“The Talk”: It’s never too soon, but it may be too late

Last week I talked about how we try to talk to our kids about sex once a year. Today, I've enlisted Leslie Dixon, Executive Director/Founder of the sexual education org The Birds & Bees Connection, to tell us more about how to best talk to our kids.

As a sexual health educator with more than 20 years of experience, I hear over and over again from parents that they would like to be having conversations with their kids but are not sure when or how or what to say. One way or another, kids will learn about “the birds and bees.” Naturally curious, children desire information. If there are no conversations happening at home, kids are very resourceful and will get their needs met some other way. Some turn to their peers for potentially inaccurate information; others might get the answers they seek from the Internet, where they can be easily overwhelmed and stumble upon inappropriate content. Where do YOU want your kids getting their information?
I cannot stress enough that there is no one “talk.” This idea of a single conversation discussing puberty, sex, sexuality and other adolescent issues that occurs at some magically appointed age and is supposed to be sufficient for meeting the needs of children throughout their adolescence sounds pretty ridiculous to me. Instead, I’m here to tell you that the talk is actually an ongoing conversation that spans years. Yes, that’s right, I said YEARS.
As with all parenting, this long conversation is fundamentally about building relationships. Through this dialogue, an opportunity arises to share values and beliefs with your kids. In addition, these conversations foster healthy self-esteem by empowering and equipping children with information, as well as assisting in parents being perceived as a source of support during the transitional from kid to tween to teen.

The conversation should start when children are very young with teaching the proper names for body parts – nose, elbow, penis, vulva, etc. When we use euphemisms to refer to parts of human anatomy, the implication is that there is something wrong or taboo about those parts. Self-esteem and sexuality are inextricably linked. You can’t feel good about yourself if you don’t feel good about your body. When children perceive that some part of their body is “dirty” or “naughty” they also internalize these ideas about themselves. They can believe they are fundamentally flawed in some way.
Waiting for the right time or for your child to come to you is not the way to set a precedent that you’re approachable for questions. Instead, look for “teachable moments” – opportunities to address topics related to whatever is happening in the moment. Every chance to strengthen the parent-child bond and relationship is worth it. Examples of teachable moments include: mom getting pregnant, a child hearing the word “sex” and asking what it means or a depiction of any sexual act in media. These are all valid teachable situations in which parents shouldn’t miss the opportunity be honest and up front.
As children get a little older, it is imperative to address puberty and its associated physical and emotional changes. It would also be extremely helpful to educate yourself about some of the latest research regarding the tween/teen brain. The prefrontal lobe, or executive center, is responsible for higher decision making functions including forethought, planning, organization and more. It is not fully developed until around age 25. Until then, not all of the functions are consistently readily available as new pathways are still “under construction.”  That construction zone needs lots of information and a safe place to go for questions and concerns.
As kids enter middle school, they need explicit conversations about boundaries and relationships. Both girls and boys need to hear from their parents that they do not need to do anything with or for anyone when they are not completely comfortable. Being respectful of not only others but themselves in their behavior has lasting consequences. Kids in this age group also benefit from knowing about where babies come from. Getting this information from parents instead of peers or the Internet is ideal. The middle school years are a time of testing boundaries and new found freedom.  By being a constant in your child’s life, they will feel safe and less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Research supports that parents really are the most influential people in their teen’s lives. That being said, it is important to discuss STDs, drugs and alcohol, and to revisit the conversation about boundaries.   The emphasis, at this point, is about decision making with long-term consequences in mind. The challenge at this age is the immaturity of the teen’s brain and the impact of outside influences, which are part of why ongoing conversations are vitally important.  
If you’ve been having these conversations all along, the teen years will be that much easier. If not, it’s never too late! Set up the environment to be conducive to talking – car rides are great, or a meal or dessert out. The most salient point to remember is HOW you have these conversations with your kids and teens. Heavy-handedness with a lot of judgment and lecturing will be extremely ineffective. Be curious. Ask questions. Be willing to sit in silence and wait for answers. Don’t expect immediate responses. When an answer does come, continue with your curiosity and be very aware of those moments when you want to criticize or fix. The more you have these conversations, the higher the likelihood that your kids will be forthcoming with questions and concerns.
Actually talking about the “Birds & Bees” is just a small part of what children need to foster healthy sexuality and self esteem. Kids need well-informed parents willing to open a safe and loving dialogue early in their lives, and parents need to keep finding teachable moments throughout each stage of their children’s development. To be truly effective, parents need to empower themselves with information. Reading books like What’s Happening to Me? or What’s the Big Secret?, and taking classes such as our Bodies In Motion  or Puber-Tea, helps parents learn and grow in their own understanding and confidence.
Sexuality is everything. It encompasses all of the other parts and pieces of ourselves – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. If a child doesn’t receive the foundation to support healthy sexuality it can affect the decisions they are faced with in the future.  
The Birds & Bees Connection has developed a unique model of parent-child courses that celebrate the transition between childhood and adolescence. Founded in 2001 by Leslie Dixon, a former school nurse, the agency’s courses create a safe, engaging environment where parents and children come together to openly discuss the physical and emotional changes leading toward, and including, adolescence. Find The Birds & Bees Connection at www.BirdsNBeesConnection.com, and on Facebook.

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