Tips on How to Talk to Your Kids About a Public Tragedy

school-shootings 2

school-shootings

{This is a post I had written for another blog right after the Newtown shooting. I thought it relevant to post here, now, because of yet another shooting that occurred today- the one in Oregon. When will this madness end????}

With all of the tragedies that have gone on in this country over the last decade, and especially the one that occurred this week in Connecticut, it is more important than ever that parents have an idea of how they should talk to their children if something bad happens. Every time I turned on the news today (and I’m sure it will be the same tomorrow too) stories of the Newtown tragedy were on. It will be all over the newspapers, it will be on the radio, and people everywhere will be talking about it. It is inevitable that at some point our children will hear about it in one way or another.
The first thing to remember is that YOU know your child best so you will know what will work for your child, but here are some basic guidelines:

1. Unless your child is about 7-8 years old, there is no need to bring it up unless they ask. No need to make your child anxious or scared about something they didn’t know about in the first place. Odds are, they will hear about it somewhere, but just in case they don’t, refrain from bringing it to their attention. Younger children may not be able to process the news properly, but again, you know your child the best so you will know what they can and cannot handle.

2. Be honest with them. If they ask about what happened, don’t lie and don’t sugar coat it. That won’t do anyone any good. I’m not saying that you have to give all the gory details, but tell them that something scary happened. Tell them there are bad people in the world who do bad things. Give them an idea of what the “bad thing” was, but don’t go into too much detail. You don’t want to make them any more scared or anxious than they already are. For example, with the Newtown incident, if a younger child asked about it, I might say something like, “A bad man went into a school and used a gun. There were people who were hurt and people who died. This man was not right in his head, but he is dead now because he used the gun on himself.” Word your explanation based on the age of your child and with regard to what you think your child can handle.

3. Reassure your child. Being honest is necessary and so we must also reassure our children. Again, don’t lie to them. Don’t tell them this will never happen to them or to anyone they know. Of course, odds are it probably won’t ever happen to them, but don’t promise or guarantee something you have no control over. Instead, tell them that you love them and that you will always do everything in your power to keep them safe. Do what you need to do to make them feel safe in the moment. If you child wants to sleep with the light on that night, then let them. If your child wants to help you lock the house up, then let them. Do what they need, within reason of course. You never want anything to step over the line into pathology.

4. Make sure you really know what your child is thinking and feeling about the situation. Ask them questions about what they heard, what they were told, what they saw, what they think, etc. You want to make sure that you have a full understanding of what their understanding of the situation is. Make sure they don’t have things mixed up and clear up any misconceptions that they may have. Validate their feelings. Let them know it’s okay to feel how ever it is that they are feeling. Never make them feel as if what they are feeling is silly or not justified.

5. Having this discussion is also a good jumping off point to review different safety procedures with your child. Talk about ways they can protect themselves and reiterate to them all of the things you do to help keep them safe. Review with them who are the safe people in their lives- family members, friends, police officers, firemen, teachers- whoever you deem as safe. Make sure your child knows about 911 and what to do if there is some kind of an emergency.

Remember, YOU know your child best. With that in mind, you will need to decide the what, when, where, and how when talking to your child. If the tragedy is something that affects them directly, the above tips will also apply, but this would be the time to get a professional involved as well. Find your child a counselor to talk to immediately so that the fear and/or anxiety that they are feeling doesn’t turn into something pathological.

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Let’s Keep Talking About Sex

Let’s Keep Talking About Sex…

So now on to another important topic: the abstinence vs. birth control/sex education debate. Let’s face it, solely teaching abstinence is not the way to go. It’s not realistic in today’s society. Look how well that went for Sarah Palin’s family! We need to be realistic about what is going on in the lives of today’s teens and preteens. More and more school systems are shying away from providing sex ed in schools so it is more important than ever that we are having these discussions at home! Abstinence should be discussed within the realm of sex education, but it should not be the only thing that people preach.

I am the mental health therapist in an inner city school system and it is absolutely appalling to me that they do not provide sex education of any kind to the students. I am in an elementary/middle school that has pre-k to 8th grade and they get NOTHING at all in any grade! Teen pregnancy is crazy huge in this city and it is also the STD capital of the US and they have no sex ed, are you f’ing kidding me? I kid you not- NOTHING.

I run middle school girl’s groups and inevitably something about boys, sex, pregnancy, or STD’s comes up almost every session! This puts me in a difficult position because I am technically not supposed to talk about “those kinds of things” without specific parental permission to do so. I have to have consent to have kids in my groups, but “sex stuff” requires specific permission. Now, by this time after reading all of my rambling, I’m sure you can guess that I talk about it anyway because someone has to! Parents are not talking to their kids about it at home and these kids are so grossly misinformed, I feel it would be unethical not to properly educate them, so I am willing to take the risk. Sorry, that was my 10 second soap box rant!

