Why ‘NO’ is the most important word in your child’s vocabulary (and how to encourage them to use it)

Why it’s important

In a world of ‘yes’, ‘more’ and ‘positive vibes only’, the word ‘no’ gets a bad rap. Say ‘no’ too often and you’re a ‘negative Nancy’ or a ‘party pooper’. You’re not making the most of life’s opportunities or you’re too pessimistic. But ‘no’ is the one of, if not the most important tool in our vocabulary arsenal. Why? ‘No’ is what sets boundaries and protects us from harmful experiences. It’s what allows us to do with ourselves what we want to do – and not what others want or expect from us.

By extension, encouraging our children from an early age to say ‘no’ teaches them body autonomy and that they don’t have to agree to anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Communicating that it’s okay to say ‘no’ also teaches kids to listen and trust their gut instinct with people and situations. It also lays the groundwork for later in life when they gain independence and will be in higher-stakes consent situations as a teen and an adult, especially sexual experiences.

Of course, there will be periods in our children’s lives when it feels like ‘no’ is the only word they know. It might be frustrating, but by process of arguing with parents, children learn valuable skills around conflict management, negotiation, empathy and patience – as well as gain confidence.

How you can encourage saying ‘no’

Encouraging your children to practise saying ‘no’ can be an easy, everyday activity. When possible, allow them to think about and decide for themselves whether they want to do an activity. Role play situations with them where they might want to (or should) tell someone ‘no’ – from whether they want to wear their green T-shirt today to saying ‘no’ to unwanted touching. 

A great way to encourage body autonomy is to allow children to decide whether they want to hug or kiss their relatives at family events. It might tick off grandma or uncle Geoff if they ask for a hug at Christmas and you don’t tell your child they need to comply, but their mild annoyance is of far less importance than the values you’re teaching your child by allowing them to decide for themselves.

When you need to tell them ‘no’  

There will be times when negotiation is not an option and you simply have to put your foot down. That’s okay! It won’t contradict their right to say ‘no’ if you explain to them why. Let them know that, while they’re still children, there will be times when mum and/or dad (or other mum, or grandma, or whoever) will have to say ‘no’ to something they want to do for their own health and safety. Then don’t just tell them, ‘Because I said so!’ (Even though it’s tempting at times). Tell them why you’re saying ‘no’.

When they want an ice cream, tell them you’re saying ‘no’ because we need to respect our bodies by putting food into them that nourishes them. Let them know they can’t have the new toy because money needs to be mostly spent on needs – and we don’t always need new ‘stuff’. If they want to know why they can’t climb along the edge of a ledge, talk to them about risk and not putting our bodies in the way of harm. Telling them the reasons why they can’t do or have some things – rather than just ‘no’ – helps them to understand that denials have important reasons behind them that need to be respected.

How to help ease your child out of lockdown

While we’ve been rejoicing the end of Victoria’s lockdown, euphoria hasn’t been the only emotion brought on by the announcement. Many people have reported feeling anxious at the ease of restrictions. It makes sense. Those in higher risk groups might still be worried about catching the disease, vaccine or no vaccine, and additionally to that, we’ve spent the last 18 months absorbing the idea that social spaces are places of danger. We might be able to tell ourselves that this is no longer true, but it takes time for the body to process information. Some might find that socialising after so long can create feelings of ‘fight or flight’ and a heightened nervous system.

Children and teenagers especially could have complicated feelings coming out of lockdown. Some might be worried about catching Covid. Others might be nervous about fitting back into social dynamics or how they’ll cope with the workload of regular school. Plus, lockdown has taken a far greater time proportionally from their lives than ours. Many milestones such as birthdays and formals have been missed. And developmentally, they won’t have all the emotional and cognitive regulation skills of adults to transition smoothly into this new world. The good news (for us and them) is that brains are highly adaptable, and most will quickly adjust, but how can parents and carers help with this process?

Get them to think about and vocalise how they’re feeling

As always, the best thing to do is ask questions and talk, talk, talk. Ask them how they’re feeling about leaving lockdown, what they’re excited about and what they’re worried about. Get them to name their emotions and ask them to explain how they feel them in their body (sweaty palms? Heart skipping a beat? Etc). Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help, or strategies you can work on together to get them through this transition period. And remind them they can always come and talk to you, every step of the way.

