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Health Tips for Parents

2006 Issues

How do I talk to my child about sex?

Parents of school-aged children often dread their child’s first questions about sex, not knowing quite how to respond. Yet, the topic of sex is too important to be a one-time conversation, and provides parents an ongoing opportunity to help their children make safe, informed decisions as they mature.

According to Martin Anderson, MD, adolescent specialist at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, 30 percent of female and 40 percent of male ninth graders are sexually active. “If parents wait until their child hits adolescence, they may have really missed the boat,” says Dr. Anderson. “Parents need to realize that their children are getting information from a variety of outlets, including TV, the Internet and friends, so they need to step up and become involved in their children’s sex education early on.”

Human sexuality is a normal part of every person’s life — even small children. At a young age, children are aware of the differences between boys and girls and realize that private parts are not for public view. As grade school approaches, children’s natural curiosity may lead them to ask questions about what they see and hear from friends and other sources.

Questions and answers
According to Dr. Anderson, schoolage children are often curious about their bodies and concepts related to sexuality. When children ask parents a question about sex, they are open and receptive to learning the answer. Parents should seize these moments and begin a discussion. Dr. Anderson suggests parents first clarify what, exactly, the child is asking about and how much they may already know. Armed with this insight, parents should give a straightforward answer that the child can understand.

Complex answers are not necessary at the grade-school age. “Parents shouldn’t use a child’s simple question as a launching point for a big discussion on many topics related to their body and sexuality,” Dr. Anderson says. “For example, if a child asks where babies come from, a detailed discussion of fertilization may end up confusing the matter.” Dr. Anderson also suggests that parents use the proper anatomical words when describing body parts or concepts.

Seize opportunities
In a typical day, many opportunities arise for parents to directly or indirectly bring up the subject of sexuality. Bath time or any time when a child is particularly physical may provide an inroad to discuss a topic. Prime time television, which broadcasts thousands of scenes a year of a sexual nature, provides another good conversation starting point.

On the cusp of puberty, school-age children may become more aware of their own sexuality. Parents should talk openly about bodily changes and the basics of sexuality. Children — who have an understanding by grade school of personal hygiene — should also understand what sexually transmitted diseases are and how they are spread. Using their own family values as a backdrop, parents should openly discuss the basics of intercourse, methods of contraception and how to protect against pregnancy. Children should also know the difference between “good” and “bad” — or inappropriate — touching.

Establish a rapport
According to Dr. Anderson, when a parent is able to talk openly — without embarrassment — to a child about sex, that child is better equipped to form a healthy sense of self and sexual identity. There is no evidence, according to Dr. Anderson, that discussing sex makes children more likely to engage in sexual activity. Conversely, if a parent is embarrassed by the topic or tends to ignore questions, that child may begin to think of sexuality as something taboo. When a comfortable relationship is established, today’s grade-school children may be more receptive to important warnings about teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other topics in their teenage years. 

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