Discussing sexual health with your children

Discussing sexual health with your children

The changes in sexual attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles that have taken place across society present today’s parents with some of the most complex issues they will ever confront.

Frequently, parents look to schools, health professionals, religious groups and community organisations for assistance, seeking information, encouragement, skills and support. This is encouraged since sexual health is part of everyday living and the home is the best place to provide the first sex education.

Experience tells us that the majority of parents want to talk openly with their children about sexuality, yet often feel ill-prepared to do so. When to start? What to say? How best to express the values you want so much to share with your children? These are but a few of the issues surrounding the communication about sexuality.

Many parents ask when children should first learn about sexual health education. We say it is best to start from the very beginning. After all, sexual health is all about our body and the relationships we build throughout our lifetime.

Take, for example, a three-year old child. At this age, s/he has already received a wealth of messages about sexuality. When infants are touched and cuddled, they learn that they are lovable and loved. Choices of clothing (pink v blue), toys (dolls v trucks), playtime activities (tea party v football) all present messages about gender roles and gender expectations. 

It depends on the parent’s willingness to respond openly and honestly to particular questions. Many parents have been confronted with the million-dollar question, “where do babies come from?”. However, we need to understand that parents have been educating their child about sex all along through their words as well as through their silence and through verbal and non-verbal communication. The reactions and responses you give teach your child a lot about sexuality, not only in terms of information but also in terms of values and attitudes.

Parents cannot avoid being the child’s primary and most important sex educator, but nor would you want to. Parents exert a most powerful influence over a child’s sexual attitudes and development. The family experiences you shape, from the moment your child is born, help determine the extent to which s/he develops positive, healthy feelings about sexuality. The unsuspecting parent may allow several formative years to pass before the realisation sets in: children, even very young child-ren deserve thoughtful, purposeful sexuality education.

Parents exert a most powerful influence over a child’s sexual attitudes and development

Another challenge involves discussions on sexual health. Such open discussions can be of great value. They allow for parents to share important values while, at the same time, assisting children in forming a positive attitude and healthy respect towards sexuality. Such discussions also help to erase fears children often have around sexual curiosity, which helps to build trust, support and understanding.

One issue we often encounter is the lack of communication between children and parents. Speak openly to your child/children and be there when they come back from school to talk about all that happened on that day. This is the only way that you can increase the likelihood that children will seek you out for information and guidance. 

Dealing with a young child may not be so difficult but many parents indeed start getting confused when their child is no longer a child and looking more like an adult. Puberty may be a challenging period for both the  child, who may think like a child but see his body change into that of an adult and for parents, especially if it is the first child. Do not rely upon how we were taught about sexual health matters in our days… was it the books or our friends?

Initiating conversations about the facts of life may be difficult for some parents because they did not grow up in an environment where the subject was discussed. Some parents may be afraid they do not know the right answers or feel confused about the proper amount of information to offer. Some tips are:

• First, encourage communication by reassuring your children that they can talk to you about anything.

• Take advantage of teachable moments. A friend’s pregnancy, news article, or a TV show can help start a conversation.

• Listen more than you talk. Think about what you’re being asked. Confirm with your child that what you heard is in fact what he or she meant to ask.

• Don’t jump to conclusions. The fact that a teen asks about sex does not mean they are having or thinking about having sex.

• Answer questions simply and directly. Give factual, honest, short and simple answers.

• Share your thoughts and values and help your child express theirs.

• Reassure young people that they are normal– as are their questions and thoughts.

• Teach your children ways to make good decisions about sex and coach them on how to get out of risky situations.

• Admit when you are unsure of the answer to their question. Suggest the two of you find the answer together on the Internet.

• Discuss that at times your teen may feel more comfortable talking with someone other than you and think of other trusted adults they can turn to.

When talking about sexuality and young people in our culture, we are a lot more comfortable discussing negative aspects, (for example, teen pregnancy), disease (HIV and STIs) and dysfunction (coercive sex, etc). But the ultimate aim of sexual health education is to obtain positive sexual health. We wish that our children:

• Appreciate their own bodies;

• Express love and intimacy in appropriate ways;

• Enjoy sexual feelings without necessarily acting on them;

• Practise health prevention, such as regular check-ups;

• 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 along with their partner’s), contraceptive and condom use and the meaning of the relationship.

Talk to your son/daughter and together, help them to build healthy sexual relationships based upon respect and understanding, in a responsible way.

Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent, Public Health.

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