Explain why they’re feeling this way

Some young people might be feeling confused as to why they have apprehensions about leaving lockdown. Talk to them about how our body isn’t always aligned with our brain, and our body can physically manifest worries that we might not consciously be aware of. Explain how we’ve grown used to perceiving social settings as ‘risky’ and how that’s a hard message to just switch off. Talk about how it’s normal to be nervous about going back to school and interacting with friends again – even best friends – and how it might feel as if they’re experiencing their first day all over again. 

Switch the anxiety/excitement axis

Increased heart rate. Butterflies in the stomach. Struggling to sit still. All of these can be symptoms of anxiety, but they can be symptoms of excitement too. And often, our bodies can’t really tell the difference. Try talking to your young person about the importance of a positive mindset. When they express these feelings, try and direct them to something they feel positive and excited about, rather than something that makes them feel nervous to think of.  

Talk about taking things slow and setting boundaries

It’s tempting to make plans for every second of the weekend now that we can again, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to handle the go-go-go when the time comes. If they seem to be getting overwhelmed, talk to your teen/child about easing back slowly into social gatherings. If they experience social anxiety, it could help for them to only make plans with good friends they feel very comfortable with to start off.

Part of taking things slowly will sometimes be having to tell friends ‘no’. Sometimes it will be having to tell themselves ‘no’. Remind them that it’s unlikely that the first few weekends out of lockdown will be the best of their lives, so they shouldn’t feel bad about setting limits. Help them decide what some reasonable boundaries might be and practise communicating them with your young person. Remind them that they have a whole summer ahead to have fun; there’s no need for FOMO now.

Reassure them

An obvious but important point. Let your young person know that what they’re experiencing is totally normal, and many others are feeling the same way. Reassure them that humans are adaptable and it won’t be long until they feel back to normal. Chat about how they’ll be able to talk about these times with their friends who have also been through the same thing.

Don’t forget to look after yourself

Lastly, remember your child isn’t the only one going through a strange, exciting, scary transition period! Go easy on yourself and lead by example. By looking after yourself and your needs, and working through your own emotions around lockdown, you’ll also be in a better place to support your child.

How to help your child or teenager cultivate a healthy body image

What is body image?

Body image is the way you perceive your body. It’s how you picture your body in your mind, whether accurate or not, and how happy, unhappy, comfortable or uncomfortable you are with how your body looks. Body image isn’t static; it often fluctuates over a person’s life, or even over a couple of hours.

Body image can become particularly important to young people going through adolescence.

Puberty often causes young people to develop a more complicated relationship with their body, as hormones create both physical and mental changes. It’s a time when young people care about fitting in and what others think of them, especially what they look like. This isn’t helped by social media, which saturates online feeds with idealistic influencers showcasing photoshopped or unattainable bodies and expensive wardrobes.

Of course, there are many factors that influence body image, including a person’s home life, ability, peers and friends, cultural background and more. As parents and carers, we can influence our children’s image of themselves and combat negative messages from the world around them. From teaching critical thinking to modelling good behaviour, there’s much that parents can do to be a positive influence.

Talk about the effects of puberty

It can be scary to watch your body change before your eyes! Talking to children about the changes of puberty before and while they happen can help ease their fear and create acceptance with their new body. Allow them to come to you with their concerns about their appearance, body size and shape – especially during this time. Reassure them that changes are normal, including putting on or losing weight, and that everyone develops at their own rate.

Praise them for things other than appearance

While an occasional ‘you look beautiful’ or ‘aren’t you handsome’ is fine, try to keep compliments focused on things they can do or have achieved or created themselves. Talk about how proud you are of their skills, efforts or interests. This might be praising their helpfulness, their compassion, their cleverness, a goal kicked, an award won or a project completed. You can instead compliment their style – the way they’ve put an outfit together.  

Focus on the things their body allows them to do

Talk about all the joys that come with inhabiting a body. Isn’t it nice to be able to enjoy the taste of food? Isn’t it cool how our bodies will let us climb trees or run a mile? Doesn’t it feel good to hug another person? There are many wonderful things that come with being in a human body, and you can help them see that.

Teach critical thinking when it comes to what they see

This one is so important and will set them up with skills for the rest of their life. Talk about beauty ideals and how they’re designed to be unattainable (so that you’ll buy things). Talk about how images in magazines, movies and social media have been deliberately constructed to make a person look good (like with certain angles and lighting) and how they use photoshop (most of the time, the person doesn’t look like that in real life). Talk about how everyone has imperfections ­– and how imperfections are what make us ‘us’.

