Vulnerable conversations in family life

We need to talk – vulnerable conversations in family life – illness and sex!

Reflections on the high and low milestones of family life, in (ahem) post-Covid Spring 2022. So what a week it’s been in our home! It’s all been going on! The joys:
• Re-uniting with my sister visiting from Germany for the first time in 2 years.
• Seeing our now elderly mum’s reaction on seeing her 2 daughters together.
• Doing an enthusiastically attended parent webinar on ‘Talking about sex and sexuality with our growing child, tween, and teens’
• Hearing from parents who went on to have braver conversations – and survive!!!
• Seeing our wonderful daughter experience her first period with pride, enthusiasm, and confidence.
The pains:
• Getting COVID for the first time during my sister’s visit and having to isolate in our home.
• My better half having to continue that isolation period in order to be able to support his parents
• Realising that my carefree hubris about my immunity was mis-placed. 
• Being forced to slow down because of my symptoms. Shortness of breath, heavy limbs, fatigue!!
So this edition is going to reflect on

  1. The emotional impact of COVID in the home.
  2. The parent role in relationships and sex education.

CONSENT and online safeguarding sidebar. NB. Full permission for posting about our daughter hitting her feminine milestone was sought before publishing! This is a fundamental of modelling consent in family life. Safeguarding check. Do you model respectful consent prior to publishing family pictures and news on social media? There’s a reason why so many safeguarding situations emerge in schools because young people simply don’t see the reason why they can’t post something about someone else online. It’s not just the adolescent lack of impulse control, it’s also the lack of modelling. Every time a parent seeks consent before posting something online, they wire in respect and confidentiality boundaries into their relationship with their growing child. And they wire in consent protocols and restraint around posting about other people.

COVID reflections.

  1. My brush with COVID made me notice that social isolation ramps up the sense of physical vulnerability with a sense of emotional rejection. Even though cognitively I am really aware of my sister’s heightened anxieties about COVID, being rooted in a different culture in Germany, and also having clinically vulnerable family members, it still felt hugely painful to be unable to have a hug or even to be in the same room comfortably. Equally, other people’s anxiety about COVID, means their reaction to people with the illness is anxious. And that anxiety is contagious, and can contrast with past experiences of illness where the normal response is straightforward sympathy. The avoidant and self-protective response can transfer a sense of stigma around being ill because like it or not, social distancing is avoidant and when our tribe is avoidant of us, it hurts. We are wired for togetherness – especially in our vulnerability. How might it be and feel for children and teens who temporarily are unable to have bed-time stories, snuggles, kisses because they, or a parent, has tested positive? Might it be worth having a circle back conversation about legacy experiences to process feelings of isolation / rejection / stigma? I am aware of numerous cases eg of school refusal and accelerated anxiety around COVID, as well as social anxiety based on peer responses to young people who have tested positive. 
  2. Family responsibilities e.g. for elderly family members, or those who are immune-compromised, physically vulnerable, bring into sharp focus the dissonance between the general societal thrust of ‘life after COVID’ with the need to take precautions to protect loved ones. This starts to make the world a tricky place to navigate – how can we strengthen our children and teens’ self-advocacy skills and comfort levels with maintaining boundaries around others, or having strategies to manage personal space? How can we make it OK for them to express and explore complex feelings in response to this social friction within the family? What does it mean to our children eg to not have had a hug from certain relatives – perhaps for 2 years? What does it mean to even temporarily be excluded from close contact? Opening up a curious and non-judgmental space for children to put difficult feelings into words can be hugely liberating and helpful to decant what builds up in the inner world.
  3. There’s a risk that genuine anxiety about COVID goes under the radar, as society at large drives forward and the restrictions go further back in the rear-view mirror. Continuing to check in and have conversations about what our kids are experiencing, modelling openness about feelings – and treating all feelings as valid and ‘work-through-able’ can help keep the doors and windows open to vulnerable conversations about COVID worries, COVID fears.
  4. When a child or teen sees that their parent or care-giver is ill, it isn’t always easy to see how it resonates with them. As our children grow, when they see us struggle, they can sometimes step too far into ‘caregiver’ role. This means they often protect us from some of the fearful feelings they may be having. Anxiety loves privacy, within the empire of the mind, it can invade and colonise space when it isn’t reality checked. Our children love us, and worry about us too. We need to be careful that we are open and communicative about times of vulnerability. 
  5. Setting COVID aside, in my 25 years’ experience of the secret lives of children from an educational standpoint, from a young age, children are able to pick up on so much more than we often give credit for. And though loving parents often hold back from telling children about serious illness to protect them from worry, it’s not risk-free. They notice the conversations in hushed tones that stop the moment they enter the room. They know and are super curious when they are hustled away because grown up conversations are happening. Before you know it they’ve diagnosed you as terminally ill and off to the races worrying in isolation. This anecdote isn’t about illness, so much as an example of children and their private worries, and the way they can grow unchecked. Years ago, I attended an inspirational workshop at the Tavistock Clinic with Emilia Dowling about the impact of separation on children in family life. I bought her – highly recommended – book ‘Understanding the needs of children when parents separate’ and it was on my work shelf at home. Our daughter was probably 7 or 8 at the time. She’d noticed it. And thought the worst. So every time she saw my better half and I bicker or disagree over the following weeks, her confirmation bias was activated. We returned from a – we thought glorious- family holiday only for her to burst into tears and ask us if we were divorcing, she had become so sensitised to the -thankfully non-existent- threat of us separating that she had interpreted a whole host of tiny granular interactions under this horrible cloud. Being in the habit of checking in with each other about big and little fears is such a helpful practice. To be able to frame the conversation without over-attachment, ‘Listen, I’m just going to blurt something I’ve been seeing and thinking lately. Can I just check this out with you?’ When we are able to give clear, factual information, in an age-appropriate way, it can be hugely helpful. This treads the path between over-sharing, which can be burdensome and under-sharing. What’s wrong, how it’s affecting you, how you’re going to manage things as a team, and basics about managing the illness, and timescales – even if unknown, the sense that you’re having certain check-ups and being looked after by experienced medical practitioners can be really liberating for a child or teen to know that there’s an action plan and other people involved in the care plan.

