A lot of parents wonder how to have the (often dreaded) sex talk. When is the right time? What do I say? I feel weird talking about something so mature with my child! These are very common fears and questions. I usually encourage parents to frame their conversation with their child by two main handles.
First, parents need to consider what they want their children to know about sex. What kind of attitude do you want your child to have toward sex and sexuality? Curiosity? Fear? Do you want your child to see sex as something only to be experienced in marriage, or as something to be experienced between two consenting adults who love each other, or as something to be experienced when a person decides they feel ready? This is a decision that no therapist can make for a family; each parent and/or caregiver will have to make that decision for him or herself.
Another big factor to consider when thinking of your child’s future attitude toward sex is that of pleasure. Many parents do not mention sexual pleasure to children, as they feel it is developmentally inappropriate information; parents also often tell me they are afraid it will make their child want to engage in sexual activity prematurely. That is, of course, a perfectly fine decision. However, I would offer a somewhat different perspective for caregivers of children with sexual trauma histories. Although no child enjoys sexual abuse, human bodies were made to experience sexual pleasure. Many children report intense feelings of guilt for having enjoyed some aspects of the abuse. One way to help relieve these feelings is to address them while talking to the child about what sex is supposed to be and how it is supposed to be used. Acknowledging that sexual touching almost always feels good to one’s body, even if it was coupled with other factors that made it inappropriate (exploitation, abuse, force, etc.) can help relieve significant anxiety and guilt for some children.
Second, parents need to consider their child’s developmental level. Most often, parental anxiety about the topic of sexuality causes parents to over-estimate their child’s developmental and cognitive abilities. Caregivers can often use words that children do not understand, and describe sexuality in vague and abstract terms (often in hopes that the child will just “get it” and the caregiver won’t have to out and out say it!). However, with children, especially younger children, the more direct the better. Remember the three C’s: Be Clear, Concise, and Concrete.
Finally, parents often under-estimate the significance of their own anxiety and discomfort on their children’s feelings about sex and sexuality. Most people, except for those who do so regularly in their line of work, do not use proper terminology when talking about sex (even with other adults), and even avoid the topic (it is a private matter, after all!). However, children are implicit sponges; if you are uncomfortable during the talk, the child is likely to be uncomfortable, too! Practice saying certain “awkward” words to your partner or friend before speaking to your child so you can become more comfortable with them. Also, if you find that you experience a strong sense of anxiety and discomfort around sexuality, consider exploring this with a trusted friend. If you can enter the conversation with your child feeling calm and comfortable, your child is then free to absorb the information you are trying to convey and ask questions for clarification.
So, to sum up:
- Consider what type of attitude you ultimately want your child to develop toward sex and sexuality, and allow this to guide you in deciding what information to convey.
- Consider your child’s developmental level, and remember: Be Clear, Concise, and Concrete.
- Calm down! Remember, sex and sexuality is just another part of our complex, human experience. You have a unique opportunity to help educate your child and shape the way they relate to both their own and others’ sexuality. If you can manage your own anxiety about the conversation, your child is more likely to hear what you are trying to say.
Good luck, caregivers!