Q: Exploring one’s sexuality is a major part of adolescence. How can Indian parents have ‘the talk’ with their children and encourage safe sex? Additionally, how can we work on making Indian parents, educators, and society in general accepting of different sexual orientations and gender identities?
A: Sexuality and safe sex are still not easily discussed in most Indian households due to the fear of stigmatization and exclusion from society.
This stigma is present due to a lack of awareness.
Sexual orientation is a natural part of who you are — it’s not a choice. It’s not completely known why someone is gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual, but research shows that sexual orientation is likely a result of certain biological factors that start before birth. Many queer people have said that they knew they were lesbian, gay, or bisexual even before puberty.
Thus, it’s important to understand the differences between the terminology.
- Gender identity is the gender you identify with. This may differ from the gender assigned to you at birth.
- Attraction refers to the romantic or sexual feelings you have toward others – people of the same gender as yours, different genders, or none.
- Sexual identity is how you label yourself (for example, using labels such as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual).
We need to emphasize and educate parents and teachers that different sexualities and gender identities are not illnesses and do not require treatment or medication. While these children may need therapy due to the stigma attached to the queer community, they do not require ‘conversion therapy.’ They do not decide to ‘be gay’ or have a particular gender identity; it’s not a choice and there is nothing wrong with them.
The solution is education, information, inclusiveness, acceptance, giving them space, and helping normalize these discussions and identities. Other ways we can help is by:
- Sharing success stories of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities.
- Creating support groups and employment opportunities.
- Exposure to movies and media. For instance, the movie ‘Evening Shadows‘ portrays an orthodox mother’s struggle to accept her gay son. Similarly, the movie ‘Kapoor and Sons’ has a gay character who is not stereotyped.
This is extremely important as the media and the entertainment industry are responsible for providing accurate and realistic representation. Stereotyping and using queer characters as a joke will only solidify the stigma in people’s minds.
Likewise, with regard to sex education, it needs to be normalized and treated like every other educational topic such as science, mathematics, etc.
By including parents and teachers in these conversations, we create more awareness and de-stigmatization in the early years of a child’s life. Thus, we help them form a bond with the adults in their lives and avoid mental health issues such as depression, stress, and self-hatred.
Q: Children may often be victims of abuse either at school, with their peer groups, or at home. How do we educate children and create a safe space for them to contact the necessary authorities about this?
A: Imagine a 7 or 8-year-old child has suddenly developed a fear of going into the study room in his home. His parents have been pushing him to get over his fear, but they are unable to understand the basis of it. This continues for a few more weeks, until one day in school, he breaks down. Upon having a conversation with him, he tells his teacher about an older cousin who has been showing him lewd pictures and obscene videos when they spend time together in the study.
Here, the child has understood that something is wrong about this situation, but is unable to find the words to tell his parents why he is afraid and uncomfortable. Such moments go beyond simple ‘good-touch-bad-touch’ and need to be addressed urgently.
Young children, before age 8 or so, find it difficult to verbalize their feelings and experiences. So, it’s important to educate them through stories and social activities. It can also be extremely helpful to have a buddy (safe) teacher the child can always approach and talk openly with. Childline (1098) has a wonderful initiative to educate children about safe touch. So, this is what we are doing in schools, right from the first grade, about safe touch and gender biases.
However, this is not a subject that you can introduce for one year and then forget about it. It needs to be reiterated over and over again, depending on the child’s age. Think of it as working with concentric circles – each year you need to increase your radius. While the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, 2012 is great legislation, it is only tertiary. What we need is primordial prevention, which is only possible through education and awareness.
It is also important to educate parents and teachers about various behavior patterns and look beyond the basic good-touch-bad-touch method of dealing with child abuse. One abuser may be making the child view obscene material, some may verbally abuse the child, and some may abuse physically. These are all abusive behaviors and can profoundly impact a child’s psyche.
Some behavior changes parents and teachers should remain aware of as warning signs of abuse are:
- Inappropriate engagement with toys or objects
- Becoming unusually secretive
- Nightmares and sleeping problems
- Writing or drawing images with a sexual connotation
- Becoming extremely withdrawn or clingy
- Thinking of self or body as repulsive or dirty
- Reacting in a surprised manner when asked if somebody is misbehaving with them
- Change in eating habits and difficulties in swallowing
Q: In your opinion, how should a child approach their parents regarding their career choices, especially if they are not in line with their parents’ expectations?
