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I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile now, so I’m excited that it’s finally coming together! I studied sexuality and addictions a lot in my major in college (I have a bachelor’s in Marriage and Family Studies). I’m really fascinated at the fact that so much of what adults feels about sex, their body, and intimacy, depends largely on how their parent taught them about these things. That may seem like an obvious thing to say, but think about it: How much do your attitudes about sex stem from your experiences with your parents? I would be willing to bet that as you entered adulthood, most of what you thought about bodies, modesty, and intimacy was a fairly direct result of your parents’ attitudes about it all. Even if you’re like me and you were raised in a part-religious family, with your parents teaching you certain things that were different than what your personal religion taught, the attitudes that your parents have about sex ultimately affect us, even in subtle or subconscious ways.
That being said, why did so many of us grow up in homes where sex was talked about so little, that it was almost a forbidden subject? Furthermore, why do so many parents choose to not be open with their kids about sex, in a society that flaunts sex and treats people like sexual objects? It completely blows my mind that so many parents expect their teens and young adults to be abstinent, modest, pornography-free, and respectful, just simply by telling them to be this way; when at every turn these teens and young adults are exposed to pornography, media that portrays sex extremely causally, and societal pressures that tell them, “if you are not sexy you are worthless”.
How can we even begin to expect our young people to make healthy choices about sexuality if WE- their PARENTS- do not directly, actively, diligently, constantly, teach them how to be healthy sexual beings? Because whether we want to dwell on it or not, sex is one of the fundamentals of life: it is how each of us got here; and healthy attitudes about it are essential for healthy relationships.
So what I want to do is talk about how parents can go about teaching their children about human intimacy. I want to answer questions like “When do we start talking about it? When do we have “the talk”? Is it possible to be too open with my kids about this stuff? How do I keep it age-appropriate?” And, “How do I know what to say?”
For the third and final part of this series, we will focus on how we as parents can create an environment of love, respect, and safety around the topic of sex.
Empathy in the Parent-Child Relationship
The John Gottman Institute is my favorite place to learn about emotional intelligence. The Gottmans are especially known for their research and work in marriage counseling, but they have also done a lot of research in parenting. Their relationship blog is amazing! In the article How to Be a Parent Your Child Wants to Talk To, it is explained that parents should strive to show their children empathy:
“When a child is truly in distress because they feel hurt, disappointed, worried, or angry, they desperately need their parent. Yet, often, parents don’t want to see their child feeling negatively, so their first instinct is to tell their child not to feel the way they do. Before they think, statements such as “don’t be disappointed” or “don’t be mad” escape. This results in the child feeling ashamed of how they feel, compounding the hurt. Moreover, the knowledge that their parent does not understand leaves them feeling alone, which is detrimental. Basically, the child learns that opening up about how they feel makes them feel worse.
“A better idea is to empathize. Honor their feelings. Feelings are never wrong; it’s what kids do with feelings that can get them in trouble.
“After you give them a solid dose of empathy, the child feels understood and connected to you, which means they immediately feel better and will want your help in problem solving. In many cases, the empathy is all they need to feel better. Simply knowing their parent understands allows them to feel secure and forge ahead” (Leonard).
Establishing a relationship in which your child feels comfortable talking to you about things is the first step in healthy parent-child communication. This trickles down to how you talk about sex with your child. When they ask questions, even when they experiment innocently (like with masturbation), NEVER make them feel ashamed.
Remember That Their Bodies Are THEIRS
Even though we may cringe at some of the things our kids do as they grow up (innocent and not-so-innocent alike), we need to remember that they are their own people- their bodies are theirs. Human intimacy is very natural and is an extremely important part of life. If kids learn as they grow up that sex is healthy and good in the appropriate setting, then they will understand that it isn’t something that’s evil or something to be afraid of. And if they learn all of these things from you, they will trust you to answer important questions- questions about life that only you should answer.
I believe that a massive part of parenting is teaching our children about their bodies; about the bodies of the other gender; about sex; about how to avoid pornography habits; about how to treat every person they come across with respect; how to love their own body; how to respect other people’s bodies; how to have a healthy sex life; and how to be in healthy emotional relationships. Ultimately, it is our job to teach them how to be good people and how to take care of themselves. It all starts with good, strong communication from the very beginning. Talk to your kids ALWAYS. Listen to them. Answer their questions honestly. Show them consistent love by always being there for them. Never make them feel ashamed for feeling a certain way or for asking certain questions. Talk to them about hard things- don’t let anyone else do it, YOU are the one they want to hear from! Trust your kids to do the right thing. And most importantly, tell them that YOU LOVE THEM often, every single day!!!
I have found a ton of books that teach about sexuality, for both kids and parents! Here’s my list (the last one is about emotional intelligence, by John Gottman):