Recently I was watching a TV programme about a teenager who fell in love with a Facebook “friend” who ended up not being who he said he was and actually was a perverted stalker set out to ruin young girls lives.
It is the very thing that puts fear into parents all over the world. For this young girl, her adolescent years from 15 years old until about 20 years, life was taken over and she was harassed, stalked, verbally and psychologically abused. All during the very years she would be developing her sense of herself as an adult and also when her adolescent brain was not functioning at its optimum.
During these crucial years of development, as the experts have found, young people’s brains (frontal cortex) are shut down and under construction. At times the young person has literally ‘moved out’ just as we have to when our house is under significant renovation. This is a time when the amygdala (emotional part of the brain) is used much more than it had been in previous years when you would be able to have a reasonable and logical conversation with your child. Adolescents generally become much more emotional (think 3 year old tantrums!). But the increased complexity of adolescent life and their emerging social selves create a vastly changing landscape for them and this is a critical time for parents to really ‘be there’ without actually always physically being there.
So this TV programme got me thinking about this young woman’s interrupted development, and also about the dangers of the internet and social media, and more specifically the parent’s role in all this.
I don’t believe in getting too wound up about social media any more than I would with issues such as play dates, parties, drinking, drugs and sex. Intrinsically it is just another of life’s things that we as parents need to help our children/adolescents understand and negotiate. If we remember to stay with the basics then we will remember it just requires normal, basic parenting.
Banning young people from using internet, or social media is not going to solve the problems that can occur, nor is it going to enable your young people to gain important skills in technology which are more and more important today. It is also highly likely to set your child against you, and make them think you do not understand them and generally interfere with your relationship with them. Which I might add at this point is the number one MOST important factor.
What is crucial is that we as parents understand the world that our children are growing up in. We need to be helping them to manage it just as we have to do with any other parenting issue. We taught them how to use the toilet without falling down it. We taught them how to cross the road without getting run over. We taught them how to speak politely to others. We can teach them the basics of internet safety and social media safety without actually having to be technology experts – we are after all parent experts having the role 24/7!
We don’t send our children out to play on the freeway do we? So we should NOT send them out to play unsupervised and unprepared on the super-high speed internet highway!
Teaching our children appropriate social communication and etiquette is equally important with social media as it is face-to-face.
I remember back when my children started kindy. My oldest child was very chatty and had no problem talking to adults. He would look them in the eye and chat away. Every morning he would greet his teachers and friends with a cheerful hello or good morning, and he would reply when greeted. My youngest child was almost completely opposite. He would act as if he hadn’t seen the person. When greeted he would look at the floor, he would not say hello unless made to and even then he would still look at the floor. We worked on this a bit, talked about it at home and practiced with friends, but he has always been just a little bit shy and reserved. That’s just him and perfectly fine as long as I do my job as his mother and teach him social etiquette and politeness!
I saw other parents at Kindy become quite distressed about their little ones who did the same thing as my youngest, so they too would make it their parental mission to teach the accepted polite, social behaviour. Overall we, as parents, know our jobs in this respect.
However when it comes to the internet and social media it seems we do not know our jobs. Suddenly it’s like we are in no-man’s land and either bumbling around trying to ban it, limit it, criticise it or just plain pretend it is not there and ignore it. I have seen so many parent-teenage relationship destroyed by clashes over it. But I’m thinking that if you are reading this blog you are already OK with the super highway!
I do think it falls on all of us as parents to understand that this is just another basic part of our job.
Just because they are adolescents and they tell us to go away (or don’t tell us anything anymore) does not mean that we do it. Just as our three year old tells us to go away when it’s time to leave the playground, we do not. We do not do as out children ask in this instance because we know that they have to leave and they have to do as they are asked. And although I do tend to ‘go away’ when my adolescent tells me he does not want to talk to me, I definitely do not ‘go away’ in my mind. I am there psychologically and by this I mean that I keep him ‘in mind’ and I know that there is something there that he needs to share in an appropriate way, therefore it does need to be approached again.
As teenagers they do actually need us to go away sometimes, to respect their space and let them know that we do. We can’t be parents who hover around and stifle their autonomy, but we do still need to know what is happening in their lives so that we can be there for them and understand them. We are still the ‘secure base’ from which they can come and go. They must treat the ‘secure base’ with respect and it is not a one-way street. But definitely it is a secure base.
A secure base simplistically is the base a parent or caregiver provides from themselves where a child/young person can access when required for emotional or physical support (like cuddles, food, talking about life or problems) and it is also the base from which they can go out into the world with a sense of knowing and security that the base it still there ‘holding the young person in mind’ , knowing that they can safely access the base at any time they need.
In the case of the young girl above, who attempted to take her own life due the distress caused by this perverted abuser, her parents had no idea what was going on and evidently she felt she could not talk to them about it.
We can definitely help our young people by talking more about these subjects prior to things developing and letting them know that we can help them with these situations if they should arise, and that we will not go away when they tell us to! We, as parents, will always be there for them.
Talk about the tough stuff!
Silence is an abusers best friend. Victim’s silence, and our silence as parents when we don’t talk about these difficult subjects because we think we don’t know how to.
Talk about the difficult stuff, just do it! And then it becomes not difficult for your children to talk about it if it happens to them.
Recommendation: have a look at www.takethislollipop.com you may like to show it to your young person – but look at it yourself first!
Also the Australian website au.reachout.com is a useful site for young people if they are struggling with adolescent issues. It has all sorts of useful Apps for young people and talks about lots of issues such as sexuality, abuse, bullying, relationships, mental health etc. Take a look parents before you show your teens!