A: Talking to parents about career plans can be extremely tough for an Indian child. Before they talk, it’s helpful if the child does some groundwork on their career plan.
They should ask themselves questions such as:
- Is this really what I want to do?
- Will I be happy with this career?
- Am I doing this because my friend wants to do it?
- Do I have the required skills to take up this career?
Then, find a suitable time with their parents. It is important that children do not expect their parents to support their career plan right away. Sometimes parents will have different plans for the child, and it takes time for them to recognize their child’s interest and support them.
Parents must have an open mind and be aware of their child’s strengths and weaknesses. They must also stay updated regarding emerging careers. Most parents attempt to live their unfulfilled dreams through their children, which does not help in the long run and also breaks down the parent-child bond. Parents must create a comfortable space for their children to talk to them about anything, including finding their career path.
In my experience, most students are not willing to talk to their parents because they are afraid of how their parents will react. However, if a child is comfortable, routinely turns to their parents for guidance, and if the parents are well-informed, they can gently make the child aware of their strengths.
For instance, if a child is creative, good in problem-solving, good in logical reasoning, etc., they can direct the child to a specific education path for a successful career. Or if the child is good in language, communication, leadership, and organizational skills, parents should know where they can direct the child’s education path. For this, parents need to be aware of their child’s strengths, limitations, and areas where they need improvement.
This is very important because a career is an individual managing a successful pattern of work over a long period of time. A career is an individual’s journey through learning, work, education, and other aspects of life. Often, we are pushed into jobs and careers which are not suitable for us either by our parents, teachers, relatives, or peers. To be able to succeed, progress, and enjoy our work, we must be interested and have an aptitude for it.
Thus, it is best to allow the child to choose their career path as they understand the changing landscape of the education and work sectors and can readily identify careers they would be well-suited for, which may not be obvious to others.
Q: If a parent notices their child showing symptoms, how should they approach their child and bring up the topic of therapy and counseling?
A: Parents must remember that their words have a very significant effect on their child’s mental, emotional, vocabulary, and academic development. A child presented with positive words during the developmental ages of 0-8 years will have a faster, healthier, and overall better development in all areas.
During the early years, children are naturally bonded to their parents. Hence, if any symptoms are noticed, they can be easily managed through play therapy and fun activities. During this time, children are unable to articulate and express their problems and feelings due to a lack of cognitive and language development. Thus, most of the verbal communication is done with the parents, and the therapists rely on the parents’ ability to monitor and report on behavior patterns and activities.
The most important thing for parents to remember is that they bring their children to a safe, professional, and licensed therapist who will genuinely help them.
Be careful to never say things such as, ‘you don’t behave properly or listen to me so I’m taking you to a doctor’ as this will erode trust between the parent and the child. Instead, parents must provide encouragements such as, ‘we will meet a person who loves children and we can learn many good things. I will also learn many things with you’ as this helps create an open atmosphere surrounding therapy and teaches the child that their parents are learning as well.
Things are different during adolescence as teenagers experience emotional turmoil, highs and lows, and are particularly vulnerable to peer and parental pressure. Parents need to exercise patience, perseverance, and support towards their children through this stormy period of emotional stress, especially if the child is showing any symptoms. Adolescence is the time when communication becomes a two-way street – the child is in a position to tell the parent what they want and express their likes and dislikes.
In case of any symptoms, the first thing parents must do is support and not shame. It’s okay to not be perfect, as everyone, including the parents, have issues and flaws, so it’s important to embrace your child as they are. If the parent is struggling with this, they can consult a professional as well.
Irrespective of any age, parents must initiate the conversation in a soft and comforting manner that lets the children know they are cared for, and the parents simply want to be involved in their child’s life. It’s important to answer their questions and give them the correct information. So, parents are encouraged to conduct their own research from educational and medical perspectives.
When thinking about talking to your child, it can be helpful to step into their shoes and to think about the situation from the child’s point of view. Build a safe space for the child, of any age, to come and talk to you when they are feeling anxious or worried.
And most importantly, any mental health issues are not the fault of an individual, so the parent must empathize by letting their children know, ‘I have noticed that you are struggling with this and I know you have not caused this. It is not your fault, and together, we will find a way to get help.’
Always reassure them that they are not alone.