Sex Education Starts at Home

Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.

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I have a sixteen year old and a ten year old.
They are asking questions about sex and AIDS.
How should I answer without overwhelming them?

Talking about sex and disease in a way that will inform and calm them is critical in today's world.


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Take advantage of the many resources available to you.

Special pamphlets are available from The Centers for Disease Control (800-342-AIDS, or for a Spanish version 800-344-SIDA; for the hearing impaired 800-AIDS-TTY) for children and teenagers, as well as for adults.

If your child asks you about sex or disease, be casual and give them an accurate answer at a level they will understand.

Use correct language, and start talking about the issues early in a child's life. Talk about menstruation, PMS, condoms, and circumcision in front of your children. If they feel safe, they'll ask you what these words mean and you can explain briefly, according to their age level. If and when they want more information, they'll ask you if discussion is an easy activity with you.

Don't make threats.

They only give children and teenagers reason to rebel or avoid you with their questions.

If your child doesn't seem interested, don't push.

It may not be the right time for them, or they may feel uncomfortable with you or the topic. Just let them know you are available if they want to talk about anything.

If you are embarrassed, say so.

They know you and will see your embarrassment, so why hide it? Say something like, "We didn't talk much about this when I was your age, so it's a bit tough for me to talk with you now. But, I want you to know the facts, so I' ll deal with my embarrassment. Let me tell you what I know and we can find out more together if you want to know more...."

Be understanding.

If you over hear your kids talking about sex, bring them something to read with facts and pictures suited to their age level. Tell them you'd be happy to discuss anything they want, but don't force them to listen to a monologue they don't want to hear. You might be the last person they want to talk with about sex. That's OK, as long as they are getting accurate information somewhere. If you're not sure, ask other parents, your school or church leader about good sex education classes for kids.

Find information sources that match the needs and developmental readiness of your child or teenager.

Get all the information you can; and tell your child or teenager to read it because you want to talk about it. Another resource might be your local county health department; your local library; your local school district; or your church. Videos, books, pamphlets and even sex education classes for teens are available in most communities if you check around. Then, when you are alone with your child or teen, casually bring up the material and ask what they thought about it.

Be sure to look over the material.

Different sources offer different approaches, based on different values. For example, some will advocate total abstinence from sexual activity until marriage, and some will suggest condoms and actually show how to use them. Explanations of how to use condoms can be graphic in varying degrees. Some of the most detailed programs will explain how to use a condom by demonstrating how to roll one down someone's fingers, or over a banana.

Assume that your child is developing sexually a few years earlier than you did.

The media has changed, and kids are exposed to a lot of sexual imagery. They need help making sense of it (so do many adults). Kids are also reaching puberty at an earlier age. It is not unusual for girls to reach begin menstruating at 10 or 11 years of age.

Don't laugh, no matter how "cute" you think something is.

Don't discuss your sexual history or experience.

Don't ask teens if there is "anything they want to know" from you about sex.

It is the nature of the teenage state to know more than you do. They probably think you haven't had sex in at least a decade....

Once an older child has asked what you mean by a certain term you've used casually, like "wet dream," explain and follow with questions about specifics. Don't ask about their own experience directly. Help them feel comfortable by not putting them on the spot. Use questions like:


Do they know what wet dreams are?

Do they know what spontaneous erections are?

What do they think about the AIDS crisis?

What do they know about how a girl can get pregnant?

What do they know about birth control?

Have they ever wondered how a condom is used?

Ask about the information they are getting at school. If it is from teachers (rather than just their friends), call the school and ask to have a copy of the program, but make your request without embarrassing your child. Or look at their books. Make sure you know what they are being taught, and that you have at least as many facts as they do. That brings me to my last point.

If you have never read about sex, inform yourself. Go to the library for a few hours, or pick up a good book at the bookstore. Several titles are available not only for general sexual information, but also for how to talk with your kids.

The risk is ever growing. Learn to talk with your children about sex now, or take the risk of waiting to talk with them after they're in trouble. One of every eighteen teenage girls get pregnant in the United States every year. One of every five people carry a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States. One of every 250 Americans carries the AIDS virus (HIV). One in every 5 AIDS patients caught the virus in their teenage years. Did you know these facts? Your children are innocent and important. Protect them.


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Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D. is a Licensed Psychologist. She has a private practice in San Diego, California.

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