Talking About Sexual Health With Your Child

BY  |  Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012 10:00am

Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their TeensBarista Kids shared some excellent advice from teachers about how to help your child get off on the right foot this school year. But what about what happens after school? What about what happens between practice, rehearsal, homework, and dinner? You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? S-E-X. And if you think your teenager isn’t sexually active, you have about a 50% chance of being correct.

According to the CDC, 42% of girls between 15-19, and 43% of boy at those ages have had sexual intercourse. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily consider oral sex or other behaviors. So, what is a concerned parent to do? Well, sociologist Sinikka Elliott, the author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, says that parents can and should have direct conversations with their children that highlight the ability to make responsible decisions regarding sexual activity. In a recent article, Elliott gives encouraging news about teens and sexual responsibility:

We need to start talking about the evidence there is that teens are actually being quite responsible when it comes to sex. There was research that came out a year or so ago that showed that sexually active teens were more likely to use condoms than were sexually active singles in their 50s. We can highlight those sorts of findings that suggest teens are capable of engaging in sex responsibly and that there are specific things we can do to make that more so.

One of those specific things, Elliott suggests, is to make access to contraception and good health care easier for teens. Also, parents should acknowledge that sexual activity is pleasurable, not just dangerous. Emphasizing only the danger goes against what teens are shown in the media and in their own experiences. If parents are seen as open and forthright, their children will feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing concerns.

Not surprisingly, adolescents don’t necessarily want to start conversations about sexuality with their parents, even though they do have secrets and concerns about sex. It’s up to parents to solicit those questions. And what kinds of questions will curious children ask?  Check out this slide show of seventh graders’ anonymous questions to their teacher for an idea of what kids wonder about when they think about sex. Kids ask questions ranging from the biological (What is a scrotum?) to the useful (Is Trojan the best for protection?) to the Judy Blume Dealt With This (Why can’t we control our boners?). And all of those questions are legitimate, and they all betray curiosity about bodies and sex.

When I taught Human Sexuality to high schoolers, I also had an anonymous box of questions, and we’d go through them every Friday. In high school the questions are a little more serious. Frequent questions had to do with pregnancy: Can I get pregnant if I have sex standing up? (Yes!) and Will my girlfriend get pregnant the first time she has sex? (Quite possibly, if you don’t use any protection.) and Is it true that if I pee right after sex that I won’t get pregnant? (Nope. But peeing is a good idea for other reasons.) Parents have a tougher time answering questions in a straightforward manner, but it’s important to be comfortable with the questions.

Books can help get a conversation going. For girls, the wonderful Our Bodies, Our Selves is a fantastic resource. And, frankly, it wouldn’t hurt to let boys take a look at the book either. Another, more general, book that is good for girls and boys, is The Human Body Book from DK publishers. The illustrations and explanations are fantastic and explicit and direct.

Another valuable resource is your pediatrician and a gynecologist. If a parent is uncomfortable, or even if comfort is not a problem, asking your pediatrician to have a closed-door conversation (that means no parents allowed!) about sexual questions with your child is a chance for your teenager to ask questions in privacy and to a professional. I also suggest that at around age 15 (earlier if there have been menstrual or hormonal issues) parents make a first appointment with a gynecologist for their daughters. It doesn’t have to mean an internal exam, but it encourages access to dialogue and may help girls understand their own anatomy more completely.

For more advice on talking to your children (of all ages) about sexual health, see the Planned Parenthood page dedicated to those difficult conversations. Here’s just a tidbit of the excellent advice given:

Here are some tips from How Do I Answer My Kid’s Questions About Sex and Sexuality?

  • Try to find out what is really being asked. What seems like a straightforward question might not be. To find out the true nature of the question, we might ask, “What have you heard about that?” “What do you think about that?” or “Can you tell me what you already know about that?”
  • Don’t answer with too much information. We can keep answers short and simple and explain new words that our children might not have heard before. After giving an answer, we might encourage our kids to ask us follow-up questions by asking, “Is there anything else you would like to know?”
  • Check their understanding. After answering a question, we can ask, “Does that answer your question?”

Barista Kids wants to help get the conversation going. We’re opening up the channels of communication, much like an anonymous question box. If you have questions about specific issues regarding your children and sexuality, or if your kids do, send them to Kristin [at] Baristanet dot com. We’ll choose questions to answer for occasional columns, although we can’t answer each email specifically. Keep talking!

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And we can get this project completed in time for Montclair's sesquicentennial when we can stick a fork into historic preservation as a public policy.

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