How to ... talk to your child about sex and relationships
By Kate Hilpern
There are many reasons to start the conversations early. First, curiosity about sex is a natural step from learning about the body and sex education can help children understand their own bodies. Second, sex education is most effective when it’s built up gradually over a number of years. Third, children are exposed to information about sex from friends and the media at a much younger age than many parents realise – and that information will often be incomplete, incorrect and potentially dangerous. Fourth, normalising conversations around sex will make them much more relaxed and open with you for the years ahead. Just remember to keep the conversations age appropriate – for example, younger children are more interested in pregnancy and babies than the mechanics of sex.
Don’t rely on the school system
Sex education in schools is better than it was, but it can be at best inconsistent and at worst inaccurate. At faith schools teaching about sex and relationships may be based around religious doctrine and we know of some schools that invite groups in who give messages that are anti LGBT and anti-abortion. In any case, for some children, a school classroom will never be a forum in which they feel comfortable learning about sex, let alone asking questions. Remember school sex ed is designed to complement the discussions you have at home, so use the moments when you know it’s happening in school to talk with them about it with them – ask them what they learned and if they have any questions.
Try to make discussions about sex part of normal life
Open, honest conversations that arise naturally during normal family time will be a lot more effective – and less embarrassing for your child – than if you opt for a big, sit-down one-off talk. While you’re making the dinner or sitting together on the sofa are ideal opportunities. Be careful not to let your normal tone of voice turn all serious and respect your child if they don’t feel the moment is right – teens can be very private.
Talk about consent
Words like ‘respect’ can be vague and open to manipulation, whereas ‘consent’ leaves no room for confusion as it involves a straight yes or no. Ultimately, encourage your teen to set their own boundaries, find their voice when they feel under pressure and to remember the other person needs to give consent too. Remind them that just because they are showing affection by kissing and maybe even a bit more, it doesn’t have to end in sex. And help them think of non-sexual ways to show the other person that they care about them.
Answer questions truthfully
Listen to your child’s questions and always be truthful and clear in your responses (in an age appropriate way). Your child will soon go elsewhere for their information if they don’t trust you to tell it how it is or they are confused by what you’re saying. Don’t stall on the more difficult or embarrassing subjects and if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and try to find out the answer. Listen to what they don’t tell you too – are there gaps in their stories or silences in their conversations? Does it feel as though they want to ask you something, but can’t find the words?
Use the media
Use the media to initiate conversations, whether that’s your child’s favourite film or TV programme or lyrics to songs in the charts. The power of cultural references should not be underestimated as it will be something your child can relate to, making conversations less theoretical and more real for them. And it will show them you understand their world. No more channel changing to avoid difficult lyrics, scenes or messages – use them to your benefit.
Help them understand what a healthy relationship looks like
Help your child to understand that emotional intimacy should come before physical intimacy. Encourage them to take time deciding whether they’re ready for anything physical and remind them that sex is not an initiation or something they should be doing just because their friends are. And make sure they understand that violence is never a part of normal sex or love. Help them to see that when they do decide to engage in sexual activity, it is a normal, healthy part of life – not something dirty, gross or shameful – they key lies in whether they feel ready.
Talk about the consequences of sex
Help them to understand the consequences of sex – everything from potential emotional stress to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The media is particularly guilty of leaving out contraception as a normal part of any sexual relationship, so make sure your child knows their options and where to find out more. And don’t assume you’re encouraging sexual activity by doing so. Research shows that providing education about condoms and access to them, for example, does not increase sexual activity or encourage teens to have sex – rather, it makes them more likely to use a condom when they do have sex.
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