Carol Faulkner, PhD, senior staff psychologist at Bradley Hospital, tackles the often awkward necessity of talking to children about sexual development and sexuality. She offers some strategies for communicating about sex with children and teens at all stages of development.
What are the most common issues you hear from parents about communicating with their children about sex?The biggest issue is that parents are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children, either because their own parents never felt comfortable talking about sex with them, or it’s just too emotionally hard for them to think about their children as sexual beings. This discomfort prevents parents from appropriately addressing the conversation. As a result, children get the message early on that this is a topic they shouldn’t talk about with their parents.
Are there certain guidelines for how parents should be addressing sexual development and sexuality?I think that in the early years, the main thing to communicate is that sex is an open topic of discussion. I believe that kids should have the basic information about sex pretty early on, around seven or eight years old. Parents tend to assume that their children aren’t exposed to sexual topics when they are little, but the reality is that they are—on the playground, on the school bus, on television, in the neighborhood and from siblings.
Most of the time, parents will get the opportunity to start giving their children basic facts about sex just by answering their questions as they come up—and keep answering questions as long as they are asking! But if the kids don’t ask, parents should still find a way to give them the information. There are lots of great resources in the library and in bookstores, some geared toward helping parents talk to their kids about sex, and some geared toward kids of all different ages to give them information. Some kids who aren’t as comfortable asking their parents about sex might be more comfortable reading about it. And even if you are a parent who just feels too uncomfortable talking to your kids about sex, if you give them material to read, you are at least giving them the message that it’s normal for them to be curious, and that you want them to have the information they need.
Are there certain conversations parents need to have about responsible and safe sex?It’s important for parents to talk not only about facts, but also about values. What you communicate to your children about sex is very dependent on your own personal values. The basic physiological information is important for children to know, but they also need to know what you believe, for example, about birth control, the right age to start having sex, masturbation, pornography, dating behavior, “sexting,” falling in love. As a parent, you need to give thought to what your sexual values are and what you want your child to believe and experience in terms of their sexuality. And that should be a big focus of your conversations, particularly with older children and teenagers.
Any additional advice for parents?My advice is always err on the side of providing too much information rather than too little. I think parents tend to make the mistake of assuming that if their kid isn’t talking about sex then they don’t have any questions, or just aren’t thinking about sexual topics but that is usually not true. Kids are exposed to sexual topics every day in school, in the neighborhood, and through media. It’s the parents' responsibility to inform kids appropriately and make sure their children are appropriately interpreting the information they’re receiving. Parents are usually very comfortable with being responsible for their child’s cognitive, emotional and physical development, but they need to also think of themselves as a steward of their child’s sexual development.