Role model good behaviour

Children pick up many of their lifelong habits from home, whether they be practical habits, such as eating, or more intrinsic, intangible habits like thought patterns. Talking about how you dislike your own body or are going on some crash diet is going to send them messages about how they should relate to themselves as well. We know it can be hard, but cutting back on the ‘Have you lost weight?’ or ‘Don’t they/I look terrible?’ comments can go a long way. 

Talk about diverse bodies

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and abilities – and that’s a good thing! Talk to kids about the diversity of bodies and how it’s a positive. It would be boring if we all looked the same. And there’s no body type or physical attribute that’s ‘better’ than any others.

Encourage healthy eating and exercising

Kids will pick up most of their eating habits and relationships to food and exercise from their parents, so healthy behaviours can and should start at home. Rather than labelling certain foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, talk about the nutrition that you can get out of foods and the importance of moderation. Encourage regular physical activity not just for health, but also for enjoyment.  

Monitor socials media usage

One study of 1000 people found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they consume on social and traditional media. More often than not, that comparison is unfavourable. We know that social media apps like TikTok and Instagram can have a negative effect on how young people view themselves, so it might be a good idea to have limits on how much time your young person spends on these apps in a day.

Allow them to try new looks and styles

It’s normal for young people to cycle through different styles as they try to establish their identity. While we don’t want to encourage excessive focus on appearance, you can still support your young person in finding an image that’s ‘them’. Some of these new clothes or haircuts are going to be hideous to our adult eyes – and often that’s the point. But rather than saying that a look doesn’t suit them (or telling them to ‘cover up’ if they’re dressed provocatively), try to support their trying of new styles. If you have a major issue with the way they’re dressing, sit down and have a conversation where you explain your concerns, rather than just giving instructions to stop dressing like that. 

What to watch out for

In teenagers, an unhealthy body image is directly related to low self-esteem, which can cause negative moods and mood swings. Likewise, low self-esteem and unhealthy body image can be risk factors for eating disorders and mental health disorders. It can be a vicious cycle. While it’s normal for a young person to be conscious of their body, there are a few signs to watch out for, including if your young person is:

  • frequently criticising their body
  • frequently comparing their body with others
  • not wanting to wear clothes, go to events or do certain activities because of the way they look
  • obsessing about weight loss or a certain part of their body
  • spending an excessive amount of time looking in the mirror or taking photos (okay, we know a lot of teens spend a lot of time doing this)
  • feeling obvious guilt or shame over eating certain foods

If your young person is showing one or more of the above, you might like to sit down and have a chat with them about it. Check in, see how they’re feeling, and come up with some ways you can combat these issues together. If their behaviour doesn’t change, or if you’re particularly worried, we recommend your child sees a GP and/or a counsellor or psychologist.

How pornography changes our brain (and why our teens need to know about this)

We’ve talked a lot about pornography in the past (you can read our article on pornography vs real-life here). It’s because it’s such a significant, inescapable aspect of adult – and now thanks to free pornography sites and the internet – teen life. Sadly, many young people are getting their sex education from mainstream pornography, which we know often is deeply problematic and shows unrealistic portrayals of sex. That’s why it’s so important that schools, parents and carers counteract this miseducation by talking with young people. And one important aspect of pornography they need to know about is the effect on the brain.

Before we jump in, it’s also worth noting that this is touchy topic and different parents will have different values and opinions. Some parents and carers may not agree, but we believe all these points are worthy of consideration and at least a chat. It’s also impossible to know the true long-term effects of frequent pornography usage on developing brains, as the easy access to porn on devices has only been around for about 10 years.

How porn works on the brain

Pornographic images and videos stimulate the part of the brain that releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward. It’s one of the things that makes us feel good when we enjoy food or sex or buy a new pair of shoes. In fact, the imagery in porn is so hyper-stimulating for the brain that it releases unnaturally high levels of dopamine. Trying to create these high dopamine rushes again and again can ‘wear out’ the system. It may be why some frequent consumers of pornography say they need to go to more hardcore kinds of porn to get the same feelings of pleasure as before.

Porn can wear out our reward system

Pornography releases such high levels of dopamine in the brain that frequent viewings can leave the brain unresponsive to natural sources of pleasure (or even what was giving us pleasure before). It desensitises our brain’s reward circuitry and can mess with our natural ability to produce dopamine. Studies show that anything that creates significant changes in the transmission of dopamine can contribute to depression and anxiety, which may be why other research shows that frequent porn consumers report greater depressive symptoms, lower quality of life and poorer mental health compared to those who don’t watch porn.

