Emotional Resilience

Prevent Porn Problems with 2 Parenting Practices: Teaching Emotional Resilience and Creating Secure Attachment

This is a guest post by Amanda Christenson, LMFT. You can learn more about Amanda's practice here.

As a therapist specialized in sexual addiction, I have met with hundreds of adults and teenagers on the journey of recovery. Part of that recovery process is looking back on the roots of the addiction--how it started and why it sustained itself.

That process also helps us identify important factors that reduce the risks of falling into addiction. Most commonly, sexual addiction starts with sexual exposure in some form combined with a lack of healthy emotional regulation or a safe person to emotionally process with. 

Two areas that parents can focus on to reduce the chances children will fall into addiction of any type are

  • raising resilient children and
  • creating secure attachments with them

Related: Child on Child Harmful Sexual Behavior Part 1: A 3-Step Path to Prepare Parents

Some of the greatest wishes of my clients are that

  • they had been able to confide in their parents about their sexual struggles, 
  • their parents had modeled and actively taught healthy emotional coping, and
  • they felt more nurtured and noticed as they grew up. 

As parents raising kids in this time, we can do all of this. We have the emotional education that other generations did not. It is important to teach healthy coping early and consistently. Parents have power! 

Related: Helping the Kid Who Doesn’t Want Help

Why does emotional resilience matter?

Emotional resilience is the ability to cope and adapt to stress and adversity. When children haven’t practiced resilience, pornography and other harmful sexual behaviors sometimes become a coping mechanism. In that case, a child’s coping strategy for stress is completely in secret and muddled with shame, a fantasy world of escape that can develop into sexually harming themselves and potentially others. 

Adult addicts tend to have low resilience and turn to avoiding the hard parts of life instead of meeting challenges head on. Luckily, one does not simply have or not have resilience. It can be learned and practiced at any age.

4 ways to foster resilience in children

1. Let go and allow kids to make mistakes

A falsehood in parenting is the belief that it is the parent’s job to shield children from challenges, setbacks, and failures. When we do this, we actually rob children of the opportunity to problem solve and practice resilience.

Just like learning any skill, we all need to fall off the bike a couple times to learn how to keep our balance.

Experiencing natural consequences in life is a gift. So let your kids fail a test because they didn’t study or support them as they navigate hard friendship dynamics instead of immediately stepping in and deciding who they can and can’t be friends with. Try to avoid abandoning, shaming or lecturing and instead empathize with your child’s experience and express confidence in them. For example, “I’m hearing you say it feels like you failed and you will never be good at math. That sounds hard and scary. I have seen you try again even when it was hard and I know you can do that with math if you want to. I’m here to help.”

2. Help children identify and cope with their emotions

Emotion can be complicated and messy, but it paints the beautiful landscape of our joys and sorrows. Helping kids see emotion as acceptable and valuable is a good start to helping them manage how they react healthily to emotion. 

Walk them through how to identify an emotion they might be feeling in the moment and then sit with them in trying to understand or provide space for that emotion, not judging it as good or bad. Then prompt them to use that emotion in a productive way. For example, “I see you are stomping the ground and yelling at your siblings, I wonder what emotion you might be feeling. Oh okay, so it’s anger. And I wonder what else? Oh, so underneath the anger you are also feeling left out because they are playing that game without you? That’s understandable to feel angry and left out. What do you want to do with those feelings? Yes, let’s try to take deep breaths and when you are ready, you can ask calmly if you can play the game with them. And if not, I will play the game with you.”

Related: Feelings 101: A Simple Exercise to Build Emotional Wellness in Kids

3. Model resiliency

Kids are sponges. They watch, learn, and copy. As parents, we do our best to provide a healthy example for them to copy. Many parents have shielded their kids from any of their emotion, showing no weakness. While well intentioned, this can backfire with children feeling like struggling is weakness and unacceptable in the family system. 

On the other hand, some parents are overly sharing with their raw emotion and children feel like they have to take care of their caretaker emotionally. 

Modelling resiliency looks like being open about a challenge and meeting it courageously while acknowledging the emotion that goes along with it.

If kids watch parents crumble, blame, or escape during hard moments, that is their template. If they watch parents take accountability, set boundaries, and continue while accessing healthy resources then kids have a template for resilience.

4. Teach shame resilience

Feeling shame can lead to fear, disconnection, and isolation. Many parents haven’t learned how to deal with this powerful emotion themselves, so when they see their child’s face turn red, head drop, and run to their room, parents are at a loss. 

To teach shame resilience, help children identify how they experience shame. This is part of helping them learn how to label an emotion by knowing what triggers it, where they feel it in their body, or what it leads them to do. For example, with your help, your child learns that when she makes a mistake in front of her dance class her stomach drops, her head feels hot and she wants to leave the class and never come back. That could be shame and identifying it is the first step in being resilient to it. 