If you are interested in more about the art of having difficult conversations, tune in to the recent podcast I did with Marina Fogle which talks about the current context of the War with Ukraine as well as skills for approaching vulnerable conversations with children and teens more broadly. Here’s the link:

And linked with this thinking about open conversations is the highlights of my thinking from the work I do around supporting schools in championing the new emphasis on Relationships and Sex Education for parents. Alongside work on Parenting in the Digital Age, this is one of the most popular talks I do with parent engagement at its peak. When hosted by schools- often around 30% of parents registering and listening live, and a further 10% watching the recording. So I know it’s a hot topic. This pandemic and war-torn world we are in is VUCA Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous. And when it comes to the topic of sex and sexuality for young people, it’s a minefield. And the research data (eg NATSAL) converges on the issue that young people are making decisions about sex that they later regret. They are also making explorations online in this domain that they also regret – and wish they had had more up-front talks about. As the Children’s Commissioner’s report on sexual harrassment online following the Everyone’s Invited Movement highlighted.

Advice for parents: Talk early Talk often Create the culture before the crisis.

What is your vision of what it is you want for your children, tweens, or teens when they embark on their sex-lives in later life? Whether straight, gay, bi, non-binary, trans, whatever. What do you want for them in their intimate relationships. And how are you going to help support that directly in your guidance as a parent? What follows is something to strengthen your purpose around this. It’s what drives me as a parent – and informs me as someone with long experience of working with young people in the field of safeguarding and promoting thriving lives and wellbeing of the highest order in forward-thinking schools.

10 Key fundamentals for parents talking about sex and sexuality with their growing children: In the talks I do, or in coaching sessions, I take a deeper dive into HOW you can have these conversations. But here’s the WHY.