How are they misinformed you ask? Well brace yourself, because here comes the really crazy stories. You thought T-Rex threw me for a loop, wait until you read some of this stuff! Last year I had 3 girls in my group ranging from 12-14- all of whom were sexually active by the way (yes, having sex at 12. I told you to brace yourself). During one session something came up about sex being painful and blood, etc. Well, one of the girls who had previously told me that she had had sex with her boyfriend, told me she was still a virgin. I looked at her with a very confused look and said, “I thought you had told me you had sex with your boyfriend.” She said, “I have, but I didn’t bleed so I am still a virgin.” This was yet another, ‘are you f’ing kidding me’ moment that I have had since working in the schools. These girls were always putting so much emphasis on being a virgin and now I knew why! Oh boy, how do I have this conversation?

All of these girls thought that losing your virginity meant that you had “your cherry popped.” This particular girl had not bled when she first had sex so she thought she was still a virgin. I literally had to have an anatomy lesson with them. They had no idea what a hymen was let alone that they all had one! They also didn’t know… wait for it… wait for it… that females have 3 separate holes! They thought they only had 2- they had no idea that we have a “pee hole” and a “baby hole.” I nearly died when I realized that these girls knew next to nothing about their own bodies, yet they were having sex (with more than one person by the way).

After talking to many other girls, I realized that parents just aren’t talking to their kids about their bodies and sex. Most of the girls said that their mothers avoid the topic because they think if they talk about sex it will encourage the kids to do it. Not so! It’s just the opposite actually. The more you talk to and educate your kids, the more kids tend to stop and think and make more educated decisions. This is with anything; not just sex.
These kids know next to nothing about birth control and STD’s either. They are making the decision to have sex without all of the information they need to protect themselves. These girls were begging me to keep discussing this stuff with them. Finally, I had to do something! I asked them if they would be interested in having a class on this topic and they practically deafened me when they all yelled, “YES!” I talked to my principal, who thankfully was totally on board, and I called Planned Parenthood. They came to my school and did a FREE (yes, some things are still actually free) educational seminar on birth control and STD’s for all the 7th and 8th grade students. The kids really got into it and asked some really good questions, but hearing some of the questions really made me glad I had brought Planned Parenthood it to give these kids a much needed education.

Planned Parenthood is an amazing resource for kids and adults. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your child about sex, then make them an appointment at Planned Parenthood- their sex educators will do it for you or they will help you to do it. Planned Parenthood is everywhere and offers so many services and is a safe place for kids to go if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents. They are the reason I did not end up pregnant as a teen! When I was 16 and decided I was ready to have sex with my boyfriend, I went to Planned Parenthood and put myself on the pill. My mother didn’t need to know and I was able to take care of myself. After I went, many of my friends did too. We had like a little pill taking club at school- every day before lunch we would all go into the bathroom and take our pills together. So, I personally, am thankful to Planned Parenthood for many reasons.
So the moral of the story is that if you are a parent, it is your job to educate your children. If you don’t do it, it is very likely that they will be getting their information from their friends, which is almost always inaccurate! One of the only ways we can decrease the teen pregnancy and STD rate is to educate, educate, educate and to be open and honest with our children right from a young age. Once T-Rex and B-Man get a little older I will start to talk with them about things pertaining to sex (or maybe I will pawn that one off on my husband), hell they already always have their hands on their penises, but that my friends, is another topic all together…

Let’s Talk About Sex Some More…

Now that we’ve covered the anatomy part of things, let’s move on to the sex part. I have 2 boys: T-Rex is 5 and B-Man is 3 so my personal experience is with boys, but I’ve worked with kids all my life so I know a thing or two about girls as well. When I use the word “sex” I’m not just referring to intercourse; I also mean sexual things. Just wanted to clarify that.

            T-Rex has already asked me where B-Man came from because he remembers when “B-man was living in your [my] belly.” I didn’t tell him the whole sperm and egg thing or the whole parking the car in the garage thing (remember that joke from childhood?), but I did try to give him a realistic explanation that a 5 year old could understand. Don’t go the stork route or the he was a gift from Santa route- that’s just ridiculous and confusing. Tell your young children whatever you are comfortable with, but for fuck sake- make it realistic and believable! They will ask you where babies come from so save yourself a mild heart attack when they do, and have an answer prepared!

