Are you competent to talk sexuality to your kid in this digital age?
Michele S. Alignay, psychologist, counselor, author, speaker and mother of two Gen-Z kids, gave a recent talk on “Decoding Family and Sexuality Matters in the Social Media Age” to parents at De La Salle Santiago Zobel in Alabang.
Talking about sexuality within a Catholic framework, she stressed that, in the digital age, the competency of parents to discuss sexuality with their children continues to lag behind.
“We’re stuck in the ’80s,” she noted. “We need to be as fast, if not faster.”
“Pakiramdaman, biruan, pinaparinggan (playing it by ear, teasing, hinting)—this is how we were raised,” she related, adding that kids today need guidance and to talk about it.
Alignay said that sexualized images have always been there—stimuli that we and our children are bombarded with daily.
At around 7 years old, children remain relatively innocent, so it’s the perfect age to explain sexuality without any malice, Alignay said.
“The young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation,” said Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia (‘The Joy of Love’), his apostolic exhortation on the family.
“We don’t have command over our body,” Alignay added. “It is borrowed.”
Adolescent sexuality starts as early as second grade, with hormones already reacting to stimuli, and crushes begin, she pointed out. The battle between what the Church and media say also starts to confuse these pre-tweens.
“We need to be our children’s biggest influencers because it’s our role as their parents,” Alignay said.
But in the Philippines, parents leave sexuality education to the school because parents are not confident and competent for such discussions.
The higher the parents’ competency and openness, the more confident children can carry themselves in moment-of-truth situations.
Normal human reaction
“Attraction is a normal human reaction,” assured Alignay, saying it was good for children to be in a coed school, like De la Salle, where real friendships could be built.
“While the body may be physiologically ready, emotionally, our teens are not,” she clarified. “Parents usually say their children are not allowed to have relationships until they’re in their 20s, but the paradigms we move in are very different. They may obey your no-boyfriend rule, but nothing has been specified about ‘friends with benefits.’
The kids today will most probably say their parents did not specifically prohibit MU (mutual understanding).
MU involves Momol (make-out-make-out-lang), or getting physical with no commitment, dating but not exclusively.
“It’s the ’80s equivalent of necking and petting,” Alignay said.
Generation (Gen) Z kids—children born approximately in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s—are said to be easily bored, have information overload, are challenged in handling emotions, have a lack of insight and empathy, and are an “entitled generation.”
They tend to be too immersed online, so when do they spend time in real life?
“The balance is crucial,” Alignay said.
So, what’s a parent to do? “Do not fight your kids’ battles,” Alignay advised.
“Parents need social skills. Gen Z may be ‘born into social media,’ but studies have shown that increases in depression are directly correlated with increase in social media use.
“Without enough physical activity, there is no dopamine, endorphins, or happy hormones that naturally occur from exercise, relating to others, or participating in sports.
“Kids today tend to ignore their parents’ stare or tone of voice as warning signals because they have no empathy. They are not receptive to social cues because they are too immersed in gadgets. They need to be trained, to be reminded consistently,” Alignay said.
Kids today are immersed in thoughtless social networking, such as self-centered displays of purchases/gifts and carefully curated online identities, which can lead to depression and a form of addiction.
Gaming addictions now exist, with some people being online for over six hours a day, who no longer hold eye contact, and are unable to do well in other areas of their lives.
“We cannot confine our kids in our world,” Alignay said. Instead, she advised parents to educate their kids about privacy concerns and how they leave digital footprints.
“From grades 1 to 3, kids are curious, not malicious. They think knowing ‘forbidden’ words is cool…”
It is only in Grade 5, she added, when the reproductive system is discussed in the classroom, and students tend to put malice it.
What about family issues and risk-taking behavior like unprotected sex, slashing, alcohol—how are we tackling these issues with our kids?
Alignay stressed that we must be able to raise kids who are equipped to thrive in the world despite such challenges.
The reality is that parents had rigid compartments in their belief system while growing up: crushes, love, and marriage.
When a child asks, “Mom, what is sex?,” the answer sometimes is, “Where did you learn that? That’s not appropriate for your age.” So, the child’s take-away from the question is that it’s wrong.
Alignay spoke about a girl she was counseling. The girl said she appreciated that those who made her out of love were the same people who talked to her about sex. Alignay said she believes the girl will be able to decipher what is good and bad information.
Sexuality, as taught in catechism, “affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul.”
“Sexual drive is a gift from God,” St. John Paul the Great said. “Sexual urge must never be separated from love—the desire to do what is best for the other.”
Meanwhile, St. John Paul II said: “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.”
“We are all sexual beings,” Alignay said. “It doesn’t only happen when we have sex. We have dignified souls and bodies. It concerns the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way, the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.”
