Talking With Kids Openly and Honestly About Sexuality (page 3)
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.
We can talk with our youngsters about the strong, pleasurable feelings they might have about people—whether those people are movie stars, famous athletes, or someone down the street. It's helpful to remind youth that there are many healthy ways to express sexual feelings and that sexual intercourse is only one form of sexual expression. Young people's reactions often make them want to be close to the other person, to hug or kiss, or to be sexual with her/him. These feelings are enormously important in youth's development. We should affirm our kids' feelings, with clarity about our family's values about sexuality and relationships. We can also talk about the possibility that strong feelings can be managed in appropriate ways. The pleasurable aspects of fantasizing about a famous person or of having a real-life relationship are valuable to everyone, and as parents, we play a critical role in helping young people to understand the meaning that these feelings can have for them now and in the future. We need to remember that young people explore their sexuality as part of a process of achieving sexual maturity and that adolescents are capable of expressing their sexuality in healthy, responsible ways.
Teenagers benefit from conversations that identify the differences between love and lust and the self-esteem that comes from responsibly managing these feelings. Part of this conversation is about the positive feeling of intimacy that people can have without sexual intercourse. Getting emotionally close to another person, taking the risk of telling someone our thoughts and feelings with the hope that the feelings will be returned—this can be enormously pleasurable and also frightening. Young people need help in understanding this, and they especially need our support through their first dating relationships, even though teens often try at this time to push us away in their attempts to become more independent. This dynamic is developmentally appropriate, and we, as parents, should appreciate the fact that our teens will seem to be paying much more attention to their peers than to us. Nonetheless, we are critically important throughout this process, and we need to continue to be involved in our youngsters' lives (although we should be less controlling than we were during their puberty). If our parent-child conversations continue to balance messages about responsibility, healthy decision making, and values with messages about the positive and pleasurable aspects of developing relationships, we can continue to have close and caring relationships with our teens—relationships that will support our young people's healthy sexual development.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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