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Seven Guidelines For Talking About Sensitive Subjects With Children
Tell the Truth
Children need to know the basic facts of life, but they don’t necessarily need to know all of the facts immediately. It is important to use discretion in what children are exposed to and told. Children don’t need to know the whole truth about anything until they are of an age when they are able to understand the complexity of the situation. Many subjects are of the nature that parents can continue to build on with additional information. It is like putting knowledge into an intellectual piggy bank. The knowledge keeps building and expanding.
For example, the big one that parents know that they must introduce to their young children to is where babies come from. At age five, children certainly don’t need all of the details, but it is a good idea to introduce the subject of reproduction. Animals can provide logical opportunities. Having pets like dogs, cats and hamsters can help children become accustomed to reproduction; indeed, pets will introduce them to the whole life cycle. Later they can transfer this knowledge to people.
Another example is to be careful what children are told and overhear when parents divorce; children need to know that both of their parents love them and that they will be taken care of. They shouldn’t be exposed to a lot of information about adult problems. When parents are very upset, they can lose track of normal boundaries. Their “truth” is instead opinions and moralistic judgments coming from a victim mentality that is not appropriate for children to hear.
If you start early enough, your children will talk about sensitive subjects naturally. If you have demonstrated that you love them unconditionally, meaning that if they bring up something sensitive you won’t get blown away, they’ll feel safer asking you questions. Make sure that you have given them permission to ask for information, regardless of how sensitive it is. They will be less likely to be ignorant when it comes time to make important decisions. By the way, tell them over and over, that if they ever want to know about something, don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t just say it one time.
Good Values Are As Important As Good Information
It isn’t enough to give children information; they also need good values about the importance of using self-control and respecting for others. They need to know what your values are while theirs are in the formation stage. Do you believe that couples should have babies only when they’re married and financially able to raise children? Or, are teenage pregnancies acceptable to you? When is it a good time to become sexually active? What is bullying? What is wrong with it? What should your child do if someone is maltreating them? Your children need to know your point-of-view. As they grow up, they’ll decide for themselves, regardless of what you think, but they’ll have your values to fall back on until they’re clear about their own. Of course, it is a good idea to not expose them prematurely to people with values that are not in your child’s best interest. Media, such as news or entertainment, that children are exposed to can desensitize children to grossly inappropriate treatment of others. It is important to explain when children see situations where a person is the recipient of violence or other abusive treatment suffers, that what they saw is not the right way to treat others.
Prepare for Transitions
Sometimes there are big changes in families that children need to be prepared for. Unanticipated transitions can be terrifying to children. Examples of the kinds of transitions that children need to be well prepared for are a move to new home or school, divorce, a new sibling, a hospital stay or the pending death of a friend or relative. When possible, involve the child in making plans for the change. This builds on their social/love needs as well as their self-esteem. We all want to feel in charge of our lives no matter how old we are.
If the change is unpredictable and sudden, children need to have special attention (in such situations as a car accident, a disaster such as a house burning down, a death, or a calamity of nature like a hurricane, an earthquake or a tornado). They need a clear explanation of what happened that is appropriate for their age, and to be reassured that they are safe and given words of encouragement about how things will get better again. It is a good idea to return to normal routines as soon as possible, such as mealtime, playtime and bedtime. There will be fewer traumas if parents heed this advice. Parents need to continue to address their child’s continuing fears and heightened need to feel safe and secure. Unfortunately, in really difficult times there is a tendency for fearful adults to go into their own child state and not pay sufficient attention to the needs of children.
Aware parents will notice predictable signs of stress like shock and confusion, fear, anxiety and withdrawal. These may take the form of sleep disturbances, heightened separation anxiety, regression to an earlier stage, anger or acting out resentments. During this time it is good to have children express their feelings verbally, or during play activities with dolls, puppets or drawing. It is important that they get their feelings out in healthy ways, not repress them so that they are sabotaged psychologically in the future.
If the stress reaction does not go away in a timely manner, it is a good investment to take children to a child psychologist that has the expertise in how to help them resolve the issue. It is no different than taking children to a physician when symptoms of ill health are prevalent. The old adage of it’s better to be safe than sorry makes a lot of sense here.
The second guideline is to make yourself available to talk about sensitive subjects as they arise. Far too many parents are working too hard, are too stressed or too busy with their own life to make themselves available to talk to their children when the need arises.