  1. The world our kids are growing in is totally different from the world we grew up in. Fundamentally. Friend is now a verb. Oral is now a noun. The unfettered access to the web via smartphones gifted to children at ever younger years is a game changer. (Common to Year 4 / 5 post-pandemic)
  2. The model of sex education most of us had from our parents is not match-fit for the world we are now in.
  3. We tend to educate for biology / science. Protection, and prevention. Societally we play safe and small when it comes to educating young people about PLEASURE in this area of life which is so key to our thriving in the most important arena we live in – our most intimate relationship(s). So remember the 3 Ps when we are talking about sex, the Pleasure element is how we guide in terms of values and relationships and defining intimacy and trust.
  4. The average age children encounter pornography for the first time is 10-11 in the UK, US, Western Europe, Australia. This means that some kids (more likely boys than girls – but not exclusively boys) have been seasoned viewers of porn even before they have entered puberty. This may appease the curious mind, but it wires in entirely unrealistic, highly edited and commercially exploitative models of what sex is, and what the body should look like. This norms Olympic level acts of sexual derring-do, has accelerated experimentation injuries, harmful sexual behaviours, and peer to peer abuse. More than this, it has led to profound difficulties with finding fulfilment from the reality of what sex is at its best. Intimacy and relationship being the slow-food, high nutrition elements as opposed to the wham, bam, not even thank-you ma’am of fast-food porn.
  5. Children are curious. Children are sexual beings. Observation scans of babies in the womb show that even at this early stage of life there is pleasure through touch in the genital area. We see it with some embarrassed laughter on the changing mat as our infants explore the world – and their bodies by touch. And this is turbo-charged in adolescence.
  6. Half of 14 year olds have received graphic images of other teens on their phones. The Children’s Commissioner report following the Everyone’s Invited exposure of rape culture in schools and colleges, revealed that teenage girls are so used to this happening that it’s just considered normal. The acceptable face of everyday harassment. Never mind that the making and sharing of such images is illegal.
  7. Avoidance of our role in educating our children about sex, sexuality, and healthy, equal relationships, is neglectful. No one else will teach our children about this important area of life in the light of our own, family values. Do you really want your child to learn about the bewildering changes of their body in puberty after they’ve happened – and in the public theatre of the classroom? Or do you want them to hear about it from some precocious jackass in the playground? Having already having wondered if they were normal or not? Already having internalised something embarrassing and unspeakable about their bodies and their changes, their secret pleasures and desires? When we omit to educate children about sex for pleasure, and the joy of our bodies, then secrecy, shame, curiosity abound. Porn and google step in unfettered by the increased access to the no-holds-barred stuff accessible from Year 4 + thanks to smartphones and 4G. We need to be the no. 1 reliable source of bite-sized, age-appropriate, accurate information.
  8. We need to answer the fundamental question of what it is we want for our children in their intimate relationships. And what it is we need to do in order to help them get there. Because this will be at the bedrock of them feeling comfortable in their bodies, and having a secure foundation for a trusting, loving, desiring, fulfilling relationship at the centre of their own future family – should they choose to have one. It will certainly be a question central to how fulfilled they will feel in their lives.
  9. We must move away from the one-and-done birds and bees conversation. We’re looking at hundreds of small chats over time. Using teachable moments. We need to enable our kids to be the boss of their bodies. To name their parts without coyness or fear. To have the scientific terms so that they can look a doctor or nurse in the eye and be understood clearly, get help, reassurance, checked out when they need it, not after dreading it for weeks. We don’t call our eyes our peepers, or our noses sniffers, or our feet, walkers. Why then, do we persist in using coy names for body parts – especially in the female genital landscape where ignorance truly abounds. How can we encourage them to be the bosses of their bodies so they can communicate with intimate partners in the future about what feels good and get ongoing, enthusiastic consent! It doesn’t sexualise them to be able to name their parts scientifically. Quite the opposite. It de-shames them. And it protects them against grooming by sexual predators who will know that your child talks to you about sex if they have the proper names. There is a difference between privacy (good) and secrecy (bad) and secrecy is precisely where groomers find an exploitative gap.
  10. This call to arms to fellow parents is about empowering our children as they grow into adulthood. Chances are we are behind the pace. We could have talked about stuff earlier. By the time they are at secondary school all bets are off in terms of what they will be hearing about, speaking about, searching up, and sharing. WE need to pull up our parenting super-hero pants, and have some braver conversations. Even if our teens are grossed out and initially rejecting. Talking about sex and sexuality is all about health and safety. Physical and emotional health and safety. In a world of mixed messages, misinformation and saturation in the proliferating immersive, sexualised commercial spaces in screen world.

We need to talk. Talk early. Talk often. Create the culture before the crisis.What of this has resonated with you? What holds you back? Where do you feel less comfortable. Let me know, get in touch. Shape future work, I always respond. With love and gratitude Emma. Talk to me if:

  1. You want coaching about this 1:1
  2. If you are part of a parent group in the corporate space about a webinar.
  3. If you are interested in hosting a webinar on subjects like this in schools.

More to explore