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Kids, Pornography, and Shame

Scary title huh? We don’t want to think about kids and pornography in the same vein regardless of context. Unfortunately, the reality is that first pornography exposure happens often during early adolescence or even childhood. You read correctly, childhood. I’m talking about playground and recess aged kids here. As parents in the digital age, I think most of us are aware that our teenagers have access to inappropriate content at their fingertips; however, we are less aware of the proliferation of it targeting younger children. As a result, we are often caught off guard about how to talk about pornography with young children. Sadly, being unprepared can often lead to some instinctual reactions, that while quite normal, can have unintended consequences in the messaging that kids receive. Mainly, that they did something wrong and that makes them “bad”; shame is not productive nor helpful for healthy sexual development.

            Shame, as a parenting strategy, is not effective at creating healthy change in behaviors (notice the bolded…healthy). In fact, it is just the opposite. While shame may enact change in behaviors, it does so by undermining self-worth and value. Often with the universal emotion, shame, we feel like we are fundamentally flawed as human beings and irrevocably broken. Now with the parents I’ve worked, this isn’t the message that they are trying to instill in their children; assuredly, they are trying to empower and support their children. This is the reason why I think it’s imperative that parents be prepared with the messaging and a script, of sorts, for these conversations. Here are some of the most common questions that I get asked about dealing with pornography exposure and young children aged 6-12 years old:

When should I talk to my child about pornography?

            If your child is using the internet then you need to start having age and developmentally appropriate conversations about pornography. Yes, if your 5 year old is watching videos or playing games then they can come across it, even with filters and other safeguards.

Example: Sometimes adults put stuff on the internet that looks like it’s for kids, like cartoons that show body parts that we’ve talked about being private like a penis or breasts. It isn’t appropriate for kids and it can be really confusing. We want to you show us if you see something that feels confusing, like it might be for adults, but you aren’t sure. We won’t be angry or mad, we love you and want to be able to play your games safely.

How did my child start looking at pornography?

            Typically, a child’s first exposure to pornography happens in one of two ways: they either accidentally click on a link that takes them to a porn site or a friend shows them. Kids are curious and they tend to share their curiosity with their peers. Sadly, kids can be labeled as “bad” or being a “bad influence” when a child reports that their friend Timmy showed them a picture, video, or link that includes pornographic images. This sends the same messaging that was discussed above, that being curious about sexual imagery, sexual acts, or sexuality in general is “bad” or “off limits”. If we want our children to learn about sex from us, their parents, then we need to take ownership of having the conversations.

            Thus, talk to your child about their curiosity. Work to normalize their curiosity about sex and the feelings that they experienced. Create an environment that is safe, even if you or they are uncomfortable, to discuss sex and pornography and your beliefs and values regarding them. They will get their sexual education from other sources regardless if we abdicate this role in our children’s development.

Example: Joey, thank you for telling us when you clicked on that link; you did exactly what we’d talked about you doing. We’ve talked about how sex and sexual feelings are normal and healthy, I wonder if you’re curious about any of the images that you saw? What did you feel when you looked at the images? Sometimes it feels really exciting to see things that we don’t know a lot about, like naked body parts or sexual acts, these feelings are normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. We value sexuality and feel that explicit sexual images are harmful to that development because they can portray sex in a way that isn’t realistic or healthy.

How do I teach my child that porn isn’t realistic?

            For very young children, framing it as the actors are playing pretend puts the concept into a form that they understand as they often engage in pretending. Keep it simple, short and provide an opportunity to ask questions if they remain curious.

Example: Joey, you and your friends love to play superheroes right? Sometimes you even dress up as your favorites superheroes and pretend to save the world. The movie that you saw, the people are actors and are playing and pretending too. They were playing,  sex is a way that adults play, but they were playing pretend in that movie.

            Older children typically can conceptualize the difference between real and pretend without the fantastical examples; however, as pornography depicts real acts it can sometimes be difficult for them to understand how it isn’t real. I like to use an example of something that is also real but exaggerate like driving in the Fast and Furious movies. Go on YouTube and find a driving scene and watch it together and discuss how, while some of the basic concepts are real, the actual movie isn’t. For example, it was filmed on a sound stage or movie lot with a professional driver doing the stunt maneuvers. Adult films are also filmed as a movie production with actors, the maneuvers are scripted and practiced, the vocalizations and facials are exaggerated, etc. So, while the act itself is real, the depiction of the act isn’t.

While I just skimmed the surface, I hope this gives parents some ideas to start the conversation. This subject is scary and can be very intimidating for parents to explore with children, especially young children. However, parents have the opportunity to influence the narrative that children are exposed to in a way that creates a safe environment for healthy sexual development without shame.

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Help!!!! I’m Going Crazy!

Over the last month, you may have had that exact thought cross your mind a time or two (okay maybe a million depending on how well your kids are adjusting to on-line school). Seriously though, during this global pandemic and all the changes to our daily schedules and lives there seems to have been an overwhelming sense of discombobulation and unease with each new declaration. At least that’s my perception from my personal experiences with friends, family, neighbors, clients, and written accounts that I’ve read. It seems to leave a lot of us feeling like we’re living in an alternate universe….(cue the music), “You have entered the Twilight Zone!”.

