Remember it’s never too late
If you haven’t had conversations with your children, it’s OK! They still need accurate information, guidance, and support, so there are always opportunities to open a conversation with your children at any age about healthy sexuality.
When you do talk about bodies and sex, it’s often easier to talk about “disasters” (sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, or violence), or what we don’t want for children’s relationships and sexuality. But think about how sex and sexuality are good and positive aspects of life, too. For example, you might hope your children learn to:
- appreciate their bodies
- express love and intimacy in appropriate ways
- enjoy sexual feelings without necessarily acting on them
- practice “wellness” habits such as regular checkups and breast or testicular self-exams
- when they are mature enough to act on their feelings, talk about sexual limits (theirs and others’), safer sex, and, if needed, contraceptive practices
Many parents and adult caregivers worry about how to do this without encouraging early or inappropriate behavior. The strategy is simple: Tell the truth; that is, that sex and sexuality are pleasures as well as responsibilities. Many young people who have had a crush know the pleasurable feelings of intense attraction to someone, whether that “someone” is a movie star, an athlete, or a classmate. These feelings lead many young people to want to be close to the other person, including having a sexual desire to be with them, and these feelings are both normal and important in a person’s development. Affirm these feelings and discuss your family’s values about sexual activity and relationships. And remember that young people are capable of expressing sexuality in healthy, responsible ways.
An example: “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 who has just eaten shellfish. It’s 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.”
Parents and adult caregivers must also be prepared to offer the same support and guidance to children and young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Many people know at an early age that they are LGBT; others will take time (sometimes many years) to figure this out for themselves. As a parent or adult caregiver, be sure to educate yourself on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, as they may apply to your child. Beyond that, each of your children, including your LGBT ones, deserve to be respected and loved in their relationships and families.
This might be uncomfortable for you, too
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? Consider sharing the reasons for your feelings with your children. But you can prepare yourself; educate yourself on the topics you want to discuss with your children, practice saying words that make you uncomfortable out loud, and keep communicating with your child so that these conversations can become more natural.