Your Daughter about Her Changing Body and Sexuality, Part II
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 dont talk with them early and oftenand answer their questionstheyll get their facts from someone else. And well have missed an important opportunity to offer our children information thats 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.
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 concernsthis doesnt always occur. Often its 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 programs 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). Whats 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 subjectsparticularly bodies, sex and relationshipsyoure not alone. Many parents feel awkward and uneasy. But, for your childs sake, try to overcome your nervousness and bring up the issue anyway. Acknowledge your embarrassment, acknowledge your childs embarrassment (Sweetheart, this is hard for both of us to talk about, but its 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. Its up to us to create the kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questionson any subjectfreely 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, Its complicated. Please just finish your lunch. No matter how busy you are, respond with something like, Thats an interesting question. We dont have time to talk about it right now, but lets talk about it tonight after dinner. And be sure to do so. If they ask something you dont know, simply say, Im not sure. Lets go look it up. (FYI: Dont worry that if your children learn that you dont know everything, they wont look up to you. Thats simply not true. Kids accept, I dont know, and lets go find out. These are better responses than any inaccurate or misleading answers you may be tempted to offer.)
One more point: You dont need to answer all of your childrens questions immediately. If your 10-year-old asks, Mom, whats oral sex? its perfectly okay to say something like, Thats an important question. Id like to explain it after Ive had time to gather my thoughts. Lets 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
daughters 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
dont hesitate to make your beliefs clear.
How many times do we listen to our children while folding clothes, preparing for the next days meeting, or pushing a shopping cart through the supermarket? While thats understandable, its important to find time to give kids our undivided attention. Listening carefully to our children builds self-esteem by letting our youngsters know that theyre 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. Its natural to want to get your opinion in any time the conversation turns to such important topics, but its 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 its 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 theyve had enough. Suppose youre answering your 9-year-olds 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 childrens ages, they deserve honest answers and explanations. Its what strengthens our childrens ability to trust. Also, when we dont 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 childs developmental level.
At the same time, its 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 dont wish to answer, feel free to say something like, Thats private, and one day you might have some things that you want to keep private, too. But Id like to know what you think is the right age to start having sex, and Ill tell you my opinion about it, too.
Often it can feel like forever before a youngster gets her story out. As adults, were tempted to finish the childs 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
Its important to try to talk with your kids about tough issues often, but there isnt always time in the day to sit down for a long talk. Also, kids tend to resist formal discussions about todays 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 wont learn all they need to know about a particular topic from a single discussion. Thats why its 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 parents
nerves. But such repetition is perfectly normal, so be
prepared and tolerant. Dont be afraid to initiate
discussions repeatedly, either. Patience and persistence
will serve you and your child well.
SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) A starting place for parents & teens to learn about sexuality issues and communication within the family: www.siecus.org
National Parent Information Center. A research-based information on parenting and family involvement in education: www.npin.org
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Research, statistics, and useful information providing insight into the phenomenon of teen pregnancy: www.teenpregnancy.org
Birds and Bees. Information on birth control, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STDs) and links to other sites: www.birdsandbees.org
Go Ask Alice! Q&A site including information on relationships, sexuality, and sexual health: www.goaskalice.columbia.edu
gURL. Information on issues that affect the lives of girls 13 years of age and older: www.gurl.com
Iwannaknow. A safe and fun place for teenagers to learn about sexual health and for parents to receive guidance: www.iwannaknow.org
Outproud. Information for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. Also, a useful site for parents and friends of GLBT youth: www.outproud.org
SEX, ETC. Information, advice, and resources by teens for teens (and parents, too).: www.sexetc.org
Youth Resource. Information and peer support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth: www.youthresource.com
College Student Intimacy Guide The guide discusses communication boundaries for intimate situations, has frequently asked questions about sexual health in college, and includes expert advice from Nicole Cushman, former Director of Education for Planned Parenthood and current co-chair of the American Public Health Associations Sexuality Task Force.