Porn vs real-life: what your teen needs to know

Pornography is no longer the playful, ‘your pizza is here’, magazines hidden under the bed sexiness. Porn today is more violent, more sexist, more hardcore, and free – and anyone with a smartphone can access it with the press of a button. We’ve spoken before about the importance of talking with your adolescent about porn, and specifically the differences between porn and healthy, real-life sexual experiences. But what exactly are the differences? And here we’re talking about the mainstream online pornography on the popular free websites – which is almost exclusively heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, focused on male pleasure, and most often, highly degrading to women. Pornography itself isn’t always a ‘bad’ thing, and some adults may choose to watch it, but this kind of mainstream porn is what most young people will be watching, and it’s the most damaging. It’s the worst place to learn about safe, pleasurable and consensual sex.

The below lists contain some ideas we’ve put together. We know that there can be crossover between what is seen in pornography and what can happen in real life. We aren’t talking here about situations that are mutually negotiated, truly consensual and not harmful. What we’re focusing on here is how problematic it can be for developing minds to be exposed to hard-core pornography, perhaps for years before a person even kisses another in real life. And the impact such exposure can have on shaping both attitudes, expectations and behaviour. If these discussions don’t happen with our young people, then they are left alone to think: ‘Oh, I have to do that?’

If and when teenagers do choose to engage in real-life sexual experiences, they should be intimate, caring, painless, respectful and rewarding. Most people don’t look like porn stars – and that’s a good thing! How boring would it be if we all looked the same? If young people go into the first sexual experiences believing they should be treated with respect and that their agency and sexual pleasure is important (as well as that of the other person), while having the confidence to communicate what they do and don’t want, they’re more likely to enjoy themselves and set themselves up for a healthy adult sex life. And this begins with open, healthy communication at home. 

You discover your 17-year-old is on a dating app. What do you do?

First, take a deep breath. It’s normal to be shocked by finding something like this; dating apps aren’t generally made for teens and your concerns around safety are genuine. But by 17, our children are harder to control when it comes to their online habits and simply saying ‘you’re not allowed’ is unlikely to make them stop (oh, if only!). So, it’s once again time for the next best magic fixer: communication. Ask them why they’re on the app. What do they want to get out of it? Why do they feel the need to meet people online, rather than school, friends, or other outside activities? Their arguments might be fair. Some gay high schoolers use dating apps because they can’t meet other queer people through the usual channels or aren’t comfortable being ‘out’ at school. Some more shy or socially anxious young people find communicating online easier. Some teenagers live in remote areas and find it difficult to meet new people. That being said, whatever their reason, you’re right to have some fears for their safety and you should voice those concerns.

Be honest with them about your worries. Talk about the risks of meeting up with strangers (as well as how to mitigate them, such as always meeting in a very public place). Explain how predators will use these apps to try and lure young people, often by pretending to be a teenager themselves. Talk about the risks of sexting. Talk about the risks of casual hook ups in general and why you might not feel so great about them participating in that culture. Go back over talks around sex and consent. Also, ask them to share what dating app they’re on and what their age range is. Are they pretending to be older than they actually are? Most dating apps are for 18+ only, but some do have specific set ups for 13-17-year-olds, such as Bumble. If they’re on an 18+ app, see if you can compromise by getting them to delete that account and move to a more age-appropriate app.

Once they’ve explained their side of things and you’ve explained yours, see if there is a middle ground the both of you can reach that would make you feel more comfortable. This might be rules around having them show you the profile and conversations of someone before meeting up (or at least sharing what they’ve learnt about the person they are talking to), having a very public meeting time and place that you are made aware of in advance, and so on. It may be that you both decide that they’ll take a break from using the app and try and make connections with peers they know (but, remember if they are coerced into this decision they may tell you they have deleted the account but continue to use it secretly). Lastly, reiterate the importance of trusting your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, even slightly off, they should listen to that feeling and put a pause on the interaction. And if ever in doubt, they should come talk to you about it.

How to deal with conflict at home

From SEA co-founder Justine Kiely-Scott: ‘I know that with this second lockdown, my three kids are up and down all the time. Often they can’t name their emotions, and my guess is they’re feeling flat or confused or unsettled. One is back in the classroom and is stressing about someone testing positive for COVID-19; the thought of more online school in Year 12 makes him worry. Another child isn’t loving remote learning and is struggling to sit at the desk all day before doing more homework at the desk after school. The other one likes aspects of online school but seems more quiet than usual and I think is missing friends. It’s easy to start bickering or nitpicking over small things when we’re all feeling unsettled, especially because I’m worried and feel sad for them on top of my own feelings about the lockdown.’

