Saturday 25 November 2017

My 11-year-old son refuses to use the ladies' toilets with me

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist gives advice on a mother who is concerned about her 11-year-old son going to public male toilets on his own and how to get your reluctant child to help out around the house.

Question: My 11-year-old son won't use the ladies' toilets with me when we're out in public anymore as he's too embarrassed. But I have a big dilemma then, as I'm uncomfortable allowing him to use the men's toilets alone. I just worry about the dangers of some man interfering with him or flashing himself to him.

My son is a very bright boy and is aware of stranger danger, but I'm still worried about letting him go to a public part of the shopping centre like that alone. You just hear these terrible stories. What do you think I should do?

David replies: I am not surprised that your son baulks at the idea of using a ladies' toilet with you. I could imagine that he is very humiliated by being the only boy his age in there.

It may not only be embarrassing for him, but could also be very embarrassing for other women and very embarrassing for teenage girls or same age girls as himself.

If he is like most 11-year-old boys, he will have heard his share of "dirty" jokes and he may even have seen pornographic images or videos on the internet. Consequently, he may be very aware of his own sexual feelings and the sexuality of girls and women.

That awareness will radically change his experience of sharing a space, such as a toilet, with girls and women. Without the naivety or innocence of younger childhood, he will be much more conscious of his masculinity in such an environment.

At a subconscious level, he will also know that his masculinity doesn't fit in such spaces.

He could also feel that being in a girls' toilet emasculates him somewhat. He could be afraid that his friends would tease him if they saw him coming out of the girls' toilets.

We all have different risk tolerances. We all have our own thresholds for what we consider to be acceptable or unacceptable risks. Those thresholds are usually based on our experiences or understandings of the world. However, how we judge the level of risk is often very biased.

For example, as with your own fears of "stranger danger", we fear the risks that others might pose to us because of their malevolence or negligence more than we fear the risks we pose to ourselves by things like smoking or obesity.

Similarly, we fear spectacular but unlikely dangers more than everyday dangers. For example, we may worry about our child being physically or sexually abused by others more than we fear our child being injured in a road accident. However, the road accident is statistically more likely.

It seems to me that your own evaluation of the risk that your son may face in a male public toilet is exaggerated beyond the likelihood of it actually happening.

By refusing to let him use the toilet, on his own, you give him an implicit message that he can't cope and that he isn't able to manage the potential risk. Even though you have schooled him in the possibility of "stranger danger", you don't let him use the skills you are teaching him.

Your fears may hold your son's development and maturation back.

In truth, you need to let him face some risk in the world and realise that he can deal with it and can manage it. I think you need to remind your son of what to do if someone tries to approach him, or if someone exposes themselves to him.

Focus on the practical self-preservation skills of shouting loudly and running away.

You need to remind him to be alert, but confident, while he is in the toilet area, keeping to himself and not engaging in conversation with anyone. You could suggest that he use a cubicle rather than a urinal for greater privacy.

Then, you need to let him use the men's toilet in your local shopping centre.

Hopefully your own fears will be allayed, somewhat, as you discover that he can use the toilets without incidence. If nothing else, you will be allowing your son to experience the achievement of doing something that is developmentally age-appropriate.

Letting him use the male toilet will let him avoid the mortification of being seen with his mother coming out of a ladies' toilet so that he might feel more like the man he is growing to be.

I feel bad that I can't get my daughter to help around the house, but in fact, she just acts like her dad

Question: My 10-year-old daughter is an only child. She doesn't help out in any way at home. She just creates a mess and then leaves it up to me to clean up.

She is demanding and will keep asking for things, even if I keep saying "no". Her dad is no support to me either.

He is not interested in her or me, preferring to busy himself with his hobbies and his friends. He never helps me. I feel like I have all the responsibility and that it is my fault that my daughter is so disobedient.

I just don't know what will help turn things around?

David replies: Assertiveness might be the key to resolving the situation you find yourself in.

It seems like your husband and your daughter take you for granted. Neither of them shows much respect to you or appreciation for what you do for them.

In many ways, it is as if your husband and daughter have been "spoiled". I could imagine that you feel very invested in your family and want the very best for them. It seems, though, that they are taking advantage of that. In many ways, your daughter may just be taking her lead from her dad, and so, your strongest efforts to introduce change may need to be with him.

It sounds like it is a very unequal relationship where he has all of the benefits of marriage without any of the responsibility.

At the most extreme, this inequality could leave you resentful and bitter, creating a lot of conflict between you.

Indeed, if there isn't significant change, I could see how this may even create a chasm between you where you might consider separation from him.

To avoid this, then, things need to rebalance in the home.

One approach may be to have a big heart-to-heart with your husband and explain the seriousness of the current situation. He may, in fact, be so self-absorbed that he doesn't notice (or care) about the impact on you of his behaviour, or your daughter's behaviour.

Maybe, if he can realise that he is being unfair and selfish, he may choose to change his ways, getting more involved in the home and in the parenting of your daughter.

It is a truism in life that we can't change other people against their will. We can only change ourselves. If others want to change then we can be supportive of them, but we can't force that change upon them.

But, if you continue to do everything in the house for your husband and daughter, then I believe they will continue to abuse your efforts.

I think it is time for you to stop maintaining the status quo, as it is leaving you stressed and upset.

So, it may be the time for you to become assertive, insisting that they begin to take their share of the housework, for example. You can decide to do less for them, to encourage them to do more for themselves.

A good example might be the family laundry. I'd guess that you wash, dry, fold and iron the clothes for all three of you. Perhaps you'd like more help. You can ask them both to be involved at any stage, but certainly you can expect them to help with the drying, folding and/or ironing.

If they refuse, or show no interest in helping, then you can stop laundering their clothes. Just wash your own and explain that you will go back to doing family laundry when the whole family helps with it.

You may feel like you are being selfish, adopting this kind of approach, but in truth, you are just introducing natural consequences for your husband and your daughter for their lack of effort at home and the resulting lack of respect and courtesy that they show you.

In many ways, I am suggesting that you go on strike, within your family, to demonstrate to them how much you do (in the first instance) and how unhappy you are that you are left to do it alone.

Your current situation doesn't sound very fair for you.

You deserve to have equality, such that you can share the responsibility for keeping your family going, rather than having to do it all alone.

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