Sex n Social Justice: What to Tell Your Children

A few weeks ago we were talking on Twitter about The A21 Campaign’s Key2Free project. Some of you may remember I had worn a key on a necklace on January 21 to help raise awareness of Human Trafficking. I looked like a bit of a geek wearing a massive old car key around my neck but I did get to chat with a few people about the subject. Problem was, one of those was my seven year old daughter who wanted to know what Human Trafficking was. I didn’t know what to tell her so I told her the bare minimum and made a mental note to be better prepared next time. Many of you echoed my comments on this. Hence, this wonderfully informative interview with a professional in the area of child psychotherapy!

This week we’re priveledged to have Psychotherapist Collett Smart answering our questions on discussing sex and social justice with our children. Collett provides counselling to children, adolescents and their families. She is also involved with Collective Shout: For A World Free Of Sexploitation.

Here she generously provides insight gleaned over her 20 year career:

As parents, how can we judge what is appropriate information for our children? Is there a rough scale/guide demonstrating what age groups can understand and comprehend different levels of information?

Let me begin by saying that many parents feel uncertain about how to talk to their children about violence, injustice or sexual themes. A natural reaction is to protect and shield children from unpleasant and distressing facts, however most school-aged children are aware of events in the news that involve these themes. If not acknowledged and discussed, the concerns and anxieties of children about these events can become too frightening and difficult for them to deal with.

Although we need to be careful not to burden children with information for which they might not be ready. One result of trying to teach children too early about abstract concepts can be dissociation. When we ask children to deal with problems beyond their cognitive abilities, understanding and control, they can become anxious, and tune out of the issues. Each child is different, although there are guidelines for appropriate cognitive stages of development of children, which I will discuss further on.

General ideas to consider when talking with your child would be: their age, temperament and stage of development, how secure they are, how you as a family react to particular events, how exposed the child may already have been to particular issues, how adequately they can discuss their feelings and emotions on a day-to-day basis, what the influence of their peer group is like and how this group is responding to the issue.

How would you explain a subject like Human Trafficking to children, at different ages?

Talking about this issue too early can cause young children to become frightened for their own safety but even early adolescents would be ready to talk this through, as they are becoming more independent and aware of life choices and risks.

Check with adolescents about what they have heard others say about Human Trafficking. You can then correct any misunderstandings, or follow up any concerns they may have. They may be confused about things that others have said, and need your help to make sense of information or sort out truth from fiction. Bear in mind that modern technology (Facebook, mobile phones) can spread information and rumours quickly.

Please be encouraged that the views that your adolescent forms may still be influenced by your perceptions or by role models who are important to them. Of course, the peer group is likely to play an important role in how adolescents interpret and react to environment related issues too. Adolescents can get confused if different people who are important in their lives have different opinions, so it can be helpful to ask adolescents what is being discussed at their school, by their friends or teachers (this way you can monitor how your child is going at understanding the issues). As always with teenagers, keep the communication lines open, even if your adolescent appears to be rejecting your opinion – adolescents need to hear a range of views.

Can you recommend any resources we can use to help our children understand the different social justice issues?

A great video for children aged 10 years + would be, ‘Teenage Affluenza’. It really gives a great comparison on their lives and that of others around the globe. –

Another short video on Human Trafficking for teens would be (by the United Nations):

You’re on the board of Collective Shout. As parents, how should we approach the sexual images our children view every day on billboards, TV etc.?

Parents are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of violence and sexual themes in movies, television shows and computer games. Thousands of studies all over the world have investigated the effects of media on children and research has shown that children who see a lot of violence on screens are more likely to; behave aggressively, have aggressive thoughts and unfriendly feelings and not care about what happens to people who are victims of violence.

 Exposure to sexual themes that children are not developmentally ready for can cause children and adolescents to begin to

  • Devalue relationships
  • Objectify women – by this I mean, viewing women as only being necessary for the sexual gratification of men
  • Disrespect women
  • Lose confidence in themselves
  • Sexualise their own behaviour

 Useful strategies for parents, recommended by the Australian Psychological Society are:

  • Take responsibility for controlling their children’s viewing/playing habits
  • Know what their children are watching
  • Make rules about the programs children watch
  • Seek out appropriate programs.
  • Use a filter or a screening program on your home computer to block entry to certain websites
  • Always check video/computer games before letting children play with them.

 An issue that we at Collective Shout have with billboards and sexualised men’s t-shirts, was best said recently by our colleague Julie Gale of Kids Free 2B Kids, “Sexual harassment laws would forbid most of these images from being displayed on an office wall. These men become walking billboards and everyone else is held captive and involuntarily exposed.”

