conversation they will likely go into coping such as fight, flight or freeze. Some will have very large expressions (swearing, throwing things, tantrums). Some might show anger and threaten. Some might try to negotiate (none of my other friends’ parents’ do this!). While others might freeze (go silent) or flee (walk out of the room and slam the door). Often it is a combination. I encourage you to allow your children to have whatever response that comes up. If it is an inappropriate response (damage self, others or property), approach the behavior after they have calmed down – often a few hours later.
Check your expectations before going into the conversation and don’t make it about a witch hunt. Focus on parenting your child’s virtual reality well from this day forward.
Hold Your Boundaries and Follow Through
After you have had a conversation with clear expectations of monitoring all devices with your children be sure to follow through. In order to make it easier on you and them be consistent in following up on their devices regardless of whether you wonder if inappropriate activity is occurring. The monthly (or weekly) check sets a pattern they come to rely on. If checking is inconsistent and you forget a month or two your child’s anxiety will raise when the subject is re-approached. When parents consistently follow through I have known children to feel relieved. They now have an excuse to tell their friends that they can not participate in online activity that would get them in trouble. It gives them an ‘out’.
This conversation can be very difficult. Some parents find it helpful to utilize the support of a family therapist to start this conversation, especially when there are multiple homes involved. I want to encourage you to reach out and get the support you need to start this conversation.
I wish you well on your parenting journey!
If you would like to book a group presentation surrounding this subject visit www.experiencechange.ca for more information.
Approaching a conversation about pornography with children ages 12 to 17 is challenging for the most solid, trained communicator. It involves initiating a conversation that you can almost count on being awkward. Whether your teen will respond with complete silence or have what might be viewed as a toddler-type melt down (throwing things, slamming doors, yelling and calling names) starting a conversation about pornography is now an essential building block of healthy parenting.
What the Experts Say
It is now indisputable that pornography use among youth leads to negative impacts. In fact, the American College of Pediatricians states that pornography use among this age group creates “negative emotions, psychological and physical health outcomes. These include increased rates of depression, anxiety, acting out and violent behavior, younger age of sexual debut, sexual promiscuity, increased risk of teen pregnancy, and a distorted view of relationships between men and women” (2015). They encourage health care providers to warn patience about its use and provide resources for treatment. Many other research studies have found that viewing pornography at a young age is also linked to increased sexual aggression, dating violence, negative sexual attitudes and self-concepts, body image, and social development.
Because pornography use can be detrimental to healthy development, parents need to be initiating conversations on this subject often. Ideally the conversation would have started around age 6 (see previous article A Conversation: Pornography (ages 5 to 11)), but most parents don’t breach the subject until much later, if at all.
If you are starting this conversation later, take heart, your aging children need their parents just as much now as they did when they were younger. It just looks different. Instead having no internet access outside of your gaze, limiting play dates, and pre-viewing the movies they watch your role now is to initiate a conversation about what they have seen and how it impacts them. Discuss the potential costs that might include: depression, anxiety, isolation, loss of friendships, dropping grades, inability to hang onto a girlfriend/boyfriend, unrealistic and disappointing sexual experiences. While your teen will likely not want to hear about the costs of viewing pornography it is important they know what they are choosing (or who they are choosing to date).
Possible Conversation Starters
As you have probably observed by now, children mature at different rates. I am not going to put age distinctions on the language you use to initiate this conversation. Instead, trust yourself and your knowledge of your kid and choose the language that fits for you. Possible conversation starters may include:
“I have not thought to monitor your devices for content use, but it has occurred to me that this is something I should be doing as your parent. I am responsible for protecting you, and this includes your devices. How do you feel about this?”
“I read about really negative impacts of viewing pornography the other day, like how it increases depression, anxiety, it’s harder to make friends… and thought I might check in with you about what you think about porn?”
“I am sorry I have not talked about this sooner with you, but we need to talk about viewing sites that are appropriate and inappropriate”.
Remember Your Goal
There are many ways to start this conversation. The goal is to start the conversation. Not to have a half hour talk about the terrible possibilities that may occur. It is very important you do not go into this conversation with the hope of finding out if your child is viewing pornography. They will likely not tell you, and will run for the hills if they sense this is your end game. Some things to keep in mind:
- Let your kid know you are responsible for their health and well being and that pornography is a part of that responsibility as a parent
- Do not expect an adult-like response. Your child will likely respond in a primal, survival way the first few times you breach this subject (fight, flight, or freeze)
- Give lots of space and room for them to have their response, without demanding a two-way conversation
- Let them know you will be bringing up this conversation from time to time in the future
If you start this conversation well and continue to bring it up, you shouldn’t be to surprised if your child eventually approaches you to talk about pornography. Finally, I must re-recommend a review of the 5 Helpful Hints on How to Initiate Difficult Conversations With Your Kids. Without the basics, your might be doomed before you start.
Experience Change Counselling