Talking with Your Daughter about Her Changing Body and Sexuality, Part I: Challenges and Opportunities

Note: This is the first in a 3-part series that explores the topic of parents communicating with their children about puberty and sexuality. This article explores the challenges of talking about these sensitive issues, and the reasons why finding ways talk is so important. Part II will explore specific, concrete strategies you can use for starting and sustaining these important conversations.

Parents and children want to talk…

This may be hard to believe, but yes, parents and children really do want to talk about puberty and sexuality! In national surveys, adolescents consistently report that they want their parents to be their primary source of information about puberty and sexuality. Likewise, the majority of parents state that they want to be their child’s primary resource for puberty and sexuality information. Despite these good wishes and intentions on both sides, most adolescents say that they have few meaningful conversations with their parents about sex and sexuality. Why does this gap exist?

But it can be so hard

Conversations about both “puberty education” and “sex education” can be equally challenging. Puberty education provides girls and boys with important information about their changing bodies while sex education provides information more specific to sexuality. In both kinds of conversations, dialogue about values, feelings, relationships, self-care, and self-esteem are very important. All good stuff–but there are many valid reasons why parents and children find it hard to talk about these topics. The barriers to communication are on both sides. Children and teens don’t make these conversations very easy even for willing parents. Your child may show embarrassment by suddenly leaving the room, declaring that she absolutely must clean her room today. She may develop a sudden case of uncontrollable giggles, or become uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Teens report that they sometimes don’t want to talk to parents about such sensitive topics as dating and sex because they want privacy, they fear their parents’ disapproval, or they want to have a conversation but fear they’ll get a lecture instead.

Parents have their own reasons for hesitating to talk about puberty and sexuality with their children. First, very few of us have any role models on how to do a good job at it. When we were growing up, it was the rare family who was able to speak openly, honestly, and without discomfort about these sensitive issues. Many parents share a number of concerns; you may identify with some:
– Fear that talking about sex will encourage your child to experiment sexually, or will implicitly give permission for sexual activity.
– Uncertainty about when and how to provide puberty information and the even more anxiety-provoking sex education.
– Worry that your child isn’t ready for certain information; or uncertainty about how much is too much–or too little–information.
– Fears that if you broach the subject of sex, your child may ask questions that are too personal about your own past behaviors or experiences.
– Concerns that your child may have questions that you don’t know how to answer.
These understandable concerns all conspire to keep parents and children from talking.

Parents do make a difference

Both research and clinical experience tell us, however, that it is more important than ever for parents and children to be able to speak openly and directly about changing bodies and developing sexuality. The ever-present influence of media today means that children are exposed earlier, more often, and more prematurely to sexual content and behavior. A few sobering facts argue for the importance of good communication about sex. Sadly, a majority of girls report that their first sexual experience was either unwanted or occurred under some degree of pressure or coercion. The emotional and psychological costs to such early experiences are great and can have long-lasting effects on a girl’s sense of personal safety, self-esteem, empowerment and a healthy sense of sexuality. In addition, physical consequences to early or unwanted sexual activity are high:
– rates of sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic proportions amongst sexually active adolescents;
– high rates of alcohol and drug use during sex interfere with safe and responsible decision making; and
– teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. remain one of the highest among developing nations.
While these facts are both startling and disturbing, we also know that parents’ communication with their child does make a difference.

Talking strengthens the relationship, which strengthens your daughter

Your willingness to talk to your daughter about puberty and sexuality can have a positive effect on the quality of your relationship with her. Studies show that children who have open communication with their parents are less likely to have sex, and are more likely to use protection responsibly if they do. Why might this be true? First, parents who talk about puberty and sex with their children share their values and attitudes. Even though it seems like what you say doesn’t register with your child, we know that children do adopt their parents’ values (even if they never let on that they are listening!). In addition, your child will appreciate your persistent effort to talk with them about something difficult, but so important. Your efforts to communicate let them know how important they are to you. And, the closer children feel to their parents, the better they tend to feel about themselves, and the more likely they are to make healthy decisions that respect and value their own worth and well-being as well as others’.

Sexuality is essential for all of us

In addition to all of the above reasons for talking with your child about her body and her sexuality, there is yet another simple reason. Your daughter’s changing body and sexuality are essential parts of who she is. You are loving and persistent in the ways you support your daughter’s creative talents, academic achievements, delightful sense of humor, or skill in athletics. Her appreciation of her changing body will be enhanced as you nurture this aspect of her growth. Her sexuality, which expresses itself in physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions throughout her lifetime, deserves your same nurturing attention.

Next month: Action strategies and tips for every age group on getting those difficult conversations started and keeping them going.

Reference note: The statistics and facts referenced in this article come primarily from the following sources: Talking Parents, Healthy Teens, a parent-teen communication program of the UCLA Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, and research articles available on the Guttmacher Institute website,http://www.guttmacher.org.
Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.