Raising emotionally healthy boys

In Australia, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. It makes a bleak sense considering it’s estimated that 80% of men have a mild to severe form of alexithymia: the difficulty to identify and express emotions. Because of the traditional gender stereotype that boys are tougher than girls, it means they often receive less emotional nurturing from their parents. Boys quickly learn from media and the world around them to be ‘strong’ and emotionless (unless that emotion is anger), and even as parents, we can unconsciously teach them to avoid expressing sadness, vulnerability and weakness. These days, there’s a lot of talk about how misogyny and gender stereotyping harms women – which is important – but often the damage these do to men and boys can be left off the agenda. So, what can we do as parents and caregivers to combat harmful gender stereotypes and raise happy, emotionally healthy boys?

Build their emotional vocabulary 
Talk about feelings, and talk often. This is just great practice for children anyway. Go through the names for different emotions and what physical or bodily sensations might be linked to them. Try to use a wide variety of words when talking about your own emotions; you’re their main learning source for language.

Provide good emotional role models 
Show them through your own actions how to healthily express emotion; be vulnerable with others in situations where your sons can see. Show them what empathy, love and connection looks like. But you also don’t need to be their only role model. Watch movies and read books with them, seek out narratives that show men and boys being emotionally vulnerable and expressive, and talk about it afterwards. You might also like to invite the men in your life who you trust and are close with to come and spend time with you and your child together. 

Check in often
Ask them how they feel when something good, bad, exciting, scary and so on happens to them. Check in at the end of the day about how their day was and encourage them to put a word to it, even just one is good. Don’t forget to share your highs and lows with them as well; talking about your feelings also gives them permission to feel and to express their own emotions.

Talk less, listen more
Listen to what they have to say about how they’re feeling without judgement. Ask follow-up questions and repeat back what they’ve told you. Be empathetic, and provide responses such as ‘that sounds nice/difficult/scary/fun,’ rather than trying to offer solutions or fill in silences. It’s so tempting, we know, to try and fix the problems our children are having, but we can’t ‘fix’ their emotions. We also sometimes find it difficult to sit with silence for a while and can tend to rush in and talk, which takes away the opportunity for them to fill the space. The best thing we can do is listen. 

Don’t discourage crying
When they’re upset, ask them if they feel like crying and tell them that it’s okay if they do. Let them know grown ups cry too and it can help to make sadness pass quicker. If they ever do express hurt or sadness, don’t tell them to ‘toughen up’ or to wipe their tears away. Explain that crying releases tension and helps with sad or bad feelings; that people really do feel better afterwards. Look up the research of crying and share what you find with them; it makes for interesting reading.

Find healthy outlets for their anger
There’s a line of thought that girls are taught to feel and express every emotion but anger, whereas for boys it’s the reverse. We don’t want to discourage their expressions of anger when they do feel angry, but we can help them find healthy channels. Encourage them to go for a run, shoot some hoops or read a book when they’re wound up. Listening to or playing music can be another good release. Let them know that anger is acceptable, but hurting other people or things is not. It’s not good to yell at people, but if they need a release, screaming into a pillow can be helpful. Ask them what they think are some good ideas for managing and expressing anger and come up with a plan together for when they do get angry in the future. For some people, talking about problems and worries help, whereas for others it doesn’t, and they prefer alone time. Try not to be judgemental about how your young person feels their way with this because we all have different strategies that work.

Talk about gender stereotypes and the harm they can do
Ask your son what they think it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘boy’. If they come up with any of the usual stereotypes, ask them why they think that and where they learned it. Talk about gender stereotypes when consuming media, such as starting a chat after watching an action movie with macho protagonists. Ask them questions like whether they think it’s okay for a boys or men to cry or want to wear some makeup or wear a dress. Talk about the ‘ideal man’ and whether they think all the cliched attributes that come with that are healthy. Talk about what gender stereotypes might be and where they came from, and direct their attention to how they’re starting to change and that it’s a good thing. Ask them what sort of man they want to be when they grow up, what sorts of qualities and characteristics do they value in the men they admire, and how you can both help them get there. 

You catch your 5-year-old playing ‘doctor’ with their schoolmate. What do you do?

