FIVE COMMON MISTAKES PARENTS MAKE WHEN TALKING TO THEIR KIDS ABOUT PUBERTY AND SEX
In my years of teaching parents and children about puberty and sexual health and education, I have routinely asked parents this exact question, “How many of you feel that you had all of the information you needed when growing up, to comfortably get through puberty and beyond?” Ninety to 100% of the time, the answer is, “No.” For the small 10% of those who say yes, most of them are a vague yes with comments of saying they generally felt prepared. Today’s parents of teens and tweens mostly came from a generation where our parents didn’t talk to us about any of this information. Think back…it wasn’t appropriate for kids to ask about or talk about money or finances. If someone died, they ‘went to a better place.’ Babies came from the cabbage patch or were dropped off by the stork. Sound familiar? These were all avoidance techniques that were meant to distract kids from asking about or talking about many of these topics that we know today, we should be talking to kids about.
There are a handful of reasons that parents don’t talk to their kids about these topics with most of those reasons centering around fear. Fear of how to have the conversations, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of not having the answers to kids’ questions, fear of encouraging something they aren’t ready for, and the list goes on. As we all know in life, fear should not be the reason for not doing something. We just need to get a little help to arm us with the tools we need, to make these conversations both productive and successful. Here are some common communications pitfalls to avoid when talking about the “birds and the bees.”
Mistake #1 - Giving too much information at once
One of the things many parents do when we are nervous is nervous chatter. We start talking and then we just keep on going. One of the main reasons for doing this during “the talks” is that once we start talking, we might think that this may be the one and only conversation we can get our child to sit through and listen. Once they know the topic of conversation, they may never want to sit and talk again. And because of this, parents feel the need to get all the information out in one looooooooong talk because the information is important and if we only get one chance, we’re gonna make it good! Kids can only handle so much information at once. Let’s face it, for most kids, this isn’t exactly great information in their minds. When they’re done, they’re really done. They’re not going to continue processing any more information once they’ve hit this wall, no matter how much there still is to tell them. That is why, this should never just be one talk. Kids need multiple talks over several years so the information stays relevant to the age they are at and also to reinforce topics you’ve already talked about as they get older and the information is more relevant in their lives.
Mistake #2 - Sharing too many personal details or sharing too little personal details. How much of your own past should you share?
When you work up the courage to have these talks, you are bound to get questions back. When I first started these talks, before I really knew what I was doing, one of my daughter’s favorite questions to ask me was, “Do you and daddy do that?” It seemed like every new fact was followed by the exact same question. So of course, it made me want stop talking to avoid having to answer this question that I wasn’t necessarily ready for or prepared to answer. When it comes to answering personal questions, this is something I like to warn parents about ahead of time, just in case they find themselves in the same uncomfortable position I once found myself in. Before even starting these talks, check in with yourself and your partner and think about what information you may or may not be ok with sharing during these talks. Some people don’t feel comfortable sharing any of their own personal information with their children. Remember this, if you want kids to come to you with questions and things they need help with, you have to be relatable to them, which means that it is helpful to share at least some of your own past. How much you relate is up to you. Decide what you are comfortable sharing and what is off limits for now (this may change later). It is important to establish boundaries and set a positive example of what is private between you and your relationship and what is ok to share within your family.
Mistake #3 - Not admitting awkwardness
Just like all things parenting, we don’t have to be perfect with these conversations. You will make mistakes, you will stumble, you will at times be uncomfortable, you are learning. Give yourself a little bit of a break. When you are learning to have these conversations, you have to give yourself permission to fumble. I believe one of the best things you can do ahead of any conversation is fess up. It’s ok for your kids to know that you have no experience talking about this stuff, your own parents didn’t talk to you about this stuff, and this isn’t something we talk about all the time, so it may be a little weird. This IS important though which makes it important to talk about. Telling your child that you may be a little awkward with these conversations because of all of that is perfectly fine. Just do your best to not let your own awkwardness make them think that you don’t want to talk to them about it. When you don’t address the elephant in the room, it becomes very obvious that this is going to be a weird and uncomfortable conversation and that is definitely not the goal you are aiming for.
Mistake #4 - Using funny names and words for body parts and to describe puberty and sex
This one goes back to the last one a bit but is equally as important. In our own awkwardness, we may try to make things a little easier by using words and phrases that are more comfortable to discuss. It might seem easier to say hoo hah for vagina or pee pee for penis. When we come up with cutesy alternate names for things, we are actually modeling to our children a few unintentional things:
- If we can’t say the words, why should they?
- Using alternate words or phrases adds the shame and guilt we felt when we grew up and knew we couldn’t talk about it, to our children.
- It is taboo or inappropriate to talk about if we have to use code words.
- We can’t talk about this openly because we don’t even feel comfortable using the correct terms.
We were raised differently when we were young than what most parents want for their own children today. If we want our kids to grow up being comfortable talking to us about this information, talking to a partner someday about their wants and needs, talking to their own future children, we have to break the cycle we grew up with. I can’t say this enough, using the correct terminology for body parts and body changes, are not bad words. Penis, vagina, vulva, testicles, breasts…none of these are bad words. They are body parts. Don’t let your own embarrassment cause you to make the same mistakes your parents may have made, while teaching your children about being healthy. Imagine if one day, your child has to see a doctor for pain in or around their genitals or even worse, report a sexual abuse or sexual assault. If they are able to report it using correct terminology, it helps to empower them to report things correctly. Someone who can report having some irritation inside their vagina vs saying “My coochie is bothering me.” leaves a lot less to try to unravel for the doctor or police.
Mistake #5 - Assuming they know nothing or assuming they know more than you think
When it comes to any kind of puberty education or sex education, treat your child like a blank page in a book. No assumptions allowed. Even better, ask them what they know about a certain subject by giving them prompts. “Have you heard about this? Do you know anything about this? Have you talked about ….. in school?” Do your homework and don’t assume you don’t have to have these conversations because surely, they have heard about it already. Let me paint a really obvious picture. Sure, they may know about it, but if they didn’t hear about it from you, what they may already know may be very very wrong. On the other side of this, when parents assume their kids know nothing so it’s ok to delay talking about any of this until they have questions, please realize that they will only asking questions because they heard something somewhere else. The best time to have these talks is BEFORE they hear about any of it from others. Part of being a sex positive parent, means making no subjects in your house off limits.
Even with everything said here, I know these conversations are still difficult and that’s what I’m here for. If you are looking for a way to make all of these conversations fun, interactive (where your kids WANT to participate), and you both learn how to comfortably talk together, think about joining one of my classes WITH your child. We discuss the facts in class and you get to have fun afterwards discussing the values and beliefs that are individual to your own family. All classes are age appropriate, inclusive, and encourage body positivity. I’m here to help you to not only have these conversations openly but to have them in a way that keeps bringing your kids back to ask questions when they have them. Check it out at www.theritesofpassage.biz. We believe in a world where no subject is taboo!
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