Talk to your kids about sex – early and often

Post-pandemic Sex: Lockdown has not stopped our kids’ growth nor their intrigue

The conversation around making good choices and understanding consent needs to begin much earlier than we realise. Photograph: iStock

The conversation around making good choices and understanding consent needs to begin much earlier than we realise. Photograph: iStock

 
Part of a series on post-pandemic sex

Prioritising our sexual health is a valuable part of our overall health and wellness. When we’re adults, the hope is we are educated and informed enough to make decisions which will encourage safe sex and positive intimate relationships.

Sex has always been a bit of a minefield for the best of us, but what about when you are young, unprepared and very eager?

Our teenagers have grown in ways we may not be aware of, considering the past 18 months have seen untold restrictions placed on their education, hobbies and social lives. This does not mean they are not in the know about certain issues. And we, as parents, may not be aware of their expansive knowledge when it comes to sex, what they are doing, who with, or what they are eager to do. The doors are finally opening for them, and they are adamant they will explore. It’s highly unlikely they will tell us this in so many words, so it’s important we recognise lockdown has not stopped their growing, their intrigue, or the fact they may not be as fully prepared as they think they are.

Opening a safe space for our young adults to express their concerns and to get practical advice about their sexual health means parenting a little differently from what we may be comfortable with.

Sarah Sproule, occupational therapist, sex educator and podcaster, works with families to support conversations around sexuality and consent. She helps parents navigate these intimate conversations by tackling not only our children’s questions but our uncomfortable tendencies in being open with our children about the wonderful world of sex and how to stay safe. We can’t, after all, do it for them.

When our kids are teens, it isn’t the time to preach and give advice

Pre-teens and teenagers are not necessarily open to the idea of listening to us talk about the birds and the bees, but thankfully the way we can have this conversation is changing with a more open-minded, free and honest discussion. “When our kids are teens, it isn’t the time to preach and give advice,” says Sproule. “Instead, it’s more about creating a culture of listening and support and acknowledging that life is complex and hard work, particularly when navigating how to start intimate relationships and maybe sharing our body with another person.

“You can make sure your family bookshelves are full of books that could be useful for your teen, books about puberty, sex, communication. You can include books that normalise nakedness – art and photography books for example. And if you do nothing else, get yourself a copy of Breaking the Hush Factor by Dr Karen Rayne. It’s got all the advice you need for talking to teens about sex.”

The conversation is no longer a one-time chat perched at the end of the bed right before our 14-year-old walks out the door on their first date. But the running conversation will most certainly shift as our children get older. “By the time our kids are teenagers, they’ll demand we take a more hands-off approach in our parenting,” says Sproule.

“You might have heard that when kids are small, a parent acts as a manager of their life. When kids grow into teenagers, we are forced to take a more consultative role. We have far less influence in all areas. The same thing applies about sex. That’s why sex educators say it’s important to have conversations with our kids about sex early and often, to keep talking as they are growing up.”

“When we are really serious about encouraging our teenagers to be proactive about their sexual health,” says Sproule, “we can put resources and equipment like condoms and other barrier methods around our home environment. You can print off information leaflets about different sexually transmitted infections and use magnets to put them on the fridge. You can have a collection of condoms, of various different sizes in the medicine cabinet.”

Part of parenting teens is standing close by, ready to pick up the pieces as they go out into the world and learn

The conversation about our sexual health is not limited and by showing our children we are also still learning, educating and informing ourselves, we highlight that this is not a linear conversation but rather a very involved, emotional and physical journey.

“You could leave your headphones out while you listen to podcasts or YouTube videos about mental health and sexual orientation,” suggests Sproule whose mini podcast series, Sitting in a Car, explores the questions our children ask and helps us find the answers.

“Do that while cooking the dinner so that if your teenager comes into the room, they completely and utterly understand that you are onboard with all this sort of stuff. You are modelling that you understand that sexuality is part of being human and you’re showing up as a supporter to help them look after their sexual health.”

Throughout the pandemic our children have been online more, meaning their understanding of consent and safe sex may not be in line with the reality of life. The conversation around making good choices and understanding consent needs to begin much earlier than we realise.

“Throughout the whole of our kids’ lives but even more importantly when they are teenagers, we can model what consent looks like, sounds like and feels like,” says Sproule. “We do that in the way we treat our kids consensually in everyday life and the way we treat ourselves. That is the most powerful way to teach consent to our growing young people. It’s not about trotting out sayings like ‘no means no’ or using overly simplistic advice about keeping themselves safe.

“Instead, we can acknowledge openly in front of our kids that the world is complex, and we learn consent with practice. It takes vulnerability and courage to discover what we need, speak up for ourselves and learn to respect the differences in other people. We can help our kids work out those things in the safety of their family home. Part of parenting teens is standing close by, ready to pick up the pieces as they go out into the world and learn.” 

Post-Pandemic Sex Series
Part 1: Behaviour is not easy to predict
Part 2: Talk to your children

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