OUR BLOG

15 September
Parenting

Talking Sex and Sexuality: Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises parents on how to talk to their children about sex

I think we do know that we should talk to our children and teenagers about sex, sexual development, sexuality, relationships, intimacy and love. Intuitively, we know that they need information and guidance about all these topics to allow them to make good, healthy and safe choices throughout their lives.

Talking Sex and Sexuality By David Coleman

I often get asked when is the best time to talk to children or teenagers about sex and sexuality. The easy answer is “anytime”. The truth for some parents, however, is that “never” is their preferred option.

Lots of parents seem to have a real reluctance to engage with their children about relationships, sexuality and the practicalities of sex and their physical development and maturation.

I believe that some of this reluctance has been handed down, societally. The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships (ISSHR), was carried out with over 7000 Irish adults and reported on in 2006. One of their findings was that, overall, for most people, either sexual matters never came up with parents or, when they did, discussion was ‘difficult’.

Naturally, if our generation never talked to our own parents about sex, then we might struggle to talk with our own children. But surely things have changed? A quick glance at the TV listings for any day would suggest that there are no restrictions on how matters of sex and sexuality can now be broached. “Sex Box” and “Naked Attraction”, for example, come to mind.

Between TV, the Internet, magazines and books there are innumerable sources of information, discussion, innuendo and explicit images of all things sexual. But, in the context of talking to children and teenagers about this stuff, none of it seems to matter. We still seem to hold back!

Some parents may fear that by telling their child about sex and sexuality they are more likely to encourage sexual experimentation. Some may fear that they push their children to adulthood too early by talking about changes to their body and how their developing sexuality may be expressed in the future.

We may fear that, in some way, we are destroying their innocence.

At times I feel that a deeper reluctance holds sway, a reluctance to acknowledge or to accept the core sexuality of our children. It is as if the phrase “destroying their innocence” is actually a euphemism for our recognition that our children are growing into sexual beings and that they will be having sex one day.

Not all parents are comfortable or confident in their own sexuality, or their past sexual behaviour, and this too can inhibit their openness to discussing sexual matters. 

It is this acknowledgment of our respective sexuality that we, and our children, may find most difficult. Of course it is right, and rational, to accept our own inherent sexuality and to acknowledge the sexuality of our children but, just because it is right, doesn’t make it easy. 

I think we do know that we should talk to our children and teenagers about sex, sexual development, sexuality, relationships, intimacy and love. Intuitively, we know that they need information and guidance about all these topics to allow them to make good, healthy and safe choices throughout their lives.

So how and when should we do it?

Younger children tend to create the opportunities to talk about sex by asking us questions. Our job is simply to respond honestly and accurately to those questions. Because young children tend to think in concrete ways, they usually just want information that explains things.

So, if they ask “how did the baby get into Auntie Mary’s tummy?” they just want to know how it got in there. They don’t want a discussion of the dilemmas that Auntie Mary, and her partner, struggled with about donor insemination, or IVF, or surrogacy, or marital rape, or ineffective contraception or gay parenthood, or whatever...

Any or all of that, if it is relevant, can wait till your child is older.

Don’t worry about giving your child too much information. Our problem is usually the opposite; we give too little information. If you explain too much, the extra stuff is either not processed or is stored until it becomes more relevant.

With older children, we may be better to instigate some conversations. By the time they are eleven, it is relevant for them to have the basic information about sex and puberty. You’d be surprised how many children this age have already seen pornography of some kind. At the very least they will have had exposure to sexual themes and content from the TV.

Having some accurate information about their bodies and about the nature and mechanics of sex is helpful, as it gives them a context within which they can make sense of the stuff they see, or that their friends tell them. Knowing what to tell them is also easily determined, by making use of one of the many excellent books, aimed at children, which provide the language and information necessary.

There are also a range of parent helplines available that can guide you in what to say, or how to respond to your child or teenager if they question you about some aspect of sex, sexuality or gender. If you aren’t sure what to say, it is always okay to put your answer “on hold” until you are better informed.

Precisely because sex and sexuality are sensitive subjects, we can develop strong views on the attitudes people hold, and the moral framework that does, or doesn’t, seem to govern people's behaviour. Our views, in this regard, will always influence how we portray information.

But, whatever slant we will put on it, our children and teenagers will need opportunities to talk about a range of issues like abortion, sex before marriage, homosexuality, transgender, contraception and birth control. They should have the chance to explore gender differences and how ethnicity and sexuality can influence people's feelings and options.

They should be able to decide for themselves what the positive qualities of relationships are. It is important that they understand how bullying, stereotyping, abuse and exploitation can get in the way of healthy relationships. They will need to explore the reasons why people have sex, and to think about how it involves emotions and respect. That respect is for oneself and other people; it must incorporate their feelings, their decisions and their bodies just as much as our own.

Your child will grow through their childhood and teenage years, coming into a fuller understanding of their own sexuality and cementing their attitudes to sex and relationships. That is just a natural part of life. You can make it easier for them by supporting them with a willingness, and an openness, to talk about all of these issues too.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. David specialises in working with children, teenagers and their families and has been a psychologist for 17 years. For more information about David’s work go to www.davidcoleman.ie 

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