Then teach about “speaking shame”. This simply means discovering a language and safety in talking about shame triggers and connecting with another person. This normalizes the experience and moves the child toward experiencing empathy instead of separation. When it comes to pornography, shame is toxic and perpetuates secrecy and feelings of worthlessness. If children have good shame resiliency skills and know how to connect over the feelings of shame instead of going inside themselves, they are more likely to respond to exposure to pornography in a healthy way

Related: Overcoming Shame: 4 Tips for an Emotionally Safe Home

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Secure attachment through emotional attunement

Kids are constantly experimenting with what gets the attention of their caregivers. This starts as early as infancy and the response or lack of response in parents contributes greatly to how secure or insecure the child feels about themselves in the world and how safe they feel. This is a widely researched topic called “Attachment Theory”.

Sex addicts are much more likely to be insecurely attached than the general population. So one important focus for parents now is to create an environment for secure attachment for their children. Overall, this creates a safe haven and a secure base. 

Studies have shown that children with a secure attachment history 

  • are better at coping under stress, 
  • have increased emotional regulation
  • enjoy higher self-esteem, and 
  • form happier relationships with parents and siblings. 

Another benefit is that when people are securely attached to their caregivers, they are likely to carry this same type of attachment into other future relationships including in their friendships and romantic relationships. This results in being able to truly connect, practice vulnerability, and seek out safe people in a responsible way in the face of trials.

One of the best ways to promote secure attachment is through attunement. Dr. Dan Seigel describes attunement as “feeling felt” in a relationship. Parents who are emotionally attuned to their children are able to 

  • sense and pick up on their emotional cues,
  • ask questions that help kids feel known and not alone, and
  • respond to their children’s needs in a compassionate way

Attunement is built in small and simple moments. In therapy, I like to assess how attuned my client’s caregivers were to them. I will ask questions like these:

  • Do you remember your mom tucking you in at night or reading stories to you?
  • Did a parent or family member come to watch your baseball games and keep up with how you were feeling about each game? 
  • Did dad know what was important to you and spend quality time with you? 
  • Did mom know who was in your friend group and did you feel safe to tell her about any drama within it? 
  • What was it like to make a mistake in front of your parents? 
  • Did you express your emotions growing up or were you often playing a role to be seen and loved? 
  • Did your parents ever ask about your emotions to try to get to know you better? 
  • Did you keep a lot of secrets from your parents?

Examples of what emotional attunement can look like:

With a toddler – “Oh wow, it looks like you are having big feelings. I can feel them with you and then we can try to take deep breaths. Let’s stomp the ground together! Stomp for as long as you need to!”

With a child – Your 8 year old daughter comes home from a birthday party talking negatively about all the other girls there. You catch on that she might have felt left out and say, “Hey, let’s talk about the birthday party. So who did you talk to and hang out with? Oh I see, so it felt like the girls didn’t care if you were there or not. It’s so hard when you feel like you don’t fit in. Do you want to make bracelets with me and we can talk about planning a playdate with the friends you know care about you?”

With a teen – Your son says something sarcastic at the dinner table and doesn’t talk for the rest of the meal. You ask if he’s okay and he says, “I’m fine, nothing’s wrong!” and stomps off. You respect his space and later approach him to say, “I can see you’ve had a hard day, I don’t know why and I’m open to hearing about it. If you don’t want to tell me, I just want you to know I see you juggling everything with school and soccer and friends, it’s a lot and it’s okay to struggle.”

Practice A. R. E. to build attunement with children

Dr. Sue Johnson, who founded EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), teaches that in order to be emotionally attuned, we need to be Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged. When we are practicing all three with our children, they are more likely to come to us with their needs because they know we will respond in a safe way. 

For example, if your child has questions about sexuality and he or she trusts that you will be accessible, responsive, and engaged when approached, this can end in a connecting conversation that can blossom into more conversations as more of life unfolds.

Here is a peak into a child’s brain as they determine whether or not you are accessible, responsive, and engaged: (Hint: we want to show that the answer is, “YES, I’m here for you” to every question).

Accessible –

Can I reach you?

Are you available?

Are you paying attention to me?

Are you listening to me?

Am I an important priority to you?

Responsive –

Can I rely on you emotionally?

Can you celebrate with me when something goes well?

Can you help soothe and comfort me when I need it?

Am I taken care of?

Can you respond appropriately to what I’m going through?

Engaged –

Am I valued?

Do I matter to you?

Can I trust and confide in you?

Do you care about me and my needs?

 

Parents get to hold the sacred space of teaching, modeling, and facilitating healthy emotional behaviors to set kids up for successful emotional lives. It’s a big calling! It is preventative, proactive, and loving. Teach resiliency and prove every day that you are emotionally attuned. When you miss something, take accountability and repair. Your children will be more likely to be securely attached and trust you with the hard parts of life, knowing they don’t have to navigate it alone.

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Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids

"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just "don't watch or look at porn." It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.

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