(Ohio) – It’s a conversation all parents dread, but it’s one that is inevitable.
Sure, in the beginning, we can typically skate around the real answer when our toddler looks up and asks ‘mommy, where do babies come from?’ However, we can only lean on the classic stork delivery for so long. There comes a time in every parent’s journey where ‘The Talk’ makes an uncomfortable visit.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the fact is that our children live in a highly sexualized society where they are exposed to sexual language, images, and behaviors even before they are developmentally prepared to handle them.
So, experts regularly encourage parents to start talking about the ‘birds and the bees’ early on. But, do these conversations do anything outside of making everyone uncomfortable? According to teens who participated in national surveys conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the answer is yes. Teens indicate that their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex – more than friends, siblings, and the Media – even if they don’t typically admit that out loud. Most even acknowledge that they share their parents’ values about sex, and making decisions about delaying sex would be easier if they could talk openly and honestly with their parents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents should be aware that the following important aspects of communication can have an impact on teen sexual behavior:
- what is said
- how it is said
- how often it is said
- how much teens feel cared for, and understood by, their parents
- Don’t discredit love. Understand the importance of romantic attachments in a teenager’s life and the intensely strong feelings that they generate, even if your definition and perspective of love differ from your child’s.
- Avoid sexuality conversations that are all “don’ts.” Parents often recount that they speak to their teens often about sex. Yet generally those conversations are all about the “don’ts.”Don’t have sex.
What gets left out are the “do’s.” What can they do to be sexually healthy with a partner that they care about? How can they decide whether a partner is interested in them as a person or just as a potential sex partner?
- Be real. Dispel myths and rumors. Provide accurate information. Use simple language, but respect their intelligence and curiosity. Above all, avoid talking down to children and teens about sex.
- Use the media (the good, bad, and the ugly). Use topics presented in daily media sources and popular teen culture as springboards for theoretical conversations about sex and relationships. Avoid proclamations and judgments, even about fictional characters; your children will anticipate your reacting to them, in the same way, should they ever be in that situation. Consider role-playing through a situation presented on TV as collaborative, nonjudgmental thought processing; it will provide insight into your child’s view of the world and give you the opportunity to offer your ideas for them to reflect on.
- Teaching kids about sex doesn’t mean parenting without values. Acknowledging sexuality is not the same as condoning or giving permission to have sex. Helping their children understand that sexual thoughts and feelings are normal gives parents the opportunity to follow up with conversations about how (and from what) to be abstinent as well as how to regulate their impulses and urges. It opens the door to a continued conversation about how to be safe and responsible when adolescents begin to engage in intimate physical or sexual activities.
- Ask, don’t tell. Find out what your child is thinking when talking about their relationships or sexual experiences. What does it mean to have a boyfriend or girlfriend at what age? Listen to what it means to the teen at that time. The teen’s level of understanding and participation may actually be appropriate for her developmental level. Understand, don’t judge. It is also helpful to talk about her friends and her relationships. Teens can be more chatty about their friends than about themselves, but listening to what their friends are doing will offer insight into how your teen herself feels.
- Keep it generic. Being willing to speak in generalities allows conversations about difficult subjects like sex to move forward without getting anyone too uncomfortable. Let your children know that you know of people that had certain experiences when they were younger, that you have been in difficult situations or know others who have been, and that you’re not afraid to discuss those things on some level. Avoid interrogating your teen about what exactly they did or didn’t do sexually; you don’t want them to demand details about your love life, either. Keeping things on a surface level gives permission to continue the discussion over a greater breadth (and possibly depth) of topics and allows you to communicate more honestly about sex in ways that may very well be helpful one day.
- Be clear that safety is non-negotiable. Think about your bottom-line priorities for your children. Chances are nothing matters more to you than their safety. Be very clear, and repeat often, that nothing matters more than knowing they are going to be okay. Establish a code word they can use to get your attention and help when they need to get out of a potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Set a standard for protecting themselves from disease and unwanted pregnancy regardless of whether you agree with their decision-making about sex. Make sure that they know they can come to you for help if something goes wrong.
- You have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Listen more than you talk. Be the sounding board that helps developing teens come to their own good decision about their sexual behaviors. Engaging kids in conversation about sexuality goes much further toward developing independent decision-making than lecturing about what they “should” and “shouldn’t” do.