It’s a conversation most parents dread, but talking little and often about sexuality and relationships can foster an open atmosphere to support your child as they mature, and lay the foundations for them to make positive, healthy and informed decisions later on.
What age should I start talking to my child about sex?
Firstly, it doesn’t have to be only about sex. Conversations about bodies, sexuality, sexual health and relationships are all valuable. Creating an atmosphere where kids feel comfortable asking questions and discussing their thoughts early on will make it easier to continue the conversation into their teenage years.
Some experts suggest parents can start laying the groundwork for this dialogue earlier than they think, even from ages four or five with age appropriate topics. For younger kids, you could start with trying to openly answer, rather than dodging, questions about for example why adults kiss, or teaching kids the proper names for all their body parts. Topics from understanding your own body, to more grown up ideas such as consent, can also be introduced organically in reaction to, for example, movies or adverts which may feature these themes, or in response to direct questions from your child.
What topics should I cover?
Below are some topics you may like to introduce when age appropriate, or be ready to answer questions on as your child grows…
Relationships and sexuality:
- According to a Harvard report, “large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. Yet it appears that parents, educators and other adults often provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these.” Your child will learn much from the relationships they see around them in terms of love, respect, and trust. However, having conversations to reinforce the importance of these fundamentals will help them understand a wider context to sex as another integral element of a loving relationship.
- Discussing ways to respect not only one’s partner, but different genders or people whose sexuality or sense of self differs from your own is also a key part of educating your child. It will help them to later feel comfortable with their own feelings of attraction if they may differ from those of their peers and will help to instill the idea that everyone deserves respect no matter what their preferences.
- Sexual harassment may be physical, verbal (sexually threatening words, making comments about someone’s body), or be done through technology (inappropriate photos or texts, spreading rumours online). Talking to your children about sexual harassment can help them to be mindful of the way they treat others and how they allow others to treat them. It will also help them take action to stop harassment if they see it happen to their peers.
Studies have shown that when parents openly communicate with their children about sex and sexual health, teenage pregnancy rates are lower. Helping your child understand the long-lasting responsibilities associated with raising a child is important. Knowing about contraceptive options is vital even for teenagers who are not yet sexually active, so that if they do decide they are ready, they know how to take steps to reduce the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. You don’t need to be an expert on the options available, there are multiple guides online which you can look at together, for example a UK-specific guide from the National Health Service.
Discussing STIs doesn’t have to be embarrassing for parents or kids. Be straightforward and honest, scare tactics will only mean they are hesitant to come to you later if they have any related concerns. This booklet provides detailed information on common STIs, ways to reduce risk and how to get tested. You can use this to familiarise your child with symptoms and understand safer sex, perhaps gently probing their knowledge by asking if they know how some of these infections are transmitted.
It’s important to help your child understand that their bodies are their own and that sex is a choice. Teaching your child that they should not be embarrassed or afraid of asserting their own boundaries can help to empower them to say “no” when they want to and feel positive about sexual experiences they choose to pursue. It will also, importantly, help them to understand others’ boundaries.
It’s important to emphasise that the onus is on them to ensure their partner also consents, not on the partner to say ‘no’ if they don’t want to. Consent is ongoing, continues as the activity changes and can be taken away at any time. They should never pressurise their partner (including continuing to ask for sex after their partner has said no) or feel pressurised themselves into doing anything sexual.
It’s also important to talk about how alcohol and other drugs may inhibit their or others’ judgement and cause them to consent to something they do not actually want to do.
Many children begin to understand early on that touching parts of their body can feel good. With young children, it can be enough to just let them know that it’s normal to explore your body, that it’s not dirty, but that it should be done in private and alone. As your child gets older, continue to emphasise that this is natural and normal, and that you should not be ashamed of your body feeling pleasure. It’s a safe and natural way to explore the body and sex.
Should I discuss the same topics with my son and my daughter?
Yes. Topics from masturbation to pregnancy are relevant for everyone.
What should I do if they only come to me after the are already sexually active and there is an issue?
Be a trusted adult – always let your child know that you love them and are there to help them. Allowing them to open up to you about what has happened, without judgement and anger, and having an honest discussion about what support they may need will mean you can help them to take the right next steps quickly. For example, if they need the services of a sexual health clinic, offer to help them find a suitable place and drive them there. It will mean they don’t ignore the issue and risk greater problems down the line.
Is discussing sex giving the green light to become sexually active?
No. Discussing sex is not the same as encouraging it. If you help your child from an early age to understand relationships, their bodies, and their feelings, sexual or otherwise, you are building the foundations for a healthy attitude to this intrinsic part of adult life, and ensuring you are a part of the conversation, not excluded from it.
About the Author
Erica Burton is a Senior Advisor in Nursing and Health Policy for the International Council of Nurses, a federation which represents over 20 million nurses worldwide. She is a Registered Nurse based in Toronto, Canada.
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