Talking to your children about sexuality Remember when? What if I feel embarrassed? Many of us will recall occasional and clumsy talks with It’s okay to feel embarrassed. Most parents feel parents and teachers. Thinking back, we also realise embarrassed when they start to talk about sexuality with we actually learned much more from friends than we their children. This is understandable when you consider ever did from our parents and teachers – and much of how little we talk about our sexuality with anyone! what we learned was possibly not quite accurate and Remember, your children might be feeling embarrassed even a bit frightening. or uncomfortable too, so why not talk about these Family Planning Victoria considers parents and feelings? The more you talk, the easier it will become. caregivers should be the first and primary sexuality educators of their children, but we know it can often seem like a daunting task. We hope this reassuring and practical advice will support and encourage you to start your conversations – and keep them going! What if I don’t know enough? You’re not the only parent who feels like this! Many do, and some will look for excuses not to start: ‘They’re too young’, ‘They know it already,’ or ‘They’ll learn about it in school anyway’. Children learn all the time You don’t need to be an expert. Nobody has all Sexuality education is a life-long process that begins at the answers. We are all learning all the time, and birth. It’s not just a quick talk or a book to read. Children it’s perfectly appropriate to look for information and actually learn about sexuality all the time. They learn by resources, as well as reassurance. watching, listening, experimenting and mimicking. It’s also okay to say: ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out’. Children are naturally curious. They want to understand There are lots of places you can check for information – what they see and hear around them. Most will ask and it’s great to do it together. This way the discussion questions about sex, even when they are very young. can be extended beyond a quick answer, and children Some of these questions will be quite explicit and can also learn about where to find information. complicated. Responding with shock or silence can reinforce their confusion, and it won’t satisfy their need to know. By asking you questions, your children are giving you a great place to start! What if I make a mistake? Everybody makes mistakes when dealing with tricky or unfamiliar information, and that’s okay too. It is unlikely to affect your relationship with your children and you When should I start talking about sex with my can always talk with them again to correct or add some children? information. Openness and honesty will just strengthen The earlier the better, but it doesn’t need to be a formal your communication with your children. talk or a lecture. It’s usually best to start by responding to a question your child has asked out of curiosity or in response to something they have seen. Most young children will only absorb short and simple pieces of information, so start with short answers! How much should I tell my children? Usually the shorter the answer the better – a good rule of thumb is to provide just a little more information than they already know. This will extend their knowledge and understanding, without overwhelming them. It is also helpful to check your answer has been understood and see if there is anything more your child wants to know. Children are usually content once they have the piece of information they wanted. Let them know they can come back if they want to know some more. Talking to your children about sexuality What if the timing is wrong? Children often talk or ask questions at awkward or inconvenient times. You might be talking to someone else, in the middle of doing something that you can’t stop, or in an awkward space like a supermarket queue or crowded elevator! Handle it the same way you would any other conversation. It’s okay to say: ‘I have my hands full’, or ‘I need a few minutes to think’, or ‘I would like to talk about that a bit later on’. Just make it clear you want to talk and will do so soon – and ask them to remind you. It is important you remember to have this conversation – don’t use this strategy to avoid the topic. Can I do more harm than good? Some people think talking to children about sexuality, particularly as they approach puberty, encourages sexual experimentation, unhealthy curiosity and even fear. However the research is very reassuring. It clearly indicates young people who have been learning about sexuality at home and at school are more likely to delay sexual activity, feel more positive about themselves and their bodies, and use protective behaviours when they do become sexually active. We also know sexuality education can: • encourage broader and more open communication between parents and children • help us avoid shame, fear and misconceptions about sexuality • promote sexual health and responsible decisionmaking. Things to remember • Most children and young people want to learn about sexuality from their parents. • Education about sexuality is more effective when the responsibility is shared between families and schools. • There is no right way – different cultures, families and groups talk about sexuality in different ways. What do children need to know? We sometimes refer to sexuality education as telling 3. Give a short and clear answer. Avoid technical children ‘the facts of life’, but talking to children language or jargon, but use the correct words for about sexuality is not just a matter of providing parts of the body because children quickly grow out simple information about reproduction, menstruation, of childhood language. diseases and sexual behaviour. 4. Check to see if your child has understood your It includes: answer. Ask: ‘Did that make sense?’ ‘Did you • learning positive messages about themselves and understand that?’ or ‘Have I answered your their bodies • understanding your family values about sexuality • thinking about friendships, responsibilities and feelings • practising making decisions, solving problems and communicating confidently • understanding and managing feelings • being reassured about their own safety and welfare. Most importantly, children need an atmosphere of openness and trust so they know they can always come to you for support, information and reassurance as they grow and learn, even if things do go wrong. Start with their questions Be guided by the questions your child asks: they tell you your child is ready and wiling to learn. How much you tell them is a matter for your judgement, but take into account their natural curiosity, their attentiveness and their maturity. If you are concerned about how to answer, try these suggestions. Simple steps for answering questions 1. Listen carefully to the question, and let your child see you are listening. 2. Make sure you understand the question and its meaning. To clarify a question or to get a better understanding of why it has been asked, you could say: ‘Did you hear about that at kinder/school today?’ or ‘What do you think?’ These clarifying questions can also give you a moment or two to gather your thoughts as well as help you work out what your child already knows. question?’ 5. Talk some more if your child seems interested. Ask: ‘Is there anything else you’d like to know?’ or ‘Do you want to talk some more?’. 6. Remind your child you are always available to talk some more or answer further questions. Getting started if there’s no questions It is important to show our children we are always willing to talk about sexuality. This means more than just waiting to answer questions. Sometimes there are no questions. Here are some tips for getting a discussion started: • Leave some books around the house. Perhaps you can choose some together from a library or a bookshop. Try reading them together. • Newspaper and television stories can be a good place to start. You can use questions like: ‘Did you see this picture in this morning’s paper?’ or ‘I wonder if you have any questions about that program?’ • Use everyday events, e.g. a visit from a pregnant friend or relative. Even passing a pregnant woman in the street can provide an excellent opportunity to start to talk about reproduction and birth. These are what we call teachable moments. • Talk about pets and other animals in the street. You could even visit a zoo or sanctuary. • Visit the museum or community centre together when there are interesting displays and exhibitions. What do children need to know? • Give your young child some anatomically correct dolls. • Ask your child a question. Asking open questions can help turn a question into a discussion: e.g. ‘What do you think about…? Or ‘How do you feel about…?’ Things to remember • You don’t need to know all the answers. Don’t be afraid to say: ‘I don’t know. You can always say you will come back with an answer later or look for the answer together. Whatever you decide, make sure you find the answer and get back to your child as soon as you can. • Less is usually best with young children. Long answers are complicated and often confusing, especially for pre-school children. If children want to know more, they will ask as long as you have shown you are willing to answer. • You have the right to keep personal information private if you want to. For example, your child may ask when you have sexual intercourse and with whom. You have the right to say this is personal and private if you want to. How far you go in your answers is your choice, but remember you will need to respect your child’s privacy in the same way. • It’s okay to feel embarrassed. If you feel uncomfortable, say so – and be assured it gets easier with practice. Children’s sexual development As a parent, you probably know quite a bit about your Other interests: children’s physical and cognitive development, but you • Friends have a strong influence. might be less familiar with their sexual development even though this is just as important. Becoming more aware of your child’s sexual development will give you an insight into their needs and feelings. It will help you with their care and education as you will be able to anticipate the issues in their lives and the questions they might want answered. What to expect and when Between 3 and 5 years • Children are curious and keen to learn. • They are likely to ask lots of questions about sexuality as their verbal skills develop, like: ‘Where do babies come from?’ • Children are keen to explore their bodies. This can include role play with other children, e.g. playing doctors and nurses. • Occasional masturbation and touching their own body parts is particularly common. • Children become aware of the differences between boys and girls, such as different roles and behaviours and physical differences. • Children begin to develop attitudes to the opposite sex. • Children will mimic the adult behaviour and language they see at home or in TV shows and films. Between 5 and 8 years By the time they get to school, most children have • Children have best friends, usually of the same sex. • Reinforcement of gender identify continues. Between 8 and 10 years • Children continue to be very curious and will talk to each other about sex, often picking up myths and inaccuracies. • Children develop an interest in what is right and wrong. • Their friends have increasing influence on their attitudes and opinions. • Most children will have developed a basic sexual orientation. • Children will continue with exploratory play, e.g. imitating kissing and flirting, ‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine,’ etc. • Children have a growing awareness of gender roles and stereotypes, for example, ‘Only girls do that’, or ‘Boys don’t cry’. • For some, the physical and emotional changes of puberty will begin. Between 10 and 12 years The changes of puberty usually begin during this period. They usually begin in girls first but all children are different – some may begin early and some may begin late. Physical changes For girls, the following physical changes occur: learned that nudity, looking at other people’s bodies • Menstruation begins. and masturbation should be done in private. However, • The vagina, vulva and clitoris grow slightly. they are still very curious about: • The hips broaden and the waist narrows. • pregnancy and birth • Breasts grow and develop. • ‘looking’ at other people, especially around girls’ and • Hair grows around the vulva (pubic hair) and under boys’ toilets • sexual intercourse – they will talk about it and use words they have heard from friends or media and play games that include kissing and marriage. the arms. Children’s sexual development For boys, the following physical changes occur: • The penis, testes and scrotum enlarge. • The testes begin to produce sperm and wet dreams commence. • Height increases and shoulders broaden. • The voice deepens. • Pubic hair grows at the base of the penis. • Body hair increases (e.g. under the arms, on the face). Social and emotional changes Not all the changes of puberty are physical. Some are social and emotional. These include: • A sense of modesty and self-consciousness develops. • More obvious mood swings occur. • Romantic and sexual fantasies and crushes are often apparent. • The peer group has a strong influence on the individual’s identity. • Children develop a greater sense of independence from parents as authority figures. Puberty is a time of intense change and adjustment for young people. Perhaps their most common question as this time is: ‘Am I normal?’ When children approaching puberty are given information about their bodies as well as the opportunity to explore their social and emotional experiences, they are more likely to understand and cope with such changes and feel more reassured and less isolated. As puberty concludes, adolescents are physically and sexually mature (some will even begin to experiment with sex). However, their emotional maturity and life experiences have not caught up. This is when positive communication with a caring adult becomes especially important. You will benefit from your earlier foundation work.
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