The sex talk
Children learn about sex from a very young age …even if we don’t talk with them about it. Many of the things they learn are incorrect, confusing and frightening. In a world where sex is used to sell cars and ice creams, and celebrities’ private lives become everybody’s business, we can’t afford not to talk to our children about sex and relationships if we’re going to help them make sense of it all.[See: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Adapted from Fact Sheets: Sexual Development and Behaviour in Children and, Talk to your children about sex and relationships: support for parents.]
One the best ways to reduce risks associated with sexual violence is to develop open and honest communication with children and youth.
Youth advisors working on LEAP21 reported that they seldom or never had an adult willing to take time or brave the ‘sex talk’ with them. Of course it isn’t easy. Many adults feel embarrassed and unsure about how to have the talk. After all, very few of us have had good sex education.
Here are some videos that can help:
- Parenting Tips: Talking About Sex and Relationships More Comfortably - Planned Parenthood video
- Parenting Tips: Talking About Sex, Helping your Teen Wait to have Sex –Planned Parenthood video
- Parenting Tips: Helping your sexually active teen be safe – Planned Parenthood video
- It’s Time to Talk video
- Laci Green: the sex talk 10 tips
Why should parents and foster parents talk about sex and relationships?
- Children and teens want their parents to be the first person to talk to them about sex and relationships. If parents are unable, the need for caring adult direction and talk is no less important.
- If foster families are confident talking about sex and relationships, young people will find it easier to resist peer pressure, express their beliefs and opinions, challenge bullying and be able to understand negative messages about sex and relationships.
- Lots of people feel very uncomfortable talking about sex. We can change this by talking about it positively and being honest even when it is difficult and embarrassing.
- Young people who have good sex education at home and at school start sex later and are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy or to get a sexually transmitted infection.
Myth: Talking about sex with my children will just encourage them to become sexually active.
Fact: 9 out of 10 teens said it would be easier to delay sexual activity and prevent unwanted pregnancy if they were able to have “more open, honest conversations” with their parents on these topics.
When you talk honestly with your children about sexual issues, you can give them the knowledge and skills they need to keep safe and to make good decisions about relationships and intimacy.
2004 Survey: With One Voice: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. Washington DC
When should we begin talking about sex and relationships?
Start early. Very small children get all sorts of wrong ideas that frighten and confuse them. Talk with them about their feelings, friendships and relationships in the family. Use proper names for body parts and answer their questions truthfully and briefly. Children hate lectures.
What if my child is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning (LGBTQ)?
Talk about different kinds of families. Don’t assume your child is heterosexual or gender conforming. You can’t tell until they tell you. Even if it is hard for you, it is important that you don’t express homophobic or transphobic feelings because your child will need your acceptance, love and positive messages. We need to challenge prejudice because it damages the self-esteem and emotional development of the child. Look for information and support for you and your child.
Without frightening them, make sure that they understand that they can say ‘no’ to someone who is touching them or approaching them in a way that makes them feel unhappy or uncomfortable. Assure them that if something bad ever happens, they can tell you or someone else they trust.
My child has a disability. How should I talk about sex and relationships?
Children with learning and/or physical disabilities need exactly the same sex and relationships talk as all children. Keep the discussion simple and ongoing. It is so important because they may be more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
What if the child I care for has been sexually abused?
The child you are looking after may find that talking about sex brings up traumatic memories. This means you have to build their trust first. They may not know as much about sex as you think – and past abuse may mean they’ll be more open to abusive relationships in the future. Reassure them that the abuse was not their fault, talk about boundaries and let them know you recognize how painful it is for them. Make sure you get specialist support for them.
Some Dos and Don’ts
- Read books, leaflets or watch a video with your child.
- Talk while you’re doing something else – dishes, driving in the car, playing with lego…
- Laugh with each other, not at each other – it can reduce embarrassment and stress.
- Listen rather than judge. Try asking them what they think. Respect their responses.
