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Tackling tough topics with teens needs ‘courageous conversations’

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At some point in their lives, most parents will probably type “How do I talk to my kids about sex?” into an internet search engine. However, experts at a recent webinar warned that depending on the internet is not enough when it comes to talking to teens about sex, sexuality, pornography, drugs, alcohol, prejudice, violence, puberty, and other difficult topics.

More than 600 people registered for the webinar, hosted by the Chevrah Kadisha social services department, with many more watching on Facebook. This shows how many parents are looking for answers when dealing with these difficult questions. The Chevrah Kadisha also launched its new e-book, Courageous Conversations: Helping Teens to Talk and Listen, which includes advice from 22 local and international experts.

All of the experts on the panel said that avoiding ‘taboo’ topics with children and teens was a recipe for disaster, since the youngsters would then turn to other sources for information, which could lead them onto dangerous paths. Furthermore, “addressing the tough stuff makes our kids feel safer, it strengthens our bond, and teaches them about the world,” said educational psychologist Ashley Jay. “If these conversations begin at home, it lays a foundation for children to recognise situations that may be inappropriate. This makes them able to speak up.”

She emphasised that feelings don’t scare children – it’s being left alone with those feelings that scares them, no matter how old they are. These conversations must not be lectures, but rather a space where ideas are exchanged and the parent becomes an ‘active listener’. “This means lot of eye contact, follow-up questions, limited interruptions and communicating as clearly as possible.”

In addition, it’s important that you “be clued up”, as children and teens often have more knowledge than the adults do. At the same time, “it’s okay to not always have the answers in the moment. Be honest that you’re learning too, and challenge your own generational biases and prejudices.”

Clinical psychologist Yael O’Reilly said that “studies show that having honest, open, appropriate conversations with our kids about difficult topics actually leads to safer behaviour. Silence gives our kids the message that we’re not a ‘safe landing’ for them.”

When approaching these issues, “we first need to understand the needs of the generation that we are parenting,” she explained. “Teach through connection – that’s the golden principle for this generation. The approach of ‘you will do as I say’ no longer has the weight it used to. We have to be actively curious, engaging, and always working on meeting our kids where they are in order to form a trusting relationship.”

Have a “stacked approach”, she advised. “Information is buildable – so start small, start young, and build it up from there. When it comes to pornography and drugs, we need to be starting these conversations when they are seven, eight, or nine years old, and building on them slowly and organically. This means we use everyday events as connection points with our kids. For example, when you see someone smoking a cigarette, ask them what they think. At a simcha, ask what it means to them when they see people drinking,” and so on.

When they are young, it’s about introducing the distinction between safe versus unsafe behaviour. As they get older, parents can start to introduce ideas in more detail. “With pornography, older tweens (10 to 12) need to have a basic understanding of what it is. This means that they have to have a basic understanding of what sex is,” she explains.

“The conversation can look something like, ‘We need to make sure that we know what isn’t safe online. Have you heard of porn or pornography? These are online sites for adults where there are pictures or videos of adults doing sexual things. These sites are for adults who want to look at them. They are never for children, but there’s no control over who clicks on them. So if this happens, what do we do? We close the page straight away and show it to mom or dad. Or if it’s being shown to us by someone else, we walk away and tell a trusted adult.’ So explain briefly what it is and what to do if they are exposed.”

Later on, this discussion can open up others about the negative messages embedded in pornography – “that it’s often violent or disturbing, sets unrealistic expectations of what sex is really like, and disregards the intimacy that comes with sex,” she explains. “When it comes to drugs, follow a similar format.”

Importantly, parents must create a ‘way out’ pact, where they tell their child that “you can call me at any time of the day or night and I will come and get you, no questions asked. This doesn’t mean you’re letting them off the hook, it just means that in that moment of vulnerability and potential danger you’re able to be a safe space for them.”

In addition, ‘no’ is only effective when balanced with ‘yes’. “Take stock of the ratio between yes and no in your home. Have some non-negotiables that are clearly communicated, but be open to negotiating everything else,” said O’Reilly. We need to remember that teens are going to make bad decisions. So expect it, “then set your relationship so that you can be the person that they can rely on in times of distress”.

Psychologist Dr Hanan Bushkin said that it was never too late to have these conversations, and that they should be part of general conversations about life. “Have conversations about values. When you say you should respect your body or others’ bodies, explain why. What are the values underpinning these instructions? The moment you explain the ‘why’, it makes the instruction much more palatable. Parents need to feel comfortable [about the topic]. If you’re uncomfortable, can you imagine what the message looks like?”

However, even if you’re not comfortable with the discussion yet, a factual conversation is better than nothing.

It’s important to portray sexuality as a natural part of being human – as natural as eating. “Explain that we all get hungry, and that’s not a problem. But we can direct that hunger at healthy or unhealthy foods or decisions. There should be no shame.”

“Teenagers are the most misunderstood people on the planet,” said Bushkin. “We treat them like children, but expect them to act like adults. Being a parent to a teenager is very hard, but being a teenager is hard too. This is an incredible opportunity to mould a child into an image you feel proud of. Having a front-row seat to your children growing up is an incredible gift and opportunity. Make your time count.”

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