'My son has started to use some worrying words'
Each week, sex therapist Emily Power Smith answers your sex-related queries
Q. I've been separated for two years now and my little boy lives mostly with his mam. He's six now and he's started saying some worrying things. His mother has a live-in partner for the past year and I'm afraid something might be going on. He has started calling his 'willie' (what we usually call it) a 'cock' and he's started calling 'boobies' 'tits'. He seems okay but he says this stuff to me while laughing, as though he knows it's bold. But I'm worried he's trying to tell me something. How can I bring this up? The boyfriend and I don't really talk, but I've an okay relationship with my ex.
A. I hear your concern but there are several steps to take and things to check before worrying that anything too dark is taking place. That said, it's something you need to check out sooner rather than later so you can ease your mind or take action if it's needed.
A good place to start is asking him where he learned the new words. Choose a time when it's just the two of you, and perhaps while he's colouring, or playing with toys so you can either join in, or be nearby. That way you're not making it into a big deal. Ensure you're feeling close and he's not in trouble when you start the conversation.
Watch his body language and facial expressions as well as listening carefully to his reply. Tell him you're curious because he's interesting and you like to know about him. Keep it simple and neutral, so he doesn't feel worried or embarrassed or in trouble. Smile and give him a reassuring hug so he knows you're on his side throughout.
I suspect he's using the new words with you to gauge if they're okay while suspecting they aren't. He may not know why they're not okay and is simply curious because they're different words. It could be as simple as him having a friend with an older sibling or parent who uses that language, and he's testing to see what an adult he trusts thinks.
This is a great chance to replace pet names with correct terminology, so that there can be no further confusion. Research shows that children feel more confident and less confused when taught the correct words for all their anatomy. Using pet names for genitals infers there's something wrong with that part of the body and it must be secret. The words he's using could arguably be someone else's 'pet' names and that someone may not think of cock as any more offensive than willy.
Another reason to teach your boy that penis is the correct word is so he learns it isn't offensive or crude or wrong, as it simply describes a body part in the same way you call an arm an arm. You can even teach him to have pride in knowing the same words all grown-ups, including doctors, use. If he asks why you taught him pet names, you can simply say you've just figured it out yourself. Keep it simple.
It's great that he's saying these words to you because it shows an openness and trust. The most valuable thing you can do is keep that communication going by asking gentle questions and not showing anger or judgment. You can certainly explain to him that those words aren't okay because they aren't very respectful. But I'd be careful about making any more of it at this point.
If he's happy, outgoing, and isn't displaying any unusual behaviours such as sexualised touch, anxiety, trouble sleeping, nightmares, anger, aggression, low moods or fear, odds are it's something he's picked up. I'd still be curious to find out where, though you may not be able to block the source (if it's in school, for example).
You could ask your ex if she's noticed any changes in language and behaviour and if she knows where they came from, without implying any suspicion around her partner. Get her on board so there's two of you keeping an eye.
I think it's way too early to be pointing fingers as that kind of language is so easily picked up nowadays. Remember most 10-year-old boys have seen porn. So now, while he's younger, is a good time to start the conversations about words that are kind and respectful (and correct) versus mean or degrading ones.
Q. I've seen you on the telly and you speak about sex in such an open and natural way. But I can't see how that can happen for most Irish people who have abuse or damage in their background. I'd love to be free of all my hang ups or to even enjoy sex, but I can't. I just can't bring myself to talk about what happened to me as a kid and it hangs over everything I do - not just sex. I feel frozen.
A. I understand what you're saying, and how you could be feeling the way you're feeling, because I've felt that way. Abuse, damage, assault, and day-to-day encounters that infringe on a person's right to safety, autonomy and respect are rife in our society and I've had my own experiences in the past.
Believe it or not, just writing to me and voicing your feelings is a really big step towards healing and finding your power. Recovery from abuse or damage takes such a long time and we can only do it in layers. We clear a layer and have a little respite from the pain, and then the next layer becomes visible and we have to do it all over again. Each time, we get a bit stronger wiser and empowered. It can sometimes feel like we're back at square one when we get triggered by something and feel our fear and/or anger and freeze. But we aren't. We're just in that difficult new phase and haven't found our way through it yet.
I don't know if you've felt able to get counselling, but if you're wondering about it, I'd say now is the time. The first stage is to learn that it's safe to talk about your experience. Going to a therapist who is well trained and experienced in working with sexual abuse or damage is important. When you find a therapist, be sure to ask them about their training, expertise and vitally, about their ongoing clinical supervision (to ensure they're getting the support they need to do a great job for you).
Part of healing is being able to decide that the help you go for is good enough for you. Finding your voice with your therapist so that you can be yourself and really be seen, is pivotal in a person's healing. There are fantastic people working in this field.
Once you've worked on the first few layers of sharing and acknowledging your story, you may decide to work on your sexual empowerment. In my experience, that tends to be a separate, later piece of work and may be better done by a sex therapist.
The potential to heal, find your strength, and to unfreeze is there. It will take time and effort, but in the long run, you'll learn that not healing actually is way more exhausting than doing this work. As you let go of your hurt, you free up the energy it's taken to carry it around with you all these years. I'm excited for you and hope you find your way forward now that you've taken this first step. Don't give up!
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