• Tuesday, September 02, 2014

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES

Birds and bees

By Nighat Ara, Psychiatrist, Counsellor and Therapist

I have a cousin who is 12 years old; I am 32. We share a very close bond ever since she was a child. Recently, she has been interested to know about the 'birds and the bees'. She uses my PC to play games but these days, when I check the log, I find that she uses Google to look for information on sex education. She even asked me what the word 'sex' meant recently. I replied that I shall discuss the matter on a later date.
Now, my question to you is how I should deal with this matter? Should I try to answer her queries, or leave it to the females of the family? And what should I do about her use of computer to access information on sex education. She does not log into pornographic sites.  Please help. – Troubled.

This cousin of yours seems to be in a vulnerable state of emotional growth which is normal at this age.  Your statement regarding whether to “leave it to the females of the family” leads me to assume that you are a 32 years old male cousin of this adolescent girl. You have also mentioned that you share a close bond since she was a child despite the 20 years of age gap between the two of you.
You were already an adult when she was born. It is likely that she idolises you for who you are. This is a natural tendency of most children when it comes to significant adult figures in their lives. This also serves as a survival tool for the child. I wonder what kind of connection this girl has with her biological father and what role her parents play in her day to day life.
In absence (physical, emotional or financial -- in any form) of a father figure, it would be natural that an adolescent girl would look up to another adult male figure in the immediate environment to compensate for the loss. Adolescent girls deprived of paternal attention, love and affection tend to search for it from other sources to fulfil their basic needs to grow up in to an emotionally competent person. Sometimes a single parent can fulfil that need but often parents of both genders are required to model what adult relationships are all about.
Sexuality is a natural part of human development. Certain degree of curiosity is also normal at this age. They explore, ask questions, eavesdrop, talk to friends/family and learn from media/books/movie/ Google or accidentally find out from other's life.
You bet the hush-hush about it adds another layer to the natural curiosity. Then they start having this attraction to forbidden things (like Adam and Eve—I suppose!), the “guilty pleasure” associated with doing prohibited things can make it even more irresistible.
The relationship between two individuals at an age gap of twenty years simulates parent-child relationship, no matter what name we give to that relationship. The child's automatic brain response to this kind of relationship is “you know better than me”, “you protect me”, “you tell me what to do”, “am I good or bad?” etc. They look up to the person. The messages they receive from these significant others contribute a lot in their self-image.
When this adolescent girl is comfortable asking you this question, if you shy away or shame her by shutting her up -- it is likely then that her innocent curiosity will be crushed and she would go to other sources to quench her thirst for information.
Adults sometimes feel embarrassed to talk about it when they themselves don't know what to say. Best is to try neither to glamorise nor to pathologise sex, rather just state the facts without going in to graphic details. There are lot of half truths, myths and illogical fears around sexuality that can make the adolescent even more apprehensive. Some adults fear that an open discussion about it will lead the adolescent to promiscuity.
On the contrary, research evidence shows it is better for children to learn from parents than from strangers. If talking about space doesn't make one an astronaut then trust me- talking about the simple facts of human sexuality won't drive them to promiscuity.  
Children mostly want to hear whether you had similar curiosity at their age too and how did you deal with it then. They are not really curious about adult sex life yet, and that is probably beyond their imagination.
Sometimes people misinterpret the innocent curiosity as an invitation to get sexual which is very wrong. An adolescent girl usually just wants to explore it at knowledge level and not at action level. Trust them, if they are growing up in a healthy environment, it the furthest thing in their mind. A well informed smart girl is supposed to make a good choice when it comes to her sexuality.
I would also encourage getting the consent from a female guardian (mother, aunt etc.) of the girl before having the conversation. If the females in the family are willing to address that, let them do it. However, since she has chosen you to open up with, don't let her down just because you are male. Children need both genders to role model healthy behaviour to them. If she has put you on a pedestal, rise to the level and try to be there for her in a compassionate way.
Good luck!

Published: 12:00 am Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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