Friday 21 October 2016

How do I stop my younger children watching teen TV?

Published 24/11/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Clinical pyschologist David Coleman advises how to prevent younger children in a house being exposed to television material which is inappropriate and how to tell a child about their twin sister who died before they were born.

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Question: I have five children. My teenage children are, naturally, watching programmes with more adult content, but as a consequence, my two children under 10 are exposed to material that I consider unsuitable.

I find it impossible to keep them separate from the older ones as they all gravitate to the TV or games consoles at some stage in the evening.

It is very challenging acting as the family censor, and it leads to conflict, especially with the older ones, who give out that they have to switch off. Do you have any advice?

David replies: In the early years of parenting with one, or maybe two children, it can seem comparatively easy to monitor and control what our children do, or what they get exposed to.

As they grow older, however, and our families expand, it does become harder and harder to keep firm limits, especially for the younger children, as their older siblings have, typically, pushed those limits further and further out.

Your situation is, I am sure, replicated in homes around the country. In truth, there is no easy solution, other than to be clear about why you have limits on what the younger children watch, and be ruthless in holding those limits.

It might help, though, if you don't accidentally punish your teens, who probably do feel like they have earned the right to watch and play the older age-rated movies and games. If you ask them to switch off, I could see how they may feel that to be unfair.

They probably remember you being very strict with them about not watching things that you considered to be inappropriate. They have had to wait years for the freedom they now enjoy. To have that limited, again, just so that the younger ones don't accidentally see too much, could lead to a lot of resentment.

I think you might avoid some of the conflict if the teenagers in the house feel like they have set times when they can watch what they like, without restriction.

One option, might be to have "teen-time", in the house, just like the old "watershed" on TV. Set a time, like 9pm, from which your older children are allowed to watch and play their age-appropriate TV programmes and games.

By that time, the two youngest children should be in bed, or at least be preparing for bed. Even if they are not in bed, you can restrict the younger children from the rooms where the older ones are chilling. From 9pm, then, there are no restrictions on the teenagers save their own bedtimes and any study or homework that isn't complete. In return for this freedom, the teens need to accept that if the TV or computer is on before 9pm, that it must be family-friendly viewing.

They would, I'd hope, be more accepting of the restrictions earlier in the day or evening if they know they will have their own time, and greater freedom, at night.

Another alternative, if you want all TV or gaming over by 9pm, is that you work harder to separate the children, creating teen zones in the house, perhaps, or keeping the younger children occupied in the kitchen or elsewhere, with you.

Younger children are usually happy to gravitate towards their parents, still finding pleasure in hanging out with us, and still interested in what we say and do.

This is workable, if you set a clear time-period for the older ones to have access to the TV. During that time, you occupy the younger ones. Outside of that time, like with the other suggestion, any viewing or gaming must be family-friendly.

You may also find that you can engage the teenagers in the house to help you ensure the younger ones are separate. Teenagers quite like the power of being able to do things their siblings can't.

I admire your desire to keep the viewing differentiated in the house. I also feel that younger children can easily fall into watching stuff that is too intense for them. This can lead to stress and anxiety that may leak out in their behaviour.

Unless we know what they have seen, we can find it hard to contextualise it for them, or to understand and reassure them about the fantasy nature, for example, of what they have seen.

So, I'd encourage you to keep going with your efforts to keep the younger children "innocent" for as long as possible without the pressure of adult-oriented viewing.

How do I tell my daughter about her twin sister who died before they were born?

Question: My daughter is five and just started school in September. She is a twinless twin. Her sister died before birth.

My daughter and son are aware that we had another little baby girl who is now in heaven and we bring them to the grave and talk about her. Our daughter who died is very much part of our life. But I don't want my surviving daughter to hear that she is a twin from somebody else. I was wondering what the best way is to tell her?

I don't want her to go through life lonely or feeling guilty that she survived and her twin didn't.

David replies: I think that you are wise to talk with your daughter, while she is still young, about the full circumstances of her birth and her sister's death. That way, she will always know that she had a twin sister, who is dead.

If it is something that becomes part of her awareness, you will avoid that potentially painful moment in years to come where she confronts you with questions about her sister, with the possible added hurt that you withheld important information from her. It is already a very positive feature of your home and family that your children know about their sister and recognise that she is part of their lives.

I don't think it will be particularly distressing for your daughter to find out that her sister was actually her twin too.

You say that you are worried about your daughter feeling lonely, or having survivor guilt. I can understand that these are indeed very real fears. Of course, it is possible that your daughter may experience either of these.

However, that is not necessarily a reason to avoid telling her the full truth about her relationship with her sister. Most importantly, because you are open to talking fully about her sister, you will also be offering your daughter the opportunity to openly process any new feelings she has.

In many ways, even if the extra information that you give your daughter provokes a new element of grieving, or a renewed sense of loss, that will be a good thing. Any grieving that she does, on foot of what you tell her, will be more complete for her.

In truth, though, it is hard to predict how she will react. In many ways, having never known her sister (and only being five), she may not display, overtly, any loss.

On the other hand, though, she had the in utero experience of sharing that space, intimately, with her twin. We cannot know how that loss affects her now.

I do believe that our in utero experiences are significant for us. Even though we can never have a typical "memory" of that time, I believe that our bodies can retain sensations and "memories" of what happens to us.

It may be, therefore, that gaining the conscious awareness that she had a twin sister, with whom she shared your womb, may actually unlock something powerful for your surviving daughter. It may allow an emotional "fit" for her with some powerful subconscious experiences she had.

Of course, only time will tell how she responds and what meaning the news will have for her. Firstly, you have to tell her.

Pick a time when you are unlikely to be interrupted or distracted by her brother or other family matters. See telling her about her sister as the start of a process, rather than a single event.

Your daughter may have questions, she may just need to let the information sit, or she may have a strong visceral emotional response to the news. Any or all of these are natural responses.

The important thing for you is that you show a real willingness to continue to talk and explain, as best you can, about what you know about her sister. You also need to show real warmth and empathy for your daughter, being ready to respond in an understanding way to whatever reaction comes.

As long as we are willing to be emotionally supportive, afterwards, we can always be confident to tell our children anything important, even if it is potentially distressing.

Tell her what you need to tell her, making sure that your daughter knows that you will be there for her.

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