By Lindsay Simon, LMFT
Special to Moonshine Ink
One question that comes up often as a therapist is how and when to talk to kids about traditionally taboo topics like sex, drugs and alcohol, or mental health.
As parents you want the best for your children and will receive advice from a variety of people in your life about how to do this best (in their opinion). Unfortunately, although your Grandma Betty might have good intentions, listening to people’s advice that is not based on research and long-term outcomes can be damaging to your child(ren).
What we now know is that arming your kids with science-backed knowledge, while creating a safe environment to speak to parents around sensitive topics, is the best way to protect your child from the negative outcomes all parents fear.
I’m going to address a few myths around parenting that are creating more harm than good and share alternative healthy parenting techniques that create more positive outcomes for children.
“If you talk to your child about sex, drugs, cutting, or suicide, then that will put the idea in their head that they might not have had before.”
In reality, years of research and outcomes have proven this to be a false belief that is causing more harm than good. Some parents are either not having these discussions or waiting until it is too late. Talking to children about these topics helps arm them with knowledge so that they can make better choices when faced with one of these experiences. The goal of a parent is not to protect your children from ever being faced with one of these experiences but to give them resilience factors that help them handle the situations when they arrive. We also want kids to feel safe coming to talk to parents about anything so that they can talk through their difficult experience rather than make an uninformed and potentially dangerous decision.
“I need to be strict with my children or they will think they can get away with anything.” Or similarly, “I need to make sure they fear me and the potential consequences of their actions or they will make a detrimental mistake.”
Research strongly suggests that a strong parent-child relationship where the child feels emotionally safe talking to their parent(s) about anything leads to reduced risky behavior. Ideally, try not to judge children, but instead ask them questions and listen with genuine curiosity about their unique perspective and experience in life.
Parents who try to ‘fix’ their own emotional issues or fulfill childhood wishes through their children can create a lot of damage. Instead, accept your children as they are, even if their interests or behaviors are much different than you or your expectations. Create an atmosphere of support and love (with appropriate boundaries) rather than judgment.
“There is just one ‘talk’ about each of these taboo subjects, such as the one time you had ‘the sex talk.’”
Instead, we now know that the best outcomes (reduced risky behavior) come from continued open discussions about these topics, starting as soon as possible. It is key to initiate the talks before your child is in a position where they need to make a decision. Some children these days are participating in sexual acts and experimenting with drugs in elementary school. So that can give you a sense of when to have these talks. You want to have these talks at an age-appropriate time and manner.
(Resources about what’s appropriate when are included in the list included in this article.)
“When talking about these taboo topics, we should share only the potential risks and negative consequences.”
Actually, we should be sharing the pros and cons of everything and facilitate open discussions. For example, when discussing sex, you should talk about teen pregnancy, STIs, and consent — but also about pleasure and intimacy. When talking about drugs and alcohol you do want to talk about the negative impact on your body and brain (especially before the brain is fully developed by age 24 to 28, depending on gender and genetics), potential negative legal or scholastic consequences, and safety factors … and you should discuss why people do use and what a healthy relationship with substances might be like.
When broaching the topic of mental health, discuss when to ask for help, what types of negative or scary thoughts they might experience that they might want to tell someone they trust, and safety steps. Important, too, is allowing for conversation about how we can use negative emotions and experiences as a way to grow, learn, and become stronger once we get through the other side. We also want children to know that there is treatment out there that is highly effective to help them feel better.
Talking about taboo topics begins with research-based methods so you can build your self-efficacy on the topic. Research shows that the more confident you feel in your own knowledge and what is age appropriate to share with your kids, the less likely your children will be to participate in risky behavior. Also remember that parenting is hard and not a perfect science. It’s ok to get it wrong; we are all doing the best we can with the skills, awareness, capabilities, and knowledge we have.
- How to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol
- Age-appropriate discussions about drug use at each age
- Age-appropriate discussions about consent
- A process review of years of research on outcomes of sexual behaviors of youth based on parental communication
- Talking to kids about mental health
~ Moonshine Ink online monthly columnist, Lindsay Simon, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She is the clinical director and owner of A Balanced Life: Individual, Family and Child Therapy, a private practice with 10 clinicians based in South Lake Tahoe.