Communicating With Your Child in an Impossible Situation

“Umm – Vinita, can I speak with you privately?”

I was teaching a course on fashion, and one of my students walked up to me at the end of class. (This wasn’t in India, where it is not done to call your teacher by his / her name.)

 “Sure – go ahead,” I replied. I was slightly taken aback because this girl had shown no particular inclination to have private conversations with me over the 15 months that I had been teaching her various courses.

But she seemed to want to do so now. We found an empty classroom, and sat down.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

She was curiously reluctant to begin. Eventually, “You know, what I’m telling you is in confidence. I don’t want it to get about. I had earlier confided in one of the other staff members and she went and told so many people.” She squinted at me, “Did she tell you anything about me?”

“No, I haven’t heard anything about you or about anyone else, for that matter. And before you go any further, I must say that I will respect your confidence, but if you have the slightest doubt about it, please don’t tell me anything.”

“No, no, I know you won’t tell anyone. That’s why I decided to speak with you.” She stopped again, and I waited.

“I had an abortion yesterday.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. She looked at me, and when she saw the lack of either condemnation or inquisitiveness, she went on.

“It was my third abortion.”

“Oh, no!” burst out of me. “Don’t you use protection?”

“Well, he doesn’t like to, and I forget to take the pill sometimes.”

“How are you feeling? Should you even be at school today? How did you manage? Did you have a friend with you?” the questions poured out of me.

“My mother went with me,” she said.

Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. “How old are you?”

“16, but I turn 17 next week.” Thus far, she had sounded like an adult trying to discuss an issue with another adult. But at the mention of her birthday, her teen enthusiasm took over, and she preened.

I couldn’t hide my concern. “Do you know that having so many abortions could seriously impact your having a baby later on? You might not be able to conceive, or the baby might be harmed by all the abortions you’ve had.” I couldn’t have given her the slightest technical details of what I was saying if my life depended on it, but I knew that she was taking a real risk with her health.

I didn’t really understand why we were having this conversation. Her mother seemed to know what was going on. She’d even accompanied the girl to her third abortion. I was thinking: If the mum is okay with her having sex at 16, why doesn’t the lady just remind her daughter to pop the birth-control pill? (The girl lived at home, and even if she’d lived elsewhere, all it took was a phone call to remind her…) That would solve the problem.

“How can I help?”

“You see, my mother is very worried. She is upset and unhappy and forcing me to leave this man, but I love him and I can’t live without him!” ( 🙂  Oh, the agonies of teen love!)

“Don’t your parents like him?

“My dad doesn’t know, but my mum is not in favor of this relationship. You see, he’s 41 and married, with 3 children.”

I was completely tongue-tied – physically, and mentally. I didn’t even know what to think, let alone what to say. Me, a woman married for over a year, and I feel like a new-born babe in front of this 17-year old who’s talking to me of love and abortions and a man who is committed to his wife and children, but also claims to ‘love’ her.

“I want to ask you what I should do. I know it’s not good for me to have any more abortions. Every time, I think this is the last time I will have an abortion, but then I forget to take the pill again… I love him too much to let him go.”

“What does he say?”

“He will not leave his wife and kids, but that’s alright with me.”

I groped carefully to find words that might reach her. “You know there’s no future in this for you. You are a lovely girl with a great enthusiasm for life, and you have all of that life ahead of you. You are lucky to have a mother who is so supportive of you. Though she is against your relationship with this man, the love you both share is strong enough for her to be there for you whenever you need her. She is asking you to leave the man. Why don’t you try doing that?”

“I have tried,” she sounded desperately close to tears. “Especially after every abortion – I hate that I have to go through these abortions. He won’t come with me; my mother does. I want to have babies later on, and every abortion will make it more difficult. But then he calls me again, and I can’t stay away. And my mother is heart-broken about it. I love her so much I would do anything for her. I hate giving her so much pain, so much trouble, but I just can’t stop loving this man.”

I still didn’t see what she wanted from me. “Listen, maybe you want me to say that it will all turn out okay with this man, that it is okay for you to be in this relationship. That might make you feel better about your decision to continue seeing the guy. Because you have made that decision, haven’t you?” She nodded unwillingly. “But I can’t say it, because I don’t believe it to be true.”