Sexuality is the totality of mind, body and spirit. It has many dimensions—not only physical but also emotional, intellectual, psychosocial and spiritual.
Having crushes is connected to sexuality—when you like being with another person, the good feeling you get when seeing someone you like, the inborn tendency to appreciate beauty.
“We cannot protect our kids. We have to talk to them about this topic with our mouths shut,” Alignay said. “Social media is so much more interesting than the church, school, or parents. Kids won’t approach you if they know you are uncomfortable, might judge, comment, or ask while they are talking.”
She added that when kids approach their parents, it takes a lot of guts, so it’s important to truly listen. Sometimes, the kids just want parents to listen. They do not usually want comments.
She advised: Listen with an open heart and open ears. Then ask: “Can I say something? Ask for permission only.”
More advice: If parents start moralizing without a basic foundation, without talking about mind set, values, relating to people around them, and if they start with spirituality, the kids won’t listen. Sandwich it, but don’t lead with it.
Kids in Catholic schools already have Christian Living and Science, so integrate it with psychosocial, intellectual and physical discussions.
In books, sexuality is referred to in physiological and biological terms. But there has to be other ways to teach it.
“Kids can be successful in handling sexuality,” Alignay said. “It’s a given that one cannot compare Gen X and Z.”
Alignay added that we can no longer say a family is just nuclear, as families are no longer defined in the same context as when we grew up.
“Carry a different mind set,” she noted. “Refresh your way of looking at things,” Alignay said.
Many couples are so engaged in the business of work and parenting, but Alignay advised to “be a couple first before being a parent. The best thing you can give your children is a happy marriage. Have the kind of love you want your children to see, how you want them to be treated by their future spouses. Kids feel it.”
That’s why one father that Alignay talked about continues to open doors for his wife and daughters.
The father said, “We trust our daughters. They’re allowed to go out on their own. They need to learn how to commute before they can drive. I’d rather we teach them these life skills than someone else or if they don’t know. Better that they know self-management.”
Parents usually tell their daughter not to immediately have a boyfriend. “Choose the right guy.”
But what the daughter needs answers to is: Who is the right guy? How do I deal with attraction? How do I handle a suitor? How can I get good grades?
The reality, Alignay said, is that parents cannot block all the bad online sites for their kids, so there must be mutual trust. Children should not feel smothered, but should know that their parents are there for them. “Have real conversations, talk to your kids, and set rules with accountability.” –CONTRIBUTED
Alignay ended her talk with the following tips:
Show a healthy sense of self.
Accept and respect your teen’s evolving identity (they are their own person; when they make mistakes, they learn). Should they talk back, don’t tolerate disrespect. You can say that it’s okay to express one’s self but emphasize that you don’t appreciate/accept/like their tone.
Ensure parental presence and support for their individuation process. Be there but don’t hover. How can a child say “no” in school if she’s not allowed to say it at home?
Be intentional, be present, and prioritize. Set family rituals, meals, togetherness and honor family time. Put down gadgets when eating. It’s time for connection, not lectures.
Clearly and consistently communicate family values, expectations and limits: “I expect you to do your work. Or else, you have to surrender your phone to me for a week.”
Unconsciously, children want structure. They seem to assert independence, but especially for middle school-aged kids, you can let go a bit administratively but not emotionally. Continue to connect that way. Lose them here and you won’t be able to connect with them in high school.
Engage them directly and indirectly in ongoing life, love and sexuality talks. Use media (songs, telenovela, etc.) to your advantage, so your analysis is educational.
Be conversation-oriented for better family communication, as opposed to being compliance-oriented, which just requires them to obey. Talk to them to get to know them. Have them conform out of love, so rebellion won’t happen.
Parents who reason, “Ayokong pagalitan baka ma-depress, mag-suicide,” are mistaken.
If you’re that one person who can hold your children’s hearts and souls, they will think: “The world may come down on me, but my parents are there for me.”
There’s a spirit of openness with nonjudgmental conversations. Hold your comments or they won’t talk to you as thoroughly again.
If what you know is what they tell their classmates, that’s okay, they’re entitled to their privacy. Compliance comes after conversation. Be aware of the depth and breadth. Know what’s in their heart. ’Pag takot sa magulang, they’ll just tell you what they know you want to hear. Ask, “What help do you need from me?”
Utilize social media as tools and skill-building opportunities in mediating their sexuality influences. Help them manage their online and offline life. Sites such as familyzone.com can help manage online use.
“Equipping happens now,” said Alignay. “Instill values and revise ways now, while we still can. Be an able, askable, and available parent to make your children accountable.”
Michele Alignay is the author of “Family Goals: Embracing the Imperfections of Family Life.” Visit michelealignay.com
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