Sex education! It’s something you have known will eventually come up and maybe the time has come. You might have begun searching for information on the subject to prepare yourself ahead of time. Perhaps something has happened, and you are called on to act and provide the education needed. But how and where do you start?
Before we jump to the how-tos on sex education, it will be helpful to reflect on yourself first… Let’s take this moment to think back in time, to the early memories of your own discovery about sex. Do you remember seeing something on television or the internet that intrigued you, or made you wince? Did a friend define an unfamiliar word for you? Did your parents fumble through an uncomfortable “talk”? Were your guardians a part of your learning, or was your 5th grade health class the most formal education available? Looking back at your own experiences, you may find yourself smiling and laughing. Maybe recalling these memories makes you quite uncomfortable.
Starting here, with yourself, is an essential part of becoming an ongoing source of information for your children about sex. Whether your experiences were positive, harmful, confusing, or mixed, it will be helpful to consider how your own experiences shaped you. Knowing what was helpful and unhelpful will guide you in deciding what you want your children to know, when you want them to know it, and how you want to support them.
Sex, intimacy, and relationships can be a large part of life for many of us. If it is your goal to keep their children safe as they enter the young adult world, to help them learn how to select healthy partners, and to create happy lives, it can feel like a demanding task. I hope you find these 10 tips below helpful in building your confidence as you create a safe space for your children to learn. Tip #1: If you are a victim of sexual trauma and find talking about sex triggering, consider talking to a professional.
A trigger is something that sets off a memory, transporting the person back to the original trauma event and causing the individual to experience overwhelming emotions, physical symptoms, or thoughts. Talking about sex can trigger survivors of trauma and make it very uncomfortable for survivors to be present for these conversations. It may help to talk with a professional about the trauma or about the reactions you experience when talking about sex, to process your past, and learn how to manage the symptoms of the triggers.
Tip #2: If you are made extremely uncomfortable by the subject, consider calling on other supports to step in.
If you have a partner, parent, or responsible friend, discuss with them their ability to step in and help with having conversations with your children about sex. If you belong to a religious group, consider what services they may offer as well. Family therapy with a psychotherapist who specializes in sex education may also be able to help your child receive education while you are comfortably bridged into the discussions. The idea here to not abandon sex education because of the discomfort you may experience. If you can connect your child to someone who you trust will give sound advice and answers, you are doing your part in providing them an essential tool they will need to navigate this part of life.
Tip #3: Become familiar with the overlapping subjects of sex, intimacy, and relationships.
After your children learn about private parts, puberty, and understand reproduction, there comes a time where this knowledge will provide a foundation for decision making when they start to navigate the dating world and discover their own sexuality. It is important to be available to deepen these conversations with your children so that they can seek guidance and answers to questions about how to apply this knowledge. The “sex talk” cannot be a one-time conversation because of this very fact. Being an ongoing source of support and information for your children allows them to come to you, or inspires you to check in with them, regularly about their relationships. Conversation topics may include who they are interested in, if they are happy, if they see their friends making safe choices, and what kind of relationship they want for themselves as adults.
Tip #4: Consider how your family values influence your approach to sex education.
As mentioned above, sex, intimacy, and relationships overlap. Intimacy is about closeness, sex is about physical intimacy, and relationships are about the people we build intimacy with. Family values, religious beliefs, and cultural factors influence opinions greatly. Consider what values you hold and what values you instill in your children. You may find that your children hold different opinions on these subjects. Keep in mind, you want to maintain communication with your children, where difference of opinion does not shake your connection. Respecting differences can be difficult, but if it keeps your child in communication with you, you are maintaining the goal of being a guide and source of true information. Tip #5: Start education early.
By age two, children become aware of the physical differences between boys and girls. Early conversations set the foundation for discussions about personal boundaries, identity, and sex. There is no exact age to start talking about sex. If your child is asking questions, that is the time to start educating. It is also recommended that children learn about puberty before changes begin. This allows them to be prepared for what’s ahead, and to have a positive mindset about development. Remember to use language and details that are age-appropriate, and to have these conversations in private spaces. For example, you would not define consent for a 5-year-old child the way you would to a 15-year-old adolescent. And you would not talk about body hair in the middle of the supermarket.
This resource below breaks down topics to discuss with children by age: CLICK HERE
Tip #6: Use tools! It is extremely helpful to use diagrams, cartoon pictures, and storybooks to explain puberty and sex to children. There are a number of parent-approved websites as well that can be given to children as a resource for self-learning, such as Amaze.org. Before you give your child any websites or books, check them out yourself. It is encouraged to read books or view educational videos together, as it demonstrates for your child that you are a part of the education process. A few book recommendations: “It's not the stork!” by Robie H. Harris “It's So Amazing” by Robie H. Harris “Where Did I Come From?” by Peter Mayle "Where Did I Come From?" - African American Edition by Peter Mayle “The Boy's Body Book” by Kelli Dunham “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls” by Valorie Schaefer Tip #7: If they think it, they will search it. Be their go-to for information. Children are curious and are especially intrigued by things that are “not for them”. If something grabs their attention, they will talk with their friends about it, search the internet, and even learn by trial. It is important that we as adults do not delude ourselves of this reality. According to Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network, recent studies indicate 90 percent of teens have viewed porn online, and 10 percent admit to daily use. We have to acknowledge the reality of our children’s’ exposures. If we fail to recognize this and neglect to provide proper resources for education, we fail to help them learn accurate information in a timely manner. Tip #8: Talk about pornography. Pornography is illegal to view under the age of 18. As mentioned above, most children are accessing pornography despite the legal parameters. Talk with your children about pornography calmly. What is pornography? Why do people watch it? Will it ever be OK for your child to watch pornography (such as when they are an adult)? What does research suggest about viewing pornography? Tip #9: Define what consent is and provide your child with abuse prevention education. Children need to learn how to say no and how to respect no. Self-respect and other-respect is essential for creating healthy sexual boundaries. Knowing what consent is helps your child know their rights and know how to judge whether their partner is comfortable with taking steps towards physical intimacy. Abuse prevention education is too often given only after something tragic has occurred. Be sure to discuss with your child what is OK and not OK. Of great importance is teaching your children how to say no, and to put their emotional and physical wellbeing first. They also need to have a safety plan so that they know what to do if they are caught situation where they feel uncomfortable or are at risk of harm.
Consider the reference below for additional information:
Tip #10: Have compassion with yourself. Be easy on yourself in this process. If conversations become heated, take breaks. If you feel at a loss for words at times, educate yourself on what information you may be missing. The idea here is to develop strong communication around the subject of sex. While the subject might be uncomfortable, try to have fun with it!
Jessyka Venchkoski, LCSW, a Psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy, earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and cognitive science from Montclair State University and her Master of Social Work degree from New York University. Jessyka's experience in both inpatient and outpatient settings has advanced her skills in providing effective psychotherapy to children, adolescents, adults, and families from an array of diverse cultural backgrounds. She is specialized in treating individuals with trauma histories, anxiety and mood disorders, personality disorders, relationship conflict, and family discord. She has applied her formal training in Trauma-Focused CBT and crisis-intervention to the treatment of acute symptom issues including suicidal ideation, problematic sexual behavior in youth, acute stress, intrusive and obsessive thinking.
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