We sat in silence for some time. Then she got up. “Thank you for listening. It has made me feel a lot better. And please don’t tell anyone – I know you won’t, but I still need to say it.”

I nodded. “Take care of yourself and your mother. Bless you.”

This incident took place about 15 years ago, and I’m sharing it because this could be true of any child, anywhere in the world. Then, or now, it probably IS true of some children in many parts of the world.

There is so much to learn from this:

Sending the girl somewhere else was not an option – the family did not have the wherewithal. And then the man could well have traveled and continued the relationship on an off-and-on basis.

Besides, you can’t run away from your life. If she had gone to some far-flung place, she would still have been vulnerable and might have gotten into a similar or worse situation from being on the rebound, or feeling the lack of romantic love in her life, or feeling that she was over the earlier relationship and ready for a new one.

Whoever you are, whatever your situation, running away doesn’t solve it. You merely take it with you, though you might take some time to realize this. 🙂

I deeply admire the mother for sticking by her child. She realized what so many parents do not.

 Condemning the girl, blaming her, scolding her, blackmailing her (“How could you do this to me, your mother, who loves you so well? How can you hurt me like this? What have I done to deserve such treatment from you / to have such a fate? I brought you up so well…/I have failed as a mother…”) – all of which she must have done – would only serve to make the mother feel better by giving vent to her feelings.

It would not help the girl or the situation. Revisiting the mistakes that were made by either the parents or the girl would also be futile. The mother realized that just continuing to communicate with her daughter was vital. At least the lady knew what was going on; she could prevent things from being worse than they already were.

If she had not accompanied her daughter to the abortions, how would the girl, as a minor, have accessed a hospital to have the procedure done? Where would she have got the money? How would she get the post-operative care – physical mental and emotional?

Certainly the girl was conscious of and vocal about her mother’s support despite the latter’s deep disapproval (to put it mildly). That in itself was a huge anchor for her.

I don’t know how it all turned out. I respected her confidence by never again referring to the matter, even privately, even with her. I figured if she ever wanted to speak with me, she would raise the topic herself.

The point is that sometimes, despite our best effort as parents, things don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. In this particular instance, they turned out horribly wrong.

If your daughter doesn’t join law school (a dream you have cherished for her since she was conceived – ! – ), it’s not the end of the world, but if she decides to beg for money, live in the street and eat out of soup kitchens, that is another level of pain altogether.

If things go horribly wrong, what can you do as a loving parent?  Unfortunately, there are no right answers here.

You know your child. You know how far gone the situation is. Some children realize things quicker when they are left alone. Others need to be helped out of situations. Yet others need to be bullied out of them.

Whatever you decide to do, you might want to consider the ideas below:

1. Keep the communication lines open – Agree not to talk about the area of conflict, but keep things as ‘normal’ as possible otherwise. Don’t raise the topic every time there is a difference of opinion with him. Try not to blackmail him with it. Avoid the attitude: ‘we’ve let you get away with the one BIG thing, but you’d better toe the line on all other counts’.

If you can do this, your child will keep you in the loop, and you will still be a part of his life; you may still have some influence on him. If nothing else, he will appreciate your not withholding your SELF and your love because he is going against your wishes in one area of life.

2. Do not blame yourself – It is natural to keep going over the problem, wondering what you did wrong, what mistake you made that allowed this awful thing to happen. You keep wondering what you could have done to prevent its happening: you should have noticed it earlier, you should have nipped it in the bud, you should have… There is no end to this.

You have a lot of power as a parent, but you have no control. That is the truth, and as you continue parenting, you come to know that even the power is more a figment of your imagination than reality. 🙂

3. Keep perspective – So many things seem like they are the ultimately awful thing that could happen to you, but with time, you might find that they were the making of you. Besides, life is pretty long, and memories are pretty short. Life goes on.

My student might have been 15, or perhaps even younger (“oh, no!” says the parent in me) when she got into the relationship. I’m sure that in another few years, the man would have aged considerably. By the time she was in her early 20s, she would be working, and find many more congenial men, which would naturally break up the relationship. She might get very busy at work, and the relationship would die a natural death.

And she would still have the rest of her life ahead of her. (However, it still beats me how between mother and daughter they did not manage to ensure the girl took her birth-control pills regularly.) Scarred, perhaps, by her earlier experiences, but still, free of the situation.

