How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex
Parents, are you dreading the day when you have to sit down with your child and have "the talk?" Dr. Michelle Callahan, psychologist and parenting expert, explains that you're not alone. "We've been through the sexual revolution and everybody should feel more comfortable [about sex]," she says, "but when it comes to talking about it to our kids, we still clam up, we still get very nervous and just feel like, 'Oh, how am I going to do this?' We need to just relax."
Dr. Callahan says that even if you've put off discussing sex and now your child is a teenager, it's never too late to get the conversation started. "The first words out of your mouth should be 'Hey, how are things going at school?'" she suggests. "And then you follow that up with, 'How are things going with your girlfriend?'; 'How are things going with the ladies?'" Questions such as those are good ways to ease into the subject, but do not say "sex" right off the bat. "You don't want to make them get all nervous," Dr. Callahan warns. "And you don't want to get embarrassed. You want to feel relaxed, so start the conversation slowly then introduce the concept of sex."
Dr. Callahan advises to be prepared before you talk (make yourself some notes, if necessary), so that you're not caught off guard. "Don't let him ask you a question that puts you in a moral dilemma where you don't know what to do," she says. "Don’t let him shut you down. Don’t get intimidated, don’t let him make you back down; stay focused, stay on it, and even though it feels awkward, just keep going."
If you find having the conversation so embarrassing that you avoid it altogether, Dr. Callahan explains that you could be doing you and your child a great disservice. "Hoping that your kids are going to figure it out on their own is how not to talk to your kids about sex," she says. "You have to tell them what’s going on because they come up with all these misconceptions. There was a study done on 14- to 18-year-old girls and they actually thought that by jumping up and down that you could avoid getting pregnant after sex. There’s information out there that confuses kids so you want to be the source of that knowledge; don’t rely on anyone else to take care of it for you."
As far as general guidelines for when to talk to your kids and how much to tell them, Dr. Callahan says, "You should start talking to them about their parts when they’re young and discovering them. It's okay to give them appropriate names for those things and teaching them that those things are private, and then it goes from there. As they get older, you can introduce more information, but I think it starts with talking about relationships; you don’t just jump into sex without setting the context of where sex happens, so before you start talking about intercourse, you would just talk about how this happens between you and someone you love and how you get together with this person and have a baby, and then you go into the gory details."
Dr. Callahan explains that parents should tailor the conversation differently depending on their audience. "Girls are very emotional about sex," she says, "so it’s very important to talk to them about the emotional impact of these actions. This is a big deal for them and sometimes I think they’re going to go back to school the next day and the boy is going to skip down the hallway and hold hands with them. They don't think about the gossip, they don't think about the rumors, so it's about preparing them for what this means for them, in addition to the possibility of teenage pregnancy.
"For the boys, they’re having a lot of physical urges and so we want them to know that’s normal, but that we can’t act on all those urges; you can’t always go out and have sex with everybody you want to. Also, be prepared for how the girl may react to you having sex with her."
Dr. Callahan continues her lesson on giving the birds-and-bees talk by taking a few questions from Rachael's audience:
I’m a mom of three kids and I have a 17-year-old boy. We’ve had the talk, but I want to keep the conversation going. How do I do that?
Michelle: "Continue to talk when he moves away to college because if you continue to have that conversation you’re going to become more friendly over time. Definitely don’t feel like because he’s becoming an adult that he doesn't need you anymore; you’re the one person who has known him his whole life, so when he can’t talk to anyone else he may really end up wanting to talk to you. You want him to know the door is always open for that conversation."
I have two boys, ages 14 and 11, and they want a lot of privacy at this point. I’m not really sure what’s appropriate - if I suspect something’s going on, should I interrupt?
Michelle: "Absolutely. It’s your house and so you should feel comfortable following the rules of your house, but you’ve got to use your own common sense. Kids will do things in your house right under your nose, so don’t think the door needs to be closed. There’s nothing wrong with the door being ajar. Unless you’re checking on them every 5 minutes which might be rude, there’s no reason they have to study behind closed doors. Use your best judgment."
As my kids get older and I start talking more like friends with them, how much do I reveal? How much do I share of my own information?
Michelle: "It's really important to keep the focus on the kids and their issues because if you start talking about yourself too much the focus shifts from them; you’re just giving out all your dirt from back in the day and they lose focus on things. You want to continue to be the expert, you want to continue to be a role model for them, so you want to talk about in very generic terms. Let them know that you understand the stress, you understand the challenges, you understand the emotional things, but you don’t want to get into so many details that they forget and start to think that they should do what you did as opposed to them doing what you want them to do."
What is the right age to talk to a child about birth control?
Michelle: "You should start talking to your child about birth control when you start talking to them about sex - the true intercourse part of sex, not just relationships. When they become of age when they may be having sex with someone, that’s when you should start to talk to them about birth control. And talking to them about it is not the same as condoning them having sex. You can encourage them to use birth control if they choose to have sex without encouraging them to have sex. You can tell them, 'I don’t think you should have sex, but if you do, this is what you need to be prepared for.'"
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