Saturday, 27 July 2019
Whether we want to admit it or not, our children, from the moment they are born, are in relationships with others. First, with parents and primary care givers. Then, we other young children in nursery, then with older children and adults around them.
Children have great skills at observing the world around them to start to build a sense of themselves. What they observe is only from their immature eyes, they don’t have anything else to compare what they see with other knowledge, so they make up their own conclusion.
For example, a young girl who doesn’t see their parents touch or kiss, yet watches a Disney cartoon about a princess being rescued by her prince through a passionate embrace can be confusing.
A girl who is dressed like a princess at a party and is being told by adults how pretty she looks comes with an unspoken implicit message, yet strong one based on children’s stories, that there will be a prince somewhere that will choose her and make her happy, all she needs to do is stay pretty. The Prince Charming might even come into her bedroom whilst she’s asleep and kiss her without her explicit consent – how romantic, not!
Similarly, a boy dressed in a super hero outfit for the same birthday party is forced to act strong and powerful – it is even a permission to be a little aggressive, only because he’s Spiderman that day. The very same boy, from a very young age, is already conditioned to know that it is not acceptable to be curious about playing with dolls or want to wear a pink t-shirt. The worst toxic message for boys is being taught not to cry.
Girls are conditioned to hold hands and kiss each other, but boys are told not to kiss other boys. Children are told to be careful when adults want to touch them and they are also forced to endure that horrible sloppy kiss from the smelly grandpa each time they visit him. This is another confusing message about consent, which children can find very difficult to understand properly without proper education.
These are only a few reasons why it is crucial to have proper and thorough Relationship and Sex Education in primary schools and secondary schools and High Schools. Many people protest about it because I think there is a misunderstanding of what it actually means. I think people are hung up with the word ‘sex’ and they think teachers will go into schools telling inappropriate sexual content to their children. This is not the case.
In Primary School, children need to be taught how to form friendships. Children will form relationships from the time they are born, so it is definitely not too early. Forming good friendships and making sense of what they observe is really important: they can gain a much greater sense of the world around them and understand properly what they see everywhere: in their parents relationship, in cartoons, children’s movies and stories. In primary schools, the teaching of friendships comes with accepting who is different (different colour skin, different cultural clothes, different bodies, different abilities, different types of families, and so on). Frankly, the world could do with a lot more kindness and acceptance, and if we can start teaching these in primary schools, perhaps the world could be a better place. Children of primary school age who come from a homophobic household will already be conditioned to be homophobic, even if they don’t know what it means, they simply imitate their parents (That’s the wrong kind of Relationship and Sex Education). It is not uncommon to see young children expressing racism, it is not them who have those views, they only repeat what they hear from parents. So, it is most definitely not too early to teach children of that age group some proper information about accepting difference.
In Primary Schools, we have to teach our children about consent in a way that is age appropriate and relevant to their lives. It is in that age group that body exploration comes in the way of: ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’. Although being curious about each other’s genitals and body parts is a normal process of our children’s development, we need to teach children that it is ok to be curious and it is ok to say ‘no’.
It is also in Primary Schools that we need to teach children about what is coming next: puberty. Some many people go through a very confusing time at puberty when their bodies change so much and so fast and with very little conversations about it. There needs to be a lot more conversations about puberty before it happens, and throughout.
Relationship and Sex Education in Primary School is not about sex and inappropriate content. It is about appropriate and relevant information that is crucial to the children’s well-being as well as the whole community. It is teaching about friendships, kindness, acceptance, love, their sense of self in the world, what is ok and what is not ok, and how they can say ‘no’ when it is important to say so.
In Secondary and High Schools, Relationship and Sex Education also needs to be age appropriate, and that means more details about what is relevant in their lives. How to form peer relationships, romantic relationships and sexual relationships. There needs to be a lot of space to discuss consent properly: what it actually is, what it means and how it is done. There needs to be teachings on good sexual health to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but it needs to be done in a matter-of-fact way rather than in a scary way to put young people off.
There needs to be a lot more conversations about sexual pleasure and how to enjoy their bodies. There needs to be conversations about recognising when sex stops becoming pleasurable and how they can stop it then rather than enduring it.
Relationship and Sex Education absolutely needs to include same-sex relationships and there must not be an option for opting out. Too many children and teenagers are harmed by homophobia. It is a matter of public health. Just as we can teach Primary School children about accepting the diversity of human beings, we need to reinforce this teaching in Secondary and High Schools: acceptance and kindness is key. Homophobia is not acceptable. Teachers much learn not to ignore homophobic language and behaviours that happen before their eyes.
The religious groups that oppose Relationship and Sex Education may be mis-informed. Good teaching on sexual health is teaching teenagers the importance of having sexual contacts that match their values. It means that if a young person does not want sex because of their religious or moral values, it is ok. Good relationship and sexual health is knowing that it is ok to want sex and it is also ok not to want sex. However it is not ok to impose one’s moral values or beliefs onto someone else and be sexist, racist or homophobic. Young people also need to know that it is ok to have same-sex attraction no matter what their religious or moral beliefs are, and to be given the right resources of who they can see to discuss these issues in a confidential and non-judgmental place.
I urge the Government to put in place adequate resources to enable every single UK schools to have a well-trained relationship and sex educator because in my profession, I see many adults who have distressing problems as a consequence of poor relationship and sex education.
Good relationship and sexual health is crucial to people’s overall health. By having a solid relationship and sex education system in all ages of schools, we can actually save lives by preventing too many tragedies like suicide. We can prevent so much physical and psychological pain, we can help people lead much happier lives, and we can start to create a new generation of people who will understand kindness, acceptance and love on a deeper level and shape a better world.
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Tuesday, 14 May 2019
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2019. This year the theme is body image.
If you look at popular magazines, you will notice that there are some many cover headlines about dieting, looking good, or shaming a celebrity with an unflattering beach photograph. It may all be for fun and light-hearted, but underneath, we can easily internalise body shaming.
Slowly, days after days of reading, looking and hearing about what kind of body is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, we can develop distorted thinking about our body and start to hate it. It can have a huge impact on our mental health, leading to acute anxiety and depression.
Hating our body can also create big problems in our sex life and relationship. The more we dislike our body, the more we might push our partner away. Over time, it can cause distress in the relationship.
Feeling bad about our body used to be predominantly a problem with women and gay men – the gay scene is quite harsh about body image, just as the rest of the world is to women. But now, heterosexual men are starting to have the same problems: there is one type of body that is ‘desirable’ and there is pressure to obtain that body.
Of course, needless to say that most of what is considered the ‘right’ type of body, the ‘desirable’ shape or the ‘worthy’ look is largely unrealistic, promoting obsession going to the gym and eating disorders.
Muscle dysmorphic disorder is becoming more and more common amongst gay and heterosexual men. It is an acute obsession with going to the gym to ‘beef up’, and the muscles can never be too big. Those men with this disorder feel the need to gain more and more muscles no matter how big they already are. This goes unnoticed because it is socially accepted, even desirable to have big muscles. But underneath the muscles, there often is unhappiness and distress.
Here is a check list to figure out if you might have an issue with your body image.
You may have a problem with your body image if:
1- You have frequent preoccupation with your body image and body shape to the extent of controlling your life.
2- You feel distressed, unhappy or depressed when you look at your body.
3- You do excessive exercise.
4- You’re always on a diet, juicing, detoxing, etc.
5- You have problems with relationships: avoiding social occasions because you think you look bad.
You may have body image distress if you feel bad about your appearance:
You may have body image distress if you feel bad about your appearance:
1- At social gathering where you know a few people
2- When you look at yourself in the mirror
3- When you are with attractive people
4- When someone looks at parts of your appearance that you dislike
5- When you try on new clothes
6- When you exercise
7- After you have eaten a full meal
8- When you wear revealing clothes
9- When you get on the scale to weigh
10-When you think someone has rejected you
11-When in a sexual situation
12-When you are in a bad mood
13-When you think of how you looked when you were younger
14-When you see yourself in a photo or on video
15-When you think you have gained weight
16-When you think about what you wished you looked like
17-When you recall hurtful things people have said about your appearance
18-When you are with people who talk about weight or dieting
Here are five tips of what you can do to help feel better about your body:
1- Speak to yourself like you would speak to your best friend. Don’t be unkind about your appearance. Challenge your critical thoughts.