4. Do not allow your child to get away with blaming you – Children do this when they are scared. However old they are, they will revert to early childhood and tell you, “If only you had… / you had not…, I would not have….” Don’t let them get away with it.

 You might choose to say: “I hear what you are saying and I understand that you feel this way, but I disagree. I don’t think I am to blame for the decision you made. You may blame me, but I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the blame you are trying to lay on me. You don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

5. Figure out with your child how you will treat the issue in public – If your child is in a homosexual relationship (and that is an impossible situation for you), someone you know will know about it – someday, somehow. Discuss ahead of time with your child how will treat the topic when it comes up. Are you to feign ignorance? Are you to say you know about it and are okay with it? Are you to say you know about it and respect your child’s right to lead his life his way? Decide upon something you are both comfortable with.

This is much better than either hiding it or flaunting it. If you hide it, your child may think you are ashamed of the issue or of her, and may stop communicating with you. If you flaunt it, that might not go down well either. She might feel that though you actually dislike the situation, you are putting on a show of being proud of her, or putting on a show of being a lot more liberated than you really are (you want people to think you’re ‘the coolest Dad/Mom’ in the world).

Either way, you’re not being honest with her. She has been straight with you – she has told you about the horrible situation. If you want to keep communicating with her, you need to be honest with her too. If you’re straight with her, you’ll manage to get through to her – always. Even in the most impossible situation.

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When to Talk to Your Child about Puberty, Sex and Stuff Like That

You want the best possible life for your child. At every age and stage of her life, you want to see her happy, healthy, successful, fulfilled, enjoying great relationships, living a sane and balanced life. This is your dream for her.

From day one of your being a parent, you commit yourself to doing everything in your power to make this dream come true. You care for her, groom her, show her, tell her, teach her, prepare her, you supervise her every activity. You also try to shield her from both the worthless and the harmful in life – be it thoughts, activities, information, or people.

You are dedicated to help her create and live the best possible life she can.

It is your best effort, but it is a fairly lopsided effort, and doomed to failure almost from the start. There’s a reason I’m saying this: if you’re preparing her to have a happy, healthy, successful… life, then you need to introduce her to all of life, not to selected bits and pieces of life. But you don’t!

I know this, and so do you, because if you’d been talking to her about all of life, she’d know about puberty and sex and stuff like that from the time she was a toddler. Instead, all she learns from you is that there is stuff ‘that she should not ask / talk about’, or ‘that she is too young to understand’: basically, she gets the clear impression that you are uncomfortable and/or unwilling to face and deal with some questions / issues.

Tell me something: Say your 2-year old asks you why leaves are green, and why everyone says you should plant trees. He’s way too young to understand photosynthesis and soil erosion and ‘stuff like that’, but you still try your best to get as close to the real explanation, don’t you, when you try and answer his questions?

Then why do you clam up about sex?

Of course you need to deliver the answers in a form he can understand! That goes without saying, no matter what the message, or what the age of your child.

Why, then, do you perpetuate the “the-stork-brought-you-home-type” of stories? (Then he watches movies about teenage sex, and wonders: ‘What is going on? My parents can’t be such dorks they don’t know this stuff, so it looks like they don’t want to talk to me about it.’ So it becomes forbidden. Before he ever learns sex is as normal as sleeping or eating, he learns it is ‘bad’, ‘taboo’, something to be uncomfortable about.) And you think you’re so smart fobbing him off with some made up stories! While he’s learning not to trust you… Sad, sad situation – of your own making.

If there is a Mom living in the house, she presumably has periods. Why isn’t it talked about? It’s not a big deal – it can be as normal as why people have fevers, or why Granddad has arthritis, or the importance of going to the dentist, or how fire cooks food, or why it is important to keep the house clean, or why the sun rises and sets…

Children are not too young to deal with it. Children are the most accepting, matter-of-fact people you can find. It is WE parents who are too scared, under-confident, and conflicted in our OWN attitudes to these issues; it is we who are unable to deal with them. And we end up passing on these conflicted attitudes to our children.

That is the only reason why we make such a mess of ‘THE TALK’.

