Tips from a health educator on having ‘the talk’

by Jill Fries, health educator, Marquette County Health Department

Years ago, I used to speak to high school health classes, youth groups in churches and parent groups regarding sexually transmitted infections. I would explain what they are, how they are transmitted (and how they are not), and how you can protect yourself. One thing became very clear to me early on; this was a topic that most parents seemed uncomfortable discussing with their children. Young adults were uncomfortable discussing it with their intimate partners and even older adults did not seem to know how to broach the subject—even with their spouses. I would like to think that times have changed and, to some degree, they have, but unfortunately not much.

Parents have often asked me: “When should we talk about sex? How much do we say?”

This is what I suggest: First, most children have figured out at an early age what goes where and that the sex act can produce offspring. Although this can be confusing for children (thus the common response when you have the “talk” about what goes where), the usual shocked response is “You and Dad (or Mom) have done this two or three (or how many children you have) times? Ew!”

The talk needs to go beyond what goes where and needs to be age-appropriate. Children who have a positive self-image generally tend not to want to put their bodies at risk. Today, most parents talk to their young children about what is appropriate touching and what is inappropriate touching to protect them from sexual predators. That can be a starting point.

Usually, children start to ask where babies come from between 3 to 6 years of age. A parent does not need to go into great detail—just the basics—and it is very important not to use slang words for body parts.

Follow your child’s lead. For example, a 6th grader came home and shared with her mom that one of her classmates was going home at lunch and having sex with her boyfriend. The mom very carefully asked her, “What do you think about that?” To which she replied, “I think it is disgusting and awful. What if she gets pregnant?”

This opened the door for the mom and daughter to have a conversation about not just the sex act, but about values, dreams and future goals; how an unplanned pregnancy at an early age can have a significant long-term effect on a person’s life; and the possible reasons these two very young people were having sex in the first place.

If the mom had responded with anger or judgment—the conversation may not have happened.

Does talking with your teen about sex make a difference? Yes, it does. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens report  their greatest influence over their decisions about sex came from a parent. Also, how you say it is as important as what you say. Here are some tips:

Stay informed. Where is your teen getting information? Is it factual and accurate?

Identify opportunities to have conversation. Car rides (to and from school or games or practice) are great times. After a TV show or movie that may have had a good message or an inappropriate message about sex—both are teachable moments. Frequent conversations make the topic easier to broach and not taboo for either of you.

Be relaxed and open. If you are uncomfortable with the subject matter, try to identify what your trigger points are. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. You can find out together.

Avoid overreacting. Sometimes a teen will say something just to see what reaction he or she may elicit from you. If you feel particularly angry, hurt or anxious about the issue, take a deep breath. State how you are feeling about the subject and that you want to discuss it but at a later time.

Provide opportunities for conversations between your teen and health care professionals. Sometimes even with the best parent-teen relationships, a teen still may feel uncomfortable asking a pointed question on the subject. Allow your teen to establish a relationship with a health care professional.

My own children are now adults, but I do remember the pre-teen and teen years and having many discussions on the subject—especially when my daughters were living, working and traveling in other countries.

My final word of advice is: It is very important that we raise children to respect their bodies and those around them. Raise them to trust their intuition—if something “sounds” fishy, it probably is.

We need to give a counter-cultural message to our young men. Sexual conquest is not manly. Having multiple sexual partners does not make you a great lover—it just puts you at greater risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection and putting any future partners at risk as well.

Demonstrate healthy communication skills and healthy relationship boundaries as adults—and our children will follow our direction.

I guess that is more than one word. Be safe and be well.

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