Let's Talk about Sex... With Your Baby?!?!
According to the Kinsey Institute, the average kid loses his or her virginity before he or she graduates high school. For boys, it's an average of 16.9 years, and girls lose their virginity on average at 17.4 years. Heroin use is up amongst teenagers. All of this points to a simple fact: that the time to talk about HIV/AIDS with kids is much earlier than you possibly thought.
Today is National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, and it's time to open up the conversation with your child that AIDS doesn't just happen to "other" people: it's a disease that every sexually active or potentially sexually active teenager needs to know about in depth in order to take the necessary steps to reduce their risk for transmission.
But how do you start that conversation with your child?
Some parents are squeamish to start the conversation, afraid that doing so conveys a message that they condone their child's sexual exploration. But isn't the opposite possibility ten times scarier than teaching your child how to put on a condom? That they could be left without vital information that could protect their overall health? In addition, some parents unrealistically believe that they know with certainty that their child is a virgin. The reality is that statistics tell a very different story about the frequency of teenage sex. The best approach is to believe only what you know to be fact and accept that your child may be part of that statistic above. You'll never know unless you catch them in the act... or ask.
There isn't a magic age to start talking to your child about safe sex. Like most charged topics, the conversation best unfolds in small steps over the course of many years. In elementary school, the focus may be on HIV itself; not talking about how it's transmitted but more the concept that there are diseases that can be passed through contact with blood. This is a good age to discuss HIV in terms of safety. In middle school and high school, the conversation needs to include that the disease can be passed through sexual contact and how people can minimize their risk by utilizing condoms or asking sexual partners to get tested for the virus.
And as a former health teacher, I have a bit of advice on how to open up this conversation with your child, regardless of age:
- Choose a time when you're both not distracted. Put down the mobile phones, turn off the television, and look each other in the face. A second choice would be to open the talk while you are driving and your child is in the car for a long drive. This way, if you're nervous, you can keep your eyes on the road.
- Take away sex's power. You may be coming into this conversation with baggage about sex. You may have beliefs about sex or have had a negative experience with sex or feel empowered by sex. And all of that is about you. This conversation is about your child. Do not make sex larger than it really is: don't let it loom huge in your mind like a bogeyman who is going to turn your precious, innocent child into a crazy sex addict nor make it the end-all-and-be-all of the teenage years. Your children are looking to you to figure out how they should feel about sex. If you are too emotional, too anxious, or too dismissive about sex in this conversation, your child will pick up on that energy. You simply want to present the facts and not inflate sex or give it more power than it should have.
- Find out how much your child already knows. Most schools start education about sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV even before they begin their lessons on sexual health. In addition, your child will pick up information from other kids. Gently correct any information your child misunderstood from class or the playground. Remind your kids that your job is to educate them, but their job is not to educate others. They should allow other kids to have their parents educate them.
- Let the conversation be child-led. Tell your child that you plan on presenting them with information in a moment, but you'd rather first hear what questions are rolling around in their mind. The information may end up coming at them out of order, but allowing the conversation to unfold with the child in control of the flow of information is not only empowering to the child but it provides you with a fill-in-the-blank approach so you know what to say next if you start to get nervous.
- If you're feeling nervous, use a book. Think of it as your script, and you're just an actor, presenting the story. Peter Mayle has a great set of two books that have been used by parents for decades for younger children. You may want to gift teenagers with a book such as Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, which is a book similar to Our Bodies, Ourselves but aimed at teens.
- Be frank. Your job is not to scare them or coddle them. It's to present the information without telling your child how to think or feel about their sexuality or various sexual acts. Information provided concisely and clearly, without emotion, leaves the power in your child's hands to decide the path they wish to take. Don't leave them in a position where they feel they need to use sexuality as a place to rebel against you.
- Be honest. If you don't feel that your child is old enough to know certain information, the best thing you can do is explain that you will happily answer the question fully at a later date, but right now, you're telling them what they need to know. The worst thing you can do is lie or blow off your child's question. If their question makes you uncomfortable, explain that to your child. But don't shut down conversation by making them feel wrong for coming to you with a question.
- Don't let your sole discussion of sexuality be doom and gloom. Most parents keep their discussion of sexuality to topics such as HIV or teen pregnancy: not the cheeriest elements of sex. If you're opening up this conversation with HIV, make sure you counterbalance it with pointing out the good things about sex so that sex does not become something scary that must be avoided.
- Don't be afraid to share your values. Even though you don't want to make decisions for them, it's fine to let your child know your expectations and why. It's not enough to simply ask your kids to wait until adulthood to have sex in the same way that it wouldn't deter you if someone simply pointed at a door and asked you not to open it. On the other hand, if someone asked you not to open the door because there was something behind that door that could harm you and they were trying to protect you, there would be a much stronger impetus to follow their directions.
- You don't have to share your personal sexual history. Your child may ask out of curiosity or to gauge whether you're having similar life experiences. You can explain that you ask them about their sexual history in order to help them make good choices since you are there to guide them as their parent, but that in general, a person's sexual history is something they should volunteer to discuss and not have questioned. On the other hand, you may have regrets about when you lost your virginity, and it's okay to use your personal story to explain why you're asking something different from your child.
- Leave the door open. Remind your child at the end of the conversation that while this particular talk may be over, that you know questions and new information pop up over time. Make sure they know explicitly that you are a resource for information.
And that's how you get through the dreaded sex talk and give your children the tools to protect themselves in the process. Don't count on your child's school to educate them about their bodies or sexuality. That conversation is best played in your court, providing a sound foundation for schools to build from.