I joke that I am a “with it” mom. Not only am I a mother to two teens, and not only was I once a pretty savvy teen myself, but I also get to hear the inner lives of teens every day in my office as a therapist, which keeps me current.
I remember once, early in my practice, when a 15-year-old girl left my office and turned back to longingly say to me, “I bet you are such a cool mom.” I laughed and said what I always say to comments like this: “It is not so easy to practice what I preach when the heart is involved.”
I have 16- and 13-year-old boys and thought I had done a pretty good job of talking to them about relationships, sexuality and everything in between. I had answered questions about consent, about erections and about gender. I did the “where do babies come from” talk when they were young, and again when they were older as their TMI limits changed. I also parent with a lot of trust, meaning we talk pretty regularly so I can trust them.
My younger son told me something last month that made me realize there were three things lacking. I had to figure out how to bring them to the table… and fast.
1. Provide information now or Google will do it for you.
My younger son looked up a song lyric. He told me he did it, and it scared him because what he found really overwhelmed his adolescent mind. He said he heard this lyric for months, over and over, and just did not understand what and how this worked and felt like everyone else must know except him.
So he did what we all do when we want to find something out: He googled it. And he got all sorts of images and even video options about oral sex. During our after-the-fact talk, he told me that oral sex had never been talked about in his many years of sex ed and health class and I too failed to mention it during our talks thus far. Because he had now seen information that was not along the caliber of how I would have explained this intimate act, I also spoke to him as I do to my clients about respect and consent before pleasure, and what this actually sounds like. I did this directly and concretely.
2. Ask what sort of information your child is seeking (so they don’t seek it out themselves).
I know there are all sorts of videos and images online. I often talk to my clients about porn and the effects of porn on relationships. However, bringing it close to home, I learned my lesson with the song lyric incident and considered that there may be more googling than I had thought, or that there was potential for more. I realized that the presumed unspoken understandings and information must now be spoken. So I talked to my teens about differentiating between sexual pleasure and sexual curiosity.
Being curious is the educational route I am very confident with. I have books and magazines and all sorts of resources for them. The other route, sexual stimulation online, is not something as a parent I am going to give them permission to do. When they are inundated with mentions of porn and explicit sexual acts at school — because they are, whether I like it or not — I will not and cannot allow them to normalize this as “OK.” I tell them about the power of the mind, and about fantasy and also about real life vs. entertainment… and exploitation. I tell them about appreciating someone vs. using someone for pleasure. I tell them nobody is ever to be judged or used for their own pleasure. I tell them these things are not negotiable.
3. Foresee the mistakes so they don’t become habits.
I know from my clinical work and from being a mom for 16 years that in order to be trusted, my kids have to feel safe telling me things, and that they have to feel that the value of my wisdom is worth the risk of disclosure when they tell me things. They are not afraid of consequences for their actions in terms of being in trouble because we dialog more than punish. This new territory of pornography reminded me I need to validate my teens that they are going to wonder about sex, and be tempted by many situations, and also that they will make mistakes.
I remind them that should they make decisions thoughtfully and not impulsively, carefully, and respectfully (both towards themselves and others), that they will continue to be great kids. They have chosen to be kind thus far. They have chosen to be respectful and honest and forthcoming and self-aware. I will continue to make time to have these talks because it is my parental responsibility. If I don’t, the internet will. And I trust my wisdom more than Google.
When I talk with teens as their therapist, I am not vague. If a subject is uncomfortable for them, I address that discomfort and we continue to talk. Sometimes as a parent, we shy away from pushing topics that are uncomfortable. I am now more confident than ever that my kids need me to be a reliable source of information, and I will continue to try to do better than Google.