P Files 03-May-2012
“My 3 year old touches themselves when they are going to sleep.”
“My 7 year old walked in when we were having sex.”
“My 10 year old asked me how they will know if they are gay.”
“My 13 year old says everyone else is wearing revealing clothes on the internet.”
“My 16 year old asked me when I first fell in love.”
Sound familiar? Most parents and carers recognise communicating about sexuality is just another one of the essentials for helping their children to grow up healthy, safe and informed. Yes, it can be hard to get information and a challenge knowing where to start, but just like teaching your children about other things it can be fun, have a positive impact and it is guaranteed to give you some ‘entertaining’ stories to share with other parents.
You need to know you are not alone in wanting to support your child to develop with an age appropriate understanding about s-e-x. Studies from around the world including one locally from the Sunshine Coast show that the majority of parents do want to talk about sexuality topics with their child (Footprints, 2011). The issues parents think are important to include range from feelings, personal safety and prevention of sexual abuse to sexual development, puberty, relationships, sexual identity, safe sex, pregnancy and sexual health. Parents also report they do not want to leave ‘their talks’ too late, with the overwhelming majority, in fact, 98%, agreeing that young people need to be provided with information about sexual decision making before they engage in sexual relationships.
When to start?
You already have. Children observe how adults communicate, have relationships and treat each other from birth. They learn a lot about love, personal boundaries, the rules about sexual behaviours and about values and beliefs from watching and listening to the adults in their lives.
Children learn as their bodies, brains and relationships grow. They do this alongside you. They often need help to understand and learn, just like with other subjects. You can provide factual information and let them know you are someone that they can come to with their questions.
Answering your child’s questions
Take a breath. It is great your child is asking you. When answering the sexuality question sometimes the most important thing to remember is that you want them to ask and you want them to keep asking, again and again. You can be happy that you are the one they come to with the tricky questions, the icky questions, the confusing questions, the “why is hair growing from there?” questions.
Be brief, be factual and be positive.
Sometimes the best way to start answering your child’s question is to ask:
“That’s an interesting question. What made you think of that?”
This will give your heart beat a chance to return to normal as well as give you the time to remember they are asking you as a child and not as an adult. You still have a right to some privacy and you don’t have to talk in detail about your own sexuality. Children really appreciate that you care enough to answer and that you are trustworthy.
Do not worry about giving too much information. Children will only take in as much information as they are able to understand. You will know they’ve had enough because their eyes start to glaze over and they start asking you what’s for dinner or if they can turn the TV on.
Sometimes children ask questions at very awkward times or places, such as at the supermarket, on a crowded bus, in front of a visiting elderly aunt, or perhaps when you are just too busy. When this happens, tell them that their question or comment is very interesting. It is one best discussed in private or when you have a bit more time. Lots of parents have great sexuality conversations with their children in the car. Parents say it’s easier because you don’t have to make eye contact. Always, always do follow up and make time to talk with your child. Their questions are important.
How do I know if my child’s sexual behaviours are normal?
Knowing what to worry about and what not to worry about is one of the great challenges of parenting. Knowing when things are normal is an important part of supporting and protecting your child. Sexual behaviours are not just about sex. They include any talk, touch questions, conversations and interests which relate to sexuality and relationships. Most sexual expressions by children are normal, healthy and safe.
Small children may want to look at or touch their own or other’s private parts, ask questions about babies, or play games which explore relationships and gender roles. As children grow, it is expected that they will learn boundaries and cultural rules about touch and privacy.
Concerning or harmful sexual behaviours are less common. Sexual behaviours that are outside of normal may be of concern in terms of their persistence or frequency; due to inequality between children and young people; because they are not usual for your child or risk their safety. Sexual behaviours that are problematic may be those that appear forceful , secretive, compulsive, coercive or degrading and may show a child is acting harmfully towards themselves or others, or is at risk of harm themselves.
Being able to identify if your child’s sexual behaviour is healthy, concerning or harmful is part of supporting your child. You can help by responding in many ways. Sometimes providing information and support will be enough. Sometimes talking with professionals will help.
Sexuality messages from outside the home
There will be mixed messages about sexuality coming from many different sources and this can be confusing for children. Children pick up ideas about sexuality from their friends and school, from advertising, TV, movies and the internet, from other families and their community.
Many parents are very concerned about the material and images that their children can access from phones and computers. It is important to know that children can use their phones and computers in positive and safe ways. They can also use technology in ways which can expose them to inappropriate materials, risk their safety or the safety of others.
Talking and educating your children about influences from outside the home, the world of technology, the law, explicit material, sexuality and relationships in a calm and informed way can help.
Helping your child to be safe
Parents and carers can reduce the risk of sexual abuse. Learning together about personal safety includes talking with your child about feelings, bodies and privacy, assertiveness, understanding relationships, identifying the rules about touch and knowing what to do if the rules are broken.
It is part of our role as adults to prevent childhood sexual abuse. Children are not responsible for their own safety. Giving information can help. Be positive by talking about your child’s ability to be safe and focus on strategies rather than consequences. Be factual. Your child does not need to be frightened. They do need to know that they can come to you for help and to be safe. Keep it brief. Short, regular talks about personal safety are much better than a one off talk.
Now for the good news: children who receive positive messages about their sexuality and who participate in a personal safety program that is reinforced at home are less likely to experience sexual abuse. By sharing these positive messages with your children, you help protect them from and decrease their vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Talk to your child today
Sexuality is a normal part of life. It is never too early to be talking, explaining and supporting your child in the development of their healthy sexuality. By talking openly and lovingly with your child you can help eliminate shame and embarrassment and provide positive support.