- Answer questions and don’t be afraid to say: ‘I don’t know – let’s look it up together’.
- Always respond, even if you are uncomfortable with the question. It’s ok to be honest.
- If it all feels too personal, try using characters in books, films or television to make a point or start a conversation.
- Be inclusive in your examples – talk about all kinds of bodies and families including same-sex and trans parents, single parent and blended families
- Bombard your child with questions or talk too much. Less is more.
- Assume the worst. Children say it is awful to get the formal lecture on sex or questions fired at them. ‘I asked a question and she immediately came back with “Are you having sex then?” Try and hold on to your anxieties, answer the question, and respect privacy.
- Invade their privacy. Young people go through phases of wanting to be private. It’s better to keep their trust than antagonise or alienate them.
- Be afraid to tell children what you think, and why. But do try and avoid making judgements and give your child the space to come to their own opinions.
- Assume your child is heterosexual or gender conforming. Many children realize that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual as early as five years of age, long before they become sexually active.
- Doubt the impact of your love and support
8 in 10 teens wish the media talked more about the consequences of sex.
National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY)
Parenting in the Media Age
Too often, children get the majority of their sexual education from other children and from media sources such as television shows, songs, movies, and video games. Not only is this information often wrong, it may have very little to do with sexual values that parents want to convey. Explicit adult sexual activities are sometimes found during “family time” television shows, in commercials, and on cartoon/children’s channels, and can have an influence on children’s behaviors.
Controlling media exposure and providing appropriate alternatives is an important part of teaching children about sexual issues. Get to know the rating systems of games, movies, and television shows and make use of the parental controls available through many internet, cable, and satellite providers.
However, don’t assume that just by activating those controls you will be taking care of the situation. It’s very important for you to be aware of what your children are watching on television and online, and make time to watch television with them. When appropriate, you can use this time as a springboard to talk about sexual or relationship issues, and to help children develop the skills to make healthy decisions about their behavior and relationships.
The average American adolescent will view 14,000 sexual references per year. Don’t let the media be your child’s main source of information.
National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY)
What is Age Appropriate?
Although children usually respond well when parents take the time to give them correct information and answer their questions, it is important to provide information that is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level.
Sick Kids Hospital website
- Sex education: what kids should learn and when
National Child Traumatic Stress Network fact sheets:
- Sexual Development and Behaviour in Children
- Talk to your children about sex and relationships: support for parents
Talking with Teens about Sex, Sexuality and Relationships
It is a challenge for adults who have been raised to see developing teen sexuality as dangerous or immoral. Many parenst struggle with the tension between wanting to protect young people and wanting to support healthy development. The evidence is clear that young people are more resilient if they have adults who can affirm them, and talk about the tough topics like sex in an open and respectful way.
Accurate information about sexual behavior and open communication on the topics is important for all teenagers. Most teens know about sexual intercourse, contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They also have lots of misinformation such as think that birth control will prevent STIs and many do not understand the importance of consent and what consent really means. It is normal for youth to explore and experiment and it’s not unusual for the experimentation to include same-sex peers regardless of how they define their sexual orientation.
Whether parents like it or not, most teens engage in some form of sexual behaviour, even those who take pledges of abstinence.[Tolman, D., McClelland S. Normative Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence.]
Young people are bombarded with messages about sex and sexuality from the media. Given the reality, it is important for foster parents to be open and discussing sex, sexuality and relationship decisions with young people, in ways that are appropriate to each child’s level of understanding. The goal for all communication is to help children acquire accurate information and form healthy values and attitudes about their sexuality.
- Watch Dr. V. Chandra-Mouli from the World Health Organization talk about the importance of talking to young people about sex and sexuality.
- Watch Sanderijn van der Doef speak about children and sexuality: protection or education?
- Watch Lisa Osherow talk about consent culture that starts with talking to kids about sex.
See also: Planned Parenthood topics for Parents