Raising Sex Healthy Children

Raising Sex Healthy Children

Strong parental and family attachments influence sound spouse selection

Every day we live and work outside our home (and even some days when we are in the home) our brains encounter a small amount of trauma from hurting people we interact with, disturbing images we see, unkind phrases we hear, and unloving experiences we experience with a sinful, fallen world.

Every time we send our children out of the home, to school or social activities, they come back traumatized, and it is our job as parents to understand how damaging these experiences really are for their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. We need to make efforts to help them heal this trauma on a daily basis. It is often this unhealed trauma that causes them to make poor choices for themselves, and eventually, with those they relate with and attach to as teenagers and adults.

As parents, our love and guidance provides children with a secure base of attachment, a springboard, if you will, to launch into the world. If they experience a safe, secure, and nurturing environment at home, they will undoubtedly seek that out as adults in communities and relationships with like-minded people. But if they experience chaos, abuse, and mistreatment in the home, that damaged template will likely cause them to be unconsciously drawn to unhealthy surroundings as adults. I believe there are a few essentials for mom and dad to practice to achieve this healthy environment.

Three keys to healing and healthy development: Time, touch, and talk

The first way we can help our children develop in a healthy way is to spend time with them. Our children need to understand that we value and consider them to be an integral relationship in our lives. They must understand their inherent value as our precious sons and daughters and receive our unconditional love.

During the initial years of development, a child views dad and mom as Mr. and Mrs. God. I do not say this to suggest parents assume something as themselves that properly belongs to God, but rather, to illustrate the position that God has placed parents in: to nurture and guide, mirror and delight in their sons and daughters. As adults, we come to understand that our Heavenly Father delights in us – we are a mirror of His glory and beauty, as He created us in His own image (Genesis 1:27).

Unfortunately, too often hurting parents narcissistically and unconsciously use their children to meet their own emotional needs. In the process, the child becomes alienated from his true, authentic self and develops unhealthy roles that take him away from his own development and places a responsibility on him that is inappropriate. This, unfortunately, was a part of my childhood development.

My mother, while she loved God with all her heart and sought to raise her children in a Godly environment, unconsciously sought many of her unmet childhood needs in me. She grew up in the 1960’s with deeply wounded parents — her father was a product of what former NBC new anchor Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation” and suffered from severe mental illness after World War II. Because of Schizophrenia, he was in and out of hospitals for the rest of his life and was not able to be a husband to his wife and father to his children.

My grandmother, in turn, sought escape through the abuse of alcohol and indulging in many adulterous affairs. Her misdeeds quickly spread throughout their small town, bringing immense shame upon my mother, who desperately needed a mommy and daddy to love her. The pain and hurt was so great for her, that one day she actually packed up all of her mother’s belongings into trash bags, changed the locks on the house, and placed the bags outside the house, kicking her own mother out.

All the while, her father was sitting in the living room, oblivious to this conflict while he suffered from Schizophrenia. Sadly, these wounds caused my mother to engage in premarital sex and become pregnant with the first man who showed her affection, when she was sixteen, and subsequently had a child out of wedlock (my sister). That man left my mother to raise the child alone. Miraculously, God sent a good man (my father) to my mother in college that loved her unconditionally and adopted her daughter. After they married, however, both of their childhood wounds did not simply resolve.

My father also grew up in an abusive home. When his father (whom I never met because he died of a heart attack at the age of 55) got home from work at five o’clock, he began drinking. After finishing dinner and his six-pack of beer, he would switch to whiskey and drink with grandma, and would then physically abuse her once he was sufficiently inebriated.

This horrible abuse also affected my father’s older brother, who suffered greatly at his father’s hands. Miraculously, my father was spared these beatings, but because of this high-stress environment, he learned to shut off his feelings and numb himself out with alcohol (which he would later recover from). Feeling one’s emotions in the home of an addict is not safe, because the addict feelings take precedent over everyone. So when my dad married my mother, this pattern of emotional disconnectedness continued.

My emotionally wounded mother could not turn to my father for support, so she went to her sensitive, creative, and intuitive little baby boy. My job as a young boy was to be a substitute spouse for my emotionally unavailable father. The lack of mirroring that resulted from this arrangement had an immeasurable wounding effect on me, leading me into many years of sexual addiction and struggles with my sexual identity.

I tell this story not to bring shame upon my parents, for I love them dearly, but to illustrate the immense need for mirroring that a child requires for healthy emotional development. My parents did the best they could with what they had. But their lack of emotional wholeness had a profound impact on my development, leaving my soul with some major emotional holes that I attempted to fill in unhealthy ways.

It is the parent’s responsibility to meet the emotional needs of the child so he understands his inherent worth and value. Just as God delights in His children by bestowing His beauty in their body, mind, and spirit, so must children receive their parent’s admiration.

This begins by spending quality time with them in activities that build the child up. It is not enough for a child to sit in the same room while mom or dad works on their computer and the child plays video or computer games. Parents need to be on the floor with their toddlers, smiling at them, sitting in awe at their young discoveries and associations, and delighting in them.

My wife and I often marveled at how our oldest son, Andrew, made associations for how the world operated at a very young age. He would quickly put things together in his mind in order to make sense of the world. For example, he deduced at a very young age that the sun produced light during the day and that the moon and stars were meant to illuminate the night sky. We didn’t tell him this, he didn’t learn it in church, as far as we knew; he just figured it out.

He would figure out other associations that were seemingly beyond his years, and each time he did this, we would praise and marvel at his intellect, as if he was a baby Einstein. Andrew received a lot of narcissistic mirroring (as our other children have also received from us) from a young age, and now that he is eight, we have noticed how confident and free of shame he has become.

He is an excellent singer, and has no problem showing off his talent in front of our church or at Sherry’s voice recitals (which she always seems to find a place for him in the program). Providing this narcissistic mirroring gives the child a firm foundation and allows him to feel secure in his talents, gifts, and identity. As he uses mom and dad as a springboard into the world, he will feel confident in himself and what he has to give and share with his peers.

The second way we can help our children develop in a healthy way is to provide them with affection. Healthy touch is an integral part of attachment and bonding and is essential for healthy development. Research has found that orphan babies that do not receive enough touch in their early years are more susceptible to develop physical and emotional disorders as a consequence. In some cases, the absence of healthy touch for these orphans has actually caused premature death.[i]

Because Western culture has sexualized the use of touch due to our Puritanical roots, many children lack the adequate affection to fill their “love tank.”[1] One reason is that parents often show a large amount of affection toward their children when they are infants and toddlers, but when the child begins to grow and become more independent, parents assume she does not need to be held or hugged any longer.

While each child’s need for healthy touch may vary, it is safe to say that all children desire affection and, when deprived, may turn to a variety of internal and external maladaptive cognitive distortions or behaviors to compensate. I have observed that many of my adult clients who struggle with sexual identity recount that they remember their fathers being affectionate with them until the age of 4-5, but then abruptly stopped holding them when they entered elementary school.

In other situations, fathers may cease giving their adolescent daughters hugs or healthy touch because they are actually triggered by her burgeoning sexual development. As a consequence, the father may withdraw healthy affection out of fear that he may be sexually attracted to his daughter’s body. No wonder why some young women often fall hard for their first boyfriend, initiate sex at young ages, or give away too much of themselves; it is because of a hole in their soul for healthy, paternal love.[2]

It is my belief that if a daughter is treasured, valued, and nurtured by her father, she will seek out that same type of healthy relationship with a man at the appropriate time, with the guidance of her parents and family. My wife and I have told our children from a young age that we are praying for their future spouses, that we will help pick them out for them; and if they see a boy or girl whom they think might be a good candidate, to inform us so that we can help nurture and guide their relationship.

My wife and I have also set the standard that romantic kissing is between a husband and wife and is reserved ideally for marriage. Sherry and I delight as our six-year-old daughter often remarks when she sees a man and woman kissing on television that “they’re married!” Unfortunately, so many children have been desensitized by what they watch on television and in movies to believe that physical intimacy such as kissing and touching underneath clothing is normal or appropriate for unmarried couples. This is not only damaging to themselves, but also to their future spouse, who is the only one for which that type of intimacy is intended. 

It is vitally important that parents display appropriate affection (hugs, holding, casual and heart-felt kissing) in front of their children, as well as educate their children as to what that might look like for them as they begin to navigate relationships in their teenage years. Contrary to some, this modeling does not begin when they are teenagers. 

If parents do not model affection and discuss sexuality until their kids are teens, it will be too late. Parents must begin to talk to their kids when they are toddlers. In fact, talk is the third way mom and dad can help provide their children a healthy foundation for development. In Table 8.1, I have suggested some simple, age-appropriate topics for parents to discuss with their children about anatomy, healthy touch, dating/romance, sex, and sexuality.

[1] For an excellent overview on healthy touch as a love language, see: “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. 

[2] I do not mean to implicate or criticize fathers more than mothers for unhealthy development in their children. Of course, unhealthy mothering may also result in maladaptive development, but since I am a man, I write from a fatherly perspective.

This is an excerpt from chapter 8 of The Meaning of Sex: A New Christian Ethos (January, 2018). For more information on how to obtain a copy, please contact our office at IHFINFO@InstituteforHealthyFamilies.org. Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Families.

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