2- Avoid focusing on the body parts that you don’t like. Instead, take a broader look at your body and also look at the parts that you like.
3- Don’t go on a scale every day. Moderate your exercises. Take some time to do other fun things and hobbies that do not involve working on your fitness or body.
4- Have a balanced diet that include all types of food group, including a dessert once in a while. Make meals a time for relaxation and fun.
5- Learn to love the body parts that you don’t usually like. It is all part of self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance. You don’t need to have a six-pack in order to be handsome, attractive and a worthy person.
If you feel much distress to a level that it stops you from living the life you want, it is a good idea to find a therapist who specialises in working with body image.
We have only one body for life. Take your first step to make peace with it today. Be really proud. We are all beautifully imperfect.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s help each other be kinder with conversations about our body.
Monday, 11 March 2019
The documentary Leaving Neverland has shown a light on the darkness of what happened behind the closed gates of Michael Jackson’s heavenly world.
It sparked debates and sometimes aggressive insults from the fans of the star. It also opened conversations on the unsettling topic of sexual abuse.
The Neverland Process
Michael Jackson’s Neverland story is an extreme one due to the level of his stardom which strongly survives his death, but it is also consistent with the millions of other stories of childhood sexual abuse, all of them with a Neverland process: why? Because the Neverland process is what sex offenders use to abuse.
The Neverland process is sex offenders creating a world of distorted beliefs for their victims and the adults around them with specific steps:
1- Blending in society looking kind, caring, benevolent and trusting. When we think of sex offenders or child molesters, we are invested in having an image of an undesirable, monstrous and disgusting man we can spot a mile away. This image is partly so that we foster a sense of knowing how to protect our children. However, the reality is much different. Most sex offenders blend very well in our society, especially in places where children are accessible. They look good, they look fun and they look very friendly.
2- Friends of parents. Most sexual abuse happen in the child’s home by someone whom the child knows well and even loves. It is often one of the parents or both, or a grandparent, uncle, cousin, childminder, and so on. Occasionally, it is someone outside of the family who makes lots of efforts to befriend the parents. They pretend to be kind, loving and caring so that the parents have no suspicion of the hidden agenda. They eventually persuade the parents that they are the safest person to leave their children with so that they can have a much deserved break from parenting. This is called grooming the family.
3- Love. The sex offender makes the child feel very special, the chosen one, they make the child feel very loved and safe. They desensitise the child with lots of hugs and seemingly innocent bodily contact to normalise close physical proximity. And very gradually move towards inappropriate sexual touch, which they manipulate the child into believing it is a special kind of love. This is called grooming the child.
4- Distancing the parents. By fostering the sense of a special kind of love with the child, the sex offender also creates a wedge between the child and the parents: the child starts to believe that the offender loves him more than his own parents and therefore wants to spend more time with the offender than the parents. Most often, the parents perceive it as the child creating a bond with others, which is usually seen as healthy socialising development. If it is one of the parents abusing the child, that parent will make the child believe that the other parent is the unkind one and the child should have a special secret relationship with the ‘better’ parent.
5- Psychological abuse. The sex offender manipulate the child into staying silent, lying to the parents and keeping the secret of the abuse to protect themselves from reporting and also to ensure they can continue the abuse multiple times. They often say something like: ‘nobody understands our special bond, if you tell you will hurt everybody and you will be taken away from your family. You’re safe here, this is our secret’.
As you can see, all of these steps above were eloquently described by both James and Wade in the Leaving Neverland documentary. The Neverland process happens in most childhood sexual abuse, including with the ones involving a celebrity.