I would therefore advise parents to talk to their children about the billboard they may have seen and ask how it makes them feel or what they think about it. Talk about your own views on it too and how it may make women feel. Become involved in groups that combat these images and it will become apparent to your children what your values are as a family. This way, you have reason to talk about the topic at every stage of your child’s development, as they become developmentally ready.

What is the best approach? If we know they’ve seen something inappropriate, should we bring it up or wait for them?

As mentioned, media can influence children in many ways and they are already aware of much of the content around them. So I would advise having age appropriate discussions fairly soon after the image has been seen. 

 How can we explain it to children of different ages?


Young children cannot express complex emotions easily or directly. Parents can look for clues to their feelings that they might send through their play, drawing, spontaneous conversations, and behaviour. The best thing to remember about your pre-schooler is that they often need reassurance more than facts, and then help them distinguish fantasy from reality. Always try to answer their questions simply and honestly, but in a reassuring way. Sometimes, such as in play therapy, children find it easier to talk indirectly, through a toy or puppet. Try asking “And how are you feeling today, teddy/dolly?”

Primary school-aged children

For this age, you could begin by asking children how they feel about the world or about a certain issue. It can be helpful to let them know what you’ve noticed e.g., “I can see you looking worried about…” Once they have chatted to you, check with them to make sure you’ve got it correct. Let them know that you understand how they are feeling while also encouraging children to be critical of what is reported in the media. You could use artistic pursuits and free expression through drama, art and music to help children express their feelings to you.


Adolescents need opportunities to express feelings, and should be encouraged to discuss their thoughts and feelings about environmental problems. Adolescents can easily feel disempowered about their world. Adults can help by encouraging them to see a broader perspective and focus on some positive aspects in the world and their own lives. Adolescents do well with direct questioning about what they are feeling. You could also ask what their friends may feel about a certain issue. Debate and discuss popular media in a way that enables your child to think about their values and make more conscious choices about the way they live. Encourage them to look for and research alternative opinions.

Around what age/stage should we broach the topic of pornography in a bid to teach our children to avoid it? How can we best help our children to have a healthy attitude towards sexuality and not be influenced by pornographic images?

Parents should usually broach the topic of sex to children around 5 or 6, when children are as comfortable as if one were talking about the weather. We need to be aware that many of our own ‘issues’ about sex can be transferred into discomfort when talking to our children and this can make them feel confused. This could cause your child not to approach you again with the topic of sex. I am still amazed in this day and age when I teach sex education to Year 6’s, how many girls have never been told about menstruation and how many children have never been told about sex in general by their parents. Without going into too much detail about pornography, encourage your child to approach you should they ever feel uncomfortable about something they have seen on TV or the internet. Reinforce that they will not be in trouble or banned from technology if they come to you for guidance or help.

Many well-known child psychologists agree that around 10 years old is a good time to talk more directly with your child about all the ‘sensitive’ topics such as pornography, drugs etc. They believe that this sets the stage for openness when children become teens. Also, if they become awkward or closed up as teenagers for a while, it will become increasingly difficult to talk about sensitive topics at that stage.

When talking about pornography, find out what your children know, in case they have mistaken ideas or facts, and correct any misconceptions. Keep your responses appropriate to the age of your child and also appropriate to the child’s level of understanding and emotional maturity. Talk to them about the lure of porn, that they will all be exposed to it at some stage and its effects on healthy relationships in the long term. However don’t make children feel ashamed or dirty if they have viewed it. Talk to your child about their choices with what they do after exposure and how they can always come to you if they feel uncomfortable about anything they have seen.


Finally I believe that it is extremely important to reassure children that many people all over the world are working and talking together so that some of these problems can be improved. There are many people who are dedicating their lives to researching ways to improve social justice.

Get your children involved in pursuits outside of the home that take the focus off of themselves. Young children could take garden flowers or drawings to the local retirement village. Teenagers could attend mission groups that travel to poorer communities, third world or poverty stricken countries, where they assist in rebuilding orphanages or help run kids camps.

Reassure your child that it is your job to look after their wellbeing and that their home is a safe place. Give your children plenty of hugs or choose times to spend some one-on-one time with them. Look for ‘good news’ stories and great mentors for them to focus on too. This will help them discover not just what to avoid, but also the goals and dreams they are aiming for.

I love this last paragraph. There is so much good news for our children (and us!) to dwell on. For more of Collett’s wisdom, visit her blog The Tween Factor.

Have a great week!

4 thoughts on “Sex n Social Justice: What to Tell Your Children

  1. i wear the spare key to my car for well obvious reasons, but i have a real reason now, thanks. the problem with human trafficking is a heavy burden on my heart.

  2. Pingback: Sex n Social Justice: What to Tell Your Children (Interview) | Family Smart

  3. Pingback: Sex n Social Justice: What to Tell Your Children (Interview) | Family Smart

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