We all experience times of tension at home. For Victorians, in our second lockdown, this might be a particularly difficult period. No matter how much we love our family, spending all our time with a particular person or group of people is likely to lead to at least some bickering (especially if there’s teenagers involved). As parents ourselves, we’ve been there. Each family will have their own dynamic and particular ways of dealing with conflict, but we’ve also put together a few tips we’ve found can help.

Keep a level tone. When we’re in a dialogue with someone, we naturally try to match the other person’s tone. In an argument this can become a one-upping of voice levels. Keeping a calm and level tone can help stop arguments from escalating. 

Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. Rather than saying ‘You do this thing!’ or ‘You are this thing!’ it becomes, ‘When this happens, I feel like this.’ Talking in this way helps to stop people from becoming defensive about their behaviour, as well as avoiding helping the both of you to avoid saying hurtful comments in the heat of the moment. 

Try to listen. This can be a tough one when feeling angry or exasperated, but making sure your child/partner/whoever feels heard can be all that they’re after. So not interrupting, asking questions, and letting them know you understand. That’s not to say you shouldn’t argue your point as well, just provide the time and space for theirs.

Stick to the point. This means not veering off into other unresolved arguments or bringing up past pain. You’re more likely to find a solution and move on, rather than talking for hours, re-hurting each other. 

When arguing with children, remember who the adult is. Your 16-year-old might feel at times like a master manipulator, or your eight-year-old an impossible adversary, but remember the parts of their brains that control emotional regulation still have a lot of developing to go. And an off-the-cuff comment from you that you’ll forget overnight, they might remember for years. 

Don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s rare that an argument needs to be sorted out then and there. If things are getting too heated or going on too long, push the pause button and go take some time away. If you can, do something releasing or relaxing, like going for walk, reading a book, or having a bath. 

When the conflict is between two siblings: First of all, don’t always jump in. Learning conflict resolution is an important skill and sibling quibbles are one of the first and most important situations where a child can develop this. If you do feel it’s necessary to step in (say, if the fighting has been going on for longer than 15 minutes), you can be the mediator who applies the above steps. Make sure each child gets to say what they need to, that they stick to the point at hand, and they use ‘I’ statements. Ask them both what they think is a fair compromise and be the final judge. 

Your child tells you they’re scared to get their period. What do you say?

It’s completely normal for a young person to be feeling a bit nervy about their period starting. And to be honest, we get it. They might’ve heard friends, parents, or older siblings complain about them and the idea of your body doing something it’s never done before roughly once a month is a big shift. But, like for most of us who have experienced periods – it quickly becomes a normal and manageable part of life.

We don’t want to make our children any more worried, but we also don’t want to invalidate their fears. Let them know it’s okay to be nervous, and it can seem like a big change, but it’s also a normal part of growing up that nearly half the population goes through. If we explain things in a calm and measured way, they’ll pick up on it and feel reassured. It might be a good time to go over what a period is, how it happens, and why (if you’re not sure what to say, using books can help). Start with a simple explanation and see how it lands. Add more information if they’re receptive and asking questions, but don’t say too much if they’re not ready. Reiterate that the positive thing about getting periods is that it means their body is working properly, and that one day they can have a baby of their own – if they decide to. If you’re a parent who’s had periods, share your experiences and feelings. Explain that periods last for 3-6 days about once a month, and even then, most of the time you forget it’s happening. They’re usually very manageable.

Often, it’s the talk about blood that worries them. They usually associate blood with pain because of the cuts and or grazes they’ve experienced over the years – and that pain is real.  Explaining that what comes out of the body during a period looks like blood, and some of it is blood, but it’s also a mixture of tissue that forms the lining of the uterus if a woman is pregnant. It’s this lining that helps nourish a baby (if a baby is there). Also mention that a period in itself doesn’t hurt, but some women might have side effects like cramping, headaches, mood changes, tender breasts, and so on. Just give as much detail as you think they’re ready for.

