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Questions about Sex Continued

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

By the later portion of middle-childhood, parents need to become more direct about discussing sexual intercourse with children. Children do need to understand the basics involved in sexual intercourse. Without trying to be intimidating or overly scary, caregivers also need to be explicit about how pregnancy occurs and how diseases can be spread. Respecting the fact that some parents and caregivers will prefer to teach children to abstain completely from sexual activity, we nevertheless believe it is in children's best interests that they learn how to prevent disease and pregnancy through the effective use of birth control. Most importantly, perhaps, children need to learn that sex is associated with a great deal of responsibility (e.g., because it can easily result in pregnancy, disease and painful emotional complications), and that it is something that becomes most wonderful when it is kept special and private.

3D Figure leaning on question markBecause pubescent children often will talk about sex amongst themselves and seek out information about sex on their own, they will likely benefit from an opportunity to ask an adult parent or caregiver clarifying questions or discuss rumors and information they've picked up in various places. Parents should be prepared to dispel myths regarding sexual behavior in a caring, but firm way. For instance, some children think that sexually transmitted diseases always manifest with visible and obvious symptoms. For instance, they may think that they will "know by looking" whether a potential sex partner is infected. They may have heard that girls cannot get pregnant prior to the first time they've menstruated. Both of these beliefs are untrue, and children need to be told that this is the case in no uncertain terms so that they do not act on the basis of bad information.

Parents who feel unprepared to discuss facts related to sexual behavior with their children should try to approach the task as a challenge to be conquered rather than an admission of inadequacy. Parents can read and research the topic in order to expand their own knowledge base, and then share what they've learned with their children. Parents can consult Internet sites, the pediatrician, or the health department for updated information, and perhaps some youth-friendly brochures on relevant topics.

In addition to discussing facts about sex, parents will also want to share with children their expectations regarding children's dating and romantic relationships. For instance, parents may wish children to not date, or to be chaperoned while out on dates until they reach a certain age. Some parents may wish their children to not have any sexual activity until they are married. In a different vein, parents will want to educate children regarding the difference between consensual and non-consenting sex and counsel them to exit situations and relationships where they are pressured to have sex they don't want. Such discussions should include topics such as self-esteem (LINK to nurturance article), positive problem-solving skills, and developing respect in all relationships. Boys and girls need to hear and to see early and often that respecting romantic partners is important. No one should ever feel intimidated or "pushed into" sexual activity or any other activity that is uncomfortable.

Because idea of talking frankly about sexuality with their children is often an uncomfortable one for many parents, there is a temptation to try to only have to do it once, in a single marathon session. While we sympathize with this "get it out of the way" approach, we again caution that it is not a smart way to proceed. It's important to parcel out sexuality information in little bits here and there rather than setting up one gigantic conversation laden with all of the facts (i.e., "the talk"). Children who learn about sexuality through shorter, more regular conversations (of the type that might come up during the course of a normal week while at the dinner table, for instance) are more likely to listen and retain information as well as to not overreact, panic or become embarrassed.

For instance, parents and children may see a teenaged couple kissing while shopping at the mall. This normal, everyday observation can be used as an opening for the parents and the children to talk about romantic relationships. Likewise, if Mom and her son are watching a television show and a sexually-themed scene appears, she can use that scene to talk with her son about the differences between real-life sexual behavior and how sexual behavior is portrayed on TV. In both of these examples, discussion of sexuality flows from real-life examples that children are already seeing and thus the discussion is understood to be a normal part of life rather than something huge and intimidating.