Understand that it is natural for your children to touch themselves
Take off the “adult glasses,” consider what the behavior means to the child, and what the impacts of your response might be. Teach them this is private behavior; if the child is touching his or her genitals in public, make sure your child is aware of the behavior; acknowledge that it feels good but that it is to be done in private, and help the child identify “public” and “private” spaces. If your beliefs prohibit you from talking to your child about this, consult with your faith leader or elders about how to teach your kids healthy sexuality in a way that is consistent with your faith or cultural values.
Check in with your older children
Puberty brings a collection of physical, mental, and emotional changes that challenge young people (and their parents or adult caregivers) to varying degrees. You can reassure young people experiencing dramatic changes – menstruation, wet dreams, changing body shapes, body hair, etc. – by letting them know these changes are normal. Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about your own experiences at the same age. Part of the conversation can center around the sexual feelings that often come at this stage of live – reassure your child that these feelings, too, are normal. Remember to let your children know that their individual experiences fall within the range of normal – many worry about entering puberty earlier or later than their peers, if they should be masturbating or masturbate too much, why they feel so emotional, why they don’t care about love or sex even though it seems that’s all their friends think about, etc. There is no one “right” way to experience these kinds of changes.
You can also help anticipate what can happen. For example, if your child begins dating, talk through important topics such as sexual behavior, open and honest communication, and making healthy decisions based on negotiation. This will help your child prepare.
Talk to all young people about the range of subjects included in sexual health
All sexually-active people are at risk for sexually transmitted infections, of course (and so condoms and other preventive measures are important to discuss). Also:
- Talk to LGBT young people about contraception because many teens and young people experiment with both sexuality and identity. Some young lesbian and bisexual women may become pregnant, and some young gay men may father a pregnancy.
- Talk to young people about all forms of sexual activity, including intercourse, oral sex, and anal sex. Some young people may consider oral or anal sex as a way to avoid sex and/or pregnancy. Oral and anal sex, however, are sexual activities – they require the same level of maturity to negotiate consent and protection from sexually transmitted infections.
Let them know you understand they are going through changes
Let them know you are aware that as they are getting older, they might have romantic feelings about people, think about or feel pressure to date or have sex, have questions about their bodies, or feel like people expect certain things of them just because of their gender. It can be very helpful to have one or two concrete examples – current events, a movie or television show the two of you have just watched, or a recent event in your child’s life – to help you continue.
“You’ve done a really good job learning how to take care of your shellfish allergies. I’ve seen you check food labels, ask about ingredients at restaurants, and even tell your friends about your EpiPen. One other thing I need to make sure you know, though, is that your allergies can also be triggered by kissing someone on the lips who has just eaten shellfish. So it’s really important that you have this conversation with anyone you are dating, and ask them to make sure to do certain things to help keep you safe. The two of you need to agree that if the other person eats shellfish, you won’t kiss for the next 24 hours, and that before you do, they should brush their teeth and rinse well. We’ll double-check this with your allergist, to make sure this is good advice for you.”
You may feel nervous or uncomfortable, especially if these are new conversations. You can admit this to your child – it can show you will be open and honest with them (it might even help ease some of the tension). Ask yourself why you feel nervous: is it because you never had these conversations with your own parents? Is it because you do not have all the answers? Is it because you are worried that your relationship will be impacted? Consider sharing the reasons for your feelings with your children. Most important, however, is to improve the things you can – educate yourself, practice saying out loud the words that make you uncomfortable, and keep communicating with your child – so that these conversations can become more natural.