24% of girls don’t learn about periods before they start having them.
50% of young people don’t learn about wet dreams before they occur.
Survey of over 2000 young people by the Sex Education Forum, National Children’s Bureau, UK
Most parents and carers feel awkward and embarrassed when talking to their children about body changes, periods and sex. This is quite normal especially as many adults carry memories of their own bumpy, fearful, even shameful, ride into puberty. It is also normal to have significant knowledge gaps – for example, about sexually transmitted infections, today’s sexual culture on- and offline, where to get help in Switzerland etc.
What is Sex and Relationship Education?
It is a lifelong learning process that begins at about the age of 3 years old when a child starts to notice the physical differences in the people around them and starts to ask questions. Good sex and relationship education addresses the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, human sexuality and sexual health. It is essential to enable young people to make well-informed decisions and to take responsibility for their sexual health and emotional wellbeing for the rest of their lives.
Encouraging facts about Switzerland
The Swiss teenage (15-19 years old) pregnancy rate is one of the lowest in the world with an incidence of 8 per 1,000 women. Compare this a rate of 47 per 1,000 in Great Britain and 57 per 1,000 in the USA. (Journal of Adolescent Health, February 2015)
There are a number of theories about why the rate is so low in Switzerland including later puberty and earlier access to reproductive healthcare but one indisputable fact for any parent in any country is that good sex and relationships education raises the age at which teenagers first start to sexually experiment. (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy 2007, UK)
What does your child need (and want) to know about:
The breadth and depth of topics that he or she needs to know will depend on their age and maturity.
As with learning to read or to play football, each child needs to start with simple age-appropriate basics and build up to more complex concepts. Here is a broad outline of the five themes that sex and relationship education consists of:
1 – Puberty
How their body will change. How the opposite sex’s body changes. Boys need to know about periods and girls need to know about wet dreams and erections. How everybody is a little different – has different sized and shaped genitals, breasts, thighs etc. Reassurance that he/she is normal.
2 – How babies are made
How the mechanics of sex works. What a pregnancy test is and how pregnancy occurs. How to prevent a pregnancy with abstinence, contraception or post-coital measures. Where to get contraception in their area and that both males and females are responsible for this.
3 – Sex as part of a loving relationship
How sexual feelings (or the lack of them) are normal. The different types of sex that people may choose to have. The variety of different sexual orientations – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender etc. They may use this frank discussion to tell you about their own orientation.
4 – Sexual health
Which infections can be transmitted through sex and that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be tested for and treated (if not always cured). How to prevent infections. The availability of condoms in their area. Who they can talk to about their own sexual health, e.g. school nurse, doctor, adolescent health services, a trusted adult.
5 -Their safety on and off-line
Every child need to know that not all sexual contact is a sign of appropriate love. Teach them if someone, of any age, touches them inappropriately, engages them in explicit online conversations or shows them offensive material (pornography) to always tell a trusted adult, preferably a parent or a professional. Assure them that you will never be angry – even if they have broken some rules.
Top tips for talking about Sex and Relationships with your children:
Do start as early as possible in their childhood, so that sex and relationships conversations are just part of ongoing family life.
However, it is never too late to start talking. To give you courage not to procrastinate, think of the statistics:
The average age of menarche (the starting of periods) is 12.9 years old with 1.1% of girls starting to menstruate as young as 10.7 years old. Girls of African or Afro-Caribbean origin are usually earlier to start their periods and those with Asian origins are often later. The markers of puberty are a little more vague for boys but the median age of semenarche (also known as spermarche – the first ejaculation of sperm, often nocturnal) is 13.4 years old. The age range is from 11.7 to 15.3 years.
Do use proper scientific words from early on.
Penis, testicles, vagina, vulva etc. Educate yourself about human anatomy first if you need to! Using ‘proper’ words actually helps to take some of the embarrassment out.
Don’t prepare a full ‘birds and bees’ talk.
Younger children will often ask blunt questions like the classic ‘where do babies come from?’ Give them little parcels of information and watch their reaction. They may be satisfied with the simple facts and definitions that you give. Be prepared to answer follow up questions until they themselves change the subject.
Do discuss your own cultural, family or religious beliefs whilst keep the scientific facts true.
Do choose side-by-side conversations with older children and teenagers.
It is often easier for both parent and child to talk whilst doing an activity in parallel, e.g. walking the dog, driving, cooking etc.
Do look out for opportunities to start a discussion.
Topics may be triggered by a film, music video, or seeing tampons or condoms on sale etc. When their school or paediatrician offers the Human Papilloma Virus or Hepatitis B vaccinations, talk about why preventing a sexually transmitted infection is important.
Don’t forget that dads, uncles or other male carers have a crucial role. \
Studies of post-adolescent boys show that they lacked such conversations at home and would have liked more input from their fathers.
Don’t forget that their curiosity will not go away.
If you don’t give them a satisfactory answer, or if you shut down the discussion, they will go elsewhere for the answers – answers that you may not necessarily agree with. Keep the sex and relationships conversation open and ongoing.
Do use the third person to open a conversation.
‘I have a friend that…’ Ask what their friends think or say about getting pregnant or looking at pornography. Adolescents find it easier to express their fears and curiosities by referring to a third person.
Do listen to your child.
Their opinions or knowledge may surprise or shock you but try to remain calm and neutral. In this way, they will feel safe to talk to you in the future.
Don’t assume that they understand the basics:
‘You mentioned AIDS – what do you mean by that?’ Gently correct and expand their knowledge.
Do ask if their school provides validated sex and relationship education?
Who teaches it and, also, at what age?
Do give yourself a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
If your curious ten year old picks up a packet of condoms and asks what they are in a loud voice in the supermarket queue, it’s ok to say ‘Lets go home, and I will tell you all about them’.
Don’t be afraid of saying that you don’t know.
Be willing to find out more. Read up on the subject, talk to other parents and be sure to restart the conversation another day. Here are some further resources that you or your teen may find useful.
A book with facts and advice:
- ‘Speakeasy: Talking With Your Children About Growing Up’ by Miriam Stoppard.
- Two interactive advice and information websites aimed at adolescents. Online questions can be asked in English.
- Clear information in English from the NHS on many topics: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Sexualhealthtopics/Pages/Sexual-health-hub.aspx
- Medical consultations for adolescents in Geneva, aged 12 to 25 years with or without their parents. Ask your paediatrican or family doctor for the equivalent in your canton: http://www.hug-ge.ch/sante-jeunes/consultations
By Dr Penny Fraser MB BS BSc(Hons) MRCS(Eng)
About the Author
Dr Penny is a British-trained doctor who works at the Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève and is also a mother of two girls. Along with Dr Michelle Wright, she is Medical Director of HealthFirst, providers of dynamic First Aid training and personal, confidential Health Screening Assessments within companies and organisations as well as Sex and Relationship Education in International Schools.
Find out more: www.healthfirst.ch
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