Porn may change our ‘sexual scripts’

Frequent pornography consumption may change our ‘sexual scripts’, according to one study. Basically, our sexual scripts are our sexual interests, behaviours and expectations. Mainstream pornography offers an almost uniform sexual script of female objectification and degradation and male violence towards them. The results from the study showed that ‘the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image.’ Higher pornography consumption was also associated with lesser enjoyment of intimate behaviours with a partner.    

Anecdotally, we’ve heard this ourselves in the classroom. Some (mostly male) students who admitted to watching a lot of porn said they found it difficult to get turned on by the real-life partners and that their brain couldn’t connect in the moment. And we often hear from students of all genders that porn puts pressure on people to do the things that are shown onscreen.

Porn could lead to erectile disfunction

Studies show that today, between 14% and 35% of young men experience erectile disfunction. Until 2002, this number was between 2% and 3%. Of course, erectile disfunction is a complex issue that can relate to many factors including drug and alcohol use, stress, anxiety and depression. But some researchers believe that frequent and/or compulsive porn consumption now is also an important factor in this percentage rise – especially as it overlaps with the explosion of free and easily accessible online porn sites. 

Porn may affect our ability to delay gratification

One study from the Journal of Sex Research found that pornography may make people choose immediate payoffs over delayed gratification. What does this mean exactly? It means our ability to wait or work for something that will bring us higher reward rather than go for whatever pleasure is in front of us right now. Our ability to have a long-term mindset when it comes to rewards is what helps us, say, save money for something important rather than buy the cool thing in front of us right now, or work hard on a meaningful project even if it’s difficult rather than slacking off.

A chat with our educator Vivienne Crawford

For how long have you been an educator?

I’ve been with SEA for two and a half years and I was a primary school teacher for twelve years before that. I was, and still am sometimes, an educator to my two sons who are in their 30s. I have also taught at the tertiary level.

Why do you think sexuality education is important?

It’s crucial for allowing young people to develop as a whole person by increasing their knowledge and confidence.

What do you like about working with young people?

Young people are curious and inquisitive about themselves and their relationships with friends and family. It’s a privilege to have discussions with them around what can sometimes be sensitive areas.

What’s the most satisfying part of this work?

The programs run over three weekly sessions, so it’s really satisfying to watch how students gain confidence over that time.

What shocks you in the classroom?

Nothing really shocks me. I’ve noticed that young people are exposed to an ever increasing range of information that they’re trying to navigate as they get older.

What’s the weirdest question a child has ever asked you?

‘How much do breasts weigh fully grown?’

What’s the funniest question or comment a child has asked/said?

‘Can you grow more by sleeping for 24 hours?’

What was your own sexuality education like?

My sexuality education was in the early ’70s, I was in  grade six, and it consisted of a black & white video in a school classroom with my mother sitting next to me. I have three older sisters so I certainly gleaned information from them along the way.

Do you remember what going through puberty was like for you?

Puberty was awkward at times, just adjusting to physical body changes and becoming more self conscious. Later on, it was exciting as I became more independent and began to form my own identity.

Did you get any of your education from places you perhaps shouldn’t have growing up?

My eldest sister used to buy these little booklets from the newsagent containing love stories; I remember reading them with great delight. Dolly magazine was also a source of information with the ‘Dear Dolly’ column.

What do you think has changed around the culture of sexuality and health education since you were young? Are things different now?

The program that I teach for SEA is very different to what I received at the end of primary school.  Young people are far more aware and life can be more complicated. There is also a lot more acceptance around individuality both in regard to identity and gender.

What does pornography get wrong about sex?

It is not a realistic portrayal of what a satisfying sexual relationship can be. It’s a poor model, especially for those starting their sexual journey, and can lead to unrealistic expectations.  

What do movies and pop culture get wrong about relationships?

They place pressure on people to attain the perfect romance, lifestyle or body.

As a parent, how does that affect your teaching?

I now realise I could have discussed a lot more with my sons about puberty.  I recently became a grandmother and my passion for wanting young people to grow up informed and secure has been reignited.

If there was only one piece of knowledge you could make sure young people would come away with, what would it be?

Ensure you have trusted adults that you can talk with when you feel the need.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I have a wide range of interests including reading, theatre, walking, cycling, yoga, creative art practice and gardening.

What’s something non-sexuality-education/work related about you that you feel makes you a better educator?

Life experience and a questioning and wondering about who we are and how things work.