Talking to your child or teenager about ‘the birds and the bees’ is no easy task for even the most relaxed and open-minded parent. Although we live in a culture where sex and sexuality are openly displayed (you only need to walk through a subway station to see scantily clad bodies advertising products suggestively), most parents feel unsure about how to talk to their children about sex.
Perhaps the difficulty is in knowing how to balance sharing information that is appropriate and helpful whilst also protecting children from inappropriate sexual content. The problem is that our own feelings of embarrassment might lead us to avoid talking about sexual matters altogether including that all important question of ‘where do babies come from?’ It is tempting to put it off until ‘they are old enough to understand’, by which time they will have already created their own patchwork of fact and myth about sex.
Additionally, children will have picked up a sense that talking with mum or dad about sex is taboo. That leaves them alone trying to make sense of something shrouded in mystery. What’s important in their development is not so much the facts and knowledge about sex itself but rather how they can make sense of sex and sexuality as it relates to their identity.
Your own experience of how you were brought up to understand sex (and the positive or negative connotations it had) may have made a lasting impression on you as a young person and on the choices (and mistakes) you made. The family culture and attitude towards sex and relationships has a significant influence on the child’s/teen’s perception of the world. The point about talking to children and teens about sex is to help them make informed and healthy choices when the time comes, not just with regards to sexual health but also in the way they view relationships. Studies have found that teenagers who speak openly with their parents about sex wait longer and use appropriate protection when they do eventually become sexually active.
So how do you talk to your child or adolescent about sex? Here are 5 tips to help you on your way…
Hedging all your bets on one long and excruciating ‘facts of life’ talk is probably not the best way forward. The anxiety and embarrassment of such a set up is unlikely to help your child/teen understand the information you are trying to convey. Rather than putting all that pressure on yourself and your child, try to be open to talking about issues as and when they arise, for example when your child raises a question out of curiosity. If it’s not an appropriate time and place, come back to it later in the day when you have a moment alone with your child/teen.
2. Don’t panic!
Try to resist balking at the question and answer in a relaxed and comfortable way. It’s ok to react with surprise but take a moment to consider it from their (innocent) perspective and think about what they need to know and why they are asking. If you are very anxious, buy yourself some time to talk to friends or your partner and think about/rehearse what you are going to say. It may be difficult to be completely relaxed at first but it will get easier with practice. Remember your child picks up on the way you say things as well as what you say, so your anxiety might convey that talking about, or even sex itself, is something to feel frightened of.
3. Be succinct
It may be that your child asks a relatively simple question that can be answered in a straightforward way, but in your anxiety about responding or eagerness to give a thorough answer you give them more information than they asked for. They might experience this as overwhelming or confusing. Too much technical information too soon might also cause them anxiety. You can check out with them what they mean by the question as well as ask how much they already know and tailor your answer according to their needs.
4. Talk about what’s relevant at the child’s age.
Toddlers will start to develop an interest in playing with baby dolls/teddies from as early as 18 months. They imitate the care they received as infants by playing at being mummy or daddy, assuming the role of the caregiver rather than the helpless infant that they once were – a clear sign that they are growing up! Many children might already have siblings or experience mummy’s pregnancy and the subsequent arrival of a younger sibling. Faced with a pregnant belly, young children will be interested in where babies come from and how they came into this world. Try not to resort to the ‘stork’ story as when children are asking where they came from they are really trying to make sense of how they belong in their family.
Young children will be increasingly aware of their bodies and the differences between boys and girls, mummies and daddies and will probably want to be like mummy and daddy in various ways. Sometimes toddlers can have a hard time accepting their physical littleness compared to mummy or daddy as they like to believe they are more grown up than they are. Young children are also aware that mummy and daddy share a bed and will have seen them share some physical affection. Given that young children are noticing all of these things, it would be appropriate to meet their curiosity and need for information by talking to them about bodies and where babies come from in an age appropriate way.
Try using language that they would understand whilst avoiding misunderstandings that this might cause e.g. if your young child’s word for penis is ‘pi-pi’ it might sound confusing if daddy puts his ‘pi-pi’ into mummy to make a baby! Children do need to learn the correct term for parts of the anatomy, but parents naturally use words which feel more comfortable when their children are small, for example semen might be described as ‘seed.’ Children’s books which explain the facts of life to children at this age might be a helpful source of information for you and your child to look at together.
When children are of primary school age, their level of interest in sexual matters can vary. Their ability to vocalise their curiosity may depend on the family’s attitude towards sex. At this age, they may continue to be interested in differences between the sexes e.g. wanting to know about puberty and periods, but they might also have a greater awareness of romantic relationships which they are learning can take place between same-sex as well as opposite sex couples. Although boys and girls segregate into gender defined groups at playtime, underlying their apparent abhorrence of the opposite sex is also an inherent interest. Those who risk wanting to become better acquainted with the opposite sex may find themselves the subject of teasing by peers. This coupled with games such as ‘kiss chase’ indicate that whilst older primary school aged children haven’t really figured out what it means to be boyfriend or girlfriend yet, they know what it feels like to like another person in a non-platonic way.
Most young adolescents learn about puberty and reproduction in school by the media (the internet, film and tv) and friends are also sources of (mis) information. When puberty hits, hormones rage and an interest in all things sex develops. Adolescents may start masturbating. As adolescents become more adept at romantic relationships, they become increasingly sexually active. In adolescence, the individual’s gender and sexual identity continues to develop particularly in the context of their peer group. Teens start to feel more sure of their sexual orientation and can be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues when their sexual orientation isn’t accepted within their family and social circles. It may be the hardest time to begin talking to your teen about sex if you haven’t started earlier.
Apart from the embarrassment factor, adolescents becoming more independent rely less and less on parents for information and emotional support, turning to their peers for both, so learning from an early age that it is ok to talk about sex with your parents is very important. Perhaps the biggest role a parent can take at this stage is in helping to dispel myths about sex such as how to avoid getting pregnant and STDs. As with all aspects of a teenager’s life, part of the growing up process is to learn about taking responsibility for yourself. Whilst adolescents may be able to take the necessary physical precautions, they need to learn from you that sex is only one part of real relationships and that emotional responsibility in relationships is of equal, if not greater, importance. Despite their eagerness to move away from you, teenagers need to have a sense that you will still be there for them whatever might happen in their chaotic and ever changing lives.
5. Always leave the door open
Let your child/teen know that you value them asking you questions and that they can always ask you about these things at any time. If you start being approachable and encouraging towards your child’s questions from a young age, your child will grow up to feel like they can trust what you tell them and confide in you if ever they have a problem. Talking about sex is so much more than just covering a topic, it’s about having the best relationship you can with your child or teen.