Jennifer Barber, MPH, President, teenNow California
In my career I have worked with thousands of families, parents and their children from the age of nine and up. I’ve also been in the teen pregnancy prevention field for over 15 years. It has been my observation that the parents are typically the ones who need “THE talk”. What I mean is, they may need convincing as to why it’s important and necessary to begin talking early and often with their children about sexuality and growing up. It’s not “fun” to think of your precious angel as a sexual being. The idea in fact may make you want to throw up a bit your mouth. How do we get past these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts? How do we talk about sex and growing up without your own face turning red and escaping your child’s rolling eyes?
The truth is….by practicing. It’s the only way. Parents and care givers are important people in a child’s life and it’s good to look for and create teachable moments. Start with asking more questions and listening more than you talk. The next time you are watching television with your child and see something “sexy” let’s say, ask your child what they think about that scene or commercial. It’s also good to reflect on how you have reacted in the past when your child asked you an uncomfortable question. Did you lie, minimize, or avoid the conversation all together? Did you purposely miss an opportunity to discuss something important? Be honest and ask yourself how you would like to be in these situations moving forward.
When I was about 5 years old or so I asked my oldest sister where babies came from. She was unsure what to tell me or what mom would want me to know at five years old, so she told me that was something I could learn about when I was a little older. Apparently I wasn’t happy with her answer. Later that day, my sister asked me a question. “Jenny, where is my hair brush?” and my sassy reply went like this, “maybe I’ll tell you when you’re a little older.” Clearly I was ready for some information that an adult wasn’t ready or able to share with me. I think many children feel this way. I think many adults feel like my sister did. When it comes to sexuality adults tend to over complicate things and are unequipped of how to speak simply about sex. What’s great is if you didn’t give enough information to a child you will surely get a follow up question. Then you can give a little more info. I feel it’s important to praise and encourage questions, if you want to keep the door of communication open. The quickest way to shut it is by over reacting or accusing when a question is asked. Instead be quizative and say something like, “that’s a great question sweetie…what do you know about that or think that means?” This helps you gage how much to say as well. For example, “Mom what’s a condom?”, “That’s an interesting question sweetheart, tell me what you know so far” versus “Where did you hear that word, I told you not to play with those boys down the street.” Tone and body language are also very important here. You need your poker face.
At this moment your mind might be going crazy wondering where this question came from, does this mean my child is thinking about sex or worse, having it! Calm down! Breathe, and respond instead of react. This may take a moment, hence the poker face, and when you’re ready praise the question and ask a follow up one with a calm, open tone of voice and posture. Watch your eyes and facial expressions. If the timing is not good to talk, say you’re in a grocery store when this question comes up, it’s always okay to deflect the talk for later and say something like, “That’s a great question, ask me again when we get to the car”. This also buys you a little time to brew up your conversation.
Just remember things will always be as big of a deal as you choose to make them. Act as though the question is like any other question like “what is for dinner” and you will surely keep talkin’ through the years!