If your child is worried about getting period stains on their clothes and other people seeing, let them know that this can happen but generally the amount that comes out doesn’t go all the way through to your pants or dress. Talk through what to do if it does happen, say at school for example. Let them know that no one else can tell they’re having their period. If they do get their period and they don’t have any pads or tampons with them, they can always use some toilet paper placed in their undies, and they can always ask another woman if they have any spare or talk to their teacher. They won’t be judged or laughed at for this, in fact for many women, periods become so commonplace, they can chat about them with ease. Your child is likely to feel like that one day too. This is also the perfect opportunity to talk about getting a ‘period kit’ prepared – just in case. They can choose a make-up bag or pencil case and put spare underwear, pads, wipes, and a snap lock bag for stained underwear, and keep this in their school bag. It normalises things and reassures them that they can manage if they don’t feel comfortable talking to a trusted adult at school. 

How to support your tweens and teens in their friendships

From childhood to the day we die, we all need friends. Some people will have a wide and easily gained social circle, while others will be happy with just one or two close friends. There is no wrong or right, it’s simply a reflection of who a person is and what feels right for them.

Encouraging healthy friendships

Thanks to social media, young people can become obsessed with the concept of ‘friends’ and how many they can accumulate. Often it is less about ‘quality’ and more about ‘quantity’ and what others can see. As parents, we can help our kids think about and verbalise what it is that they want from their friendships. Maybe it’s kindness, trust, honesty, humour, or respect. And it’s a two-way street – talk about the qualities they should strive to offer in return. Remind them that good friendships take time to develop – rushing into new friendship can be intense and may not last.

There needs to be balance in friendships. One person shouldn’t hold more power than the other. No one should do all the deciding, or tell others what to do, who to hang out with, or what they should or shouldn’t like. Everyone has the right to their opinion and to be heard. Imbalance of power in friendships can have a huge impact on confidence. If you feel your child might be in an unhealthy friendship, talk about it and try and help them name how the relationships makes them feel. Encourage them to broaden their friendship group and become involved in activities that will give them a break. If necessary, bring issues to the attention of the professionals at school.

Dealing with conflict

Conflict is a normal part of friendships. We won’t always agree, live up to expectations, and have the same way of doing things. Encourage your child to be forgiving and understanding, but at the same time, and they should stand up for themselves and not to let someone treat them poorly. A friend should never freeze you out, exclude you from a group, or tell others about your issues. So, how do we parents help to manage these tricky situations? Trying to keep our emotional selves out of it is hard, particularly when our child is hurt, but we need to be realistic about our child’s strengths and weaknesses (they may not be as innocent or blameless as they make out). If there is an issue, talk about it with your child, ask questions, repeat back information, and then encourage them to come up with a solution. Don’t try and fix everything for them, as this robs them of an opportunity to take responsibility and learn how to deal with conflict.

Communication is important, but privacy and respect are also key to preventing issues from getting out of hand. Encourage your child to solve problems away from others face-to -face and explain to their friend how they feel using ‘I’, not ‘you’ statements (you’ll get more empathy with an ‘I’ and defensiveness using ‘you’). We don’t recommend contacting other parents directly, as emotion and bias can get in the way and parents often hang on to things long after their children have forgiven and moved on. Involve a teacher or a school counsellor if things get out of hand.

Changing friendships

Some friendships don’t last or fade out, and that’s normal. People change and circumstances change. This can be hard, but it’s important your child knows to treat others with kindness and respect when it happens. Teach them to be thankful for friendships no matter how long they last, we learn something from each and every one of them. Encourage your kids to have friendships in different areas of their life. That could be in organisations outside of school, in your neighbourhood, extended family, interstate, or overseas connections like a pen pal. Each friend will offer something different: a good listener, good competitor, good fun, etc. And friendship is voluntary; it should be something that we can walk away from if it’s not having a positive impact on our lives.

Be wary of using of the term ‘best friend’. It can put too much pressure on one person to be everything, and when things go wrong or change, a big hole is left to fill and can leave people feeling guilty and disloyal. If adults refer to a certain friend as ‘best’ often, it can make things really awkward, especially if the friendship dynamics are changing.                                         

Young people should come away from spending time with a friend feeling good about themselves, not second guessing what they said, did, or wore. Friendships can become more intense during puberty. The discovery and independence that happens during this time really makes for strong connections, and they can be a roller-coaster ride. Often, the best thing to do as a parent is listen. Again, try to avoid solving every dilemma for them. Be observant, interested, and alert – step in if your gut feeling tells you too. Your tween or teenager is still working things out, even if they think they know everything! 

Links to good resources:

https://urstrong.com/resources/category/parents/

https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens

https://kidshelpline.com.au/kids/issues

https://au.reachout.com/helping-someone-else/helping-friends