When you see a story on the morning talk shows about a teacher or coach behaving badly -- perhaps very badly -- you might just roll your eyes and think, "What is this world coming to?" When a teacher or coach in your kid's school is caught behaving badly -- perhaps scandalously -- it's a whole different story. Your child may have looked up to that particular teacher or coach as a role model, and now her hero is gone -- either fired or, worse, led away in handcuffs. This may very well be the first scary adult situation your child faces in life, and she may need help in handling it. The teacher she looked up to, who inspired and encouraged her, the coach who believed in her, is gone.
And if the reason is scandalous, as in having an affair with a student or stealing from the school funds or using racist or sexist language in class, it's extremely important for you to talk with your child about the situation -- even if the school assures you that it has counselors in place for children who need to talk.
Dr. Laura Berman, author of "Talking to Your Kids About Sex," addresses teens and sex in general in her column, which can be found at http://www.drlauraberman.com.
"It seems that when it comes to sex, what teens crave is information," Berman says. "And you'll never guess who they are looking to for it. According to a People magazine/NBC News poll of teens ages 13 to 16, more than 70 percent of teens said they get information about sex from their parents. (They are listening!) But parents may not be doing as much talking as they think. While 85 percent of parents said they talk to their teens frequently about sex, only 41 percent of teens said the same. If they're hungry for knowledge, don't you want to make sure it comes from you?"
When a teacher or coach sex scandal occurs in your child's school, that particular news travels fast, and kids will be exposed to a great deal of misinformation -- and a topic you hoped they wouldn't encounter for many years. Nowadays, kids in their early teens have heard about teacher-student sex scandals, and you deal with not only the topic of sex itself but also the topic of sexual misconduct between an adult and a child. You need to defuse the cafeteria gossip and peer comments, such as branding the student or teacher with names or even teens attributing reasons for the student's capturing the teacher's attention. You certainly don't want your child absorbing anyone else's "lessons" from the event.
It's time to have "the talk" with your child about healthy sexual relationships. Berman says: "What can you do to make it go more smoothly? Create an atmosphere of trust and respect, in which your child feels comfortable confiding in you. Answer questions factually while also conveying your values if it's an issue you feel strongly about. Most of all, listen."
That coach or teacher may have hastened "the talk" into your schedule, but you're turning the scandal into something positive: You and your child now have a clear channel of communication about sex and relationships.
Your child may be very confused about how an adult can "date" a teenager, and it's important to share your thoughts about why such pairings are inappropriate. But allow the child to talk, and resist the temptation to deliver a speech that the child can tune out quickly. Allow for questions, and deliver the most honest answers you're comfortable with. If you feel that the assistance of a counselor is needed, by all means, bring your child to speak to one.
The same advice applies if the teacher or coach was caught stealing or being physically or emotionally abusive to a student. Share your values, and explain why you think what the coach or teacher did was wrong. Invite your child to share her thoughts, as well. Again, the "role model's" misbehavior can be turned into a positive: When the child sees that stealing caused the teacher to be fired and arrested, that's a valuable lesson about the consequences of theft. If the teacher was fired because of inappropriate language, the child learns that words can be harmful and that inappropriate behavior can cause someone to lose everything he has worked for, including the respect of his students.
And prepare yourself to address your child's sense of loss. If the coach who believed in your child is gone, who will believe in her now? Assure your child that many people care and believe in her. Kids might think relatives have to believe in them, so add in other coaches, past teachers and people your child has had great relationships with. The child may mourn her lost "friend" or mentor, and you should support her through that without calling the teacher a loser or liar. Kids take loss hard, so guide your child to others in her circle who contribute to her well-being.
Don't call it a day after one talk. Make sure you tell your child that you're always available to answer questions that come up later and that she can check anything she hears at school with you.
If scandals cannot be stopped, at least you can turn them into good life lessons for your child.