Many parents feel discomfort with the idea of talking to their kids about anything related to sex. We may even distance ourselves from the idea by referring to this as “the talk.” It’s understandable; this may be unfamiliar territory because many adults never even had “the talk” with their own parents when they were young. It’s difficult to know what to say, what not to say, or even how to begin talking about topics like sex, developing bodies, or masturbation if you’ve never had those conversations with anyone.
At Saprea, we encourage you to be the one to educate your kids about sex and anything related to it. Helping your child know the names of body parts that are off-limits to others, what healthy relationships look like (or don’t look like) and telling them all the things you wish you had known about sex may help your child to raise red flags if they are ever in a situation where they are at risk of being abused. Plus, if your child has questions and knows you’ll provide open and honest answers (and they won’t get in trouble for asking), you’ll be able to have more influence over the accuracy of the information they’re getting.
Curiosity about bodies, relationships, intimacy, and sex is a natural part of growing up. As you establish yourself as the expert who will provide the information your child needs, they’ll be more likely to see you as the source of information about sex (and anything related to it).
Parents can Educate kids by following these recommendations:
When To talk about Sex
Teaching Anatomical Names
Depictions in Pornography
When Should I Talk to My Kids About Sex?
Kids are great at providing cues for when it’s a good time to talk about sex. In fact, they’ll give you many, many indications—often through expressions of curiosity—that they are ready to learn. These opportunities can help you to build trust, normalize their experiences, and steer them toward the best choices for them.
In A series of Conversations
Answer all the questions
Have Day-to-day Interactions
Participate in Honest, Two-way Conversations
Connect to Prevent
Should I Teach My Kids Anatomical Names for Private Parts?
When it comes to genitalia, nicknames abound. It may seem more comfortable for parents to use unofficial names to describe “unmentionable” parts of the body, in part because they are concerned that the child may choose an embarrassing moment to declare aloud that they have a penis or vagina.
Build a Foundation
There are a few reasons that child development experts encourage the use of accurate terminology. First, using nicknames can imply that there’s something shameful or naughty about the body, so much so that the “real” names for parts can’t even be uttered. The unintended consequence can be that a child feels like any discussion about private parts is off-limits, and the child may conclude that asking a parent about sex, discussing changes in the body as it matures, or reporting when something has happened that has made them uncomfortable, is something that will get them in trouble. If the parent isn’t the trusted source for information that the child needs or wants, they may end up turning to other, less trustworthy sources to get it.
It’s also common for children who associate the body with shame to struggle when they are grown, knowing little about their own bodies and what sex and intimacy entail. It can be difficult, unsettling even, to go from “sex-is-bad-and-we-don’t-talk-about-anything-related-to-it” to an abrupt shift that involves a sexual relationship. Nearly all parents want their children to grow to live fulfilling lives, and for many that includes companionship and family. Thinking about the end goal can be helpful in making decisions about how to navigate these topics when children are young. Certainly, that doesn’t mean oversharing or providing children with sex education that is beyond their developmental stage. Instead, it’s about providing a foundation of information that they can build upon as they get older. And if you know that eventually they’ll need to see a doctor to discuss vaginal health, it seems reasonable that the child would know where and what her vagina is.
Understanding the importance
Armed with this information, a child will be more likely to understand if something they’ve experienced is something they should report to a trusted adult. (It may make sense to tell children that sometimes, under specific circumstances, a doctor may need to check these areas; you can provide reassurance about that experience.) As they mature and have a better understanding of the functions of these areas of the body, those conversations may change from “no-touch areas” to “areas that may be touched when consent is involved,” but it should be clear to older children and teens that submitting to pressure isn’t consent, and even when dates are involved they don’t have the right to expect access to anyone else’s body.
Should I Talk to My Child About Pornographic Content?
In a world where technology is widely available and the internet has revolutionized access to and distribution of information and content, it’s no longer really a question of if your child will encounter pornography; instead, it’s a question of when and what kind.
Whether you are adamantly against your child or teen viewing pornography, or accept it as a manifestation of curiosity, it’s important to highlight that the days of porn simply being pictures of naked people in magazines are long gone. Sexually explicit materials used to be something you had to seek out—videos to rent from the back room of the video store. Now, there are dedicated websites with vast collections of pornography that can be viewed at the click of a button, featuring all kinds of sexual fetishes and behaviors.
Most striking is the volume of sexually explicit content that is violent. In a 2010 study of 304 randomly selected scenes of pornographic video content, 90% contained “sexually violent or dehumanizing/degrading themes.”1 If the internet is teaching a child about sex, the child may glean that sex is often violent, consent is optional, and intimacy is irrelevant. These perceptions can detrimentally impact the child’s underlying attitudes toward future partners and expectations for what will (or won’t) happen during future sexual encounters.