How do we build some continuity into our “new normal”? By being creative and flexible with our expectations and focusing on our priorities we can reduce some of the anxiety of the unknown. Now, you’re probably wondering what exactly I mean by that and are wondering if I’m going to tell you to create a “schedule” that is color coded with daily achievement goals that is Pinterest or Instagram worthy? Nope!!!! I am going to suggest a couple of things that I have seen have huge impact, both personally and professionally, when trying to create a new normal.

First, set a consistent wake up time. If you are a natural early riser and like to be up with the sun and that helps you feel grounded and ready to start your day; set an early morning time. If you are more of a “I like to laze in bed a bit and then start my day”, type of person then set a little later time. Having a set time to get up every morning creates a natural sense of normalcy for our bodies.

Next, find a purpose in every day no matter how small. It can be from walking the dog to creating a presentation for your work Zoom meeting tomorrow. Just find one thing that will give you a purpose for that day.

Get outside the four walls of your house!!! Even the most introverted are struggling with feeling confined during the stay at home directives and orders. We don’t realize that over the course of a typical day many of us are in and out of our homes, offices, cars, stores, and schools many times. The loss of this freedom of movement can have a strong impact on our mental, and physical, well- being. Combat this by getting outside 2-3 times a day for at least 10 minutes each time. It doesn’t need to be for exercise purposes, although that certainly has added benefits, but just the change of scenery.

Make a connection with friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors every day. No, I am not saying throw the social distancing guidelines out the window and be reckless with your health. I am saying it is important to feel connected to those around us, especially in a time of stress. Isolation and loneliness are not our friends. We are social beings that have a need for connection. Think about it, how does the penal system punish inmates? They put them in isolation…solitary confinement. Break out of your solitary confinement and talk to your neighbor from your porch. Call your sister on FaceTime. Set up a virtual girls’ night. Stay connected!

Lastly, find a way to connect meaningfully with your source of power, whether that be through meditation, prayer, therapy, gratitude affirmations… whatever makes you feel grounded, empowered, and centered. Take the time everyday to find your inner peace and quiet the fears or worries in your mind. And, if you need help and are struggling then there are therapists and resources available on-line that can help you.

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Anything that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers

I love this quote from Mr. Rogers; it is the epitome of what I believe as a therapist and strive to achieve with my clients. We are all human and we have immense capacity for handling emotions, but sometimes those emotions feel completely and utterly overwhelming. Having a person that we can trust can make those emotions feel more manageable and we might, just maybe, even be able to talk about them more openly.

 We all want to feel like we matter and that someone cares about us; that is a universal human desire. No one wants to feel like they are all alone in this life, but often that is a feeling that we experience. How do we combat those feelings of being alone, isolated, not heard, or not cared for? Connection. Connection to someone or something that allows us to feel seen, heard, and understood. Connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability can be scary. Let’s be honest, we have all probably experienced a situation that we chose to bury, ignore, or deny an emotion rather than risk being hurt by being vulnerable and sharing.

Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers as our introduction into learning about feelings. He didn’t shy away from talking about the hard topics either: death, divorce, pain, rage, and anger all featured on his show aimed at children. His forthright presentation of issues that we, as human beings, all struggle with was not typical for the time where children were, largely, encouraged to be seen and not heard. How refreshing to help children, and the adults that we became, to learn to recognize, identify, and name the emotions that we were feeling and that it was ok to be scared, it’s human. And if it’s human, then it’s mentionable and manageable with a little help from our friends in the neighborhood. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Henley, Y., Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., Holzer, L. (Producers), & Heller, M. (Director). (2019) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Motion Picture]. United States: Tristar Pictures.

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Finding Your Quiet Place

We live in a world of chaos filled with the hustle and bustle of life. There are school, work, home, church, family, and social obligations and responsibilities that are flying at us 24/7; it can be difficult to find the quiet in a world filled with noise. Sometimes our minds scream for the peace and quiet, they need a break from the noise of our lives. How often are you giving yourself a break? Do you allow yourself to stop for just a moment and find that peace? Wonder if you haven’t found your quiet place yet? Create it!

Choose to take a moment and make a space for yourself, if even in your mind, where you can go to feel calm and peaceful. This is a place that is all your own, it can be anything you want it to be. The key to this place is that it is a space where you feel completely at ease. There is comfort in your place. There is safety in your place. This is a sacred place.

Here’s a list of questions for you to answer, in your mind or aloud, to help you start to create a quiet place in your mind. Initially, read through the questions to become familiar with them. After some contemplation, read through them again and experience them from a deeper, more visceral place. Envision how you feel and allow yourself to go into that feeling.

Where’s your quiet place? This can be as broad as “at the beach” or as specific as “sitting on my pink and white canopy bed, holding my Cabbage Patch doll in my childhood bedroom on Forest Street in Podunk, USA”.

 Is it a place that you once visited or is it a place that you only dream of?

