Often the best conversations are the spontaneous ones. I am always keen to take a situation and give it some deeper thought or turn it into a learning opportunity. However, there is also a place for intentional, planned conversations to ensure that important subjects are touched on routinely.
For me, that means that as we are preparing for each new school year – awaiting the announcement of the class lists, buying the school supplies and new gym shoes – I am also sitting down to talk with each of my kids about everything from changing bodies to relationships, from peer pressure to suicide.
Obviously, I can’t fit this all in one conversation; it would be overwhelming to everyone. Instead, I spread it out over a few weeks, over a few different conversations. Some one-on-one, some with all my kids together. Some at the dinner table, some before I tuck each into bed at night.
I am not concerned with how athletic my kids are. When I say “physical health,” I am referring to making sure my kids know what to expect from their bodies and understand their ownership of their own bodies.
Some might think of this as “THE Talk,” the “Birds and the Bees” and all that. For me, this is not one talk but a constantly evolving conversation that began in preschool and will continue until they are adults.
A few weeks before the start of each new school year, during our regular trip to the library, I pick up some age-appropriate books about anatomy, how the body works, puberty, and the like. The books have been different through the years, but one of my favorites that I have checked out, again and again, is Changing you: a guide to body changes and sexuality by Dr. Gail Saltz.
I set the books out on our bookshelf and simply leave them there. I want my kids to have a chance to look through them on their own. Then, as the due date is nearing, I ask if everyone had a chance to read the library books before I return them and I try to nonchalantly throw in, “Do you have any questions about this one?”
I don’t just leave it at that. I don’t think any of my kids have piped right up with a question. I sit down next to them and start flipping through the book. If they don’t ask any questions, it is a good time for me to reiterate what we have been talking about since preschool in regards to appropriate and inappropriate touch.
I reinforce that no one has a right to touch their bodies without their consent and that they should not touch another person in any inappropriate way. My kids are quite accustomed to this talk by now and I find that it can break the ice for them to ask other questions.
Each of my kids handles this differently and each year is different, but there have been some great questions and conversations to come out of this approach.
I always end by reminding them that much of what they hear from their friends on the playground is not accurate and that they can always ask me if they have any questions about something they hear or see.
For me, the goal is to make sure my kids are well informed and that they know I am comfortable answering their questions.
If one of my kids was in the midst of their first heartbreak or some friendship drama, it would not be the right time for me to have this conversation. It would seem as though I were invalidating their feelings. Instead, in the weeks leading up to the start of a new school year, I make sure to sit with each of my kids and talk a little about relationships.
This conversation usually starts with me saying something like, “So, 3rd grade! You know this year you are going to notice…” and I launch into whatever seems appropriate.
We talk about friendships and how to be a good friend. We talk about how to recognize if someone isn’t being a good friend to them and that it is OK not to like someone or not to want to be friends with someone, as long as they are still kind to that person.
I talk about the different kinds of relationships. Each year, I go a little more in-depth on the difference between friendship, family love, and romantic love. I mention how they might start to think someone is cute or how they or their friends might want to be someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend.
I, personally, have always made sure that whether I am talking to my son or one of my daughters, I always say boy or girl. “You might think a boy or girl is cute and ‘like’ them in a way that is different than friendship.”
I want my kids to know that I am absolutely accepting of whomever they are attracted to. But when the conversation is on same-sex relationships, I also always touch on how, when a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl, some people may “make fun” of that and that gay people often get bullied, even as adults.
I explain that when you “like” someone it can feel like the most important thing. How it can be hard to focus on other things or how it can hurt so badly if the other person doesn’t like you back. This is the only time I feel it is safe to try to explain to my kids that it is never as important as it feels, that life will go on and there will be others, that in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t going to matter.
I hope that by reiterating this each year, they might be better equipped when the time comes and those overwhelming emotions make it feel like it most certainly is the most important thing in their world. When that time comes, I just need to be there for them, not lecture them.
This ties in so closely to emotional health – in fact, all these topics are interwoven, in life and in our different conversations leading up to the start of a new school year – but I feel mental health may be the most important.
The other day, I posted this on Facebook:
“There is another story in the news of a young boy who died by suicide. Another. My heart breaks for his family. For the past few years, I have been hyper-aware of just how many of these stories there are, of how many young, elementary school age, children attempt suicide. I feel a lurch in my stomach and a pang in my heart, each time, and my mind races with what-ifs.
I struggle with my own mental health, I know how hard it can be.
I tell my kids I will love and accept them, no matter what. Unconditionally. I also tell them that others in this world will not.
I teach my kids to be kind and not to bully. I also teach them that they will be bullied by others anyway and how to cope.
I talk to my kids about mental health and suicide. I don’t shield them from the fact that their peers have these struggles and that they might, too. I don’t worry that I am introducing the concept to them.
I only worry that one day, even all this might not be enough.”
I have struggled with mental health issues most of my life. I know how hard it can be and I know how it can feel. So, I make sure to talk to my kids about how your mind can play tricks on you and make it feel like there is no hope. How it can feel like everything is so much worse than it really is. How sometimes your mind can make you want to hurt yourself or wish you were dead. And how and why they should always talk to someone if they are feeling like that.
It may be my anxiety and my own mental health issues that make me so worried about this, but I think, in this case, it doesn’t hurt to be overly cautious.
Start The Conversation
My strategy may not be right for your family. In fact, my approach probably isn’t the right approach for anyone else. Each family needs to find their own way of discussing these topics. The important thing is that they are discussed.
If you are having trouble starting a conversation, try checking out a book and leaving it where your child can read it privately, then ask if they have any questions. Try using a situation in the news or in a show as a springboard.
If talking face-to-face is uncomfortable, try writing back-and-forth in a journal, emailing, or messaging each other.
Just let your child know that the line of communication with you is open.
And, please, consult a doctor or counselor if you have any concerns.