Navigating "The Talk"

Written by joanna cattanach
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How to talk to your kids about sex

Navigating "The Talk"
Talk early and often about sex to encourage positive decision-making and open communication with your teen. (Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

You can’t afford to be embarrassed talking to your kids about sex.

— Lorrie Irby Jackson, a mother of three from Garland, Texas

Your child is coming of age and, like it or not, it's time to have "the talk." Those awkward moments spent talking about body parts and birds and bees can be just as embarrassing for you as they can for your child. But "the talk" isn't just 15 minutes of fumbling conversation anymore. It's an ongoing discussion. As children are becoming more sexually mature at a younger age, parents have to begin discussing sexuality sooner, more often and with more honesty. So how do you discuss sex with your child in a way that makes it comfortable for you yet still informative for her?

Teachable moments

“If they are old enough to differentiate between male and female body parts,” they are old enough to start learning about their body and sex, says Lorrie Irby Jackson, a mother of three, freelance journalist and blogger from Garland Texas. “You can’t afford to be embarrassed talking to your kids about sex.”

That doesn’t mean you have to go into intimate detail with a 4-year-old. You should make your conversation age-appropriate and look for those “teachable moments,” Jackson says. On a recent school day, she and her 14-year-old son saw a pregnant teenager walking into school. She used that moment to talk with her son. “I told him, ‘You see that right there. That is not something you ever, ever want to do.’”

Jackson says she’s impressed upon her son the importance of responsibility and maturity. She has explained sex and consequences and has encouraged him to value his body and to be a leader, “not just jump on anything that’s willing.”

Jackson is ahead of the game. A 2002 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted in conjunction with "Seventeen" magazine found that among the 15- to 17-year-olds they surveyed, close to half -- including 56 percent of teens already sexually active -- said they never talked with their parents about sexual decision making or sexual health issues, including birth control.

By talking with your child about sex, Jackson said, “You take away the mystique and the drama.”

Early questions

Navigating "The Talk"
Answer questions honestly and with age-appropriate information. (Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images)

It’s the parents’ job to be both informative and accurate, says Dr. May Lau, a pediatrician at UT Southwestern and Children’s Medical Center Dallas.

"If they have a question, you don't want to tell them too much, but you don't want to tell them too little either," said Lau, who encourages parents to use appropriate body terms -- that is, no peepees and who whos.

“By using incorrect terms, it’s kind of like you're hiding it," she said. "In my practice, a lot of the adolescents are very ashamed of their breast or genital area."

And if your child brings up an issue, if he surprises you with a "what's a vagina" question, Lau says to determine how much he knows before answering the question. It often may determine the kind of age-appropriate response you give. And parents do not have to answer right away. You can acknowledge the inquiry and follow up later -- but do follow up.

Many adolescents know about sex or condoms but they don't know about "self-esteem and good relationships," Lau said. They don't always comprehend the full impact of becoming sexually active.

Lau encourages parents to seek outside advice from a doctor or find resources online or in books.

"Maybe brush up on their knowledge of anatomy and sexuality," she said. And don’t just focus on the negative outcomes – “you could get a disease,” or “you could get pregnant” -- but the importance of having "healthy sexuality."

Value information

Navigating "The Talk"
Kids learn about sexual activity at an early age. (James Woodson/Photodisc/Getty Images)

“One really important thing for parents to realise is that kids learn about sexuality from the moment they are born,” said Leslie Kantor, the national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"There's no decision about whether kids are going to learn about sexuality -- they are. So parents need to be making the decision about the types of messages” their children are receiving, Kantor said.

Parents should make sure their messages are getting through. You may think you talked about sex, but your child may be confused about storks and boys. Parents should also share in the discussions equally.

In a 2010 study published in the journal “Reproductive Health,” researchers found that mothers were more likely to talk to their daughters about sex rather than their sons, while dads were more likely to focus on dating and relationships with their daughters than with their sons.

“Parents should communicate their own values to their kids,” Kantor said, including thoughts and beliefs, as well as opinions on sex. Telling your child you want her to value her body can have an effect. For parents who want their children to delay having sex, more information typically makes them wait longer, Kantor says.

The bottom line, according to Kantor, is that parents can have a greater effect on their child’s sexual identity and education if they become proactive instead of reactive. “It’s a lifelong conversation.”

Tips and warnings

  • Create Teaching Moments: Don't expect your child to bring up the topic of sex every time. Be proactive and look for ways to bring the topic up. Don't just focus on the negative consequences and judgement; instead, address sexual health as a whole and the importance of healthy relationships and self-esteem. Be Accurate: Use correct terms when referring to body parts, and make sure you know what you are talking about when you discuss safe sex and reproduction. Respond Appropriately: You don't have to go into detail with a 4-year-old but you should respond to his curiosity and get his opinion. Ask where he heard that phrase and who taught him that word. Take Your Time: It's fine to take a few minutes to respond as long as you acknowledge the question, promise to follow up and then follow through. You may need materials such as a book or a handout. Express Your Values: You are not just a sex dictionary. You do have opinions about what is and is not appropriate behaviour. Express your expectations, and stress the importance of valuing your body. Your openness may have more impact than you think and may open the door for further discussion.

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