Eeeeeek! We all dreaded this moment, didn’t we? This can be quite a confronting situation for parents and caregivers, but it’s important we don’t overreact. Child sexual behaviour is quite different to adult sexuality and we need to try and not confuse the two. Sexual exploration is actually a normal part of childhood, beginning from touching our genitals soon after we’re born. From between the ages of about three and six, kids are figuring out their identities and become particularly curious about body differences. But not every situation falls under ‘healthy exploration’, so do take in what’s happening. Are the children roughly the same age? If they are, then it’s likely not ‘red-flag’ behaviour. Are they using any toys or implements that they’re putting in places they shouldn’t? Does the situation seem coercive? These situations are more concerning, and need adult intervention.

If both kids seem happy and aren’t doing anything dangerous, then relax. Try to stay calm and remember that this is a normal and healthy part of their development. We don’t want to shame the kids by making them feel they’re doing something ‘wrong’. It’s okay to set limits, as long as it’s not in a way that makes them feel embarrassed or punished. You can positively put an end to the activity by saying something like, ‘It’s time to put clothes on,’ ‘The sun is out, let’s go jump on the trampoline,’ or, ‘Do you two want a snack? Let’s get dressed and come into the lounge room.’ Once the friend has gone home you can have a private conversation with your child. Let them know that it’s okay to be curious about other people’s bodies, but private parts are just for ourselves; we don’t touch others’ private parts or show our own. You can still encourage their curiosity by offering to show them a children’s book on bodies that the two of you can go over together. We’ve included a couple at the end you might want to look at.

It’s okay to establish a rule that when friends are over doors must be kept open – but don’t punish them for not having followed this rule already. When your child’s friend is picked up by a caregiver, you might want to casually mention what happened, but also that you weren’t worried by it and it seemed innocent. Kids normally grow out of these sorts of activities and while as heart-attack inducing it can feel at the time, it’s unlikely to be something you need to stress over.  

You notice that your 15-year-old daughter has started skipping meals. What do you do?

While it’s Women’s Health Week, we thought we’d tackle an issue that’s on the rise in teenagers – particularly teenage girls. In Australia, 3% of girls and 1% of boys aged 14 and 15 met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia and bulimia. And the rates for teens who don’t meet the criteria, but who still show early signs for these disorders or worrying thought patterns, are much higher. One study showed that, of the 14- and 15-year-old participants, 54% of girls and 19% of boys said that they had been afraid of gaining weight in the last four weeks. Forty-three per cent of girls and 20% of boys said that they had felt that they had lost control of their eating or felt they had eaten too much in the last four weeks. Two thirds of girls said that they would be at least a little concerned and 15% said they would be really upset if they gained one or two kilograms in weight.

While this is a problem for all genders, due to sexism, objectification and beauty standards for women, girls most often take on the pressures to conform to thinness standards. Feeling the need to control eating can often be a sign of other pressures going on in a person’s life, like anxiety, stress or issues with mood. Like always, having a chat with your child about what’s going on with them is the best place to start. You can bring up that they’ve not been eating much at dinner, or that they’ve brought their lunch back home, and that you’ve noticed – but we don’t want to shame them or make them feel guilty. Just ask if there’s anything that’s making them feel stressed or upset at the moment. They might bring up a tangible problem that the two of you can work on together, such as stress about schoolwork or friendships. If their worries are more ongoing or abstract, such as generally feeling low or anxious, or if they say that there’s nothing wrong but keep persisting with these behaviours, it’s probably a good idea to look into professional counselling for them. It’s also time to seek professional help for your child if you’ve noticed they’ve drastically lost weight, they’re refusing to eat, are really struggling to eat, or are taking excessive measures to lose weight.

