Talking Sex, Consent and Sexual Safety with Our Children
Talking Sex and Sexual Safety with Our Children
…and with Our Parents
Julia Hochstadt, LCSW for Whyzz.com
The following information is meant to apply to any and all children, boys and girls alike, and can be used to describe and discuss any and all permutations of sexual identities and sexual relationships.
For many people, the thought of having conversations with our children about something like sex and sexual safety is a no-brainer; of course I’m going to talk with them about it. But for many others, this is not the case. These conversations can be anxiety-producing, but rest assured, it is possible to have them. When it comes to sex and sexuality, studies show that kids who feel that they can talk with their parents about sex – because their parents speak openly and listen carefully to them – are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as compared to kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about it.
It is ok to admit your discomfort to your child, should you feel uncomfortable; in fact, this actually allows children to assess their own comfort level and to express it to us. This could sound something like “You know, I’m uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything – including sex – so please come to me if you have any questions. And if I don’t know the answer, I’ll work to find out.”
How you talk about sex will change depending on your needs and comfort level, but also in regards to who your child is, which no one knows better than you. Talk about sex in a way that fits the age and stage of your child. Take the initiative – if your child hasn’t started asking questions about sex, look for an opportunity to bring it up. Here’s an example of how bringing this conversation up might sound:
“So, Jenna/Joseph, there’s been something I’ve been meaning to talk with you about. It has to do with sex. Do you know what sex is? Have you heard that word before? It may feel weird to talk about this with me at first, but I think it’s important for us to talk about it anyway. I want to chat with you a little bit about the changes your body has been starting to go through. I also want to ask you about questions you might have now, or that you may start to have. What do you think about that?”
When discussing sex with our children, there are many ways to talk about it. You can convey biological facts (different parts have different names and here’s what applies for you; babies come from a tummy or a vagina; girls typically have what’s called a “period” or menstruation starting around the age of 12; your private parts will start to grow hair, called pubic hair etc.”) as well as other aspects of sexual relationships such as caring, concern, responsibility, consequences of sexual activity (pleasure, excitement, joy, sorrow, pregnancy, STD’s etc.) and ways to stay safe (defining and discussing consent, how to say/respond to “no,” what to do in the event of an emergency etc.). Include ideas about dating as part of the conversation. Talk about the current stage your child is in and also anticipate the next stage of development (puberty, menstruation, physical/emotional development). Communicate your values; cozy up with and identify your values beforehand. Talk with your children who are of the same OR opposite sex; really, it’s ok! And lastly, try to relax - Don’t worry about knowing all the answers to your children’s questions; what you know is a lot less important than how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home, you’ll be doing just fine.
A full and complete conversation around sex and sexuality might also include discussion around sexual violence and victimization. For many of us, talking about the possibility of something bad happening leaves us feeling as though we’re tempting fate. Try as we might to be the best parents we can, our complex world challenges us every day with disturbing issues that are difficult for children to understand and for parents to explain. Here's how you might introduce the subject of not only sex, but sexual violence or sexual safety, with your child…
“Max/Maria, you know how we’ve been talking about sex lately? Well, there’s another part to that conversation that I want to have with you, and it’s all about when sex, or how we use our bodies with other people, can sometimes be scary or upsetting. Most of the time, people have sex and use their bodies with someone that they care about in a way that feels safe and good. But other times, people can use their bodies in a way that doesn’t feel so good. If someone tries to force you to do something with your body, or tries to force you to do something to their body, and it makes you feel bad, sad, scared or uncomfortable at all, this is not ok! It would be super important to let a grown up, like me or mom, know that this has happened and I can promise you, you will NEVER be in trouble for something like this. There’s more to talk about when it comes to this stuff, but let’s stop here for a second. Does this make sense for you? What questions do you have about what I’ve said?”
Talking about sex with our kids can be tough stuff. For some of us, talking with our kids about sexual violence/victimization is way tougher. Remember that there are trained professionals who are able to offer information, support and guidance around these issues and that you as parents, are not alone.
Consent can be defined as “the granting of permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.”
Consent can be both active and passive and it’s important to include both in an age-appropriate discussion with your child. When discussing consent, you can also address both asking for consent and giving consent. Some discussion points with children about consent could sound like - “Why is consent important to you?” “What may be confusing about consent?” “When does consent come up, meaning for more than just sex?” “Let’s talk about our feelings when consent is not there – for yourself and for the other person.” “What might it look or sound like if someone IS consenting?” “What might it look or sound like if someone is NOT consenting?” It’s also important to explicitly address that if someone is NOT consenting to something (including your child) that the expectation all around is that the activity should immediately STOP. If this isn’t the case, this is wrong and you can encourage your child to bring something like this to your attention immediately so that you can help.
Here’s how I might explain consent with kids…
“Consent” means saying that something is ok…or that something is not ok. When it comes to our bodies, it’s very important to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable. If someone doesn’t, it’s important to listen to them and to stop. If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s ok to let the other person know it, even if you worry that you might hurt their feelings. Saying ok to one thing doesn’t necessarily mean saying ok to another thing, so it’s important to talk about consent lots of times.”
Understandably, the idea of either giving or withdrawing consent can be very confusing and often embarrassing for people of all ages to negotiate in a real-time sexual situation. This is something to normalize with our children. Talking through and “prepping” what a child could say when they want to provide or withdraw their consent regarding sexual activity may help to alleviate, at least in part, some of these kinds of feelings.
Here’s how I might suggest a child could think of withdrawing their consent…
“Hey, I think I want to stop this now and do something else instead.”
“I don’t want you to touch me there.”
“At first I was having fun, but I’m not anymore. Let’s go outside now.”
“I’m ready to go home.”
You’re doing a great job already, even contemplating a discussion of this nature in your home. Here are a few helpful reminders…
First, talking about sex with your child can happen again and again and again; avoid the sex talk as being a “one and done conversation.”
Second, you know your child best! Keep in mind that these conversations should happen based on age and developmental-stage appropriateness, in addition to knowing from your parental gut what will land best with your child. Remember that it’s totally acceptable to not have all the answers yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s ok to admit this to your child, and to circle back after you do a bit more research. Discussions with our children can be about healthy, safe and unhealthy or unsafe situations, including where/how to access support.
Lastly, remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE! For support, resources and more information, feel free to contact me at www.TherapyWithJulia.com.
About Julia Hochstadt
Julia Hochstadt, LCSW, Psychotherapist has been working with survivors of trauma and crime for nearly 20 years in hospital-based and private practice settings.
Julia maintains a psychotherapy practice with offices in Midland Park, NJ and in midtown Manhattan. In addition to her clinical work, Julia facilitates educational courses for medical, legal and other professional and community audiences related to interpersonal violence. She regularly testifies as an expert witness with the Manhattan and Bronx District Attorneys offices.
Julia holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Columbia University, advanced Clinical Certificates from NYU, and certification in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. Julia can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website www.TherapyWithJulia.com.