Talking With Kids Openly and Honestly About Sexuality
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
When I work with parents on family communication about sexuality, I ask what they hope for their children's sexual lives. Parents most often respond with their hopes that their children will grow into adulthood without unintended pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). They sometimes follow this with the hope that their kids will never be a victim or perpetrator of intimate partner violence or other sexual abuse. It often takes awhile before they get to, "I hope they have a good sex life." Then we have a conversation about what that means.
When talking about sexuality and young people in our culture, we are much more comfortable discussing disasters (teen pregnancy, for example), disease (HIV and other STIs), and dysfunction (coercive sex, etc.). It's much easier for us to talk about what we DON'T want for our kids' sex lives than about what we DO want. In my work with parents, we ultimately get to the hope that kids:
- Will appreciate their own bodies
- Will express love and intimacy in appropriate ways
- Will enjoy sexual feelings without necessarily acting on them
- Will practice health prevention, such as regular checkups and breast or testicular self-exams
- When they are mature enough to act on their feelings, will talk with a partner about sexual activity before it occurs, including sexual limits (theirs and their partner's), contraceptive and condom use, and the meaning of the relationship and of relationships, in general.
These things are included in the longer list of behaviors of sexually healthy people, compiled by professionals who work in sexuality and human development. The reality is that, as parents, we want our kids to have good sex lives when they grow up—and, sometimes, better sex lives than we have had. The dilemma is finding strategies to support healthy sexual development when there is so little helpful, public discussion about the positive aspects of sexual life.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America has a major goal to ensure that sexuality is understood as an essential, lifelong aspect of being human, and that it is celebrated with respect, openness, and mutuality. Celebrating sexuality is not something that we are used to talking about. But, most parents really do believe, when given the context to think about it and to talk about it safely, that sex and sexuality are good and positive aspects of life. So how does this translate into something parents can support without encouraging early or inappropriate sexual behavior?
By telling the truth. Too often, when we talk with young people, we talk about the dangers of sexual behavior, and we leave out the positive feelings. Every adolescent who has had a "crush" knows the pleasurable feelings that come with having an intense attraction to someone. Young people need to hear from us, the caring adults in their lives, about the pleasure as well as the responsibility of sexuality.
Sensuality is, after all, one of the primary components of sexuality. Denying this can lessen our credibility. We need to be talking with our kids about appreciating their bodies, what their bodies can do, how they feel, and how to keep healthy. Everyone knows the experience of "skin hunger"—the need to be touched, held, or caressed. This pleasurable aspect of sexuality is critical to normal and healthy development.
When babies go through the process of discovering their bodies, they are learning what feels good. If we allow this discovery without pushing the baby's hand away from his/her genitals, making faces, or saying things like, "We don't touch that," or "It's dirty," we can avoid giving negative, early messages about the genitals. It helps to name the genitals by their correct names, just as we identify "eye," "nose," and "toes." This is the first step toward helping young people appreciate the body.
When toddlers and preschoolers touch their genitals for pleasure, we, as parents, can give the message, without over-reacting, that touching should be done in private. Again, naming the behavior is helpful. "I see that you're touching your vulva. I bet that feels good to you. That's something that you enjoy in private, okay?" It's helpful to talk about this as simply as possible, and without shaming the child. After all, we want our kids to grow up knowing how the body functions and what brings them pleasure. Young children who touch their genitals do so because it feels good. They don't fantasize about sexual things at this age. We need to remember not to overreact to our children's early genital exploration.
Puberty is an exciting time that challenges both us and our children to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional changes that happen between the ages of about 10 and 14. Girls will begin breast development and will most likely have their first menstrual period. They may experience physical discomfort from the cramps that accompany their periods and emotional discomfort as their developing breasts attract some attention from their peers. Mothers can reassure their daughters by talking about their experiences at the same age and can broaden the discussion to talk about the positive and pleasurable aspects of maturing. Part of the conversation can be about the sexual feelings that often come around this age, and how these feelings can be managed. Boys will usually experience their first wet dreams during puberty. And, sometimes, sexual thoughts or feelings accompany them. Boys need to be reassured that wet dreams are normal, as are the thoughts that accompany them. Conversations with boys and girls about the difference between fantasy and reality can flow naturally from this discussion, with our providing anticipatory guidance about what might happen in real life when the child begins dating. Our discussions can include how to make decisions about sexual behavior based on open and honest communication.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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