Getting rid of shame: parent advice from the Shameless Psychiatrist
When child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Lea Lis, assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College and the founder of Mindful Kid, sat down to write about families of all kinds – including single-sex, single-parent, polyamorous, adoptive and other non-traditional families – she realised that there was a lot more she wanted to say. She went on to write No Shame – Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence And Healthy Relationships, a book diverse enough to also touch on meditation, radical self-acceptance and sex positivity.
Here Dr Lis, aka the Shameless Psychiatrist, talks to Outspoken about the importance of dads speaking up, parents owning their sexual story and getting rid of shame…
I didn’t write this book from the perspective of a parent – what makes me interesting is my experience teaching children.
This book is really about communication skills and intentionally raising kids to be good humans by creating an environment that’s loving for them. It’s about intimacy, how we internalise shame around bodies and sexuality, and how young people can have more fulfilling relationships if we get rid of that shame.
If you internalise shame you’ll carry trauma. Of the teens I work with, many of the ones who got assaulted usually had some internalised shame, and often the reason they were targeted was that they did not understand sex and had so much shame around it.
Many of them froze in the moment and didn’t know how to stop the perpetrator. They didn’t have the language to express their boundaries and say: “Don’t touch me. Back off.”
It’s not enough to tell your kids: “Be careful – there are bad people out there.” That just scares them. It helps if you rehearse with them what to say ahead of time when they are in a bad situation so they get over their fear, nervousness and shame about being explicit about what they don’t want.
Women in particular are raised to think they have to be polite, but none of us are given permission to express our boundaries very explicitly. Let’s turn that on its head and talk about sexual manners. You should be able to say: “My body. Back off.”
ON WHO SHOULD TALK TO WHICH KID ABOUT WHAT
Instead of having the mother talk with a girl and the father talk with a boy, all parents should play actives roles in sex education
Should a father tell his daughter about sex? Yes! Don’t be afraid. Dads, you have a very important role to play. And doing so will help develop body-positive self-esteem, and prevent negative sexual outcomes. And don’t leave out the pleasure talk. It’s even more important than the “Don’t let anyone touch you whom you don’t want” talk. It’s crucial to add that if it doesn’t feel good and it’s not pleasurable, then don’t do it
– From No Shame by Dr Lea Lis
We are missing a huge opportunity for being good parents by keeping conversations to one gender. Men – fathers, uncles and male figures – are incredibly important in a female’s life. Coming from a man, advice like “You need to trust your gut when it comes to what you want and don’t want. If it doesn’t feel good, that’s a red flag” is so powerful to help teenagers assert their boundaries. That’s a gift that a father or father figure can give a young girl.
The idea that young women should expect pleasure from the person they’re intimate with is rarely discussed, or if so it comes from the mother. But if it comes from a father or father figure, it means a lot more.
Mothers can give their sons the idea of: “Treat every woman as if they’re your sister or someone you care about. Every woman deserves respect and caring consideration.”
Also parents can encourage their kids to create community around consent within their own peer groups. Tell your children: “If you see a boy touch a girl roughly, you need to stop them and say: ‘Did you ask that girl if she wanted to be touched in that way?’”
Fathers have an incredible opportunity to create feminists in boys. A boy’s mother can say: “Women are strong and amazing” but it’s not like their dad saying: “Women are strong and amazing” plus: “I’m a feminist – you should be one too.”
ON PLEASURE AND CONSENT
Parents, you need to address pleasure as a main element in sex ed!
Your child should be given the right to refuse touch from adults, even parents and family members. Allowing them to express their feelings is healthy
Don’t leave out the pleasure talk!!! Don’t leave out the consent talk!
There’s nothing shameful about pleasure, but we have internalised shame about it. Women are subjugated to the idea that their pleasure isn’t really that important and “boys will be boys”. But awareness about pleasure is coming along.
Talking about pleasure starts young. Talk to your kids about pleasure in general and what kind of touch feels good – “like when I brush your hair or scratch your back”. That’s the start of sex positivity. It’s about what kind of touch you like, who can touch you, when and where.
When your kids get older, talk about pleasure and intimacy. Embrace it all head on and talk about it with no shame!