“Why do people have to die?”
“Will I die?”
“Where do pets go when they die?”
“What does she mean when she says, ‘I’m a lesbian?'”
“What is an abortion?”
“Why are people so uptight about whether abortions should be legal?”
“What is the Ku Klux Klan?”
“Why is there war?”
“Why can’t people agree and not fight or kill each other?”
“When is using drugs abuse?”
“Is Uncle John an alcoholic?”
“Why are Aunt Tilly’s children in foster care?”
“Why are there homeless people?”
“Where do homeless people live if they don’t have a home?”
“What’s wrong with that man who stares off into space and talks to himself?”
These are a few of the questions that children may think of as they observe their world. However, there are some subjects children won’t think of, so sometimes it’s up to you to bring up the subject that they should know about. If you aren’t sure how to answer these questions, start preparing. What you say will have a lasting impact, and it may keep your child safe.
Bring up the Subject If Your Child Doesn’t
What is pedophilia? Incest? Rape? When is it okay for someone else to touch your private parts – and how and for what purpose? A physician? A stranger, neighbor or relative? Tell children that pedophiles are very smooth talkers; they’re creative. They’re rarely the weird-looking guy who pulls up by the curb and asks, “Do you want to go for a ride?” They can be found where children hang out. They may be coaches, teachers or members of the clergy – even members of your family, which is a really hard one for parents to face, but must be talked about in order to make sure that your children are safe. Pedophiles most often look perfectly reputable. They’re charming; and they love children. They may be hard-working, caring and giving. They are like the rest of us, except that they’re sexually aroused by children and may act on their impulses.
How are you going to protect your children from a pedophile? It is not enough to tell children not to talk to strangers or never to get into strangers’ cars. A “friend” or a family member in the overwhelming majority of child molestation cases is someone that the child already knows. Until the pedophile behaves inappropriately, no one suspects any danger. It’s better to warn and to continuously explain, “No one has a right to touch your private parts unless you say so. Your body belongs to you.”
Help children be self-determined about their bodies. Now, there are exceptions, of course, for example, a doctor or a parent. But what if even these people aren’t behaving responsibly? Teach your child to tell a trusted grown-up and keep no secrets about uncomfortable touching. “If someone, anyone, touches you and it doesn’t feel right to you, tell me or tell someone else you trust.”
Another subject to bring up with your child is what to do in an emergency, such as a fire in the house or if someone passes out. They can call 911 or your local emergency hotline. Explain that the police help people who are in danger, and then show them how to call the police or even the fire department.
Keep What You Say Appropriate to the Age of Your Child
Young children can only absorb a small amount of information at a time, and some information needs to be repeated several times. Knowledge is expansive; you’ll continue to add to what they’ve already learned. What you say to a boy-crazy 14-year-old girl about AIDS is very different from what you say to a five-year-old child hearing the term for the first time. Don’t offer more information than a child can absorb.
As children develop, you will need to expand their knowledge on numerous sensitive subjects. By introducing sensitive subjects early, it won’t feel so awkward later to add to the child’s information than if you try to talk about it with no introduction.
We are fortunate now to have a large body of children’s literature available to parents where an author has researched the best way to explain sensitive subjects to children. The drawings to illustrate the subject have been well thought out and presented. If you want to know more about children’s literature on a particular subject for a certain age range, of course, look on the internet. But a frequently unused expert that you can rely on is the librarian at your local library. They know how to research and find just about anything.
Look for Teachable Moments
A teachable moment is when a child is willing to receive information, such as when there is a situation that needs more explaining. An example of this would be when there is news that several people are talking about such as a new development in the family or the neighborhood. When a child asks for information, it’s generally a good time to discuss a sensitive subject. There is an endless array of news items about celebrities that your child will be exposed to that will open the door for you to talk about sensitive subjects.
Of course, if a child asks where babies come from while you are in an awkward social situation, like having the boss over for dinner or at a wedding, simply set a time to discuss the subject when it is more private. If the child asks at a time that you are unable to adequately respond, say that we will talk about it later, and then don’t forget to do it. Two people have to be ready to communicate — not just one. This also applies to times when you are totally unprepared to answer intelligently. Say, let me think about this, I’ll get back to you.
The best techniques to use in talking about sensitive subjects is to use receptive listening when your children express their views and feelings, and use “I-statements” when you express your own.
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