“Let’s Talk About Sex:” Why It’s Important to Create an Open Dialogue With Your Tween Now
If you were listening to the radio in the 90’s then you most likely sang along to Salt-N-Pepa’s song “Let’s Talk About Sex.” As an eleven-year-old when the song came out, I remember feeling awkward when I’d be in the car with my parents and I imagine they felt the same. (Which, when you think about it, is exactly why that song encouraged getting a dialogue started!) I certainly didn’t understand what sex was all about, and had no idea that in a few short years, I’d have friends in my life exploring their sexuality and doing things I had never heard of.
Now as a parent myself, it’s challenging to know how to tackle such a complex topic, while also being sensitive to not project my own fears on my children surrounding sex. To help best prepare myself for this conversation, I chatted with one of our Advisory Panel experts, Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, who provided the following guidance.
Every Child is Different
Know ahead of time how *that particular child* might react/respond to a talk about sex. Whereas one of your children may be quite willing to chat and hear your thoughts, another child may be very reticent, embarrassed, or unwilling. It can help the more reluctant child to have something else that both of you are focused on, like a game. Going for a walk or having a talk while driving can also help that child be more engaged.
Check Your Assumptions, Biases and Fears at the Door
This doesn't mean you have to be totally comfortable, but you should try to be keenly aware of anxieties you may, for example, have about your child eventually being sexually active. Your unchecked or unexamined fears may accidentally translate into telling scary stories or making sex seem like something to be avoided or feared.
Remain Open and Curious
Shaming language about bodies, sex, sexual identity and sexual pleasure can produce a lifetime of suffering, feelings of shame, and the need for secrecy about sex. Your child will have a much healthier sex life as an adult if they get an open and honest view of what sex is and isn't, and how they can feel about it early on.
Having a candid conversation about feelings and consequences to consider before having sex for the first time can be incredibly helpful and lead to an honest dialogue. Also, even if you are "sure" your tween is heterosexual, it's still a wise idea to keep an open mind about what kinds of sexual feelings they may be having or exploring, as both of these things do not define their sexual identity at this point in their life.
Different Ways to Initiate Conversation
There are a variety of ways to start discussing sex. Depending on the relationship, parents can simply ask their children if they have any questions about sex, even if it feels uncomfortable. If that is too straight forward, another option is inviting your tween to write questions down on a piece of paper if that method feels more comfortable to get the conversation started.
You can also try to use every-day examples to “tease” out the topic. For example, if a neighbor announces they are pregnant or if you’re watching a TV show together containing intimacy or consent, ask if they have any questions about the topic or if relevant, ask “what would you do in that situation?”
Keep the Conversation Flowing
Parents can take comfort in knowing that initiating a talk about sex with their tween is probably the hardest part. After the initial introduction, it's really more about a series of talks, discussions, problem-solving conversations than it is about "the talk." Things should get easier simply because family members will get used to what it feels like to have these kinds of discussions.
Your children are sponges, and they pick up on your subtle (and of course more obvious) messages about how appropriate it is for people to experience physical/sexual pleasure. By the time they're tweens, if they've never seen anyone kiss or be physically affectionate, they may feel like it's a mysterious act. You can help them de-mystify kissing, physical pleasure, sexual attraction, and even masturbation. The key is to relate all of these concepts with straightforward and uncomplicated language. Allow for questions, confusion, and of course overly confident dismissive responses - these are all within the norm.
Still Talk about Safety
Along with parents communicating to their tween that sex and sexual pleasure is absolutely normal and part of being human, parents should also emphasize safety. Safety can be thought of in three main ways: 1) being physically safe so that the child's bodily or psychological integrity is not harmed by another person, and 2) not engaging in unsafe sex acts that could easily lead to STIs or pregnancy. 3) engaging in sexual activity that doesn’t compromise the child’s sense of well-being or promote shame or guilt.
Be Mindful of Gender Biases
It's very helpful to be aware of how you might favor your male children's sexual exploration (and even reward and reinforce sexual conquests) while creating hesitation around sex for your female children (and accidentally reinforce fear, shame, and avoidance). It’s also important to point out the false messages you see in the media, which often are quite biased around topics like masturbation, virginity, and sexuality in general.
Thanks to Dr. Hersh for his helpful guidance and tips. We hope they are beneficial to you as you broach this topic with your children and please let us know if you have any additional tips and resources!
Written by Phase2Parenting
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.