Don’t be afraid either to talk to your child about society’s expectations of bodies, and the types of bodies they see in magazines and social media. Starting young with these conversations and/or talking often will help them to critically consume messages from the world around them. Ask them if they think the bodies they see in the media are normal and achievable. Ask them if they believe this is the only way to be beautiful. Talk about what other kinds of beauty can look like. Talk about the importance of ‘inner’ beauty vs ‘outer’ beauty. Talk about how sexism tells women that their body is the most important thing they can offer the world. Challenge their misconceived ideas if they have any. It’s also important to watch our own behaviour around our children with these sorts of things. If they see us complaining about our weight, or talking negatively about other people’s bodies, they’ll take on these messages. Same if they see us drastically restricting food intake. By role modelling good behaviour around our kids, we can at least create a home environment that encourages a healthy relationship between our bodies and our hearts and minds.  

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/eating-disorders-adolescents

https://growingupinaustralia.gov.au/research-findings/annual-statistical-report-2017/eating-problems-mid-adolescence

https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/age-13/mental-health-conditions-in-young-people/eating-disorders

Talking to your teen about safer sex

When should you talk?

The most important thing is to start talking about sex before your teen becomes sexually active. Don’t worry, talking about sex won’t put ideas into their head or encourage them; studies show that open conversations about sex actually delay teens’ first sexual experience. If they’re asking questions, that’s a good indicator that they’re ready to learn. Otherwise, puberty or about age 13 is generally the right time.

How to approach the conversation

Research tells us that parents have the greatest influence when it comes to young people making decisions about sex; more than the media, friends or siblings, so the more you talk, the better! It’s important not to use scare tactics. Instead, offer the risks, and talk about the pros and cons in a balanced and neutral way. Do prepare and plan for the conversations (that’s plural, because it should never just be one), but just remember it’s a dialogue, not a lecture. Asking them questions about what they already know or what their ideas and values are around sex is a great place to start. If you can do this you’ll notice they have lots of ideas to share and this will show them you’re open to listening and learning too.

The best thing you can do is to listen to what your child has to say without pressuring them for information. If they aren’t volunteering info about their own situations, asking them about what’s going on for people their age is a great way for you to gain insight and open these topics up with your child without making it personally about them. It’s important to be supportive and not to judge, but you can also offer your own values and opinions. And if you’re ever feeling a bit stuck, it’s always okay to go to other resources such as books or websites. Lastly, don’t forget to let them know they can always come to you if they have any further questions. This is one of the biggest and most difficult (and awkward) topics to cover as a parent, so give yourself a pat on the back and remember that you don’t have to always get it right.

When will they be ready?

Only your teen will be able to answer this question for themselves (but even they likely won’t know until they’re getting close or in a situation with someone where they’re feeling it). But there are a few things that steer teens towards early sexual activity, including peer pressure or curiosity, and you can talk to your child about being aware of these things. If any part of them isn’t feeling good about the idea, it might be best they wait – and let them know that’s okay. There are plenty of other ways to express affection. They might be ready if they feel confident and happy about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, without any sort of internal or external pressure. They also need to feel confident and capable in taking on all the responsibility that comes with sex, like communication and contraception.

Safe sex is consensual sex

Sexual health goes hand in hand with consent, as emotionally safe and healthy sex is consensual sex. This means that any sexual activity is wanted by both parties without any sort of pressure or coercion. If you’ve already had conversations with your child about body safety and not doing things with their body (or having things done to them) that they don’t want to do, then great! You’ve already laid the groundwork for the consent conversation. It’s quite a big topic to cover, so we’ve included some resources at the end that delve into this further.

Respect, honesty and trust

These are the three most important elements needed between people engaging in sexual activity. Sex is a relationship with another person, and all parties need to treat each other with respect – including respecting boundaries and behaving kindly and empathetically towards the other person after the interaction is over (e.g., not spreading the news around the school). There needs to be honesty about what each person wants or doesn’t want, likes or doesn’t like, and if they want something to stop. And there has to be trust that the other person won’t violate your boundaries or limits and that you can let yourself be vulnerable with them.

Communication is key

The more honest and open communication there is between sexual partners, the greater chance there is of it being enjoyable for both parties and the lesser chance there is of any boundaries being accidentally crossed. Some people might believe that talking about sexual acts before they happen, even just a kiss, can ‘kill the mood’ – but this doesn’t have to be true. Expressing your desires or asking for what you want can add to the pleasure of the interaction. Talking about your wants, fears, desires and emotions before, during and after sexual experiences is the best way to ensure everything is consensual and you come away feeling positive.

