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Beyond the Sex Talk: Communicating With Your Kids About Sex, Sexuality, and Consent

Many parents drag their feet into the dreaded "sex talk" with their children. Maybe it's time we take the pressure off of that single talk. If we want the sex and relationships our children ultimately have to be physically, psychologically, and emotionally healthy then we'd better start talking to them about it early and often.

Some parents don't talk to their kids about sex because they fear that it will spark their interest in it but just the opposite is true. Young people who have good communication with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity and be responsible and safe. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Get educated. Find good books that provide solid information. Talk to your friends about how they have talked to their kids. What information did they draw on?
  • Get comfortable. It's normal to feel nervous or unsure when you start talking to your kids about sex and sexuality. It's okay to be honest with them about this too. There is nothing wrong with saying "It's not always easy for me to talk about this with you because my family never did when I was growing up. But this is so important so I am going to do the best I can, okay?"
  • Talk often. Get rid of the sex talk and look for opportunities to have many shorter conversations instead. Sex comes up all the time in the media; use these as conversation starters.
  • Choose the right times. Try to find times where this is some privacy and you aren't rushed to finish the conversation. Choose times that aren't emotionally charged already.
  • Don't preach. Young people tend to shut off during long, drawn-out lectures. Say your piece and then let it go.
  • Make it a dialogue. Ask your child questions and listen to their answers. Try not to cut them off with statements like, "What you think doesn't matter. I am your parent and I know way more than you do." This merely teaches your teen to keep their opinions to themselves.
  • Multiple messages are okay. It is just fine to tell your children why it is important to delay sexual activity and make sure they have accurate information about sexually transmitted infections, birth control, consent, and safer sex.
  • Discuss dating and relationships. Find ways to talk about the importance of building strong relationships that include respect and honesty. You might say something like, "On TV dates always end up in bed. Dating should be a time to get to know someone."
  • Don't use disparaging remarks about gay, lesbian, or transgender people. Be open to talking to your children about the spectrum of feelings and attractions they may experience during adolescence.
  • Share your values. We need to teach our kids that relationships include respect and responsibility. We need to teach our kids that we don't want them to rush into sexual behavior even though they are increasingly interested in sex. We need to teach the communication and relationships skills that are the foundation of healthy relationships. This will help them prepare for both the joys and challenges that love brings when they find it.

Recent high-profile sexual assault cases as well as increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses has put consent into the spotlight. But waiting until college to talk about consent isn't doing our kids any favors. You can lay the foundation for talking about consent right away and continue talking about it through middle and high school.

  • Teaching children about consent starts early. You can teach children as young as one year old to ask before hugging or touching their friends. Avoid forcing your child to hug and kiss you or others. Ask and then offer alternatives like high-5s, blowing kisses or waving if they don't want a hug.
  • Respect your child when they say "no" and "stop." Come up with an agreed upon safe word to use when someone wants to stop playing. Teach your children to get comfortable asking for play to stop and respecting when others want it to stop.
  • Talk to your kids about trusting their gut. Children use all kinds of ways to describe discomfort, from their bellies hurting to their legs feeling funny. Teach them to trust this feeling and come to you to talk it through.
  • Talk about bodies in clear, accurate, and direct ways. Avoid communicating shame or embarrassment to questions about bodies and sex.
  • Empathy is central to truly understanding why consent matters. Teach empathy.

As your child grows up -- talking with teens:

  • Use media to start conversations about relationships and sexual assault.
  • Remind your child that they have the right, at any time, to change their mind about how they want to be touched.
  • Don't focus solely on stranger danger. The majority of sexual assaults are committed by people that young people already know.
  • It is okay to be frank when talking about consent. "How do you know if someone wants you to kiss them?" Explain that only a verbal "yes" indicates consent.
  • Talk to your child about their brain, about falling in love and standing in love.
  • Talk about what it looks like to stand up for someone else if you see them being taken advantage of.
  • Talk about alcohol and drugs. Tell your children that you don't want them to be drinking or using drugs but talk about how to keep themselves and others safe at a party. Be clear that being drunk does not make being assaulted your fault.
  • Watch your own language. Be sure to never communicate that sexual assault or rape is the survivor's fault or normalize inappropriate behaviors. For example, "She should never have been wearing that" or "Boys will be boys!"