Talking to your kids about puberty or "how babies are made" may feel like some of the most uncomfortable experiences of parenthood, but these conversations provide important opportunities to assist children in making healthy decisions.
Dr. Daniela Egelmeer, of Holland Pediatric Associates, says it's important to embrace teachable moments. For example, when it's bath time and your little ones notice that their anatomy is different from their sibling's, it's an opportunity to talk about the fact that boys and girls have different parts, and to show that it's OK to ask questions about their body. Responding to their curiosity without showing embarrassment about the topic is important. Kids who feel shamed for asking may not feel comfortable asking questions in the future.
As children approach puberty, Dr. Egelmeer says, it's important to address the physical and emotional changes they're experiencing. Ages eleven to thirteen is a good baseline to begin talking about sex, but if you notice your child exhibiting signs of puberty earlier, start then. "You don't want these changes to scare them," Egelmeer said.
Take teachable moments as they come. If you set aside time to have a talk, kids often feel as though they're in "time out" or in trouble. Pick up on what they mention, and what you notice. For example, if your daughter mentions that one of her friends has a boyfriend, explore that. She may be feeling you out for information about how you would feel if she had a boyfriend. Likewise, if your child mentions activities that his or her friends are engaging in, or changes they are experiencing, they are likely looking for information from you. Emphasize that rather than going to their friends or the Internet for information, you want them to feel comfortable coming to you.
Egelmeer says that in speaking to your child about being sexually active, it's important to address what's healthiest for them on a physical and an emotional level. Stressing abstinence, while providing information about birth control, is a good approach. Talk about your family's beliefs. Send a message that as a parent, you don't think your child is ready for sex, but don't withhold information. Address misconceptions your child might have, and stress that even with birth control, sexual activity involves risk. Emotional readiness should be a big part of the conversation. Egelmeer suggests talking about unintended pregnancy and contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and discussing how the child would feel about dealing with those things—do they feel mature enough to handle them? Discuss how sexual activity changes a relationship—how it might be harder to disconnect from a relationship if sex is involved. "Most teens desire guidance and direction," Egelmeer said.
"Create an open and safe environment—a safe haven," Egelmeer added. If your child shares something with you that you're not ready to hear, "Don't overreact. Use it as an opportunity to talk and teach. You might ask, 'What makes you think you're ready?' or calmly explain why you think they're not ready." Maintaining communication and trust is important. "The main thing is, don't be shocked. Kids pick up on your discomfort."
You may also wish to help your children practice saying no—and knowing why they're saying no, so if they face peer pressure, they know what to say.
Consulting resources may help you feel more confident in your level of comfort and your level of knowledge when you talk to your kids about sexual issues. These websites address a range of topics:
The Academy of American Pediatrics offers resources, from videos to articles, differentiated by age group, on its HealthyChildren.org website. Click here to access resources for talking with teens about sexuality (and other topics where you may need a hand).
Click here to read WebMD's advice in terms of specific topics to cover with your children.
Planned Parenthood offers advice on how to maintain a healthy relationship with your child, helping teens delay having sex, and parenting teens who may be sexually active, and information about puberty. Click here to access these resources.
Focus on the Family also offers resources, and one important issue it addresses is the feeling of inadequacy some parents feel in talking about making good decisions, when their own past may include decisions they wish they had made differently. To visit Focus on the Family's resources, click here.
If broaching the subject of where babies come from makes you nervous, use books to help start the conversation. Click here for a list from Rutgers University of recommended books to use to address sexual issues with your kids. Be sure to review the books first, to make sure you're comfortable with their message and level of detail.
Your child's doctor is also a great resource, and your child may feel more comfortable talking to him or her than to a parent. Privacy laws provide children with a level of confidentiality that may help them to feel more confident in opening up and asking the doctor questions.
One thing that comes across in all of these resources: Talk about these issues early—and often. Consider age appropriateness, but don't wait too long. While studies indicate that the average age of first intercourse is seventeen (and much younger amongst low-income sectors), children are engaging in sexual activities other than intercourse at younger ages. Even if they do not identify themselves as "being in a relationship" or "dating," many indicate that they have had sexual experiences, in what has been called a "hook-up culture." While "virginity pledges" have become popular, research from CNN and The Washington Post shows that children who take these pledges are not more likely to delay sexual activity. And while sex education at school or through other reputable avenues may help your child to make good decisions, it's important that you are their primary resource for guidance.
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff writer for West Michigan Woman magazine.