Risks: emotional

As important as any of the physical risks, bad, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual experiences can leave long-lasting emotional scars. We need to make sure our children understand about sexual assault and sexual abuse, and that they should always stop any activity and tell a trusted adult if someone is making them feel uncomfortable in any way. Talk about the risks of sexting, such as if someone shares their images without their permission. Remind them to always trust their gut: if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, and they should stop and try to diffuse the situation. Some teenagers worry about causing a fuss or changing their mind, but let them know it’s their right to say no to things, and also their right to change their mind, even in the middle of kissing someone, or even in the middle of sex.

Risks: legal

There can be legal risks that come along with sexual activity. The age of consent in Australia is between 16 & 17 (depending on the state). In all states it’s an offence for a person in a supervisory role to sexually engage with a person under their care who is under the age of 18. This includes: a teacher, foster parent, religious official or spiritual leader, a medical practitioner, sports coach, an employer of the child or a custodial official. Between the ages of 12 and 16, sexual activity may not be considered a crime if there is no more than a two year age gap and the activity is consensual. And under 12, it’s illegal to engage in sexual behaviour. Sexting also comes with its own legal risks and we’ll talk more about this in a later article.

Risks: pregnancy

Teenagers can feel invincible, like nothing they’ve heard about will happen to them personally. But with adolescent bodies primed to make babies (think of those ripe eggs, ‘bursting’ from the ovaries, and healthy sperm; young bodies designed for reproduction) – without contraception, pregnancy can and does happen. All the time. And your teen really needs to know that, because the repercussions can be enormous. Talk with your child about what the options are when it comes to an unplanned pregnancy; if you speak without judgement that will send a clear message that you’re a safe person to speak to if pregnancy is ever an issue. Your teen should always have a conversation with their partner about contraception before having sex.

Risks: STIs

In 2017, three quarters of people diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) were between the ages of 15 and 29. It’s important your teen knows what STIs are: a group of bacteria and viruses that are most commonly spread through sexual activity, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, and HIV. They also need to know what the implications are if these infections are left unchecked, their symptoms or lack thereof, and that STIs can be transmitted through oral as well as vaginal and anal sex. Even if they’re using condoms, once your teen becomes sexually active – they should talk to a health care professional about how often they should be tested for STIs.

Condoms and dental dams 

If your teen is thinking of becoming sexually active, male condoms, meaning condoms that go on a penis, are not only 98% effective at stopping pregnancy when used correctly – they’re also the best way to prevent the spread of STIs. Unless your teen is in a trusting monogamous relationship where both parties have been tested for STIs (and are on other contraception if applicable), they or a male partner should use a condom every time they have oral, vaginal or anal sex. There is also the female condom, but its general efficacy rate is only 79%. Dental dams can protect against some STIs, as they go over the vagina and clitoris or over the anus during mouth-to-genital/oral sex.

Hormonal contraceptives

No matter the gender of your teenager, it’s good to have a chat about all the kinds of contraceptives out there. If your teenager has told your they are having sex or want to have sex, you might want to discuss what sort of contraceptive they could try. Although they should be using condoms as well, it’s still a very good idea to have another contraception as a backup against pregnancy. Have a chat about options, including the pill, the mini-pill, Nuva Ring, contraceptive implant (Implanon), and the hormonal Intra Uterine Device (IUD). Remember that none of these prevent the spread of STIs and they need to be prescribed by a doctor.

Non-hormonal contraceptives

There are some non-hormonal contraceptive options if you or your teenager feel more comfortable with this. The copper IUD is by far the most effective with over 99% efficacy rate. Diaphragms and contraceptive sponges are other options, but their efficacy rate is only around 88%-91%, so we wouldn’t recommend them. We also suggest having a chat to your teenager about the ‘pull-out method’ or ‘withdrawal method’ and warning them against it, as it generally only has a 79% efficacy rate. (We don’t recommend it, but it’s better than nothing!)

