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Real Talk: Start the conversation about sex

A professional's perspective

real talk, teens, sex, the talk

Get the other perspective. See how a mom of teens answers the same question.

Questions about sex and intimacy from children come earlier and earlier, often as an attempt to understand the frequently conflicting and confusing messages they see and hear daily. 

Most parents want to develop healthy attitudes about love, intimacy and sexuality in their children, but often don’t know where or when to begin. Talking about sex to your child for many parents can be extremely embarrassing and is usually an awkward conversation to initiate. Try to keep in mind as you experience your discomfort that by talking openly and honestly about sex with your child, you are potentially heading off the multitude of problems uninformed kids have when they become sexually active, which has been starting earlier.

Also keep in mind can never begin too early.  Although discussions about these topics are called “the talk,” it should more realistically be called “the course.” Talking about sex is not a one-shot deal, but rather an ongoing series of discussions from early in your children’s lives until well into adolescence.

Understanding sexuality helps kids cope with their own feelings and helps curtail the peer pressure they will experience as they grow and develop. Adolescents who are knowledgeable about sex, intimacy and love will be more likely to have a positive, clear, honest understanding of the issues of human sexuality. They will also be less likely to take sexual risks, be sexually abused, or become a sexual abuser.

How do you start
Start discussions about sex and intimacy early and don’t be concerned that you’re starting too early.  Most kids are curious very early in life but often feel too uncomfortable to bring up the topic. Take the lead in these discussions even if your child doesn’t ask specific questions early, and don’t try to catch up if you do start late in their development. This is a developmental process; you’re not helping them cram for an exam. Sometimes the newspaper, or a book, or an issue on a TV show you’re both watching can provide a springboard for a “teachable moment” about sex.

Face your discomfort
If you’re uncomfortable your child will model your discomfort regarding sex. Don’t worry about looking dumb or being embarrassed.  When facing the issues openly and honestly together, anxiety and embarrassment will be neutralized for both you and your child. Keep it light, always keeping your sense of humor.

Be an approachable parent
Encourage your child to ask questions about anything confusing to him or her. Don’t develop a preachy and/or moralizing tone.  Be calm and avoid using scare tactics about sexuality. Sex isn’t something to be afraid of; it’s something to understand. 

Be clear about values
Relate sex to positive values such as love, intimacy, caring, self-respect and respect for your partner. Always help your children see the pros and cons of every sexual decision, and teach them that they will ultimately be responsible for the sexual choices they make.

Listen, listen, listen!
A major part of “the talk” is listening to your child, respectfully and without interruption. As parents we may think we know what our kids know and don’t know, but we are often quite surprised when we really listen to our children.  Kids frequently know and think about much more than we realize. The more we listen to them, the more we learn about the ever-changing world in which our children live. 

How not to talk about sex

  • Avoid discouraging children from discussions by saying that the topic is taboo or dirty.
  • Avoid saying they should ask your spouse, implying that only one parent has all the answers.
  • Avoid, “You’re too young to talk about that; wait until you’re older.” Every age has information that you can share in a language suitable.
  • Don’t lecture with appropriate diagrams. School-based sex education programs can be an excellent format for lectures and diagrams. I am in favor of this format in schools, but home is the place for the most meaningful discussions about intimate topics.
  • Avoid scare tactics, remember sex and intimacy is something to understand, not be fearful of
  • Avoid a preachy and/or moralizing tone

We all want our children to grow up with healthy attitudes and values regarding love, sexuality and intimacy. When we demonstrate to our children that we can model a healthy, open discussion about sexuality and can be trusted to respond to their concerns, ideas and confusions about these areas instead of trying to repress them, we do more than just communicate with them. We demonstrate to them that when and if they encounter problems in their lives—not only in the areas of sexuality and intimacy but also in every area of their development—we are the people who can be trusted to help.

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