The intoxicating Stardom
What makes the childhood sexual abuse by Michael Jackson stand out is his fame, obviously. His stardom status such that the grooming is made very easy as it started even before Michael Jackson met his victims. Wade was already a big fan of his, he was primed to respond to him so well. When I saw Wade dancing on Michael Jackson’s stage, I saw a child who wasn’t just being made to feel special, like the usual sexual abuse process, but a child who was intoxicated by Jackson’s stardom, a feeling that nobody else in the world could ever offer him. Nobody can compete with that kind of attention. Wade himself said that Michael Jackson was his God.
It was a little different with James. As a child he wasn’t a fan of Michael Jackson, he was unlucky enough to be cast in his Pepsi advert. Soon after meeting him on set, he found him in his home, put posters of him on his walls, which is essentially like manufacturing a new fan. James being young and vulnerable got trapped into the Jackson dream web.
Both set of parents got trapped in the same web too. There is no precedence for a mega star to turn up in your humble home and wanting to be friends with you. James’ mother was flattered that her family was the chosen family of his friendship, and because of his child-like persona soon considered him as one of her children. This would have not happened if an ordinary fully-grown man turned up at your front door wanting to be your son’s best friend. Wade’s parents wanted their son to live his dream and be a friend of his favourite idol, making very bad judgements of the situations. As it was explained in the documentary, the normal judgment process went out of the window because he was a huge star.
Michael Jackson’s callously used his stardom and his child-like persona to bypass parents’ guards. ‘How could such a sweet child-like man harm another child?’ people would say to reassure themselves. Jackson was both a child and Santa Clause, as James described: he would take him to toy shops and allow him to fill his trolley with whatever he wanted: it was magic!
Michael Jackson’s father robbed him of his childhood and he had traumatic early years. But let’s make no mistake: Michael Jackson was not a child trapped in a man’s body. He was a fully grown man who was a sex offender. Only adults with a fully functioning brain are capable of such psychological abuse and manipulation that was described by both James and Wade. A combination of his fame and child-like persona was his way in into children’s lives and their parents for accelerated grooming.
Trauma, the brain and psychological abuse: why survivors don’t report
As we see in the documentary, and as I see in my consulting room every day, the impact of childhood sexual abuse is far reaching. One of the hallmarks of trauma is that parts of the brain becomes impaired during the abuse. The Broca’s area responsible for speech production and language processing goes offline which means that it is sometimes hard for survivors of sexual abuse to verbalise what happened to them. It may be after a long psychological treatment that some words to the abuse can return.
The prefrontal cortex is also impaired so it is difficult for the brain to formulate a coherent story of the abuse, often missing many elements to it, with some fragmented memories or complete loss of memories. These brain impairments that are normal faced with trauma are some of the reasons why some people don’t report straight away. They fear that if they are being asked questions, they won’t have all the answers and therefore won’t be believed.
Another reason why people don’t report abuse is the silencing effect of the psychological abuse that goes with sexual abuse. Both James and Wade didn’t’ suffer memory loss but they both said that it was easier not to talk about it because they couldn’t make sense of it all. If you can’t make sense of it yourself, how can you start a conversation about it with someone else?
It is common for survivors of abuse not to have a coherent narrative. Even if survivors remember everything they doubt their own reality. As Wade says: Michael Jackson was a God to him. How can he make sense that his God, the one who opened the gates to Heaven for him and his family be also the one sexually abusing him? How can he make sense of such a God telling him that it is how love is expressed?
How can survivors make sense that the unwanted touch felt loving and pleasurable too?
How can they make sense that the man they love and allegedly loves them back also threatens them if you tell anybody?
As Oprah Winfrey points out, when Michael Jackson says to a child: ‘the best part of the holiday was to be with you, I mean it’, how can you not feel so loved?
With psychological abuse, the narrative of what happened becomes distorted. As both Wade and James said, they didn’t realise that what was happening to them was abuse. They just couldn’t identify the word ‘abuse’ with their story.