Emergency contraceptives

The emergency contraceptive pill can be taken up to four or five days after unprotected sex, and has a 98% efficacy rate depending on when it’s taken – so it’s important your teen knows of this option in case they need it. That being said, it shouldn’t be used as a main contraceptive method – only a backup. The EC is available without prescription at chemists, and teens don’t need to be 16 years old to purchase. Let your child know that the pharmacist will need to ask some questions but that their confidentiality must be respected. Let them know as well that some chemists are conservative and won’t supply to under-age people. In that case, it’s best just to try another chemist. Finally, if you want to be their ‘go-to’ person, it’s important to tell them that if they do have unprotected sex, you won’t be angry, you’ll work out a plan together and that they can always come to you.

PrEP and PEP

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an antiviral drug that protects HIV negative people from catching HIV. When used as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective. It can be taken by anyone, but is generally recommended for men who engage in anal sex with other men. If you have a teenage son who is sexually active with other men, you might want to consider getting them on PrEP. On the other hand, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is taken after a potential exposure to HIV. If you have a bisexual or gay teenage son, we recommend talking to him about both.

Abstinence

Abstinence’ refers to refraining from doing something; in this context it means to deliberately hold off from engaging in sexual experiences. While it’s perhaps unrealistic to teach your child that abstinence is the only option, it is an important option to talk about. Teenagers can feel under a lot of pressure from their peers to be sexual, and it’s vital they know it’s okay to say no and hold off until they feel completely comfortable – if they ever do. Let them know that it’s common for people not to have their first sexual experiences until their twenties, and some never at all (we’ll talk about asexuality in another post). If they’re ever unsure, it’s best to say no.

Sex comes with responsibility

For some people, sex will just be something light and casual, not to be given a second thought, and for others sex will be a big deal. Feelings about sex can change and for some it’s not even an issue as there’s no interest (we’ll talk about abstinence and asexuality in another post). But for teenagers, entering into first sexual experiences isn’t something to be taken lightly, as there can be emotional and physical consequences. Engaging in sexual activity means a person needs to be ready for the responsibility of talking about and managing contraception and STI protection (if they’re too embarrassed to buy condoms at a chemist, that might be a sign for them to wait a little longer, and you can point that out, they’ll get it!). It also means they should be mature enough and willing to be able to have open and honest communication about sex with their partner, whether it’s a committed situation or a more casual thing.  

Resources

https://www.loveisrespect.org/healthy-relationships/what-consent/

https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens/issues/what-consent

https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sexually-transmitted-infections-sti

https://www.mshc.org.au/Home/tabid/1077/Default.aspx

https://yla.org.au/vic/topics/health-love-and-sex/sex/

https://www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/find-legal-answers/sex-and-law/age-of-consent

https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/dental-dam#what-dont-they-protect-against

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/contraception-choices#:~:text=There%20are%20many%20contraceptive%20methods,and%20natural%20methods%20(natural%20family

https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/declining-condom-use-in-young-australians/11154304#:~:text=Three%2Dquarters%20of%20these%20diagnoses,tested%20in%20the%20last%20year.

‘Dad, what’s a “blow job”?’ What should you say?

We all dread questions like this as a parent (the awkwardness! And how much should I say?), but it’s actually a great sign that your child is coming to you with their questions rather than the internet. When we were this age, oral sex may have still been seen as a taboo or wasn’t something we learned about until we were older. But with its frequent mention in film, television and even music videos, as well as its ubiquity in online pornography, ‘blow job’ has often entered the vocabulary of many kids by year 5 or year 6.

It’s important to be honest with your child and not try to evade answering their question. That being said, you don’t necessarily need to give them explicit detail. Depending on what you believe they’re ready for, you might just like to say, ‘It’s a type of sex that people might choose to do together because it feels good.’ If they ask how, or if you want to give them the full details, you can say, ‘It’s when a person puts their mouth on someone’s penis.’ You could also say, ‘It’s a type of oral sex, which is where a person puts their mouth on another person’s genitals (penis or vulva).’ You might also want to ask them where they heard the term. If they say they saw something online, you can lead into a talk about online pornography. If they just heard it from the schoolyard, don’t worry, sex becomes an endlessly fascinating topic for kids around this age – it’s just great to know they feel comfortable coming to you for the facts.