Talking to Children Continued
Set a Calm, Confident Matter-of-Fact Tone
Though discussion of puberty and sexuality with one's children can be anxiety provoking for parents, it's important that parents do what they can to stay relaxed, calm and normal throughout the process. This is because parental anxiety is easily picked up on by children even if it remains unspoken, and communicates to children that puberty and sexuality are dangerous subjects to talk about. Children who sense their parents' anxiety around topics like condoms and tampons may decide that it's not okay to talk about these things; that parents don't really want to talk about these things with them, or it's not safe to talk about these things. When parents approach these topics in a relaxed matter-of-fact manner, children instead determine that talking about puberty and sexuality is routine, nothing to be ashamed about, and important.
Some parents who are uncomfortable talking about intimate body detail will find this suggestion a very difficult one to follow. We recommend that these parents prepare themselves for taking with their children about these subjects by practicing the conversation in advance, possibly with another parent or trusted friend. A discussion with a professional who shares the family's values may also be helpful in this regard. Practicing saying awkward-sounding words like "penis" and "vagina" aloud, and talking aloud about how a condom is put on or a tampon is inserted, can help uncomfortable adults to become more comfortable and confident when the real moment arrives.
Should parents find themselves feeling anxious when they do talk to their kids, an acknowledgment of that fact will often help reduce the discomfort associated with that anxiety. Parents might say something like, "This topic makes me a little bit uncomfortable to talk about, and I'm sure it may be a little uncomfortable for you too, but we'll get through it together." Keeping the tone matter-of-fact and conversational rather than lecturing is often the best approach.
Puberty-Related Concerns are Normal and Common
It's very common for preteens and teens to believe they are the only people on the planet to ever experience the uncomfortable situations and feelings associated with puberty. As a result, children may believe no one will understand them if they do try to talk about their feelings. Parents can often help their kids a tremendous amount by simply helping them to understand that their concerns are normal; that their peers are going through similar agonies; that many of the adults they know and look up to experienced similar agonies while growing up. It's comforting to know that you aren't the first and only person to experience these sorts of uncomfortable, embarrassing, or awkward situations.
Parents should take care to deliver the message of how normal puberty related agony is paired with another message, spoken or unspoken, that effectively communicates that the parents are not judging the children or in any way suggesting that their issues are silly or unreasonable for this time of life. Without the message of acceptance accompanying it, children may hear the message that they are not alone in their agony as a dismissive statement that they are not important. Should children pick up on this interpretation they will not feel comforted, but instead, may feel worse.
It can be very difficult for parents to not feel a little dismissive of their pre-teen children's concerns. After all, next to concrete and difficult adult problems like paying the mortgage or rent each month, children's worry over first loves can seem trivial and entitled. The key thing for parents to keep in mind is that while they themselves have a larger perspective on the situation, children do not. Children are not trying to blow things out of proportion; this is how they really see things given their present developmental state and awareness. Correspondingly, parents need to take their children's emotions and concerns at face value if they are to be seen as supportive figures. Comments like, "oh, don't worry about it - you'll look back in ten years and realize this was no biggie", which are not intended to communicate dismissal but instead only perspective, are likely to be interpreted by pubescent youth as evidence that their parents "just don't get it".
The best way to communicate parental acceptance of children's adolescent agony is to actively listen to what children have to say. "Active listening" is slightly different than the normal listening that most parents are familiar with. Most of the time, when people say they are listening, what they are really doing is simply being quiet while someone else talks. Though quiet, they are not necessarily focused 100% on what that other person is saying. Instead, they may be thinking about what they will say next, or about something they are worried about. Active listening occurs when people set aside their worries and concerns about what they will say and focus 100% on what the person they are listening to has to say and what they are feeling. By actively listening to children's concerns, parents communicate to their children in a genuine and non-verbal manner that their concerns are important and that they are deeply cared for by their parents.
Active listening is not about being silent. Instead, it is about focusing on the person who is being listened to. Parents can and should echo back the feelings that their children are talking about so that children know that parents have heard them. For example, a parent might say, "Sarah that must have been very embarrassing for you! How did you get through it?" Notice not only did the parent echo back the child's feeling, but the child was also asked a question which indicated the parent's interest in what the child felt. In this manner, the parent communicates to the child that she is deeply concerned about the child's feelings which they regard as important and non-trivial. Parents who are able to take their children's feelings seriously and to communicate their sincere interest and concern through active listening and questioning will almost certainly gain the trust and respect of their children. Children who trust that their parents sincerely care about them and their problems will be more likely to accept and act upon parents' suggestions, or even seek out their advice.
Listening to children and respecting their feelings does not mean that caregivers must agree with their children's point-of-view or to give in to children's demands. Active listening is about compassion, not passivity. It is perfectly possible, and indeed in children's best interests, for parents to communicate their compassion and empathy for their children's woes and still insist that children do their chores, or advise a course of action which, while healthier, is not what the children want to do.