PARENTING: TALK TO THEM

July 07, 2019

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Illustration by Neha Awais
Illustration by Neha Awais

Unlike older days, parenting entails different respons­ibilities in this age of technology and fast-paced lifestyles. The influx of information shared online and then discussed at school or social gatherings have put forward multiple challenges for parents. Parenting today is more like a survival game when it comes to monitoring information that your child is exposed to about the fast-changing modern-day world. One of the biggest challenges for parents to tackle is children’s overexposure to technology.

“We are the first generation who is raising high-tech kids,” says Hena Faiz, a stay-at-home mother of three kids aged 10, 14 and 16. “Any information, whether good or bad, is just a click away for them. What I fear most is that they [children] are at risk of receiving information or advice which may not be complete or accurate.”

In Pakistan, the conservative nature of our society creates a major hindrance in parents establishing open communication about taboo topics with their children. Mostly, parents want to keep their kids away from a negative environment. However, the virtual world has exposed children to serious issues which have caused parents to initiate a discussion about uncomfortable topics which could be avoided earlier.

With children far more exposed to the world, psychologists believe that communication from parents is of the utmost importance

Psychologists believe that whether parenting a toddler or teenager, effective communication is important between a parent and child to establish self-esteem and mutual understanding. According to Amber Kazi, a clinical psychologist, parents should provide children a friendly environment so that they can easily confide in their parents without fear and ambiguity.

This is why Meykail Tariq, a 16-year-old O-level student, says that both his younger sister and he are close to their mother. “We can frankly discuss everything with her primarily because she is easy to talk to and understands us,” he says.

Dr Summaiya Syed Tariq considers herself to be a liberal parent who has fostered an easy-going atmosphere in her home. A freelance writer, who also teaches and practices forensic medicine, Tariq has two kids, aged 14 and 16. “I have a friendly relationship with my kids and this is why they are comfortable sharing almost everything with me, she says.”

Meanwhile, Faiz says her relationship with her three kids varies; the youngest, who is 10 years old, shares nearly everything with her but her teenagers do not show much openness. “I do prefer a friendly relationship [with my children],” she says, “but not all the time. After all, being a parent, I have to set the rules and boundaries and this is what I call tough love.”

While elaborating the benefits of being a friend to your child, Kazi says that you don’t have to constantly monitor your child because a) they will come and tell you, which will lessen your emotional burden and b) you do not lose the child’s trust.

Mariam, a 14-year-old grade 9 student, is also close to her mother. There are two reasons: firstly she spends more time with her mom than her dad (as he is mostly busy at work) and secondly she says, “Ami is less strict and more approachable.”

One can have a carefree conversation with children about daily life experiences, school activities and hobbies, which is vital for their emotional development. However, there is another argument that parents contribute to the problem when they try to treat their children as their best buddies. According to Kazi, one of the primary reasons is that children are not emotionally and psychologically mature enough to shoulder such a responsibility. And parents may find it difficult to enforce rules and limits with kids.

Each parent is different in dealing with taboo topics with their children. Syed considers discussing all sorts of topics with her teens, ranging from family issues to sexual harassment.

Considering the psychological impact on children, the most important dilemma of every parent is then to determine what and how much to share with them?

Kazi notes that every age group has their own complexity. She says to remember that, while sharing information with children below the age of 10 years, the language must be kept simple. Narrate the incident in a storytelling way. Parents are encouraged to share even their mundane routine with children below the age of five years. For example if she is chopping vegetables or cleaning the closet, the mother should encourage conversation as this will help the child to learn communication skills and boost their confidence. Mostly children below the age of 10 years are imaginative and love to fabricate stories by mixing real life with fairy tales and cartoons. “This is, in fact, the best time to discipline them, teach them morals and values through stories,” adds Kazi.

For children above 10 years and in their teens, parents can share everything until and unless it’s not a negative rant. Kazi explains that there is a thin line which parents usually cross in the name of sharing or being overfriendly. If a mother or father disagrees on any matter, they should not involve their children. Doing so will only make a child hold grudges against one of the parents and they may start disliking them. Moreover, she says that parents should also avoid sibling comparison (even if it is positive); kids won’t understand and will develop a superiority or inferiority complex.

Each parent is different in dealing with taboo issues differently. Tariq considers discussing all sorts of topics with her teens, ranging from family issues to sexual harassment.

On other hand, Faiz had in-depth discussions about puberty with both of her daughters when they turned nine years old. When her older son hit puberty, her husband had a long conversation with him about adolescence. She also talked to the children about the dangers associated with social media such as scams, online harassment andcyberbullying.