If you’ve been there, when did you visit and what kind of memories does thinking about it bring to mind? If it’s a real place with memories attached, dive into those memories. Allow yourself to feel and re-experience what made this place your “quiet” place.

If it’s a figment of your imagination, when did you start daydreaming of going there? Do you remember? Maybe this is a place that you have dreamed of since you were a kid. Maybe you saw a picture somewhere.

 What does your quiet place look like? Use colors, textures, and other descriptive language to be as specific as possible.

What does it smell like? Again, be descriptive. “Good”, won’t have the same sensory impact as describing the scent of the ocean or the pine of the forest after it rains.

 What do you hear when you are there? Trying to engage all your senses, do you hear insects? Birds? Water? Wind?

Do you feel the sun on your face or the wind on your cheeks? Are you warm or cold? What else do you feel? Sand under your feet? The spongy feel of the forest after a big rain?

 Are you there by yourself or do you have people with you? Who? Let’s be honest there are some people that do not help us feel calm, they don’t need to be included in your quiet place. Yep, even if they are your parents, children, spouse, or best friend. Sometimes we need to find peace away from even those that we love the most.

Lastly, after you’ve created a picture with sound, touch, smell, and maybe taste too. Give yourself permission to visit this place when you feel the noise of the world is too much. I have clients that use this as part of their morning or bedtime routine to help them get into a quiet headspace to start their day or go to sleep. Personally, I like doing it for a few minutes in the middle of my day when I have a break. I close my office door, take a few deep belly breaths, visualize a place (I have several), and let the experience encompass my senses and clear my head so that I can move on with my day with a newfound sense of quiet and calmness.

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Technology Has Changed You!!!

“Technology has changed you!” is a phrase that my daughters throw around jokingly when I am on my phone, tablet, or laptop when they think that I should be engaged with them. They’re right though, as much as I hate to admit, and be called on, my behavior; technology has changed me. However, with the influx of digitally charged interactions comes the opportunity to connect with friends and family that, previously, was difficult to stay in contact with, but there is also the increased ability to disconnect from in – person interactions and relationships.

So, just how much is technology impacting our relationships? According to a recent study conducted by the market – research group Nielsen, American adults average 11 hours per day reading, listening, surfing, posting, or just generally interacting with media. 11 hours per day! Now, it’s true that a lot of us use a lot of media sources for our jobs, school, and hobbies, but how much of that 11 hours per day is spent on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat, Pinterest, or the social media site du jour? What are we giving up interacting on a social media platform for nearly half the day? How are our relationships with our kids, spouses, friends, and other family members impacted? How is our relationship with ourselves impacted? What is social media doing to strengthen or damage your relationships?

Interestingly, when I ask those questions of clients most look completely dumbfounded for a minute. Then as they begin to evaluate the function that media serves in their lives and their relationships, they often come to an answer quickly…it’s a distraction. Media is an escape hatch from real life, but it’s often “sold” as being reality. This seemingly innocent incongruity, fantasy vs reality, can cause some real issues. Ok, so what are some things that we can do to counteract the negative effects and heighten the positive effects?

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! That’s right folks let’s talk about how social media, and media in general, is going to be used within our relationships. There isn’t an easy button for this discussion, each relationship is different and so are the boundaries established within those relationships. Some families may have a social media moratorium during the week, others may have limits on what media influences are allowed, and still others may have a more laisse faire approach…no one solution is fundamentally better than the other as long as the people involved have been part of the discussion, even teens and kids. I’m not saying that the kids get to decide but allowing children to be part of the decision – making process and have a voice is empowering and models respect and compromise.

Set media free time aside every day and use part of it to connect with those you care about. Most people are not going to be in a situation where they must be “plugged in” 24 hours a day. Media free time is crucial to balancing mental, physical, and emotional wellness. Go for a walk/run with your best friend, take a hike with your family, go on a bike ride with y our spouse, or just sit around the kitchen table and eat dinner without cell phones or the TV on in the background. Also, allow yourself some time to disconnect from media and sit with your thoughts and feelings. Give yourself the space to really connect w ith yourself and understand what’s happening for you mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Be wary of the comparison trap! All media, but social media in particular, is rife for falling into the habit of comparing ourselves with those in our neighborhood, school, church, or the world in general; this is a harmful mindset. Remember that social media is being sold as reality, but it is fantasy. Often it is used as a “highlights” reel to life, but we don’t get to see the “bloopers” reel. Real life is not a series of perfect moments like what is featured on someone’s Instagram story. Comparing our lives to that well curated presentation can lead to feelings of failure, inadequacy, and hopelessness.

Lastly, take breaks from media if it feels like it is becoming obsessive or is dominating your “real” life. Recently, my college age daughter went on an “electronics fast” for one of her classes for a week. She was only allowed to use a desktop computer and the university’s website to complete homework, otherwise she had to be digital free. I admit, I had a hard time not being able to shoot her a quick text or message, but I think that it was an experience that we could all use from time to time. We have convinced ourselves that life would cease to exist without media …that is not reality.

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