For many parents, the ideal scenario when it comes to their children and sex, is that their interest is never piqued, no questions are ever asked, and they save themselves until marriage like good boys and girls. In the real world, things go a little differently. Children are definitely interested; they have lots of questions about sex, relationships, and sexual identity, and yes – they are having sex. For a parent, wading through the waters of your child’s sexuality can be daunting, but openly addressing their questions of sexual development, sexual desire, and the nature of the adolescent’s developing sexual identity are critical to helping your child avoid devastating, and possibly life-threatening, errors in judgment.
If we’re being completely honest, parents often have their own agenda — don’t do this and don’t do that. The best thing you can do for your child is to take a step back and leave the judgments aside. The most appropriate and important thing for a parent and a child or adolescent in dealing with questions about sexuality and sexual health is an open channel of communication. Your child is not going to open up to you if they feel like they are going to be punished for having normal, human thoughts about sex.
In today’s hypersexualized culture, children are exposed to sex early and often. Sex is used to sell everything from cereal to music. Social media gives them a primer on what is considered desirable, what behaviors are acceptable, and even links them to potential partners. In short, the traditional “birds and bees” lecture or pamphlet handed to the child to read on her or his own, on reproductive basics, is completely inadequate (and has been for a long time). Carefully preparing children for the normal changes in their bodies as well as the endless assault of peer pressure, media glorification of irresponsible sexuality, and advertising come-ons is the only way to create a sense of security for parents and children alike. Engaging your child and building self-esteem and confidence in his or her ability to make judgments is important for developing the kind of trust necessary to facilitate you guiding them through this period of their life. After all, however adult their appearance, behavior, and attitudes may appear, adolescents remain closer to childhood than adulthood, and children need ongoing parental guidance to prepare for adulthood.
When is the right time to start talking about sex with your child? It’s a good idea to start laying the groundwork for these conversations long before the onset of puberty. The more frequently and frankly sexual matters are discussed, the easier and even more open such discussions are likely to be as you both grow comfortable with talking about it. Be honest about the fact that sex is uncomfortable to talk about, but reinforce the fact that these conversations are necessary. Remind your child that you are in his or her corner every step of the way. Never let them forget that your love is unconditional – that you are there for them no matter what. Yes, it’s much easier said than done, but no less important.
What should you talk about? Media, for all its evils with how sexuality is portrayed, actually provides the ideal opening for starting a discussion. It gives parents an opportunity to discuss how it “works” in real life — the potentially bad consequences and catastrophes than can be a result of sexual activity, as well as the pleasure and positive results of responsible sexuality. If you see a character in a TV show who has made a decision with regard to sex, start the discussion there. Resist the urge to get on a soapbox. If you harshly criticize what you’re both seeing, your child will assume there’s no discussion to be had, and your channel of communication will be closed. By approaching the topic carefully and conversationally, you and your child are much more likely to sort through the complexities together.
As your child matures — physically, mentally, and emotionally — opportunities will emerge for making regular discussions about sexuality part of your continuing conversation. Obviously, changes in your child’s body as puberty begins are crucial markers for such conversations. Be sure to address “urban myths” — bits of false information that “everyone” knows, passed along from adolescent to adolescent and even from generation to generation. Don’t be surprised to find that your child has heard some of the same myths and misinformation that circulated during your adolescence. Make clear, for instance, that oral sex is not without risks, that unprotected intercourse without ejaculation is not effective birth control, and so on. It’s very important to get the facts straight from the start, and share those facts with your child. Be specific and accurate about the risks of pregnancy, the effectiveness (and limitations) of different types of birth control, and the variety of sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) and their effects. If you need help addressing the specifics of various illnesses, don’t be afraid to engage your child’s doctor.
One key area to emphasize is that no one has the right to pressure your daughter or son to have sex. Peer and media pressure are real! Empower your children by reminding them of their autonomy over their own bodies. Remind them that a sense of value is more important than immediate gratification. Reassure them that you are confident in their ability to withstand external pressures and make the right decisions about their bodies. Most importantly, remind them about their absolute freedom to bring any concerns to you.
It is wholly natural for adolescents to have questions about sex and sexual identity. While attitudes toward gay and lesbian identity (among other issues) remain tangled and complex, the crucial thing to bear in mind is that all of us have such questions at one time or another. New terminology and categories of sexual identity emerge daily – transgender, gender fluid, non-binary, asexual. It may be difficult to keep track of it all and many times, your teen will know more about these topics than you do. Ask them to explain it all to you. Ask your questions about their thoughts on all of it and allow them to ask theirs. Accept your adolescent’s questions as part of growing up, but at the same time, let them know what your views and values are. Know the difference between facts and your opinion, and be clear about both.
When it comes to sex and sexuality, don’t hesitate to discuss values, morals, and ethics with regard to sex. Guide, don’t lecture. Listen as much as you speak. Providing your child with a solid framework of information and values, is a large step toward making sure that when he or she becomes sexually active, it will be with the knowledge, preparation, and maturity that will mark the transition to sexual activity as an informed choice, not a risky accident.
If you feel uncomfortable or feel like you don’t have sufficient information to have a conversation with your child about sex, remember that your pediatrician is a valuable resource for information regarding your child’s sexual development. We can provide you and your child with the relevant information or even mediate the conversation for you. Don’t hesitate to bring the topic up at your child’s annual well visit. Your pediatrician is here to help you raise happy and (sexually) healthy kids.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.