As a sexologist, I often get questions from parents who want to discuss relationships and sexuality with their kids, but are not sure the best way to do this. Depending on how you grew up, these kinds of talks can be easy for some as parents, downright scary, or somewhere in between.
Parents need to address these issues with their kids and teens for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, all kids, if they will be sexually active, are at risk for life altering infections, as well as pregnancy. And whether or not our kids are sexually active, they are also at risk for having their hearts broken, or hurting others. But the risks aside, relationship education is really about quality of life. Most people have a desire to date, experience intimacy, and couple off. This requires skills (that often come from experience), and some kids are naturally better at closeness than others. But we can all use a little guidance in this department.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
15) You can’t do this wrong. Many parents fear that they might say too much or say the wrong things. But…sex is everywhere! This will not be news to our kids. However, they may have a lot of misinformation. Our job is to correct their misinformation and make sure they have what they need to make informed choices. In other words, unless you are telling them blatant mistruths, you can’t do this wrong!
14) Talking to kids about sex does not lead them to have sex. It is actually the opposite. The research is clear. Those teens, whose parents talk openly to them about sexuality, are less likely to begin sex at earlier ages. End of discussion.
13) Know when to say you don’t know. We all get questions we don’t know the answer to. Sexuality is no different. But because we live in a culture where we talk about sex a lot (actually joke about it more), there is a tendency to believe you should have all the answers. If you do not know an answer to your child’s question, then say that, and go and look it up from a reliable source and get back to them. You will be modeling for them that it is okay not to have all the answers and that learning is a life long process.
12) Be aware of what you are modeling. Kids see what we do. They are always watching even if they look like they are not. Messages that contradict what we as adults do in life, do not gel with kids. If we say one thing, and do another, then this will dismiss our message. Make sure your messages are consistent with your own actions.
11) Parents should pass on their values. It is the home and from caregivers that children and teens learn about values. While they are also influenced by culture, religion, friends and other areas of life, they will always look to their parents first. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you feel is right and wrong when it comes to relationships and sexuality. And it is good for kids to know how their parents feel about intimate relationships and what they would like to see for them.
10) Children of all ages need boundaries. It is in part, one way kids feel safe and protected. While teens may try to push the boundaries as they are moving farther away into independence, it is important to remember that they do feel cared for when they know what the limits are. Sexuality is no different.
9) Don’t judge your kids. This is a hard one! But sexuality is a very personal experience. Some parents may be comfortable with their children’s sexuality, and others are obviously not. Keep an eye open for sexually acting out and breaking limits, which could indicate a larger issue at hand. All behavior is communicating something. Try to figure out what your child is saying with their behaviors, and keep an open mind about how he/ she is expressing themselves.
8) Create a safe space. What this means is be the person that they can come to without feeling judged, or the potential for punishment. By opening conversations, and listening to our kids without consequences, they learn that they can come to us with their questions and possible problems. Another way we model this is by how we react to others and their sexuality. While we do pass on our values, take the time to reflect on what messages you really want your kids to get. Be aware of what you say and how you respond to issues of sexuality when they come up in life. In other words, what do you want your kids to believe?
7) Use media a tool. There is a tremendous amount of sex in our every day media. Whether it be television, movies, magazines or the internet… sex is literally everywhere. Use this as a tool to your advantage. When an image or scenario comes up, take the time to broach the subject with your kids. Ask your child what they would do if it was them in that situation? Or if it was someone they knew in the picture? Or if they have friends who have had a similar experience? Sometimes discussing friends is a less direct way of approaching a subject and can give answers in the same way as if it were your child because teens are so heavily influenced by their peers at this age.
6) Have many smaller talks. Relationship education is a process. Like learning about any other complex skill. Many parents believe they need to have one big sit down talk. Usually before a large event like graduation. But this kind of education works best when it is done in smaller chunks, over an extended amount of time. The point here is that more is better. Repeat often, use the opportunities presented to you, create your own opportunities for discussion, and keep the talks shorter.
5) Start young. The earlier the better. All young children should know the correct names for their body parts, who is and is not allowed tor see them naked or touch them, and about respect for our bodies and those of others. All children also need to know about feelings and how our actions can impact how other people feel. That is the short foundational list. From there, we can scaffold the information and build onto it as they grow and need to know more.
4) Use humor. Sex and sexuality can be funny. It doesn’t need to be a serious subject all the time. While there are serious elements, try to be lighthearted which helps children feel more at ease with their own bodies and feelings. This will also help positively impact their sense of sexual self esteem.
3) Show love for your children. Intimacy is about the ability to show love and act in loving ways towards someone else. Children need to learn how to show and accept love. Parents are sometimes afraid as their children move into their teens to continue to show this love in demonstrative ways. Adolescence is a fragile time. What teens need most is to know that they are special, that they are seen, that they matter, and that they are cool/ beautiful/ desirable. Children, whose parents send them positives messages about their bodies, their personalities, and their abilities, tend to have children who believe them. Unfortunately children who grow up with the opposite also believe those to be true too.
2) Silence is a message. When issues arise and a parent remains quiet, there is still a message given. Typically children will process silence as a negative; either something is too threatening to discuss, or the parent disapproves. The child’s perception here is what is key.
1) Don’t lie. Sometimes parents give part truths or omit things because they feel that their children should not know, or would not be able to handle it. The problem occurs when the child finds out the truth about a particular issue or question, and then distrusts the parent as a result. As part of keeping the channels of communication open, it is better for a parent to tell their child that they are not comfortable discussing something in detail, or do not feel they are old enough yet. Parents can have boundaries as well.
And the number one question I get asked is when is the best time to discuss relationships and sexuality. My answer is while doing something else.
Depending on your child, a face to face sit down conversation may not work well. This is why doing this as a part of another activity can be more successful. Discussions can be had during preparations for dinner, while out walking the dog, or in the car driving. Any situation that does not force eye contact and can be done while doing something else tends to be the most relaxed and natural.
Relationships and sexuality can be confusing for everyone. Discussing these issues can at times be awkward and uncomfortable. But most children and teens want to know. And despite their rolling of the eyes, hand stop movements and headphone wearing…. kids are listening. They hear what we say. And most importantly they watch. They see what we do. We must model for our children the kind of intimate relationship we hope for them. Because when they grow up, that is what will feel normal to them. And that is what they will search for.