How, What and When to Talk About Sex With Our Kids

PARENTAL ADVISORY: Today we are talking about sex which may not be appropriate for younger kids to hear.

Talking about sex can be complicated especially if we have baggage regarding our own relationship with sex. Trauma therapist and host of the podcast, “The Place We Find Ourselves”, Adam Young and Bethany Robbins share with parents about the subject of talking to your kids about this important but sensitive subject. They answer the following questions:  

Why is this conversation so essential to have with our kids?
How do we approach the topic of sex knowing we may have some issues with it ourselves? (Whether that be abuse, shame, or never having the sex talk modeled for us in a healthy way.)
Why is it so important to handle conversations about sex correctly?

Adam starts off by saying, “I think the first place to start is to acknowledge that God made us sexual beings and that’s not just a fact, but it’s really a gift. If sexuality is a gift of the Creator to us creatures, and if our sexuality develops in our childhood and adolescence, it would probably be a good idea to have some conversations with our children about their developing sexuality. Because it’s a gift from God to them! And like all gifts, it needs to be opened and explored and discovered.” He adds, “And children need guidance, depending on their age, with regard to how to open that gift, how to explore it, how to discover it.”

How do we know the appropriate time to have the talk? At what age? And what if we missed that optimum time? Is it too late?

Bethany shares that timing is highly debated especially among Christians. She suggests that parents can start to mention sexuality at birth and keep it structured with their child’s age in mind. The toddler years are a good time to start to teach them about consent. It’s important to give younger children opportunities to use their voice, and to say no in general. After that happens, it’s good to pivot to what their need is in helping them cultivate their voice in standing up for themselves. Bethany says, “You are looking for opportunities for them to practice using their voice.”

She also shares that if you are late in bringing up this kind of conversation, it’s okay to admit to your child/children that you have failed them in not talking about it sooner. You can open up to them by meeting them where they are at and asking about information they already have and anything they might have experienced already. If you have neglected to talk about this important subject, start by offering your honestly about that and begin with repair so your kids know how much you care about sharing this kind of information and conversation with them. As parents, we can start these conversations as soon as we can by sharing age appropriate information at various stages. For example, we can start by teaching them to label body parts and functions accurately even while they are toddlers. We can start having more discussion when they are 4, 5, and 6 years old, and continue to adjust to more detailed discussion as your kids get older.

As parents, as difficult as it might be to realize, we may have missed opportunities to talk to our children about sex at younger ages. We may find ourselves needing to approach this topic while discovering our kids have been sexually active or have more knowledge and exposure than we expected.  When we learn this, it’s important to talk about and admit that we haven’t done a good job of educating them and to share that we want to talk about it now, maybe particularly so if or when we know they’ve been sexually active in some way. Our children may not have engaged in sexual intercourse but perhaps they have experimented sexually. They are aware of body parts and aware of what happens. We may find ourselves in a place of feeling “behind” and needing to “catch up” to where they are at in their knowledge, information, and discovery of sex. When this happens, being honest is key, with ourselves and with our kids. This kind of transparency can set the stage for openness around these sensitive subjects.

Adam says, “I think that a good place to start is to understand that there is a reason you haven’t talked to your children about sex yet. The single greatest gift you can give your children when it comes to parenting around anything, not just sexuality, Is to engage your own developmental story in your family of origin. This is neuroscience. We know this. No one is debating this anymore. The single greatest factor in determining your efficacy as a parent is not your skills, techniques, and abilities that you’ve learned from a video, or course, or a church. It is the degree to which you have engaged your own story growing up.”

Adam goes on further to say, “All of us come to these conversations with sexual baggage. Every parent does and that shame that you carry about your sexuality is communicated inter subjectively and nonverbally between you and your child.” Like Bethany said, “Kids’ brains are perceptive. They pick up on the nonverbal communication if [their parent] is uncomfortable talking about sex right now. They know that and they have to interpret that. They have to make sense of that somehow. The way we make sense of discomfort, particularly the discomfort that’s first in shame, is by feeling shame. Then the kid now associates sexuality with shame.”

So, how do we find a good time and a good way to approach talking about it?

Adam insists that it shouldn’t be formalized and that these conversations should be plural. He dives deeper to say, “There needs to be a series of conversations about sex and sexuality. Those can happen in the car, they can happen at the dinner table. For my family, they most often happen at the dinner table.” Bethany adds it’s good to name the conversation and be very detailed to the kids about what is going to be happening within these conversations and the expectations of it; this is especially good and helpful for older kids.

Bethany mentions, “In those moments when we find out that our children have been sexually active, have been exposed to something difficult, or pornography, or they’ve been abused, we really want to reframe that for them and make sure the narrative that they are taking away is not one where they are condemned. Where their beauty or arousal is condemned but that the situation and the harm done to them, or the early exposure or whatever it was that happened, that that was what was wrong. It’s important for us to name that for them.”

