As a parent, you may be wondering when to have “the talk,” however, helping children develop a healthy understanding of sex and a better understanding and appreciation for their bodies is a process which starts as toddlers and continues into the adolescent years through.
Talking about sex and human anatomy with our kids can be intimidating, especially if we were not raised in a family that had regular discussions about the human body and sex. If talking to your kids about these topics feels uncomfortable, chances are having a road map to help guide you through the process will dissipate some of the discomfort. Here we will break it down into stages.
Sex Education: The toddler years:
Learning to name different parts of their body:
As your little one grows and begins to point out their hands, toes, nose, and other body parts, this is also a great time to introduce the names for their genitals and other more private areas. It may feel easier to use nicknames for “penis” and “vulva,” however not using the correct terms may lead to negative association with the correct anatomical terms and may also hinder your child’s ability to accurately communicate about their body.
Bodily Autonomy & Consent:
As babies transition into toddlerhood, they will begin to express who they feel most comfortable giving hugs and kisses, who they feel comfortable holding them or who they feel comfortable sharing proximity. When a child expresses a desire to withhold affection from a family member or family friend, a parent may choose to encourage the show of affection, “Give Grandpa a kiss before we leave.” However, this can discourage a child from holding their own boundaries. Instead, ask your child, “Would you like to give Grandma a hug and a kiss before we go home?” Respecting their wishes in this area can help your toddler to develop a better sense of bodily autonomy and help foster their confidence as it relates to saying “no” to unwanted affection both now and in the future.
Sex Education: Young -children (Elementary):
General talks about reproduction:
Elementary age is a good time to start to teach the basics of reproduction. This does not necessarily mean sharing all the details of sex just yet. Talking about the different ways that families can be built such as general reproduction (one parent has an egg and one parent has a sperm), adoption, fostering and so on can help broaden a child’s understanding about how families are made.
Preparing for Puberty:
For some kids, puberty starts while they are still in elementary school. It is good to let kids know what to expect as their bodies start to change. Talking about menstruation and other bodily changes can help prepare a child for those changes to occur so that they are not caught off guard when the time comes.
Kids in elementary school also start to get “crushes” or develop attraction to others so it is important to continue discussing bodily autonomy and consent when it comes to affection and how to handle those feelings as they arise.
Sex Eduction: Middle to High School Age:
Mechanics of sex:
A good time to share more detail about the mechanics of sex is around or before the time a child is showing signs of puberty, middle school (6th-8th grades). Some parents may see fit to have these conversations a bit earlier, depending on the particular circumstances. It is important to provide clarity and to approach the conversation from a mindset of normalcy and confidence. It may feel uncomfortable for you both and that’s ok. The important thing is to keep it natural, be mindful of how you are presenting the information, and leave it open to ongoing questions and conversation.
Sexuality and Sexual Preference:
As your child is developing their own personality and discovering their own uniqueness, providing a safe place to discuss various aspects of their personal and sexual identity is crucial. This goes beyond just the confines of sex education and is a way to continue to learn about and connect with your child.
Education about STD’s:
Unfortunately, one of the harshest realities of becoming sexually active is the possible exposure to STI’s/STD’s. Sex education has come a long way but one important aspect of developing a healthy sexuality is being mindful and staying educated on the various types of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Educate your pubescent child on the various types of STI’s/STD’s, how they are spread and how to prevent exposure.
There is a myriad of ways to avoid an untimely pregnancy these days. Talk to your child’s pediatrician and do some research yourself into the various options for birth control. Make sure that you and your child are aware of potential pregnancy and health risks associated with each option. It is also important to not neglect talking about contraception with all your kids when the time comes, not just females.
Sex takes place within the context of relationships. The degree of closeness may vary but there is always a relational aspect when two people come together for a sexual encounter. Teaching our kids what to look for in a partner, potential red flags to watch for, and how to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships in general, are crucial in helping to prepare them to face adult challenges. As parents, we should also be modeling loving relationships of various kinds and mutual respect as this will have a lasting impact on how a child learns to be in relationship with key people into adulthood.
Every child is different so leave room for flexibility. You never know when a child may be exposed to information about sex outside of the home earlier than expected so it is good to be prepared to address any questions that may arise. If you need some guidance on how to facilitate healthy communication with your kids on this topic, our therapists at HopeNation are here to help guide you.
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