Discussing sexuality with your adolescent

Dr. Paul Schwartz weighs in

Every parent knows that sooner or later they have to have “the talk,” but given what children see and appear to know these days, for many parents this “talk” looms like a daunting task. I’m sure it’s not news to parents that their children are growing up faster and entering their pre-teen years even earlier than we entered into ours as adolescents.

The Internet, TV, and other media venues appear to present mature themes and eroticize everything they can, regardless of the age of the target viewer. Shows that are intended for elementary school children and younger present material that used to be barely suitable for adolescents.

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. The questions from our children seem to prompt the necessity of this topic before we or they are prepared.

Talking to your child about sex is a very personal and, usually, a private family matter, taking into consideration family values, religion and beliefs about what each parent feels is appropriate for his or her child to know about sex.

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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 begin. 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.

Also keep in mind, it can be too late to talk about sex but that you 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.

Don’t wait until puberty arrives to begin discussions about their body and its changes as well as the changes in ideas and attitudes that also emerge in developing adolescents. Begin discussions as early as possible, engaging your child in a continuous developmental process of learning about sex. Go slowly, and your answers need not be elaborate lectures; just respond to the questions asked.

Label anatomical parts correctly!  Although it isn’t damaging to a child to use pet names for body parts, it isn’t helpful either. It’s usually a parent’s discomfort with the correct anatomical terms that has a child call his private parts pee pee, or refer to this area as “down there”  instead of the correct terms. The earlier children feel comfortable with their bodies and the correct terms for their body parts, the less anxiety they are likely to encounter as adolescents.

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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.

Children have very different concerns about sex at different ages; they also don’t operate on any specific timetable for when their curiosity peaks and they begin asking questions. There are, however, themes that are endemic to particular developmental stages. For example, most young children ask questions about where they came from and how babies are made. Pre-adolescents and adolescents are usually concerned with whether they are normal, and they may experience anxiety regarding peer pressure, their changing bodies, and becoming sexually active and masturbating.

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 and the concomitant issues. 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. Avoid topics that can’t be discussed, and 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. Scare tactics were the primary methods used to scare kids about the dangers of drugs in the 60s that many believe backfired, and, in part, gave birth to the rampant drug culture we are trying to control today.

Sex isn’t a problem
Sex is a fact of life and as normal as breathing. Avoid having your children feel guilty or shameful about their ideas and feelings or if they have become sexually active adolescents. Being positive and realistic about an issue isn’t the same as giving them permission. The goal of talking about sex in an open, healthy, honest light is to help develop understanding of the issues and provide your child with good decision-making skills about sex.

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,” possibly the most important part, 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. Keep in mind “the talk” is not a one-time affair with your child; it is an ongoing continuous lesson about one of the most important areas of his or her life. The more we listen to them, the more we learn about the ever-changing world in which our children live. 

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The Media
So many parents believe that they can’t compete with the bombardment of negative sexual images and messages coming from the media. They feel it’s literally no use, so why bother. The research in this area is optimistic. A parent who starts early and is open, honest, and clear about the issues can supersede the negative voices and role models of the media that constantly bombard our youth, especially young girls.

Tie your messages about sex to your values continually; this will help clarify what media representations confuse. Your “preemptive strike” that gives your child a healthy, positive, respectful view of human intimacy will help to mitigate the perpetual garbage he or she receives daily from many media sources.

In addition to the “how to’s” of sexuality discussions with your children, I’d like to offer a few words about “how not to” talk about the subject.

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.

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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 to 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 can be people who can be trusted to help.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh.