When we become parents, we sign up for a host of joys and challenges, perhaps none more uncomfortable than the nerve-wracking “Talk” with our children about sex. However, much like parenting itself, discussing sex with children is a process, an iterative journey that builds bonds of trust, love, and mutual respect.
When is the right time to start talking?
Most experts agree that these conversations should begin early. Specifically, as soon as children begin to speak, they can be taught the anatomically correct names of their body parts, including their genitals (and not in whispered tones, either).
According to the therapist, speaker, and author Scott Gronto, LMFT, parents can then follow these guidelines for subject matter, depending on their child’s comfort and maturity levels:
- Five through eight years old: How babies are born, including conception, fetal development, and childbirth.
- Eight through eleven years old: Sexual intercourse, boundaries, puberty, a woman’s menstrual cycle, even pornography, and sexual abuse.
- Eleven through fourteen years old: Puberty, love, dating, and more complex questions about sexuality.
A never-ending conversation
But does this mean that slow-drip, carefully managed conversations about sex should end when our children leave the nest?
Unless you believe children stop needing guidance in other areas of life at that time, then the answer is an unequivocal no. Why would we leave our adult kids flapping in the wind when it comes to sex while enthusiastically imparting wisdom on credit scores, balancing chequebooks, or the nuances of buying a car? One could argue that personal finance pales in comparison to the complexities of our sexual life.
Perhaps we assume that, as adults, our kids “figure it out” themselves or get whatever information they need from peers or friends, but that’s not necessarily true. A national survey found that 82 per cent of parents have talked to their children about topics related to sexuality, but that when it comes to the tougher, more complicated subject matter, many young adults don’t receive the support they need to delay sex and prevent pregnancy. The results also show that only 74 per cent of the parents surveyed engaged in discussions about how to say no to sex, and only 60 per cent addressed birth control.
Why do we avoid getting into the weeds in sexual discussions with our adult children?
Maybe because of our own issues. Psychologist Judy Scheel, PhD, LCWS, explains it this way:
- How a parent feels about their own body and sex will impact their nonverbal messaging and how they approach the topic with their child.
- Parents’ ability to talk comfortably about sex is usually dependent upon how they learned about sex and their relational and cultural/religious morals and values.
- Parents often project their own discomfort, fears, shame, onto their child. So, if the parent is uncomfortable, they assume that the child is also.
- If the parent is uncomfortable the child can respond by also becoming uncomfortable.
- If there is no communication about sex in the household, it is reasonable for the child to grow up feeling that something must be wrong or negative about the subject, which can lead to feelings of guilt as they wonder, “How can something that feels so good not be talked about? It must be bad.”
As parents, we can shift the paradigm, one discussion at a time. By talking about sex with our children and continuing those discussions throughout adulthood, we perform the ultimate act of parenting by normalizing the conversation, removing shame and judgement, and creating a safe space where our children can benefit from our wisdom and experience. It not only educates and empowers them to respect and honour their bodies and minds, but it also teaches them to build strong, nurturing, and lasting relationships with others.
So, what’s the best approach?
Here are a few tips that may help.
- Parallel works best. A face-to-face discussion may be too big a leap, especially if you haven’t discussed sex in a while. Try taking a walk together or talking while driving in the car, so you both have a focal point besides each other.
- Springboard the discussion. Try starting the conversation by building on another one rather than launching into it out of the blue. If your adult child is recounting a night out with friends or a recent romantic interaction, use that as a lead-in to asking about their feelings or impressions of the experience.
- Be a good listener. Let them express themselves and ask a few questions about their feelings before offering any response, reaction, or stories of your own.
- Try not to act sheepish when discussing sex, as your child will track your body language and affect. If you appear awkward, uncomfortable, or fidgety, chances are they will avoid the conversation altogether.
- Know your boundaries. Talking about sex with your adult child does not mean sharing details about your own sex life, particularly if it involves the child’s other parent. If you’re asked specific questions, you can respond with, “I’m happy to answer general questions, but would rather steer clear of my sex life.” When in doubt, seek the advice of a family therapist.
- Validate, validate, validate. Even if your adult child shares details about sexual encounters that make you uncomfortable, avoid any negative, harsh, or judgmental reactions at all costs. First, validate them by expressing gratitude for their honesty, maybe even share a similar experience when you were younger, if appropriate, before offering any insights or advice. The tone you set can directly impact whether your child talks to you about his/her/their experiences in the future.
Parents have a golden opportunity to support their children as they move through adulthood by encouraging open dialogue and healthy conversation about this meaningful and beautiful part of life. “If there is comfort about the subject matter, then talking is easy,” writes Dr Scheel. “Sex is just another subject matter.”