Since this is my first real blog entry, I’m going to start with a bang. Recently there has been a rash of teenage suicide in this country—and it is appalling. We must address sexual orientation with our kids. Specifically, our children need to know that no matter who they choose to date, we would rather they were alive than dead. Surely this is a point that all parents, regardless of religious orientation, can agree on?
We also need to promote a culture of acceptance at home, so that our kids don’t turn into bullying racists/homophobes at school. Despite the pop culture image of bullies becoming football stars and homecoming royalty, studies show that bullying is just as damaging to the aggressor as the victim. Bullies are far more likely to abuse drugs, fail school, and end up in jail. The victims, while subject to depression and anxiety, tend to become some of the most productive members of our society—that is, if they survive it.
Parents of victims frequently say, “I had no idea it was that bad.” Your little boy doesn’t want to tell you that the other kids kick him when no one is looking and steal his things. Your little girl doesn’t want to tell you that her friends are saying she’s a slut. They don’t want to be seen as weak and they don’t want you to be disappointed in them. They are ashamed. So they suffer in silence until they can’t take it anymore. Parents of bullies tend to deny, deny, deny. It’s the school’s/teacher’s/victim’s fault—their child could NEVER do anything purposefully cruel to another child. Unfortunately, that attitude does nothing to help the child who can only find validation in torturing others.
So what’s the science? Why are kids so mean? Why do the things that happen to us in high school resonate throughout our lives? Why do those 4 years seem like an eternity when you’re living them, and a hiccup when you’re 30? It has to do with how the brain matures, specifically the higher functions controlled by the frontal lobes. When the hormones start rolling in, our children begin to be more interested in sensation-seeking behaviors, or as Dr. Pat puts it, “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.” They look for the quick fix, the easy path, and whatever is the most fun. They are impulsive and have difficulty imagining the consequences of their actions, particularly if under the influence of strong emotions. The 14 year-old who can coolly tell you exactly how she would avoid getting into a car with a drunk friend at the dinner table is not necessarily going to make the same decision in the heat of the moment. You can see this if you look at causes of injury or death of pre-pubertal children compared to adolescents. Little kids get sick. Their older brothers and sisters die in car crashes, catch STDs, do drugs, and consider suicide. Morbidity and mortality rates increase 200% from early childhood to adolescence. There is no associated rapid increase in reasoning or emotional regulation—those behaviors require experience and time, and are not linked to hormone levels. Practicing logic and decision-making skills by discussing scenarios at home may help your child make the right choices. It also lets them know that you are open to the topic and available if they need help. Be prepared for eye-rolling. Pretend you don’t see it.
So what can we do? How do you discuss it?
Get interested in the politics of middle school. Children in 7th and 8th grade begin to look to friends instead of parents for their social acceptance. You need to find out who’s dating who, who’s the smartest, who’s the funniest, who’s drinking in the bathroom, who’s skipping class, who’s doing drugs, who’s dropping out. Those stories can lead to conversations about responsible behavior and what you expect of your child and their future. Notice I said “conversations” and not “lectures.”
This is also the age when you absolutely must have the dreaded sex talk if you haven’t already. We all want our kids to be virgins until 30. This is not realistic or supported by studies. I can tell you from my discussions with middle-schoolers that they run the spectrum from “boys/girls are ooky” to “oh yeah, I went to a sex party last week.” And you can’t tell who’s doing what by the way they dress or talk or what their GPA is this week. If you can’t handle it, bring them to the office for a well-visit and leave the room when asked. I’ll take care of it, and I’ll do what I can to educate and keep them healthy. But I’m not allowed to tell you anything, so you might want to figure out how to have the discussion.
And finally, we start by watching how we address those of differing sexual orientation in our homes. Do you frequently refer to things that you find effeminate or wimpy “gay?” Is “faggot” a frequent prejorative you use when driving to work? If your child hears these types of things at home and they identify as gay or lesbian, they are highly unlikely to tell you if they’re being bullied. And if they are bullying children at school, they’re learning it from you. It’s hard to hear, and I hope all of us are innocent of this kind of teaching, but clearly it’s happening. Our children must know beyond all doubt that we love them, and we want them to live long, happy, love-filled lives.