Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Liz Hale helps us get a little more comfortable in our own skin before we attempt to bravely bring the topic up with our children.
My first piece of advice is to start early! Our gender, body, and sexuality are gifts to be celebrated from day one! It is central to whom we are and we must never apologize for bodily functions and our very being. Look for opportunities to share your feelings and values about your child's body. When changing a diaper, instead of expressing disgust at a stinky, dirty diaper praise, them for filling that diaper right up; "Good job!" The body's elimination organs are mandatory for sustaining life and this is where intimate conversations about intimate subjects begin. Also, watch how you talk about your own body; are you constantly complaining about your hips or thighs? This also sends a strong message that the only bodies to revere are perfect bodies. However, every body is a true miracle.
I suggest that not only should we start talking about the subject of the body with our child from the FIRST day we bring them home from the hospital, but that in order to assure that we are the FIRST one to share sexual information with them, we need to start earlier than we might think to because, if we don't, someone else will. And that information may not be correct or in the respectful manner in which you want it presented. We are a society that has become desensitized with sexual innuendos and conversation. You set the foundation as a parent. You have the wonderful opportunity to be the first person to talk with your child about tough issues with the correct facts, values, and moral principles that you see fit.
F = FOUNDATION
Once, again, our attitudes about sex are formed early and have their foundation in relationships. Teaching your children about sex demands a continuous flow of information throughout their formative years; for instance, when teaching your toddler where his nose and toes are, in the bath tub, include "penis" and "vagina." If you have to, first say the anatomically correct names 100 times to yourself in order to unapologetically name them for your child. Do not use nicknames or alternative terms; call them what they are!
Parents, you don't have to go it alone! Here are some great reads on the subject that help you with the wording and explanations that little minds can understand:
"Those are My Private Parts." (By Diane Hansen)
"Amazing You." By Dr. Gail Saltz)
Many times we are told to wait for our children and teens to come to us with their questions; in other words, don't pry or push. But I say, let's be more proactive.
I = INITIATION
It's a huge mistake to wait for your kids to bring up difficult and sensitive topics; take the initiative for they may not find the words to do so. When you have set a foundation of open and honest dialogues, this usually becomes a natural progression. Nonetheless, if your child hasn't started asking questions about sex, look for opportunities to bring it up. You can say, "Have you noticed Billy's mommy's tummy? She is going to have a baby soon. Do you know how that baby got there?" Then, allow the conversation to move from there. How much we tell our children is determined by their age and maturity. Perhaps all you say is, "a daddy has a seed that joins with the mommy's egg and together they make a baby." Take the lead from them at that point.
One of my favorite books on the matter is by Linda and Richard Eyre;
"How to Talk to Your Child About Sex."
They suggest that you have preliminary "as needed" talks with your three-to-eight-year-olds, followed by the Big Talk on the 8th birthday! What a tremendous resource this book is; one that I suggest every parent read!
Other great books are:
"Where Did I Come From?" (By Peter Mayle)
And "How Was I Born?" (By Lennart Nilsson)
Children will forgive us for not knowing something but they may not give us another chance if we say, "I don‚"ėt know; please finish your peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
R = RESOURCES
Be willing to say, "I don't know‚"¶let's go to the computer and see if we can find out together." When you take the initiative to become the first person your child talks to about sex, you become their main resource for information and they will continue to come back to you again and again. What you know is a lot less important than how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home, you'll be doing well. We are always teaching our children about sex education in the home. Sadly, too often the inadvertent message is, "We don't talk about that in this house." And guess what? Your kids won't; they'll go someplace else.
One way to get your children to return to you throughout their teen years is if we can prove ourselves safe for them to do so.
S = SAFETY
Remind them that they can always come to you, no matter what the issue is and that together you will be able to discuss and share thoughts and feelings. Review how you respond to them when they come to you with a bad grade on a test; does the sky fall or are you able to maintain your cool and have a conversation? How do you respond to your child when you catch them exploring their body with another little playmate? Are you disgusted and shaming, or do you take the opportunity to discuss respect and privacy of our bodies? It all adds up to tell a child just how safe you are to bring their most intimate questions and concerns. Be matter-of-fact and confident in your healthy view of sexuality.
T = TIME
My last tip of the acronym FIRST is T for TIME. It seems like "timing is everything" when it comes to getting a child to open up. There is no substitute for time when you are building a relationship and rapport with your child. We need to be there during the movie they're watching where a teen becomes pregnant - get their opinion and share your values; we need to be there when they come home from school and are upset after a heartbreaking day with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Provide time to talk and teach them about relationships and sexuality‚"¶.as well as provide time just to listen.
One last point: You don't need to answer all your children's questions immediately. Your 10-year-old may choose being with you in rush-hour traffic to ask, "What's oral sex?" Respond with something like, "That's a great question and an important one for us to talk about. With all this traffic I can't explain it right now. Can we talk about this after dinner?" And make absolutely certain you follow up! Start explanations with, "tell me what you think (it) means." This will give you an idea of their level of understanding.
Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular Studio 5 Contributor. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to today's discussion or learn more about her private practice.