Parenting: The Sex Talk

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One of my favorite things is when people ask me to cover a certain topic on the blog. I love a personal request and am thrilled when I feel like I am disseminating information that is valuable and helpful. That being said, please don’t hesitate to leave your requests in the comment section of the blog below. I can assure you I read every single comment and would love to answer your questions in the future. And while I must admit I think I “play a doctor on tv”, I will always call in a professional when you seek legitimate advice that I am ill-equipped to answer!

This week’s request was about sex. One of my favorite topics. I was recently chatting with a friend who has a daughter approaching the teenage years. It’s so fun and scary to think about all that I have ahead of me when I chat with friends with older children. We started to talk about summer plans and my friend told me she and her daughter were going to have “The Talk”. I was fascinated by what she planned to say and walked away realizing that many of us could use a little help on this topic.

So here joining us again is the brilliant Cristina Young, L.C.S.W.. You’ll remember Cristina first joined us here, when she shared her two cents on navigating some of the tougher topics we as parents must tackle with our kids. Below is her advice on how to talk to kids about sex. Her bio is at the end of the post.

Q&A with Cristina Young L.C.S.W., of Cristina Young Therapy

When is the right age to have the “birds and the bees” talk with your kids?

I think the right age to have the talk is when your child approaches you with questions. In the very early elementary years, you will notice your child becoming aware of body parts and using potty language to get a laugh. Towards the middle/end of elementary (maybe between 2nd-4th grade depending on if older siblings, cousins, or friends have been in your child’s ear) you will begin to hear more genuine questions about how things work. For me, the rule of thumb was/is only to answer the question my child asks. For example: When my daughter was nine, she asked me: “Mom, how does the seed get into the Mommy’s belly?” As I recall, the science teacher had been explaining germination, seeds, and plants, and another girl had generously offered her insight that the same thing happens between Mommies and Daddies. I explained to my daughter: “The seed comes out when the man puts his penis in the Mommy’s vagina.” This was met with: “Ew, yucky, gross, You let Daddy do that to you???” This is always an awkward moment for all Moms because it’s the first moment when our child sees us as a sexual being–not just as a Mommy. My advice on handling this moment: the cooler and calmer you are, the less of a big deal your child will make of this moment. If you simply nod and ask: “Any other questions, sweetie?” your child will most likely shake her head no and walk away to digest that big chunk of information you have just imparted. If you turn bright red, and get squeamish and uncomfortable, you are subtly sending a message you don’t want to send to your child. That message reads: “Talking about anything sexual makes me uncomfortable and awkward so please don’t bring it up again.” This is the LAST message we want to send because it sends our kids seeking all future answers from their friends or the neighbor kid you don’t trust.

Same for boys and girls?

I think you can use the same approach for both boys and girls. The secret is in knowing your child, and simply answering the questions they ask rather than talking at them and delivering everything you know about the subject while they glaze over. Also, parents/partners need to agree on information before delivering it, and each family will have a sense of which person might be the best to deliver which part of the sex talk to each child.

How do we explain how babies are made?

I think parents should expect that their child will come to them with this question (or some version of it) sooner or later. The more a parent rehearses (just like he or she would prepare for an important job interview), the more comfortable she/he can feel in the moment, Again, it’s also important that you and your spouse/partner are on the same page in terms of approach and information. Remember, if you are cool and collected, your child won’t think it’s a big deal to discuss anything sexual with you. If you freak out, they will realize that you are uncomfortable with this topic and that they should seek advice elsewhere. Not what we want! Another way to sound calm when answering questions about how babies are made is to speak somewhat clinically, using the proper names for the tools involved in the process. Here’s a sample of what you could say to a nine year old who asks, “Mom, how are babies made?” You could say, “Well, sweetie, when the Mommy and the Daddy love each other and decide to make a baby, the Daddy puts his penis into the Mommy’s vagina and that can start the process of making a baby.” Stop there (knowing it’s a bit of a vague explanation) and see what kind of response you get from your child. Don’t laugh or giggle–just try to be matter of fact like you are talking about the weather. If that information seems like enough to satisfy your little one, you may want to stop there by saying, “Come ask me later if you have more questions” and move along with your day. He or she may only be ready for a bit of the whole story. Some kids, however, will ask: “Why would Dad stick his penis in your vagina? That’s disgusting! How does it fit? I’m never doing that!” Again, after a brief chuckle, try to pull yourself together and perhaps add one more piece of information for now: “The penis releases fluid in the vagina that joins up with a tiny egg inside the Mom. That fluid plus the egg create the beginning of the baby.” Again, prepare for a lot of “Ewwwwww!” Then ask if she or he has more questions, remind them to come back to you when they do have questions, and go act like normal Mommy—thereby sending the signal that this conversation did not phase you a bit.

What do you tell them about masturbation?

