This is the third in a 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 explored the first set of specific strategies you can use for starting and sustaining these important conversations, and Part III continues those tips. The text is adapted from a free brochure entitled Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, published as part of a national campaign to promote parent-child communication. The full text of the brochure, as well as other helpful resources, are available on the web at http://www.talkingwithkids.org/booklet.html. Additional web resources can be found at the end of this article.
Listen to Your Child: Seek First to Understand
How many times do we listen to our children while folding clothes, preparing for the next day’s meeting, or pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket? While that’s understandable, it’s important to find time to give kids our undivided attention. Listening carefully to our children builds self-esteem by letting our youngsters know that they’re important to us and can lead to valuable discussions about a wide variety of sensitive issues.
Listening, versus lecturing, is very important. The research tells us that one reason some teens do not talk to their parents about sex is that they anticipate getting a lecture when they ask a question or raise a concern. It’s natural to want to get your opinion in any time the conversation turns to such important topics, but it’s more important to listen first to your child, then share your thoughts and feelings.
Listening carefully also helps us better understand what our children really want to know as well as what they already understand. For example, suppose your child asks you what an “orgasm” is. Before you answer, ask her what she already knows about it. If she says, “I think it’s something that makes you yell during sex,” then you have a sense of her level of understanding and can adjust your explanations to fit.
Listening to our children and taking their feelings into account also helps us understand when they’ve had enough. Suppose you’re answering your 9-year-old’s questions about AIDS. If, after a while, she says, “I want to go out and play,” stop the talk and re-introduce the subject at another time.
Whatever your children’s ages, they deserve honest answers and explanations. It’s what strengthens our children’s ability to trust. Also, when we don’t provide a straightforward answer, kids make up their own fantasy explanations, which can be more frightening than any real, honest response we can offer. You can be honest but keep the information you share simple enough to fit your child’s developmental level.
At the same time, it’s perfectly okay to set limits on the personal information you share with your child. For example, if she asks a question about your own sexual debut, and you don’t wish to answer, feel free to say something like, “That’s private, and one day you might have some things that you want to keep private, too. But I’d like to know what you think is the right age to start having sex, and I’ll tell you my opinion about it, too.”
Often it can feel like forever before a youngster gets her story out. As adults, we’re tempted to finish the child’s sentence for her, filling in words and phrases in an effort to hear the point sooner. Try to resist this impulse. By listening patiently, we allow our children to think at their own pace and we are letting them know that they are worthy of our time.
Use “Teachable Moments” — Everyday Opportunities to Talk
It’s important to try to talk with your kids about tough issues often, but there isn’t always time in the day to sit down for a long talk. Also, kids tend to resist formal discussions about today’s toughest issues, often categorizing them as just another lecture from mom and dad. But if we use “teachable moments,” moments that arise in everyday life, as occasions for discussion, our children will be a lot less likely to tune us out. For instance, walking down the tampon aisle at the supermarket can spark a conversation about menstruation; a TV program showing a “first kiss” can be a conversation starter about how the character handled the situation; a TV commercial about medicine for herpes can give you an opportunity to talk about STDs; and a billboard about HIV transmission can give you an opportunity to talk about condoms.
Talk About it Again. And Again.
Since most children only take in small bits of information at any one time, they won’t learn all they need to know about a particular topic from a single discussion. That’s why it’s important to let a little time pass, then ask the child to tell you what she remembers about your conversation. This will help you correct any misconceptions and fill in missing facts.
Finally, in an effort to absorb all they want to know, children often ask questions again and again over time — which can test any parent’s nerves. But such repetition is perfectly normal, so be prepared and tolerant. Don’t be afraid to initiate discussions repeatedly, either. Patience and persistence will serve you and your child well.
Interested in more information on Sex Education?
Education Links & Web Sites:
SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States):http://www.siecus.org
A starting place for parents & teens to learn about sexuality issues and communication within the family
National Parent Information Center: http://www.npin.org
A research-based information on parenting and family involvement in education.
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues: http://www.talkingwithkids.org
Encouragement for parents to talk with their children early and often about sexuality issues.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy: http://www.teenpregnancy.org
Research, statistics, and useful information providing insight into the phenomenon of teen pregnancy
Birds and Bees: http://www.birdsandbees.org
Information on birth control, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STDs) and links to other sites.
Go Ask Alice!: http://www.goaskalice.columbia.edu
Q&A site including information on relationships, sexuality, and sexual health.
Information on issues that affect the lives of girls 13 years of age and older.
A safe and fun place for teenagers to learn about sexual health and for parents to receive guidance.
Information for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. Also, a useful site for parents and friends of GLBT youth.
SEX, ETC.: http://www.sexetc.org
Information, advice, and resources by teens for teens (and parents, too).
Youth Resource: http://www.youthresource.com
Information and peer support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth.
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.