This piece originally featured in issue 6 of Digital Parenting magazine.
Psychotherapist Mark Linington offers advice for tackling tricky topics.
When my son was 10, I sat him down and had a chat with him about online porn. It didn’t go as well as I hoped. For one thing, I could see he was nervous when I asked if we could have a talk. Then, I muddled my words. He blushed and said, “This is awkward” and we agreed we would do it another time. So, don’t do what I did and have ‘the chat’ as a special thing. Instead, fit it into a time you’re doing an activity together, or walking or driving somewhere.
My son is now 16 and we have had many more successful conversations since because I learnt my lesson and practiced. You will be calmer if you’ve talked it through with someone first, such as a partner or friend, beforehand.
Go slowly. When talking about pornography, for example, a couple of sentences which introduce in simple language what it is can be a massive step (something like, “Pornography is pictures or films of people doing something sexual together”).
Be interested in what they say. Asking a question or two about what they think, especially with teenagers, can help young people develop their own thoughts on a difficult subject. Don’t judge. If they say something you disagree with, you can explain there are other ways of seeing things but make a distinction between what are your opinions and what are facts.
The important thing is to be the reasonable adult who listens, no matter what. Be someone they know they can return to when things are difficult. Encourage them to think critically about what their friends say. Young people often talk to their friends about the same issues you’re concerned about. However, peer groups can be a source of misinformation, so teaching them to question what’s being said to them is an important life skill.
What you can do?
Turn to tech…Talking doesn’t have to just happen face-to-face. If your kids communicate with their friends by Snapchat or WhatsApp, you can do the same. Apps, or good old-fashioned texting, can be a useful tool to follow up a conversation without embarrassment, or simply just to let them know you’re there if they need you.
Use the news…If you think they may be taking risks online, it may be easier to talk about something that has happened to someone else first, as a way in. Mentioning stories you’ve seen on TV or social media, or conversations you’ve had with other parents about things their kids have experienced online, can be useful ways to start a conversation about a difficult subject.
Finding the right words for very young children… Some topics can be difficult to explain to very young children. For example, cyber-bulling. Rather than asking them if they’re being ‘bullied’, ask them if anyone they’ve talked to online is being mean or has tried to make them look bad. Or if you want to question if someone has been ‘inappropriate’, ask them whether anyone has made them have ‘that feeling in your tummy when you know something isn’t quite right’.
This article was originally written in partnership with Parent Zone