Consider what we already know about how technology has influenced the production and distribution of sexually explicit materials. In addition to creating a lucrative market for making and selling child sexual abuse materials (aka, “child porn”), the internet has started to introduce open AI programs that allow machines to develop content. With that new technology, there’s an accompanying rise in the production of machine-generated child sexual abuse materials, which presents its own set of very complex challenges. Saprea unequivocally denounces child sexual abuse in any form, including recordings or media where acts of sexual abuse are shared, distributed, and add a cumulative effect to the trauma already experienced by the child. It will require a comprehensive set of interventions to eradicate child sexual abuse materials. At Saprea we are fighting for the day where there is no market, nor demand, for child sexual abuse materials of any kind.
How Do I Talk to My Child About Pornographic Content?
While understanding the reasons is important, how you talk to your child about pornography is most important. In some cultures, the consumption of pornographic materials is shameful. When shame is a motivator parents use to change behaviors in a child, there may be lifelong impacts that are difficult for a child to cope with and thought patterns that are challenging to overcome. Our recommendation is that parents explain the why’s behind the rules in place, and to emphasize how sexually explicit materials can create negative and false ideas of sex and intimacy. Instead of focusing the conversation on the child or assigning a value judgement to the behavior, focus on the content and the confusion or harm it can cause.
What a conversation about pornography could sound like:
It’s important to remember, too, that curiosity about bodies and sex is a normal, developmentally appropriate experience for a child. A child who has viewed pornography isn’t a sexual deviant or a budding sex addict. Many times, a good conversation with a loving parent can help to make the lure of pornography far less compelling.
However, you may want to seek the help of a mental health professional if you find that day-to-day routines are being disrupted by your child’s interest in pornography, or if they demonstrated any behaviors that would indicate they are mimicking what they’ve seen (or that they intend to). They’ll need the support of a mental health professional to work through those impulses.
Should I Talk to My Child About Masturbation?
If there was ever a conversation that felt awkward for a parent to have with a child, this is it. You may have strong feelings against (or in support of) masturbation, so you’ll need to decide how and what to communicate. The following information may be helpful as you determine how to approach this topic in a way that’s appropriate for your situation.
It’s Common for Children to Touch Their Genitals
Should I Teach My Child About Consent?
Consent is a critical thing to teach to address the issue of sexual violence, and it is something a parent can teach to a child in various stages. Equally important to consent is teaching (and demonstrating) what it means to be in a healthy relationship. It may be beneficial to explore the healthy relationship component first.
How to Teach Consent
As a parent, you are in an important position to teach and model consent. For the sake of clarity, consent can be defined as an agreement between two or more people that is enthusiastic, reciprocal, and continuous.
It may be helpful for your child to practice consent in low-stakes situations so that they learn how to respect boundaries in a variety of circumstances, including those where emotions may be heightened. For example, a parent may choose to highlight that taking something without getting permission is an example of not getting consent. Or just because a parent said yes to playing at a friend’s house today doesn’t mean the child doesn’t need to get permission again the next time. And that pestering a sibling until they finally give in and share isn’t practicing consent; instead, it’s disrespecting another’s boundaries to the point of exhaustion.
These are simple examples that help a child understand that just because they want something doesn’t mean they can take it and, if they do, there will be consequences that will likely follow. As the environments and circumstances your child encounters come with higher risks or weightier consequences, understanding how to respect boundaries—and understanding that they can expect their own boundaries to also be respected—is empowering.
In terms of teaching about consent to reduce your child’s risk, it’s important to establish that in many parts of the world, a child is not legally in the position to give consent to any type of sexual activity until at least age 14, and only in a limited capacity between ages 14 and 18. At Saprea, we advocate that children and youth have the opportunity to be children and youth. Regardless of laws that define the legal age of consent, our stance is that a child should never be coerced, pressured, forced, sold, or otherwise sexually exploited and that any such behavior constitutes child sexual abuse.
Healthy relationships include those where boundaries are defined and respected. Consent is about respecting those boundaries.
Teaching My Child About Healthy Relationships
Researchers in the field of child sexual abuse prevention have been telling us for years that the focus on “stranger danger” is misguided. It is far more likely that a child will be sexually abused by someone they know and trust, which means the parent likely knows and trusts them, too. This is a challenging issue, though, because it’s also greatly beneficial for children and youth to have healthy relationships with trusted adults and peers; these relationships can contribute to feelings of belonging, healthy patterns of communication and conflict resolution, and mentorship. This is where teaching a child to recognize elements of a healthy, beneficial relationship can protect them from staying in a relationship or situation where they might be harmed.
