Professor Dr. Abdel Nasser Omar on Improving Communication with your Children.
By Hilary Diack
Parenting is tough. It’s never been a breeze, but with the goal posts being moved at an alarming rate, the times we live in present a whole new set of challenges. Cairo East Magazinesat with Dr. Abdel Nasser Omar, CEO of Al Mashfa Hospital, to learn more about keeping family communication positive and supportive.
CEM: What are the subjects parents tend to avoid discussing with their kids?
AO: Sex, sex and sex. It has always been a taboo issue within a traditionally conservative society that has strict guidelines as to what is acceptable behaviour, especially before marriage. Now, as part of a global culture, with access to virtually unlimited information young Egyptians are more aware and ready to challenge the old mind-set. Economic circumstances have delayed the chance to marry young for many, so it is inevitable that there is an increase in physical relations prior to marriage. Although it is generally recognized that this situation exists many parents are in denial, preferring to avoid any mention of it, so long as a daughter retains that all powerful fragment of flesh, the hymen, symbol of ‘purity’.
We also increasingly see young people wanting to question religion. With so much turmoil in the world spotlighting religious differences it is no surprise that our youth seek more insight and philosophical discussion on the subject. This does not always sit well with parents who have been raised in households were religion was an integral part of family life and never queried for any reason. It should be noted though that in most cases when a young person appears to have withdrawn from his or her faith, they generally revert back to the family religious observance patterns after a period.
How damaging can it be to avoid talking about these matters?
It widens the gap between parent and child. No matter how much a parent would like to preserve the status quo it is becoming an impossible task. In many cases the parents feel at a disadvantage when their kids exhibit a much broader knowledge than them due to internet access and freer discussions with their peers. A parent can feel intellectually inferior and through lack of maturity can refuse to be pulled into a situation where they feel they would lose face. Again, it depends on the level of parenting skills.
How would you classify the different parenting styles?
There are already very clearly defined categories for this. The first type is defined as ‘authoritarian’, where the head of the family, or both parents, maintains a situation where he defines the rules of the household and will not accept any deviance. The family members are expected to submit to this unquestioningly. This can either disempower their children, or alienate them.
The second group is known as ‘authoritative’, where the parents have a clear leadership role, and display competence in providing a secure and democratic environment for the family. This differs from the previous group in that the children feel secure and protected, but still have room to develop themselves and take on responsibilities as individuals. Without this self-actualization process they in turn would not be able to form a healthy parent/ child relationship in later years.
We then go onto the over-protective family. Parents try to shield their kids from the realities of life, stifle their freedom, and control their lives in minute detail. No matter how well-intentioned, this behaviour is very harmful, and does not prepare a child for a normal adult existence where he or she will eventually need to take decisions and accept responsibilities.
Unfortunately we increasingly see an increase in submissive or neglectful parents. They basically prefer not to face up to the job of parenting and preparing their children for a productive role in society. In many cases they find it easier to supply their kids with an unrealistic amount of money and allow them free rein to do whatever they like, even if it means being absent from home or school. Children then quickly learn how to manipulate their parents to get what they want.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow stated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth. Self-actualized people are those who were fulfilled and doing all they were capable of. For Maslow, a person is always ‘becoming’ and never remains static in these terms. In self-actualization a person comes to find a meaning to life that is important to them.
The Maslow triangle is an easy to understand and recognized guideline for human developmental stages. Good parenting should follow these goals.
What things do kids usually avoid telling their parents?
Anything that they feel will result in punishment, rejection or restricted personal freedom. This generally includes experimenting with substance abuse, sexual experiences, falling behind with school work, being bullied, and even falling in love. This is where the relationship between parents and a child should be based on healthy respect, where a child feels secure and loved enough to be able to open up and get help with life’s situations without fear of being rejected, judged or chastised If a parent feels their child is hiding something from them it is usually the parent who is at fault.
Do you see psychological problems arising from avoidance of certain issues?
Parents can often lack confidence in their roles and avoid responsibility in taking decisions. This is even more evident in societies where the extended family shows an active interest in matters, so ignoring an issue and sweeping it under the carpet can be the popular option. Equally, should a parent attempt to assert dominance over their child in a certain matter and be disobeyed it is a challenge to their parental authority and will play out in other facets of the child/parent dynamic. It is important for parents not to betray a child’s trust, it is difficult to regain once lost.
How honest can you be with your child, especially on sensitive topics?
If a child asks questions a parent should know how to answer appropriately, giving an honest response at a level consistent to the child’s age and maturity. Never underestimate their intelligence. Children come up with questions as they develop, and if a parent is not there to respond they will find out from other sources anyway. Sex and reproduction can be discussed in simple terms starting from 5 years of age if a child seems curious, drugs and the dangers can also be discussed in an easy to understand way. It is important for children to learn not to try substances offered to them as well as to avoid being molested. They must know at an early stage what is inappropriate touching by any person, no matter how close. By being involved in their children’s lifestyles and monitoring their development parents can gauge the best time to open up important subjects for discussion.
What is the best time for families to have discussions on topics that are important?
Lifestyles have changed, and more time is spent on individual activities. It is vital to set aside at least twice a week where the family get together without TV, or electronic diversions, purely to reconnect. It should also be an opportunity to reinforce shared values through conversation while instilling in children the ability to make reasoned and objective analyses.
What positive ways are there to talk to and listen to your children?
Share experiences, listen to their anxieties and show them by example how you deal with life’s challenges. It will encourage them to deal with things in a pro-active and self-actualized manner.
What are the best ways to get a kid to open up and talk and strengthen the relationship between you?
By making sure that enjoyable shared activities are inserted into the weekly agenda parents will build a natural bond that will make it easier to converse. Find out about your kid’s leisure activities and join in where possible, it should be fun for both of you.
Are there times parents should hide personal information from their kids?
Children should never be exposed to any signs of marital discord. Any domestic disturbances and disagreements should be resolved in private. In the case of separation and divorce it is a big no-no to criticize the other parent or malign them; the basis for a healthy family relationship is respect, in spite of any differences that may have arisen.
What are warning signs in behavior patterns that a parent should be on the lookout for?
Don’t let your child shut himself away for extended periods. Everyone needs some privacy, but self- isolation from the family unit may be an indication of depression. Any aggressive or anti-social behavior should be addressed quickly. Other indicators may be development of phobias or bedwetting, a good heart-to-heart talk should help you to get to the root of the matter.
How can you detect that there may be serious psychological issues to be addressed rather than just normal ‘growing-up pains’?
A certain level of misbehaviour can be considered normal in the maturing process. If this is a one-off or sporadic occurrence it should be dealt with through discussion and parental guidance. However, if this is a consistent pattern, without any indication of remorse it may mean that more serious personality patterns are at play, such as conduct disorder (CD), a psychological disorder diagnosed in childhood or adolescence that presents itself through a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate norms are violated. According to DSM-5 criteria for conduct disorder, there are four categories that could be present in the child’s behavior: aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of rules. This may be a sign of a psychopathic personality so professional evaluation should be sought.
It can be noted that almost all adolescents who have a substance use disorder have conduct disorder-like traits, but after successful treatment of the substance use disorder, about half of these adolescents no longer display conduct disorder-like symptoms.
Does Al Mashfa offer counselling services, and if so, what is the youngest age you accept as patients?
We handle consultations for children from as early as 4 years of age, in addition to our centre for adolescent counselling for children aged 11 to 18 years. Our team of highly qualified professionals are experienced in interacting with children; parents are welcome to contact us should they have any concerns about their child’s psychological health.