But are children comfortable discussing taboo topics with their parents? While Mariam and Meykail say that they have discussed almost everything from high-school crushes to sex education to family issues with their parents, Haider, a 14-year-old, grade-9 student, and 15-year-old, grade -10 student Asiya, feel that they have inflexible parents. According to Haider and Asiya, they are not allowed to make friends from the opposite gender, so talking about infatuation or any other feeling is a complete ‘NO’ in this case. They add that if they want to know something, they will likely look it up on the internet rather than talk to their parents.

The question that arises here is, when is the right time to talk about taboo or uncomfortable subjects with children?

According to Kazi, it is significant that when parents are talking about taboo subjects, it is important for them to keep a relaxed and calm tone because that really matters. For example, when it comes to menstruation, mothers can talk to girls at the age of nine, explaining to them the importance of being private and discreet but not create a panic around it.

Kazi reminds parents that a molester will usually behave friendly with children, otherwise a child who comes home crying can raise suspicions.

Other topics that should be handled in early years are sexual harassment. There are many kids in Pakistan who have been subjected to sexual exploitation. Some dreadful cases of child sexual abuse and molestation are rampant in different parts of the country. Kazi points out the factors as to why a child does not inform about abuse to their parent or guardian.

Mostly, molesters inculcate fear such as the kidnapping or killing of their parents in children. Molesters sometimes also threaten them to shift the entire blame on them, so the children begin to dread disapproval and punishment from parents.

Kazi further says that children aged three or four years may not realise that they are being molested. She reminds parents that a molester will usually behave friendly with children, otherwise a child who comes home crying can raise suspicions. “It is the duty of parents to sit and ask about their entire day routine in school or park or anywhere outside home,” she advises. These friendly discussions will help parents find out about possible threats.

A growing body of researchers have also found that children below the age of 10 years can understand good and bad touch. Kazi emphasises that parents should not discourage children when they are sharing any incident related to harassment. Instead of challenging them, they should listen, understand and investigate on their own for confirmation. This action can help boost a child’s self-esteem.

Most parents complain that teenagers do not share as much as they did previously. Kazi explains that teenagers limit sharing because this is a hormone-driven age. If a child knows that his/her mother or father will not like his/her friendship with someone especially from the opposite gender, they won’t share anything about it. There are few households where parents are fine with opposite gender friendships and hence children are comfortable sharing.

Similarly, if a teenager wants to try smoking, parents can let them do so for one time. Samina Ahmed, a counsellor, adds that that this is a fun age. Parents need to trust their kids and allow them to create their own boundaries and set limitations. This way parents can teach self-value to children.

Bullying is another difficult topic to share with parents. Kazi says that if a child is being bullied at school or in the transport van for instance, the reaction of the parent plays a significant role in determining whether the child will or will not share details in the future. In the case of Meykail, his mother encourages him to take a stand against bullies.

Mariam had a bad experience of confiding in her parents. She recalls that her brother was being bullied in a school van and when they shared this with their mother, she went berserk. “Likewise, when my mother got to know about my harassment — I don’t want to go in detail — she shared it with my father which made me uncomfortable.” From then onwards, they have become paranoid about everything, says Mariam. “As a result,” she says, “if anything ever happens again, I’d rather not tell them and save myself from the drama and lectures.”

Kazi believes that parents should empower children to handle bullies themselves rather than jumping in to help. If somebody snatches their lunch from a child, the parents should insist that the child talk to their teacher. If nothing happens, however, then parents need to step in, she adds.

Moreover, money is another sensitive issue. Children are perceptive about family finances. According to a study titled “Money Matters: Children’s Perceptions of Parent-Child Financial Disclosure” published in Journal of Communication Research Reports, honest conversation about family finances teach kids important lessons about managing personal finance. Kazi suggests that teaching money management can help a child in math and logical reasoning.

Another question is how parents’ communication can help children deal with failures and heartaches. Kazi suggests that parents show empathy and approach conversations about heartbreak with openness and honesty. Moreover, failures and disappointments are a part of life but with a positive attitude, parents can help kids find a better way to overcome setbacks and deal with their failures.

As parents, conversations on taboo or uncomfortable subjects may be difficult, but if you tackle it well, without getting frantic, communication will create a healthy relationship between you and your child. However, it’s important that parents should keep unbiased expressions and not be judgmental when children share their feelings with them, concludes Ahmed.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2019