When—and How—to Have “The Talk”

Featured Article, Growth and Development, Health and Safety

It’s tough to see our babies grow up, and when matters of sexuality come up, parents often find themselves in especially murky waters. In today’s overly-sexualized society, wishing and hoping that our kids remain virgins until their mid-30s is likely an exercise in futility. And even if they do refrain from sexual activity, the likelihood that they are subconsciously gathering bits of information from questionable sources is still very high.

It is the responsibility of parents, then, to ensure that their kids have all the facts when it comes to sex and sexuality. Not sure where—or how—to begin? Start here.

RELATED: How to Talk to Kids About Sex

Talk Early and Often

The number one piece of advice from experts across the board is that when it comes to talking to your child about sex, it can’t just be a one-time occurrence. If you’re waiting until your child is a “mature teenager” to sit them down and have a one-on-one about the birds and the bees, it is sure to be too little, too late.

“As a parent, you’ll know when it’s time [to start the discussion], but you’ll likely want to put it off because it’s an awkward conversation to have,” says Josh Shipp, a teen behavior expert who has been featured on CNN, Oprah and 20/20. “Do NOT put it off. When you sense it’s time, it’s time. You notice a fascination to girls or boys, they starting asking leading questions or saying certain things. YES, it’s time. Just get it done with.”

Shipp says that parents shouldn’t worry about having the perfect things to say or a detailed Powerpoint presentation. The key is to establish an open-door policy that will encourage ongoing dialogue. And when it’s time to answer questions or clear up confusion, he offers tips to help it go as smoothly as possible:

  • Go for a ride — “When you and your kid are driving in the car, you have an unprecedented window of opportunity for meaningful conversation. For the kid, the car feels safe and non-threatening. It’s not like a big, awkward, face-to-face sit-down, but rather like an organic conversation. Keep the music on but low in volume, and simply ask some questions to get him talking.”
  • Set a timer — “Tell your kid from the very start, ‘The conversation we are about to have is going to be quite awkward, but the good news is that it’s only going to last seven minutes.’ This gives them a sense of control, like mile markers do when you’re driving, and allows them to stop thinking about when it’s going to end and, instead, focus on what you’re actually saying. So, as a parent, you need to get your spiel down to seven minutes, start with the disclaimer and stay within your shot clock.”
  • Welcome any and all questions — “The most important thing to drive home is that your kid can ask ANYTHING, no judgment. There are a lot of forces out there trying to shape your kid’s values and beliefs. If you respond with harshness (“Well why are you asking about THAT!?”) or judgment, they will seek their influence elsewhere. You want to be their number one consultant. Always let them know they can talk to you about anything, and remember what a wonderful teaching opportunity it is when they do.

Keep it Simple

Once the lines of dialogue are open, it can be tempting to bombard kids with videos, pamphlets and hours of question-and-answer sessions. This approach, however, can backfire. “At any given point, don’t overwhelm the child,” says Lesli Doares, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “They are asking questions at the level they understand and can process. Too much information leads to confusion and misunderstanding, especially if the concept is beyond their current capabilities. It is hard for an adult to remember what it is like to be a child and not know something; that’s why letting the child lead the conversation is important.”

Parenting expert Leigh Anne O’Connor agrees. “You want to give the child time to process the information you have given them, and you want to build their trust,” she says. “If they ask and you go too far, it may overwhelm them and they may not ask again. It is good to ask them if they want more or have further questions, but when they say no, it is important to respect that.”

Seek Outside Help (if Needed)

“The best way for an adult to know if they have an issue regarding sex or sexuality is to pay attention to their internal reaction when the subject is brought up,” explains Doares. “A bit of nervousness and ‘I’m not ready’ is fine. Active avoidance or overwhelming anxiety or fear is not.”

Dr. Alex Stroud, DD, PhD, a pastor and college professor of anatomy and physiology, counsels parents about when and how they should have “the talk” with their kids. While Stroud certainly has the clinical background to give parents a detailed script on body parts and their functions, he urges parents to get to know their child more than the subject matter, adding that once parents understand what information their kids already know, it’s easier to supplement what they don’t. Stroud also believes that parents shouldn’t hesitate to consult with experts on the risks of unprotected sex. “If parents would like to know where they can get information on sexually transmitted infections, diseases or illnesses, they can contact their local Ryan White Council or seek out the City Health Departments and speak with the Prevention and Education Departments,” he says. “Counselors are available and happy to come and discuss this information in schools and often provide workshops for people who wish to learn more about this growing problem.”

For parents who need additional help broaching the topic with their kids, Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based child, teen, parent and family psychotherapist, recommends heading to the local library or bookstore. “Where Did I Come From is an excellent book that graphically and straight-forwardly describes sexual genitals, foreplay and intercourse,” she says. “It is handled honestly in a matter-of-fact style that is easy to understand, and it is a wonderful guide for parents with kids of all ages to refer to. Another very good book is How Babies Are Made.”

Obviously, not having the talk is not an option, even if you’re not necessarily ready to have it. And one of the surest ways to have kids turn to friends or the Internet for information on sex is a parent who constantly avoids the topic. Start with the information in this article, and keep digging for more resources if necessary. Your child will (eventually) thank you.

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