Talking with Your Daughter about Her Changing Body and Sexuality, Part II: Tips for Talking About Tough Issues

Note: This is the second in a 3-part series that explores the topic of parents communicating with their children about puberty and sexuality. Part I explored the challenges of talking about these sensitive issues, and the reasons why it’s so important to find ways to talk nonetheless. Part II explores the first set of specific strategies you can use for starting and sustaining these important conversations. The text below is adapted from a free brochure entitled Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, published as part of a national campaign by Children Now (http://www.childrennow.org) and the Kaiser Family Foundation (http://www.kff.org) promote parent-child communication. The full text of the brochure, as well as other helpful resources, is available on the web athttp://www.talkingwithkids.org/booklet.html. Additional web resources can be found at the end of Part III.

In Part I, we explored the many fears, concerns, and embarrassments that can keep us from talking with our children about puberty and sexuality. But consider this: our kids are already hearing about these issues from TV, movies, magazines and school friends. If we don’t talk with them early and often–and answer their questions–they’ll get their facts from someone else. And we’ll have missed an important opportunity to offer our children information that’s not only accurate, but also in sync with our own personal values and moral principles.
Below are some practical tips and strategies for getting these difficult conversations started; more tips will be provided in Part III.

Start Early

Kids are hearing about and forced to cope with tough issues at increasingly early ages, often before they are ready to understand all aspects of these complicated ideas. As parents, we have a wonderful opportunity to talk with our children about these issues first, before anyone else can confuse them with incorrect information or explanations that lack the values we want to instill. We need to take advantage of this “window of opportunity” with children and talk with them earlier and more often, particularly about tough issues like sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, alcohol and drugs.

Initiating Conversations With Our Children

While we want our children to feel comfortable enough to come to us with any questions and concerns–this doesn’t always occur. Often it’s necessary to begin the discussions ourselves. TV and other media are great tools for this. Say, for instance, that you and your 12-year-old are watching TV together and the program’s plot includes a teenage pregnancy. After the show is over, ask your child what she thought of the program. Did she agree with how the teenagers behaved? Has she known of any teenagers who got pregnant? Just one or two questions could help start a valuable discussion that comes from everyday circumstances and events. If you have more than one child — and your kids are widely spaced — try to speak with them separately, even about the same subject. The reason? Children of varied ages are usually at different developmental levels, which means that they need different information, have different sensitivities and require a different vocabulary. (Whenever possible, use short, simple language). What’s more, older children will often dominate the discussion, which may prevent the younger ones from speaking up.

…Even When You May Be Embarrassed

If you feel uncomfortable talking about sensitive subjects–particularly bodies, sex and relationships–you’re not alone. Many parents feel awkward and uneasy. But, for your child’s sake, try to overcome your nervousness and bring up the issue anyway. Acknowledge your embarrassment, acknowledge your child’s embarrassment (“Sweetheart, this is hard for both of us to talk about, but it’s important that we try…”), and plunge in.

Create an Open Environment

Children will look to their parents for answers only if they feel we will be open to their questions. It’s up to us to create the kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questions–on any subject–freely and without fear of consequence or shame.
How do you create such an atmosphere? Be encouraging, supportive and positive. For example, if your child asks, “How do you get AIDS?” try not to answer with, “It’s complicated. Please just finish your lunch.” No matter how busy you are, respond with something like, “That’s an interesting question. We don’t have time to talk about it right now, but let’s talk about it tonight after dinner.” And be sure to do so. If they ask something you don’t know, simply say, “I’m not sure. Let’s go look it up.” (FYI: Don’t worry that if your children learn that you don’t know everything, they won’t look up to you. That’s simply not true. Kids accept, “I don’t know,” and “let’s go find out.” These are better responses than any inaccurate or misleading answers you may be tempted to offer.)
One more point: You don’t need to answer all of your children’s questions immediately. If your 10-year-old asks, “Mom, what’s oral sex?” it’s perfectly okay to say something like, “That’s an important question. I’d like to explain it after I’ve had time to gather my thoughts. Let’s talk this weekend.” And make sure you do.

Communicate Your Values

As parents, we have a wonderful opportunity to be the first person to talk with our children about sensitive issues before anyone else can confuse them with “just-the-facts” explanations that lack the sense of values and moral principles we want to instill. When talking with your child about bodies and sex, remember to talk about more than “the birds and the bees,” and communicate your values. For example, talking about the changes of puberty is a wonderful time to affirm your daughter’s changing shape, and help her develop a positive body image. Talking about sex requires talking about relationships, and offers the opportunity to engage in a discussion of respect for oneself and for others in any kind of relationship. Remember, research shows that children want and need moral guidance from their moms and dads, so don’t hesitate to make your beliefs clear.

Next month: Listen to Your Child • Be Honest • Be Patient • Use Teachable Moments • Talk About It Again, and Again

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.