Did you know that most children have had some sort of conversation with a peer about sex by the time they are 8 years old? And did you know that most children have viewed pornography by the time they are 14 years old? And did you also know that most adolescents will never bother to stop and ask about what they learn from porn and their peers?
This is one of many reasons why it is so important that we are making time to talk to our kids about sex, and before it’s too late.
Recent research shows that even when we are talking to our kids about sex, it is indeed too little, too late. According to one Harvard study, more than 40% of adolescents have already had sex by the time their parents had stopped to talk with them about sex and sexuality. In another study organized by the UCLA/Rand Center, it was discovered that many teens have already had to face issues such as sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), handling a partner who refuses to use birth control, and saying “no” when they weren’t ready to have sex, on their own before their parents ever brought these things up.
Why aren’t we educating our kids?
Well, we are, or at least we think that we are.
One study found that nearly 70% of its adolescent male participants reported they had not talked with their parents about how to use a condom before they started having sex, which is odd, considering that only half of these boys’ parents reported not having a conversation about condoms or birth control with their sons.
It seems that many parents think they have had a conversation with their kids, but their kids don’t remember it at all!
Dr. Karen Soren, director of adolescent medicine at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, explains “Parents sometimes say things more vaguely because they are uncomfortable and they think they’ve addressed something, but the kids don’t hear the topic at all.”
Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask), says he believes that parents today want to talk to their kids about sex, but are afraid they’ll make a mistake or don’t know the facts, or will have to admit their child is growing up, which often leads to them avoiding it altogether. One recent study suggests that 40% of girls reported that they never talked with their parents about how to resist pressure for sex, while 42% reported that, if they did have a discussion about birth control or what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom, it wasn’t until after they had already starting having sex.
So where do we start?
Part of what we’ve got to do is get rid of the idea that you just have one big, cumulative talk about sex and it’s done.
Eli Coleman, academic chair of sexual health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, explains that parents are waiting too long to talk to their kids, and are often under the assumption that one “talk” will fulfill their parental responsibility. Rather than having one big and uncomfortable talk, the research supports ongoing, age-appropriate talks – talks that start from day one and don’t stop.
It’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street. It is our job as parents to open the door to conversations about sex, but we mustn’t forget to listen as well. We should work to know the expectations, hopes, and fears of our kids. Sometimes the best talks are the ones in which the parents say less and listen more. Dr. Karen Rayne, author of Breaking the Hush Factor, says it perfectly: “You are in the business of getting to know your teenager, not giving information to your teenager, or telling her what to do. If you’re talking, you can’t hear what your teenager is trying to tell you about herself.”
Finally, Dr. Schuster recommends that if you absolutely cannot talk with your kids about sex, find someone you trust who can. It could be any trusted adult, but it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure that kids do have someone to go to. Educational books and school programs can serve as tools to help parents open the door to conversations about sex. Programs such as Parents Matter, Families Talking Together (Linking Lives), and Talking Parents, Healthy Teens have been developed to help parents build their skills and improve parent-child communication. Parents should be staying ;informed about what their children do know about sex and relationships, and should be aware of where their children are getting their information. Be honest, and know that it is okay if you don’t know what to say or what the answer is. It’s okay to not have an answer, and to say “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Avoid overreacting, and remember to listen as least half as much as you speak, if not more.
In conclusion, stay informed, be honest, relax, listen, and let’s talk about sex!
Natasha O’Donnell is a licensed clinical psychotherapist and licensed master level psychologist at Prairie View, Inc.’s Newton office.