I have seen many teenagers who told me their parents never talked to them about sex. I believe them, because many of my patients who are parents tell me they are uncomfortable talking to their kids, and they leave it to the school system to educate their children. I would like to give you some pointers on discussing sensitive topics with your kids.
We know that teens are experimenting sexually at younger ages, they are experiencing the physical ramifications of early experimentation (disease, illness, pregnancy) and they are going into adulthood with the emotional baggage of poor choices.
When I talk to teenagers about sex, I like to compare it to driving. The thrill of the open road, freedom to explore and get out of town, and the enjoyment of driving a fun car are all part of the experience.
Driving is awesome in the right context – alert driver, safe car, good driving conditions. However, throw in some alcohol, faulty brakes or inadequate signage on the road and driving can be deadly.
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Sex is the same way. In the right context, it is one of life’s greatest joys. In the wrong context, it can cause permanent physical and emotional harm.
We should not think of “The Talk” as a one-time parenting obligation. Instead, we should be having an ongoing conversation with our children that prepares them for enjoying sexual intimacy at the right time, in the right context.
Where do you begin? From the time they are toddlers, talk to them about sexual health and development. When they are little, teach them about appropriate touch. I like to use the term “special parts” with the little ones. Tell them that only Mommy and Daddy are allowed to touch their special parts – the parts that are under their underwear – and that is only to keep them healthy.
We must teach them from a young age that those special parts are not to be touched by other people, and they are not to touch anyone else’s special parts. I also encourage parents to use correct terminology for the body parts and avoid using slang, as it only confuses them. Make sure you are present during sensitive exams with a doctor, and continue the conversation about appropriate touch in that setting.
As children get into school age, continue to reinforce that they are to dress appropriately and keep certain parts of their body covered. This is a much easier conversation if you start talking about modesty and appropriate dress at the ages of 5, 6 and 7 than if you wait until they are 16. Don’t let them wear something at 5 that you wouldn’t let them wear at 16. Consistency in our message is key.
Once they hit 8, 9 or 10 and are starting to experience some of the changes associated with puberty, children usually become much more curious about their bodies. There are a lot of age-appropriate books that can help you talk to them about puberty and what they can expect. American Girl Doll published a book called “The Care and Keeping of You” that is very informative for girls and has practical advice. This is also the point at which I recommend reinforcing that no one should ever touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Make sure they know and trust some adults they could talk to if they have a problem and you were not available.
Teach young men to respect women, and while you’re at it – let’s bring back chivalry! Make sure they know it is not appropriate for them to look at or touch someone else’s special parts or for anyone to look at or touch theirs.
Once children start puberty, make sure they are seeing a medical provider they trust. In my office, we have a talk about some of the changes their body is going through, and I remind them that no one should touch them without their permission. I tell them to call any time, especially if they are violated in some way, so that we can help them. We also talk about avoiding unsafe situations, and I encourage them to talk to their parents about their choices.
This is obviously only a brief overview, but I hope it gives you a starting point and helps you have more confidence approaching the topic of sexual intimacy with your kids. By making it an ongoing conversation, you can reduce the awkwardness and improve communication. We want to protect them as much as we can, and part of protecting them is giving them the knowledge and tools they need to make healthy life choices.