This is why many adult survivors of sexual abuse never speak out, and never report. And the longer they wait, the more they fear not being believed: ‘Why did you wait so long to tell? Why did you keep hanging out with the abuser? Are you sure you remember right? Why did you change your story?’ The longer survivors wait, the less likely there will be evidence, and the more likely they fear not being believed.
But not talking is isolated. Isolation is where sex offenders want survivors to be so that they can be protected from being reported and continue to abuse.
The trauma of being sexually abused doesn’t go away and, unfortunately, time doesn’t heal it. In fact, time can make the trauma fester and it leads to people hating themselves more and more towards self-harm to the extent of suicide. Both Wade and James described their self-hatred eloquently. They could connect well with hating themselves but not connect with feeling empathy towards themselves. They could only connect to it when they saw their own children’s vulnerability.
Forgive and forget?
It is not possible to forget. Survivors will never forget what happened to them. James said in the Oprah Winfrey interview: ‘forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you travel’. It is usual for survivors of sexual abuse to be very angry at the adults who allowed the abuse to happen. In the case with James and Wade’s parents, perhaps they made gross bad judgements being blinded by the star. In some cases, the parents intentionally turn a blind eye to prioritise and preserve other family relationships and not ‘rock the boat’. In that case, the parents also become abusers.
If survivors are willing, they can go on the long journey of forgiveness, and some can forgive. But they will never forget, and the relationship with those adults will never be the same. However, forgiveness is not necessary for healing. Forgiveness is perceived as the ultimate good thing to do, sometimes, it is seen as the superior thing to do. Survivors of sexual abuse do not need to forgive their abusers or those who have wilfully enabled the abuse. True healing can happen without it. I think it is an important message because survivors are often reluctant to start therapy fearing that the therapist might ask them to forgive when they don’t want to.
It is not the child’s fault, ever.
When there is sexual abuse, it is always the abuser’s fault. The adult is always the one holding the responsibility to protect a child, never the other way around. It is not the child’s fault if he felt sexual pleasure. It is a normal physical reaction. It has nothing to do with him liking or wanting it or not. It is not a child’s fault for loving his abuser. It is what the abuser manufactures so that they can continue abusing. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to stay with his abuser: abusers makes a child love them so that they can ensure access to him, and continue to manipulate him into staying silent. It is not a child’s fault if he wanted to protect his abuser. It is the normal reaction of survivors who have been psychologically abused into doing so. It is not a child’s fault if he has been sexually abused. He was not the seducer, he was a child, only the adult is responsible for it.
The vitriol of Michael Jackson’s fans
This blog will probably be criticised by Michael Jackson’s fans. As Oprah Winfrey says in the interview with James and Wade: ‘We are all going to get it!’. Most people don’t understand what it is like to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and they much less understand the psychology of sex offenders. Therefore, it is easy for the public to make up their own stories, ideas and judgements about their star. For the fans, changing Michael Jackson’s image would be a painful process of re-thinking what they had felt in their own childhood about their idol. Some fans can be aggressive, as Wade explained receiving death threats from them. That is unacceptable. But when we think of Michael Jackson’s fans’ vitriol, let’s remind ourselves that they are not talking about the survivors of sexual abuse, they’re talking about themselves and their inability to regulate their anxious emotions of change. It doesn’t make the aggression acceptable to survivors of sexual abuse, though.
I would suggest not to allow those aggressive people deter survivors from speaking out: they can choose a safe person to tell first: usually it would be someone who can understand them, like a specialised therapist. Or it can be a good friend whom they trust to be believed and supported. It is good to start with one safe person, and then decide what they want to do next. In the UK, there is no expiry date for reporting a sex offender to the police.
Hope and healing: effective trauma treatment
If you have been sexually abused as a child, there is good treatment available and there is great hope for healing. Find a therapist who is trauma informed and specialised in sexual abuse. Some of the effective psycho-traumatology treatments available are:
Somatic trauma psychotherapy
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing)
There is a life beyond the Hell of Neverland. There is a vibrant, exciting, thriving and safe life for you to enjoy. Be courageous and start the steps of healing.