The Aftermath of Penn State: How to Talk to Your Children about Sex and Sexual Abuse

How do you talk to your children about sex and avoiding dangerous people that might hurt them? At what age? Years ago, parents would have a “talk” about the birds and the bees with their children, explaining the mechanics of pregnancy, childbirth, and the sexual act. Currently, the thinking among child psychologists is that rather than a single “talk” about sex, there should be an ongoing dialogue that continues until the child reaches young adulthood. All of these talks, of course, need to be age appropriate- what you tell your ten year old is not what you discuss with your 4 year old. It is important, however, to begin early; if parents wait until a child’s teen years to discuss their sexuality, they may have waited too long.

As the Joe Paterno Penn State scandal demonstrates, sexual topics are ever more pervasive and present in the media, and parents are finding that it is increasing difficult to shield them from these explicit sexual issues. What parents can do is convey their values by talking to their children, and controlling what they learn from the media event. This is a smart approach since research shows that the more information children have, the better decisions they make, and the more likely they are to postpone having sex.

Often times parents feel unprepared to talk about their personal feelings or answer the sometimes embarrassing, and very specific, questions that their kids ask. “What if they ask me about my sex life?” The important thing to remember is that you do not have to have all of the answers. A child needs an environment where he or she feels safe and comfortable talking to you about their feelings and thoughts. There are very good children’s books that can be used as tools to bridge communication.

Kids need to know not only the “how” and “why” of sex but the social and emotional issues surrounding it well. Starting when they are toddlers, they should learn the anatomically correct, clinical words for body parts. Perhaps more importantly, starting when they are toddlers, children need to learn what is safe and unsafe touching. Parents of kids age 5-8 need to continue to clarify and expand the facts. For example, explaining the facts of puberty and the changes to expect from their body. At about age 9, a conversation ought to occur about pornography, explaining that while some adults do look at pictures of naked people, it is not OK for children to look at them. Age 9-12, kids need more detailed information about puberty, and the dangers of entering into a sexual relationship too early.

Once your child is a teenager, the focus ought to shift from talking about the mechanics to focusing on the values you believe are important. Dating, romance, and what is a healthy relationship ought to be explored. Sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy prevention, and safe sex in general ought to be discussed at this time. Parents of teenagers are encouraged to create an environment in which teens feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Ask lots of questions.

As teens get older, the focus should be on relationships and their thoughts on them. Topics such as casual sex, peer pressure, and date rape are appropriate.

Toddlers to Preschool
•Talk about what is a safe touch, what is not.
•Talk about what to do if someone touches your child in an inappropriate way
•Talk about body parts using clinical words.
•Explain the basics of pregnancy and birth

Age 5 to 8
•Start talking about puberty and the changes to the body

Age 9 to 12
•Explain what Pornography is and that it is not okay for kids.
•Explains some of the dangers of a sexual relationship

Ages 13 to 15
•Talk about values and relationships. What is healthy, safe, and loving in a relationship?
•How to Have Safe Sex
•Pregnancy Prevention
•The Prevention of Sexual Transmitted diseases
•Engage in a conversation about when they believe they are ready to have sex

Age 16 to 20
•Emphasis is on values
•Discussing casual sex
•How to avoid date rape
•How not to give in to peer pressure

If not now, when?

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