A panicked mother discovers that her 12 year old daughter is writing stories with some sexually graphic and violent descriptions. How could this be? Has she been abused in some way? How do I approach her about it? The tumult of questions in response to this parenting shock point is seemingly endless for this parent. Understandably so!
After some distressed mother- daughter discussions it emerged that various internet sites had targeted her daughter through her social media use. Over a period of months the invitations to engage in written responses to the narratives and pictures had become increasingly graphic. It left this mother feeling naïve and ignorant of such targeted, grooming processes that are part of the internet age our children are swimming in.
What do you think is an appropriate response for this parent? (Aside from legal reporting of activity online that is unsafe for children.)
When I chatted with this mother I suggested that she start by clarifying what her response would be if her daughter wanted to hang out with a group of strangers. This was to reduce the extent of panic that was crowding her clear thinking. She was able to be clear about her principles in response to this hypothetical –
*No mixing with people that the parents had not met and gotten to know, *No socialising without adequate adult supervision, *Being interested in who these people were and how it was that their paths had crossed, *displaying curiosity, and caring principles rather than panicked confusion.
From this more thoughtful base it was possible for this mother to apply the same concerned curiosity to understanding the back story of her daughter’s exposure to these harmful online sites. She reported that while her daughter was initially distraught and defensive, her parental concerned but calm investigation cut through the reactivity. She wasn’t interrogating her daughter but acknowledging that she had not been the kind of guiding parent that she wanted to be for her children – to be a loving boundary setter and guide in the rapidly expanding realm of online relating.
When in a panicked state at the initial discovery, this mother’s entire energy went into imagining the awful possibilities for her child and think about devastating effects on her child’s development: “My child has been disturbed for life!!!” Her focus was anxiously focused on rescuing her daughter and getting all the external fixing help she could muster. This started with asking the school counsellor for a referral to have her child assessed (which is how we ended up talking together – I never saw her daughter).
When she recovered some thinking space she could regain a focus on her parenting principles. She could acknowledge her part in not being adequately in the loop about her daughter’s computer use and ‘virtual’ interactions. If it had been the real world of socialising she knew she would have been better informed about her children’s activities. Rather than beat herself up about this she clarified how she would need to add some extra responsibilities to her parenting job description. She conveyed her loving re-commitment to being a wise supportive parent in a changing world. This is such a different process to anxiously lecturing or ‘therapising’ her daughter. She reached out to her spouse and parenting partner to help her to process her shock and allowed him to talk through his own shocked response. While both had their distinctive reactions to work through they each came to acknowledge that parenting was a learning process that required some regular re- thinking. What did they each want to tweak about their parent leadership in the changing phases of their children’s lives? They weren’t going to get it right all the time but would be able to recover their wisdom if they didn’t become fearfully focused on their child.
There were encouraging outcomes from this concerning episode for this parent. She was able to tolerate the period of her daughters distress and angry defensiveness and stay in calm contact. She was able to demonstrate to her daughter that she loved her and was committed to being appropriately informed and protective of her as she was learning to navigate the early stages of adolescence. She was able to share the basis of her concerns about having relationships and sex conveyed in distorted, ugly ways. From this she opened up conversations with her daughter about what she thought was positive social media input and what was ‘rubbish’ input. Opportunities arose for her to share how she had confronted different kinds of confusing and distorted relationship experiences during her own growing up years. They could think together about different levels of safe and unsafe communications and information. She was able to work out with her husband some clear guidelines for computer and internet use – regular involvement in online interactions and devices in living rooms not bedrooms.
This mother’s story is such a clear comparison between thoughtful parenting and fear driven parenting in this radically changing technological age. Fear takes parents away from embodying their own role – it focuses anxiously on the child which easily contributes to the child’s distant defensiveness – which in-turn reinforces the parent’s worry. Fear also drives parents to over-depend on external experts to search for evidence of developmental damage, then in turn to diagnose and treat the child. In contrast, the thoughtful parent focuses on their job description when faced with a child’s challenging episode. They figure out what they want to convey about their commitment to their child’s good and how they are going to action this. They are not swayed by initial reactive protests but persevere towards their guidance goal. A parent who recovers their leadership when facing a challenging revelation about their child’s experience is a parent who can grow through such predicable episodes. In response a child gradually grows more respect for their parent and learns to open up to them in order to access their wise support.