One of the most wonderful experiences available to humans is connecting with another in sexual intimacy. For many, sex is the glue that cements a good relationship, and sexual pleasure is an important component of overall wellness.
As adolescents’ bodies grow into sexual maturity, they will have many questions. If parents are unable to provide answers, kids will seek them elsewhere, from other, less reliable, sometimes dangerous sources: the internet, the media, other kids. The more of a role you play, the greater your child’s level of comfort in discussing sexuality-related topics will become. They will wait longer to have sex for the first time, have fewer sexual partners and be more likely to use condoms and contraception when they do have sex. However confronting and awkward these conversations might feel, your presence and willingness to engage in them is one of the strongest ways you can influence your teen’s sexual wellbeing.
Effective sex education needs to be much more than just details of the physical act. The amount of sex and violence in almost every medium our kids watch makes it crucial that parents provide an alternative ‘channel’ speaking to your values of respect, care, love and intimacy. Teens need your support to navigate new feelings and experiences, to determine how they want to engage in sex and relationships, and to master the skills needed to stay true to the values they choose.
You cannot rely on sex ed offered at school to provide all the information your teenager deserves. Despite the eye rolls and grimaces that may appear when we try to talk to young people about sex, they really do want to hear what their parents have to say. Taking the plunge and talking, regularly, about sex and intimacy will have a positive life-long effect on your child’s well-being.
WHAT WILL I SAY?
It is understandable for parents to feel they lack the skills, knowledge and confidence to provide effective sexuality education for their children - few of us had good role models.
One approach is to make a plan. What do you wish you had known when you were growing up? Think about everything you feel is important and map out a schedule. Topics might include: body image, gender differences, attraction, sexual preferences, arousal, love, boundaries, emotional intimacy, pleasure, masturbation, unwanted sex, fantasy, contraception, pornography and more.
Try not to create a major event out of your talks. Forget the one-off ‘birds and the bees’ lecture. Much more helpful are lots of casual conversations, sharing ideas, experiences and questions. It may feel difficult at first but gets easier with time. Start with a topic you feel more comfortable with.
Think about what you want to say and whether there are areas you want to research first, but don’t feel you need to have all the answers. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. The ideal way to approach these conversations is with plenty of curiosity. Ask questions about how they feel and what they understand to help you gauge their level of knowledge. This prevents lecturing!
If these topics are embarrassing for you then be honest and let your child know. Tell them you find this arena difficult to talk about, that you didn’t have good role models, but it’s really important that they have access to the information they need. You can use your sensitivity as a starting point - why do you think we feel so uncomfortable speaking about this?
Be aware that much of what children learn from their parents is observational and indirect, so, whether you speak about it or not, if you have unresolved issues around your own sexuality they will pick this up. Perhaps your desire for your child’s future well-being might be the impetus to take the brave step of addressing what is needed for your own healing.
“Forget the one-off ‘birds and the bees’ lecture. Much more helpful are lots of casual conversations, sharing ideas, experiences and questions”
WHAT ABOUT CONSENT
Consent is clear agreement or permission to allow something or to do something. Requiring respect and communication, consent must be given freely, without force or intimidation. Important in all aspects of life, it is particularly so in sexual situations because of the challenges of staying clear in erotically and emotionally charged states.
Consent has come strongly into public awareness in the past few years and yet there is an old idea (often portrayed in porn) that when a woman says no, she really means yes. This notion, and the possible reasons for it, would be an excellent topic for discussion.
While there is no one correct way to negotiate sexual consent, if there hasn’t been a question, then there can’t be consent. Consent conversation starters might include: How would you ask if it’s OK to proceed with a sexual activity? What could you do if you stop feeling comfortable with something you are doing? What sort of non-verbal signals might your partner be giving?
Dr Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent is a simple diagram that describes the dynamics at play when two people engage in any sort of touch. It distinguishes between giving and receiving and separates the who-is-touching factor from the who-it’s-for factor. These distinctions are at the core of understanding consent and can be explored and experienced by people of all ages using Betty’s ‘3-minute game’. Try it out with your teen. You could even ask for their support to help you understand the nuances of the world of consent.
EXPLAINING THE PITFALLS OF PORN
Consent is something you are unlikely to see modelled in porn. Designed to create arousal in adults, the messages pornography provides can be misleading, even dangerous if interpreted as showing how sex happens in real relationships. Although it’s useful to help teens recognise that what they see in porn is often staged and exaggerated, and rarely safe, even more effective is continuing to talk regularly about love-and-respect oriented sexual norms.
Another issue with porn is its addictive nature due to the potent effects stimulation has on dopamine in the brain. The ready availability of one new exciting image after another stimulates an ancient mammalian biological program, the Coolidge effect. Designed to promote the spread of seed amongst available females, the constant newness of apparent mates available online programmes the brain so it may stop responding to a singular real life partner. It is well worth informing yourself about the risks of excessive porn consumption on a young male’s erectile capacity - and passing that information on.
SKILLS AND VALUES FOR LIFE
The skills, attitudes and values around sex that young people establish during adolescence will have important implications for their lifelong physical and mental health and well-being. If we want our kids to form loving, safe, and fulfilling relationships, we need to make sure what we say to them opens that possibility and shows them the way to do it.
Whatever has happened in the past, this is a critical time to support the young people you love by initiating a dialogue that focuses on how they can achieve their best possible lives as sexual people.
Laura-Doe is the founder of yOniversity.com.au and offers workshops and sessions for parents on talking about sex with your children
Tips on how to overcome embarrassment
- Educate yourself.
- Keep the long-term goal in mind: Use what you wish for your child’s future relationships as motivation to help you take action.
- Name the embarrassment - it’s relieving.
- Talk in situations where you don’t need to make eye contact - in the car, washing up, walking the dog.
- Practice the correct names for sexual body parts.
- Separate your feelings about sex from the accurate information that you need to convey.
educateempowerkids.org -‘30 Days of Sex Talks’
bettymartin.org - Wheel of Consent resources • scarleteen.com
link.thegreenparent.co.uk/consent - video illustrating consent