Having the Sex Talks– When Kids Don’t Want to Listen
By Julia Bernards
The last time I mentioned the word “sex” around my kids, they all cringed. As I continued, ear-plugging ensued, and finally, “can you just not use that word? It is so. . . ugh.”
Clearly, my kids aren’t chomping at the bit for a chance to discuss sexuality with me. And though I know it is important to discuss openly, I sometimes have a hard time broaching the subject. The topic of sex has a way of making us feel naked, which can be pretty uncomfortable. So what do I do when I know it is important to bring up topics my kids (and I) may feel uncomfortable with? Here are some principles that work:
- Identify a good time for talking. A good time for talking is when you and your child can be alone, alert, and engaged. Good timing also means that topics are discussed when your child needs them, which, preferably, is before they begin to be an issue in his/her life. Parents aren’t perfect, though, and sometimes we don’t catch things early. Don’t fret, but do take the initiative to start talking. A good time for a conversation might be driving in the car, taking a walk, washing dishes, or eating a meal. Having something to do in addition to talking is nice because it diminishes discomfort–we don’t have to stare at each other in our emotional nakedness that way. If the opportunity just presents itself without planning, though, take it! For example, if your five year old jumps out of the bath and runs giggling down the hall to go wave his bum in his sister’s face, you might provide a towel, clothes, and a conversation about your family’s expectations for modesty or nudity right then.
- Lead in to the topic. In order to get on the same page as your child as you start your conversation, you’ll want lead into the topic. Stories are a great way to do this, and the closer to home, or to the child, the better. For example, if you want to talk about the birds and the bees with a five-year-old, you might mention a pregnancy they are aware of, or a new baby that was just born. If the topic is something you are worried about for the child in particular, like pornography, the principle is the same. Stories in which you reveal your own worries/vulnerabilities are best. Being vulnerable invites connection (Brown, 2012) and will get a child listening in a way that excites empathy and encourages learning.
- Ask the child what he/she knows, thinks, and feels about the topic. After the lead in and before sharing whatever new information or admonition you are hoping to convey, listen. It’s likely that your child will have had some experience or thoughts about the topic. Simple questions beginning with: “Do you know. . . ?”, “What do you think . . . ?“ or “How do you feel about . . ?” will invite the child to share and help you know where things stand in his/her mind. For example, in the case of talking to a child about good and bad touch, you might ask: “Do you know what you’d do if someone touched you in a way that made you uncomfortable?” Also, “What do you think are acceptable ways to show physical affection to friends? Family? Teachers? What are some inappropriate ways of touching?” are good questions. You might even ask “What do you think you’d do if you felt uncomfortable about how someone touched you?” If the child shows signs of discomfort–changing the topic, shrugging it off, or complaining about having the conversation at all–press on carefully. Acknowledge and name their feelings: “You feel uncomfortable talking about this. Do you know why?” You can’t force a confidence, but you can invite one. Keep trying. A bit of discomfort from your child is worth the peace of mind of knowing they are well-informed and prepared.
- Share your thoughts, feelings and knowledge about the topic. Keeping in mind your child’s understanding of the subject, convey the message you want your child to hear.
For example, when talking about good and bad touch, use simple, positive dialogue like, “I like hugging you, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable hugging a stranger” which gives you a chance to express how you feel about physical affection. Of course, it’s extremely important to teach them that some kinds of touch are not loving or kind—they are selfish and inappropriate (not okay). If they don’t know for sure what they’d do if someone touches them in a way that feels scary or uncomfortable or wrong, give clear direction about how they can tell you and that you will not blame them.
Share your feelings about the importance and privacy of bodies, and that no one has a right to touch or hurt another person’s body. Afterward, follow up. Answer questions, if they have any. Keep this part of the conversation short and to the point. This is not a lecture. Also, avoid the use slang or euphemisms that may confuse the child and inherently undermine your message that it is okay to actually talk about this stuff. Getting across one piece of pertinent information is a good start.
- Follow up. A lot. A few days or a week later, find another good opportunity for talking and bring up your conversation. Again, ask for your child’s thoughts/feelings. Share more of your own. Keep the conversation open.
Talking with your kids about sex and is one of the most important, and sometimes most difficult things we do as parents. You are revealing yourself and asking your child to as well. Being vulnerable isn’t easy, but it is an important part of parenthood and building relationships that will be a source of strength to your child as they navigate their own life experiences. You can do this! Conversations like this are important lessons in intimacy and will educate and empower your kids in the ways they need it most.
See our book 30 Days of Sex Talks for ages 3-7, 8-11 and 12+ to find ways to start conversations about topics like this; including lessons and activities to empower your child with knowledge of sexual intimacy!
Julia Bernards is a dedicated family advocate, learner and writer. She is preparing for a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and is a wife and mother of four.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.