Why is it so important to be talking about sex and healthy relationships with your kids? The sad truth is that your child is probably already hearing about sex well before you want to believe they are. Our society is so sexualized that the commercials and television shows they are seeing are already sending them tons of messages about sex and sexuality. Just thinking about having these conversations makes a lot of parents uncomfortable and is the last thing we want to be talking about. This however, creates a taboo and a mystery around sex that perpetuates the problem. Most parents wait way too long and then talk way too little about the topic. As a therapist, I’ve worked with so many families who struggle with these discussions and I’ve worked with many teens whose first and only exposure and knowledge about sex came from friends, the media or pornography. This creates a completely and ridiculously distorted view of sex and relationships.
The important thing to remember is that if you aren’t talking about sex with your kids they are still learning it from somewhere and that source is likely not as thoughtful and helpful as the information that you can provide.
As uncomfortable as it may be for you, work to have open discussions with your kids about sex, start at an early age and continue to revisit and expand on this as they grow older. It is important to continually use real names for body parts and normalize sex and our bodies. Having conversations about what a healthy relationship looks like is equally important and can be a great segue into discussions about sex. Talk about what traits your kids feel are important to find in a partner someday and what they think a good relationship looks like. Help them to identify real qualities and not the completely unrealistic movie relationships that teach “sparks flew and they lived happily ever after with absolutely no problems”. Have them pick out things that they like about the relationships around them, even if this is a fictional couple, work to help them pick out real qualities be saying things like “so you like that they are always there for each other” or “you like that he is really listening to her”. Continue to emphasize values like honesty and help them develop a real picture of what a healthy relationship actually looks like.
Developing a healthy sexual identity is so important and is often missed because kids are not engaged in discussions about sex and relationships. They receive so much information from their friends and the media and most of this is really bad information. So many youth are now over sexualized without having any real depth or understanding of anything. Fostering healthy self-esteem and supporting the building of a healthy sexual identity can be priceless and save parents and kids a tremendous amount of pain. Your family values or religious views will definitely impact how you teach and talk to your kids about sex and sexuality but it is crucial to note that helping them have a positive and healthy attitude, instead of a bad and shame filled view of sex and sexuality, will actually help safeguard them and make it more likely that they will make good choices in the future.
With all of these discussions work to leave the door open and let your children know that you are there for them with any questions they have. Acknowledge that you know it's probably really uncomfortable and awkward for them to come to you with those things but let them know you are there. This is a piece that I spend a lot of time supporting families through. Kids often need support opening up and talking to parents about these things and the parents need a lot of support in being able to hear it and discuss it without becoming reactive. Working to create space for these conversations is so important and then working to hold that space and have those conversations can be even harder. It is vital to not be too reactive in these moments, if you are, they will learn that it is not safe to discuss these things with you. This doesn't mean you have to condone or approve of everything but it does mean you’re able to discuss it without shaming. Shame is the piece that leads kids to be secretive, scared and continue to develop and engage in unhealthy habits and beliefs. Start having these conversations early and continue to build on them as your child grows and you will be paving the way for a much brighter and healthier future.