Again, I don’t think we need to bring it up until the child mentions it or references it in some way. My middle daughter mentioned it around nine or ten because she saw another child rocking back and forth in her seat in math class every day. My daughter asked me why this girl kept rocking and disturbing other kids, and why her face turned red while she did this. This child was masturbating in an unusually public way as a form of self-soothing due to some issues at home. I mention this, however, because this type of rocking behavior in a desk chair may be your child’s introduction to masturbation. Here’s the simple explanation to your son or daughter: Rocking back and forth or rubbing that area is called masturbating, and it’s soothing just like a massage or a hug can be soothing. The rule in our culture, though, is that we soothe ourselves in private–in our own bedroom with the door closed. It’s okay to do this, but it makes other people feel uncomfortable to watch the same way other people feel uncomfortable when you pick your nose or fart in public. Some things are better to do in private.

Is it best to explain contraception right off the bat or will that encourage promiscuity?

I think the contraception discussion is one to hold off on at least until middle school, but for some families the topic may be off-limits until high school. I think the topic of contraception is actually the most difficult and controversial one for an outsider to provide advice on because every family subscribes to different religious and spiritual beliefs about love, marriage, sex before marriage, and contraception.

Little ones who are just beginning to ask questions about how babies are made certainly don’t have the cognitive ability (or curiosity) to understand the need for contraception. Middle schoolers, especially those who are entering 7th and 8th grade probably know a great deal more than you think they know about every aspect of sex and contraception based on movies, the internet, and discussions with friends. While I am not comfortable telling others how to handle the contraception conversation, my advice on discussing sex (in general) with tweens or teenagers is simply to talk and to talk often. Be the one your kid comes to talk to whenever possible.

Here’s a conversation I recently had with my 14 year old girl daughter: “So, are most of your friends making out at dances and parties now?” (Opening the conversation with a focus on her friends rather than her can be helpful. And normalizing the behavior I am curious about [making out] helps her see that I already have the information and I won’t be shocked by her response). She said yes, and even gave me some details about where they are doing it. Next, I asked her: “What do you think about all of that?” (This helps me understand what rules she is establishing for herself regarding this particular, sexual activity). I then asked her: “What do you think is appropriate for a girl your age to be doing with a guy?” (Helping a tween/teen establish rules for herself in advance is essential. Talking it out with Mom or another trusted adult allows her to decide in advance of the heated moment with the hottest guy on the team what she thinks is okay and not okay for her age. Knowing these limits before that lusty moment will at least keep her somewhat grounded in what she thinks is right for herself). Another question I asked her was: “What will you do if the guy wants to go further than you think is okay?” (Forcing our girls to imagine these likely scenarios is so helpful because they can play out what might happen). Finally, we discussed the importance of saying no when you mean no. I reminded my daughter that she has to listen to that little voice saying, “This feels scary and uncomfortable. I don’t like where this is going.”–even if it means the guy might think she’s a prude or a loser. Any time you can get your child to role-play a scenario with you, you have just helped him/her exercise his/her decision-making ability. We all know that rehearsing anything makes the real thing easier, right? These conversations can be had with both daughters and sons.

Any advice in advance of their first period? Especially for the girls who are afraid of it happening?

Again, I think some girls will bring questions to their Moms, especially because most schools are much better now about educating girls (usually starting in 4th grade) about the changes they can expect to see in their bodies. Be aware of what’s happening in your daughter’s health or science class. Find out what the curriculum is regarding puberty, and find the right time to ask her what she thinks of all that information. Or you might notice her little breasts beginning to develop—it’s okay to ask her: “How do your boobs feel? or How does your chest feel?” You can begin to share little insights with her: “Did you know that my boobs still get sore/tender sometimes right before I get my period?” Any time you can model for her how to talk about the uncomfortable aspects of being a girl/woman, you are laying the foundation for all future chats about all things sexual, gross, or uncomfortable. The more she views you as a person who can handle the gross, weird questions, the better. Some Moms take their daughters to a bookstore and hunt together for the perfect book on puberty, getting a period, etc. Some girls love to read up on the topic and arm themselves with as much information as possible.

One of my daughters wanted to make “an emergency period kit,” which I thought was an excellent idea. We went to Target and got the “teen pads” in a cute, mini box. (I like that some of the feminine protection companies are now targeting teens with certain products, thereby normalizing the whole experience). She put those along with some tiny, “light” tampons in a black makeup bag so that she was ready to go, but no one knew what was inside. She decided to bring this along to sleep-away camp–just in case. And I encouraged her to store it in her locker at school–just in case. For those tweens who are particularly terrified about the event, some basic information can be helpful. You can remind them that the total amount of blood lost in one period is just a couple tablespoons, and that the period usually starts with just a tiny bit. You can also help them learn the signs that their period might be arriving, such as cramps or mood swings. Help them learn how to chart their cycle so they can feel some sense of control over the whole process. Tell them the story of your first period. Enlist other, trusted women to share their story of their first period. I find most women are proud to tell this story and it demystifies the whole process for girls.

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Cristina has a master’s in social work with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Southern California. She is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Greenwich and Stamford, CT. Cristina specializes in working with families and children, and has worked extensively as a parent educator. She brings a strong background in education to her practice and has worked as a school counselor, teacher, curriculum developer, and admissions officer in a variety of both public and private school settings here in Connecticut, as well as in New York, California, Hawaii, and Maryland.

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