And it is a mess – the timing of it, the way we broach the topic, the way we either avoid making eye contact or stare the child down, the awkward “one long lecture should fix it once and for all and then I don’t need to worry about it” thinking behind it, the searching for ‘technical’ words which they won’t hear at all in the real world, the avoidance of slang which is all they hear around them, the ‘good’ attitude to it (she must behave like sex doesn’t exist for her at a personal level!), the ‘bad’ attitude to it (she can’t think: I am curious, I want to know more, I want to ask someone who won’t think less of me or condemn me for asking, I want to ask someone who will tell me things as they really are, not someone who will try to manipulate my thinking with their answers, I feel things I don’t understand – how do I make sense of them?, is it wrong of me to feel this way?, is it wrong of me to think this way?,…)    

If you, as a Mom, are not yet comfortable with your body and your menstrual cycle, if you haven’t accepted it, if you can’t talk to your partner about it, how do you expect to speak with your child about it? Whether your child is a boy or a girl is entirely beside the point.

If you as a Dad are unable to deal with how your body acts and reacts in various situations, if you don’t acknowledge that you have fought for control over your body (and might still be doing so! 🙂 ), how do you think you will be able to explain anything to your child? Whether your child is a boy or a girl is entirely beside the point.

One of my parenting mantras is never to lie to a child – any child. Never.

I will try my best to tell them the truth in whatever form they can get it. If they absolutely can’t get it, I might say, “I’m not sure how to explain so you can understand, but I’m trying to come up with a way to do so. I need some time.” And then I give them an example. Maybe something like: “Sometimes, you feel something, but you don’t know how to express what you feel. Or you may not even know yourself what you feel, just that you feel something. So you need to spend some time to understand what it is you’re feeling. I need time in the same way…”

You see, I know the answer to what they’re asking! So it is my responsibility as the parent (or the adult) to find a way to explain it to the child. If I can’t explain, it is only because I am unwilling to do so. There is no other reason. After all, I’m happy to talk to the child forever about everything else under the sun! Just not this ‘sex stuff’…!

I have spoken to at least a dozen children of various ages over the years, telling them about what adults euphemistically call “growing up”, and I’ve never had any problems telling them, and they’ve never had any problems accepting what I said.

Obviously, these are all children who are very close to me, with whom I have had a real relationship, though I am not necessarily related to all of them. And these conversations have played out over years, growing in complexity as the issues became more real and immediate to the children, with one or the other of us coming back to it at different points. With each child, it was an interrupted, but ongoing conversation, one both the child and I were comfortable with.

I have seen these children make conscious choices in life, and that has been a wonderful experience – seeing them make a choice from a position of love, affirmation of oneself; empowered with information. They haven’t avoided the mental and emotional pains of growing up, but I believe they have had it much easier than many other children who are left to make sense of the whole ‘sex stuff’ on their own – sucked under by the collective quagmire of social ignorance, labeling, peer pressure, and their parents’ cluelessness. The oldest of these ‘children’ is now married (happily married! 🙂 ), and has not yet shown signs of being negatively affected by getting the ‘sex talk’ from the time he first broached the topic – when he was less than 4 years old!

It’s do-able. Give it a shot.

One of the reasons we face so many problems with growing children is that they are growing at a natural and normal pace, but we’re holding them back.

You won’t talk to them about their bodies, about the body in general, about puberty, about the opposite sex, about how babies are made; but you will talk them into the year 2015 about taking on more responsibility, doing chores, performing well at school, taking care of their parents / grandparents, taking care of the environment – things YOU consider grown up.

And you’re trying to tell me your kids are not growing lopsided! I don’t believe you.

If they’re growing up, they’re growing up in every way – you can’t tailor their growing up to your convenience, though you’d like to do so! 🙂

Over and over again, you have seen it: the more you suppress or ignore something, the greater the force with which it will hit you in the face when you least expect it. (I’m sure there’s one of Newton’s Laws here – action and reaction?) It’s like a Jack-in-the-box. The more you try to influence your child to have one kind of attitude, the more extreme will be his reaction in exploring the opposite attitude. That too, at a time you’d rather he be guided by you! (Be honest: wouldn’t you rather that he be guided by you always and forever? 🙂 )

Okay, you’re willing to consider the idea that the earlier you start talking to your child about ‘stuff like that’, the better off you both will be.  

So: when should you talk to your child about puberty, sex and stuff like that? Every time he asks you.

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