How do we celebrate normal human arousal and not be overly permissive with it?
We know it’s important to recognize that sexual desire and arousal are and we need to say to our kids, “That’s normal. You’re totally normal. You’re not weird, evil, bad, or cursed” while at the same time sending the message, “But don’t chase every pleasure down.” We want to let our kids know that desire is a healthy part of being human, but that restraint is also positive. Bethany points out that there’s a whole system of arousal that we experience every day. We all have wants that we sometimes indulge in, like eating one of our favorite meals, or enjoying how great it feels to be chosen to be on a baseball team.

As parents, we want to approach these conversations by acknowledging boundaries we can put in place that protect our kids from the parts of their brain still being developed. We can remind them that desire is healthy but chasing every urge and pleasure is not. The key is to do this without instilling shame or a great amount of fear.  We can do that by speaking about it openly and honestly apart from judgment about how we are created as human beings. We are creatures made to find pleasure in sex and we have the power to choose how we engage physically with it. By being open and conversational, we make space for kids to not feel shame or fear associated with this very real and natural part of their development.

What are some suggestions on how you can help have normal conversations about sex as the parent of the opposite gender to your child?

Bethany reinforces what she mentioned earlier – how essential it is to engage your own stories of sexuality so you can approach the conversations freely and openly without shame or fear with your kids. Adam agrees that parents must show confidence that you are knowledgeable and be vulnerable in keeping that doorway of conversation open. Like other topics, we want to send the message to our kids that the doorway to further conversation is always open. We can demonstrate this by having multiple conversations about sex with our kids, by being honest and real with it, and by not shrinking back from their questions or asking some of our own. We can also let our kids know that part of being healthy overall is to build a strong support system and community around them related to every area of their lives, including topics related to sex.

How do we create the dialogue, the narrative in our homes to ward off some of the unhealthy messages about sex that lean toward either a too rigid legalistic side or to a promiscuous side? How do guard our kids from making the same mistakes that we have made?

Adam emphasizes again that as a parent you need to engage your story. You must take time reflect on your own experiences and exposure you had from the very beginning about the topic of sex. Those early stories are the ones you need to look at as you examine the narrative of your own stories, particularly concerning your sexuality. As you do, you need to engage those narratives by asking yourself questions surrounding the situations or experiences you have had related to sexuality. You can do this by journaling, praying, talking to friends about it, or finding a therapist to work through any issues of shame, fear, rigidity, or around specific behaviors related to your story.

Our past stories around sex impact us now and will influence how we talk about it with our kids and how we view and share about it with them now. Processing our own stories and narratives with freedom, curiosity, and to work through any residual shame allows us to approach the topic with our kids more freely too. Just like sex is often about nonverbal cues and communication, we will find ourselves sending those clues to our kids as we talk about it too. If we have worked through the difficult parts of our own story, we will be better able to approach it with our kids, at any age, in appropriate ways that bring them the same kind of openness and vulnerability.  

The main take away about having conversations with your kids about sex is to be present with your child as you talk about it. Be available emotionally. Don’t shrink back from difficult conversations. Lean in to your own story related to sex and prepare yourself to lean in to the conversations with your kids too. Do the work needed to be released from shame or from hiding out of fear when it comes to the subject of sex. Be willing to provide appropriate and real information that is scaled to meet your kids at their age and with their understanding. Recognize that this will vary in each family.

As you engage with your kids around the topic of sex, let your kids know as early as you can that you welcome their questions and their curiosity about their bodies and how they work. This intentional approach to keep the doors of communication open is essential especially when your kids may have had exposure or experiences that they need to talk about. We can walk with them through their curiosity, questions, and experiences by letting the topic of sex be part of our normal conversations with them. As we do this regularly, we take away the shame that might come from it.

Parents, it may not be easy, but doing the work to engage your own story related to your experiences with sex, will provide the space for you to begin and continue these conversations with your kids in more open and healthy ways too. And we must talk with our kids about sex   because they are going to hear about it,  they will have experiences with it, and they will be exposed to it in one way or another. They need our voices to provide balance, wisdom, and guidance as they do. Talking with them and making it a natural and regular part of our conversations is part of how we both protect and prepare them. Speaking openly to your kids, without shame and with an honest recognition of sex as both a gift and a responsibility is a vital part of teaching them to embrace their humanity while pointing to God as the Author of it.

Helpful links from Bethany
It's Not the Stork (for 4 yrs and up) and the following books for sex education. Very straightforward but lighthearted, and scientific.

A Terrible Thing Happened is a fantastic book. It's all about a raccoon who is anxious and struggling to talk about something bad which happened. The story keeps it open ended and never reveals what actually happened, but there is resolve and he gets help. It's so useful for parents to read with their kids regularly to keep the door open for kids to report abuse or bullying.

Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept is my favorite picture book on sexual abuse. It portrays well the internal struggle kids experience around reporting abuse. I still read this one with my kids.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures - story to help kids learn about porn and create a plan together on what to do when a child sees it. There is a younger version for 4+ too.

Brain, Heart, World is a fantastic 3 episode docuseries (30 minutes each). Great to watch with kids 9/10+ My boys have genuinely enjoyed it.

Defend Young Minds is a website I direct all of my friends to. There are dozens of articles around different topics regarding kids, porn exposure, and sexuality.

Learn more about therapist and podcast host, Adam Young, on his website, Follow him on Instagram @adamyoungcounseling.

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