            Talking about sex at a young age is more important than ever. Girls are getting their periods younger and younger, kids are hitting puberty younger and having sex younger, and teen pregnancy is being glorified on TV. Having an open and honest discussion with your children, no matter what their gender, is one of the most important things you can do for your child. My mother had the whole birds and the bees talk with me when I was 10 because she wanted me to know the facts. Now if you knew my mother this would surprise the hell out of you! My mother is a tiny, old school Italian woman, who is VERY Catholic. You would think she would have avoided that topic like the plague, but not so! She is a smart woman and knew that I would get all kinds of misinformation from my friends and TV/movies. She is the reason I am such an advocate for sex education myself and I am eternally thankful to her for that!

            She always told me I could come to her with any questions about sex no matter how embarrassing, gross, etc. The woman was true to her word, too! In 5th grade I asked her what 69 was because I had heard the phrase at school and lo’ and behold she knew what it was and drew me a picture of a 6 and a 9 and explained it from there. I was thoroughly disgusted at the time, which I’m sure she was very happy about, but also that was the moment I realized I really could ask her about anything. Now don’t get me wrong- she did not support the notion of me having sex before marriage and basically told me that my very Italian Catholic father would kill me if I wasn’t a virgin when I got married, but she did still discuss birth control and STD’s with me because she wanted me to have all the correct information. It’s important for you to give your kids all of the information, even if it’s something you might not be comfortable with. No one can make an informed decision about anything without all of the pertinent information so educate your children ladies! If you don’t, someone else will and I can almost guarantee it will not be the correct information or the information you would want them to have! As parents, we have the power to be our children’s best teachers, so use that power wisely and whenever you can!

Let’s Talk About Sex

male femaland anatomy! Ok ladies, we all know how easy it is to talk about sex while sitting with our girlfriends drinking wine, but most of us find it difficult to broach this topic with our children no matter how old they are. When is it appropriate to start talking about sex, anatomy, etc. with our kids? The correct answer is as soon as possible! Now, I’m no sex education expert or anything, but if I wasn’t doing my current job, I would be a sex educator. Sex education is so important and not enough parents talk to their children honestly about it.
Now, I’m not saying that you want to talk to your 3 year old about the ins and outs of intercourse (I know, bad joke), but you do want to start labeling body parts by their correct names right from the beginning. Sure it can be embarrassing sometimes to say “penis” or “vagina” to your baby, but imagine the confusion for them if you start calling it a ding-a-ling or a cupcake or something crazy like that (and I work with kids so I’ve heard some crazy shit)! I speak from experience because we use an Italian slangy type word for referring to the backside (it’s a family thing) and my son confused the hell out of his preschool teachers last year when he told them his coolie hurt when he fell on the playground! He knew he had a penis because I had always labeled it that way, but it didn’t occur to me that calling his rear end a coolie could come back to bite me in the ass (I know, bad joke again)!
It’s also important to be honest with your kids about gender differences so that they clearly understand from a young age that boys and girls have different parts. This conversation may come before you plan on actually having it. I mean come on, how many of us have had our kids walk in on us or your husband/boyfriend while getting dressed or showering? Here is another area I can address from experience. When my now 5 year old son was 3 ½ years old, he came busting in on me in the bathroom as I was drying off after a shower. He looked at me wide eyed and said, “Mommy, where is your penis?” So I stammered out an explanation about me not having a penis because I am a girl and what I have is called a vagina. So then he follows up my strained explanation with this gem, “Well how do you pee then?” So I quickly reply with, “Mommy sits down. Now go play with your brother!” I had planned on having this conversation with him at some point soon, but of course, he beat me to the punch as kids often do!
Now, if only this was the only time this type of thing happened to me! A few weeks after that incident, I took this same son (we’ll call him T-Rex) to see The Fresh Beat Band (I know, I should be sainted) and he had to go to the bathroom. I took him into a stall and then decided I had to go too. So we are squeezed into that damn tiny stall and I’m trying to squat as quickly as I can and get out of the sweltering bathroom when he very loudly (of course) said, “Mommy, are you going to go poopy?” Oh dear god, are you kidding me right now? So I very calmly said, “No T-Rex, I am not going poopy. I am just going pee pee like you did.” “But Mommy, you are sitting down, how are you going to pee pee sitting down?” Really, I have to have this conversation again and this time in a public restroom? I very briefly re-explained that I have a different body part then he does because I am a girl and that girls pee sitting down and then I got the hell out of there! So you see ladies, have the conversation early on because it will happen even if you don’t want it to!

{To be continued…}