Consent should be negotiated upfront and very clearly. You can teach kids how to stand up for their boundaries by giving them the words to discuss and negotiate consent and sexual activity. Consent and pleasure go hand in hand, so give them the language to ask: “Does it feel good? Show me how to do this…” They will remember it and use this language in the moment. What a powerful message!
“With explicit consent comes the greatest pleasure you’ll ever have. If you get an emphatic ‘yes’, sex will be amazing” – that’s what I want to tell the boys out there. Well, not just boys…
ON BEING SEX POSITIVE
Sex-positive parenting is not just about sex; it’s also about relationships. You are teaching your child ways of interacting with others. The social importance of developing an understanding of boundaries and consent runs far deeper than sexuality
The idea of being sex positive goes beyond just sex – it’s also being body positive, being intimacy-in-relationships positive. More than the term “sex positive”, I prefer “no shame”, as in no-shame parenting.
Instead of pretending sex is not happening in the world, embrace it. Talk about it head on.
Layer in biology and sex ed as soon as your kids can talk. Create a framework, then build it so they understand how babies are made as soon as they understand the concept of a baby.
ON TALKING ABOUT SEX
Some of our knowledge about sexuality remains stable over time. But there will always be new research, an ever-changing social context, and the fact that beliefs about sex are always understood within the framework of our current values, which are also ever-changing. This means that we parents periodically need to revisit what we have learned
Teaching children about sex is one small piece of a much greater public puzzle. What we really want is for our children to be happy… Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period
There are so many terrible messages around sex that we need to combat – porn, the sexualisation of young girls (and women in general), toxic masculinity – that our kids are taking in subliminally day in, day out. It’s kind of programming, right? They only have their parents and mentors to counterprogramme all of that and present another side.
Sex is a very important piece of what you do as an adult which involves touch, affection and nurturing. If you rank all the things you do as an adult – work, exercise, friendships – you’d put sexual intimacy pretty high up on Fun Things To Do In Life, yet most parents leave it up to their children to figure it out with very little guidance.
We don’t give kids enough of: “It’s really awesome and you’re going to love it when you’re ready.” Instead we make it scary, so it’s time to change that.
ON YOUR SEXUAL STORY
Your sexual story is an amalgam of what you learned about sex from your parents, elders and teachers, past relationships, sexual experiences, books and everything that left an impression on you about sex… Your sexual story is the narrative you bring to the table when you speak to your children about sex…
The types of options that your child can imagine for themselves in the future, the things that excite them or that they fear, the things they want in a partner or for themselves – these are all heavily influenced by you and your story
Your own sexual story definitely influences your child’s developing story
The idea is for parents to embrace their sexual story and not be afraid to admit to their children where they screwed up, for example: “I rushed into relationships before I was ready” or “I kept repeating the same mistakes”.
You need to think about your own sexuality in order to pass down intergenerational wisdom. If you were hurt or abused you have to own that and rise above it or you will pass down more trauma. Only through the process of cognitively reframing your own shame can you effectively deliver the right message to your children. You can reframe that experience in a different way so it doesn’t hurt so much. It’s history, not who you are. You’ve got to spin it.
Of course there are also positive sexual stories, for example: “I remember when I fell in love or first discovered sexual relationships.” Pass those little pearls down. You don’t pass down every intimate detail, but you share how much fun it was and how you learned about yourself and the person you were with.
ON COMMUNICATING OPENLY
Children filter their experiences through the core values they have adopted
Parenting is a pay-it-forward situation
How do you think your child learns to communicate? The number one way is watching you communicate with your partner. They also learn the skills you teach them, like: “Look someone in the eye when you meet them” and “If you have sex with someone, you must call or text them the next day!”
I look back now and think about what my parents told me that really resonated. Even if your kids reject you in their teenage years, even if they roll their eyes and walk away, don’t think they’re not listening. It has an influence.
Your children watch you all the time; you’re everything they see and hear. So by owning and spinning your sexual story, you’re more likely to be the role model and mentor they need.
No Shame – Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence And Healthy Relationships is out now. Follow Dr Lea Lis on Instagram at shamelesspsychiatrist