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Are you dreading the day your child asks you how babies are made? Does your vision of “The Talk” involve throwing a book about reproduction at your teenager and running as fast you can in the opposite direction? Is the mere thought of using the words penis and vagina with your kids enough to make your face turn beet red? Maybe you’re not even sure where to start because your own sex ed involved just the three words “Don’t Do It.”
April is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month. As parents, we all want to protect our children from sexual abuse; but did you know that the quality and timing of sexual education is an important protective factor against abuse? I’ve spent much of my career talking with parents whose children have experienced sexual abuse and counseling adults who experienced sexual violence at young ages. In so many of the experiences they’ve shared with me, I have learned that many of the children and adults had very little or no knowledge about their bodies and sex. This lack of information became a huge barrier to them in their ability to understand that what was happening was not OK, and in their ability to communicate to safe adults what was going on. Many of the parents had themselves experienced sexual abuse as children and never had the opportunity to speak to someone about the immense shame that they felt. For this reason, I believe it is incredibly important to empower parents with knowledge and tools to talk to their children about their bodies and sex. Although there is no way to guarantee that our children won’t experience sexual violence, providing them with accurate information can be one of the most important factors in protecting them from harm. If you’re reading this and your child has already been a victim of sexual abuse, please be gentle with yourself. There is far too much shame and judgement heaped on parents, and all shame does is disable us. None of us have all the answers to all of life’s problems and parenting is nothing if not a journey of learning. No matter where you are as a parent, I hope that you find some encouragement and empowerment as you start to talk with your kids about sex.
I could honestly write a whole book about this topic but you didn’t click on this link to find a 500 page essay. You won’t find step by step talking points (at least not in this post) but I am going to share three basic guidelines that will help you in having those conversations with your children.
- Start early: It’s interesting to me that sex ed, for so many families, consists of a single, very awkward conversation. How many times did you have to sing the alphabet song before your toddler could sing it by herself? How many addition worksheets did your child have to do before he could complete it confidently? How many hours behind the wheel did your teenager need to complete before she could pass the driving test? We all learn best through repetition, and learning about sex, sexuality, and sexual biology is no exception. When it comes to sex ed, we need to start the conversation early and continue it through their teenage years. Ideally, sex ed starts from Day 1 as parents model respect for their child’s body and feelings, and to the best of their knowledge, surround their child with safe and healthy caregivers. As their child grows, they will share developmentally appropriate information that will build upon itself. When the time comes that your child asks how babies are made, the conversation won’t be so daunting because they’ll already have the basic information. But what if your child is already in middle school or high school and you’ve never had a conversation with them about sex? Chances are they already have some (largely inaccurate) information about their bodies and sex from their peers, magazines, or the internet. How do you start the conversation? Find a time where you can sit down and connect with your kid and then (here’s the hard part) break that awkward barrier and start talking. Start by asking them if they ever hear their friends talking about sex or if they’ve heard about it in health class. Ask them what they know and then what questions they have. Provide accurate information and answer any questions that they have. Tell them that you know they will have more questions later and that they can come to you anytime with those questions. And then check back with them periodically. Once you break the ice that first time it will be much easier to bring up the topic next time.
- Stay positive: If we want our children to have healthy and positive sexual experiences, then our conversations about sex need to be largely positive. I’m not talking about a mentality of “Just Do It” but I also have seen the negative effects of fear and shame based sex ed and the lasting impact on marriages. Know what your own family values are and then find a way to communicate those values in a positive way. If your values are that sexual intimacy is meant only for marriage, instead of limiting your conversation about sex to just don’t do it, talk about the benefits of saving sex for a lifelong partner and what consent and a healthy sexual partnership looks like in marriage. And don’t be afraid to answer the questions your kids have about sex. Kids are pretty resourceful when it comes to finding the information they want and I’d say it’s safe to assume that you want the information they do have to come from you instead of Dr Google. If your values involve safe sex, talk to your teenagers about contraception, unplanned pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections but also talk about ensuring that they and their partner both enjoy the sexual experiences. Encourage them to communicate with their partner openly and honestly. If your teens can talk with you about sex without freaking out then they will be much more prepared to have these conversations with their partners when the time comes. They will also feel more empowered to set limits with confidence.
- Don’t limit the conversation to the mechanics: Alright, so you’ve covered the basics with your kids. Your toddler knows that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Your 3rd grader knows what to expect when the puberty hormones kick in and your middle schooler is well aware of how babies are made. These are the mechanics but even more important than that is the ongoing conversation about their rights and responsibilities. Guess when this starts? Yup, Day 1. Remember how I said sex ed starts with modeling respect for the child’s body and feelings? As the child grows, you’re going to continue to respect their rights and teach them to respect the rights of others. That means that not only do we teach our children what not to do but we also teach them the importance of asking for consent. We do this by respecting what belongs to them and teaching them to respect what belongs to others. We do this by not requiring them to hug their relatives or friends if they don’t want to – and speaking up for them when that relative playfully pouts. We teach them that it is not their job to use their body to make others happy and that they are responsible to provide the same respect to others. We do this by talking often with our middle schoolers and high schoolers about consent and debunking myths about sexual assault that serve to heap blame on victims and excuse the behavior of perpetrators. Our children need to know their bodies and their feelings are their own and deserve to be treated with respect and they need to know that it is their responsibility to make sure that they treat others with that same respect.
I hope you feel a little more empowered to have “The Talks” with your children. If you’d like to learn more about what information to share at different stages of your child’s life, check out the resources at https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/childrens-sexuality-development-and-behaviors
If you would find it helpful to have a one-on-one conversation specific to your situation, schedule a session with me and we can create a plan for your family conversation.
Hannah Lindsey, MSW, LCSW provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email Hannah today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.