While healthy relationships include all kinds of components, for the purpose of reducing the risk of sexual abuse, we focus on three specific principles: Trust, Motivations, and Power Dynamics.
You may be familiar with the idea of teaching kids about “Good Secrets/Bad Secrets” or “Secrets versus Surprises.” The idea is that it’s important for kids to know the difference between being asked to keep a secret in support of someone’s privacy or as part of a surprise and being asked to keep a secret in an attempt to hide behavior that is harmful to the child. The thing to remember is that in the case of sexual abuse, a child may not initially realize they are being harmed.
One way to approach talking to your kids about secrecy is to explain how secrecy and trust are connected. It may be helpful to use the analogy of a team. When everyone is playing together, knows the rules, and is working toward the same goal, no one is left out. Everyone has the information so the team can succeed together. But if there are people on the team who don’t know the rules, or don’t tell everyone else the game strategy, the team will be less likely to succeed.
Similarly, it may be beneficial for your child to understand that you are very much part of their team, and if someone else that they believe is on their team wants your child to keep information from you, there’s an opportunity to question the trust being given to that individual. In other words, anyone that my child and I can trust wouldn’t want me to be out of the loop. I can’t trust someone who doesn’t want me to be part of my child’s team, and I want my child to question anyone who doesn’t want me to be part of their team. This can be complex for children to understand, and it isn’t a child’s responsibility to protect themselves from someone who would do them harm. However, reminding and demonstrating that you’re on their side and are willing to work through challenging situations with them will go a long way in anchoring their trust in you.
Truly healthy relationships are motivated by contributing to one another’s happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that healthy relationships don’t also have challenging situations, but part of what makes the relationship healthy is the parties’ willingness to come back together to repair and adjust.
Sometimes motivations may appear to be genuinely focused on the happiness of a child, but really the main goal of the other individual is to get what they want, regardless of the outcome. Understanding grooming can be especially helpful when considering adult and child relationships because it’s all too common for children to be in the care of a trusted adult (coach, teacher, youth group leader, etc.), who seems to go out of their way to mentor and build up the child. In some situations, the motivation is pure and born out of a desire to help, and such relationships can be invaluable. But when the motivation is to isolate the child from others to create a dependency, it’s helpful to know what to watch for and how to put guards in place to monitor interactions along the way.
Motivation isn’t just a factor in adult-to-child relationships. Statistically, over half of cases of reported sexual abuse were because of the actions of a minor or older child.3 In fact, youth are very susceptible to experiencing sexual abuse in their teen years, and peers, older teens, and young adults are responsible for a significant amount of that abuse.
As youth are interacting with their peers—going on dates, outings with teams or youth groups, and just hanging out—it will be helpful for them to realize that if someone is consistently pressuring them to do things they don’t want to, making them feel guilty for spending time with other people or on other things, or requiring things that feel overwhelming to maintain the relationship, that someone’s motivations may be more selfish than what’s required for a healthy relationship. This can take a heavy toll on the emotional well-being of youth, so helping them recognize these patterns and providing them with support to find a sustainable solution will be critical.
In any situation, the person with the most influence—or power— can wield that power for good, or for more selfish reasons. Sometimes we don’t even pause to think about who has the most power in a situation; other times, we can’t see anything but the power an individual has.
The most obvious cases of power imbalances in child sexual abuse involve an adult perpetrator and a child victim. While this dynamic may be obvious to those on the outside of the relationship, it may not always be recognizable to the child. Children generally defer to adults because grownups are “in charge.” Again, this is something to make a child aware of, but challenging an authority figure to protect themselves is not the child’s responsibility.
Where this really becomes a good discussion is with older children who are sometimes in positions of power themselves. For example, two teens on a date where one is paying for the other and driving for the evening may make an appropriate case study for discussion. The one paying and driving may be in a position to suggest that because they’re doing so much, their date owes them something in return. The individual who is along on the date may feel pressure to comply, or even worry that the date who is driving won’t take them home until they give in. This is an example of a way for you to mention the importance of consent, and to help your older child/teen come up with ideas should they find themselves in a challenging situation. Ultimately, it’s the person with the most power to choose how to use it, and should your older child experience a traumatic event because of the choice of another, reiterate that it is not your child’s fault.
In healthy relationships, power imbalances may exist, but the individuals involved are unwilling to take advantage of power at the expense of another. Consider talking to your child about how healthy relationships will not make them feel powerless; in fact, it may be beneficial to explore how your own relationship is one of give and take.