However uncomfortable it may be, it’s up to us to give them good information. If we don’t, they are likely to get misinformation from their friends, TV or perhaps from an adult or peer who doesn’t have their best interests in mind. In the absence of healthy information about sexuality, kids often end up with skewed ideas about relationships, consent, healthy boundaries and what healthy sex is all about.
As much as we’d like to think that our kids will find appropriate partners and experience nothing but warm and tender sex, it’s a sad fact that they are vulnerable to victimization. Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the U.S. is intended to raise people’s awareness of sexual violence and to educate people about how to take care of themselves and others.
This year, the emphasis is on ensuring that young people get the information and skills they need to keep sex safe and happy. To accomplish that, we parents need to take seriously our role in educating and supporting our kids in their sexual development. If we don’t, there are malevolent people in the world who will take advantage of our kids’ ignorance or confusion. Here are the facts:
- One in four girls and one in six boys will experience a sexual assault before the age of 18.
- One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
- More than 25 percent of male victims of rape report that their first rape was when they were 10 years old or younger.
- Over three-quarters of the women who reported having been raped stated that it happened before they were 25.
I don’t list these grim statistics to scare you (although they are certainly frightening). I include them to underline how important it is for adults to give our kids both sides of the story. They need to hear from us that sex is potentially a wonderful experience, but we also must give them the information they need to protect themselves from unwanted or violent sexual encounters.
We can’t leave the job to the media. Too often, what is portrayed in movies, TV and video games is steamy sex as solely recreation. Often kids have seen more scenes of exploitative sex than of tender sexual connection.
It’s crucial that we give them the tools they need to ask for and give or refuse consent. It’s important that we talk very specifically about how to assert themselves without feeling embarrassed if they don’t want to get physical. It’s equally important to teach them to take no for an answer.
The talk can’t only be about self-protection. It needs also to include the hows of healthy connection. We need to counter images of violent and manipulative sex with the message that healthy sexuality is about more than orgasms.
It’s also about developing intimacy, trust, love and caring. Yes, sex is fun. But we want our kids to know it’s also an expression of the love of two people who cherish and respect each other. When people give sexual pleasure generously and receive it openly, it can be the ultimate experience of human warmth and closeness.
If your child is a “tween” or early teen (ages 10 – 13 or 14), start at the beginning. Be prepared for the fact that many kids know far more about sex than you did at their age. However, they are sometimes seriously misinformed. Make sure they have the basics right on such things as puberty, reproductive health, what exactly happens during sex and, most importantly, what goes into a healthy relationship. Be open to talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, body image and boundary issues.
Talk about what they see in the media. Let them know how to take care of themselves if they ever feel pressured to do something they aren’t comfortable doing.
Do talk positively about sex as an outgrowth of love and caring. But don’t shy away from telling them that there are people in the world who will take advantage of them and then try to silence them with threats or bribes. Kids don’t know what’s normal and okay and what’s abusive unless we tell them.
Talk about good touch and bad touch and how to know the difference. Make sure they know they can come to you with concerns and questions. Make sure they know you will listen even if at times it’s a little uncomfortable for you.
If your child is in mid-adolescence (ages 14 – 17), continue the conversation. Many teens have already become sexually active. But active doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s happy or healthy. Sometimes kids fall victim to emotional blackmail. They’re told it’s uncool to refuse. A partner may try to manipulate or threaten them into doing things that give them little joy.
It’s likely your child is starting to explore relationships at this point and, depending on the emotional health of the kids, it can be a time of healthy exploration. Remind them that they can only have their first sexual experience once. It’s not something to just get over with. It’s a time that many people want to have as a positive memory.
It’s important that we talk to them about rights and responsibilities if they get sexually involved. Make sure that they understand that loving partners don’t pressure each other into doing things the other doesn’t feel ready for. Be clear about their right to give or not give consent. Do talk clearly about birth control and what they will do should there be a pregnancy.
The teen in late adolescence (ages 18 – 21) is turning into a young adult. Many are involved in long-term romantic and perhaps sexual relationships. But they are still young. Depending on personality and rate of development, they may still be looking to you for guidance — while at the same time denying that they need it.
This is an important time of maturing. Most young people are solidifying their ideas and values around relationships, family, love and sex. You are not irrelevant at this point. You are still an important sounding board for what is and is not a healthy relationship — including a healthy sexual relationship.
The Talk during the tween years is just the beginning. Hopefully, you are initiating an ongoing conversation that will become more sophisticated and more in-depth over time. Kids who know they can ask us questions and get straight answers are kids who will navigate their wakening sexuality with safety.