Empowering parents: Navigating sex education conversations with children

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School holidays give families rare time to be together for long periods – and that can mean it’s an ideal time to delve into conversation topics that might seem difficult during the rush of the school year. When it comes to broaching the topic of sex education with young people, while there are no fixed ages for discussing sex with children, experts suggest a piece-meal approach – where the child is introduced to sex topics over time – is best.

Dr Lesley-Anne Ey is the Associate Professor of Education Futures at the University of South Australia, and she says parents should approach the topic of sex in response to the child’s environment and experiences.

“Topics like consent, respectful relationships, good and bad feelings, listening to your intuition or gut, and good and bad secrets should be role-modelled, discussed, and taught from infancy; however, talking about sexual development, sexual feelings, sexual expression, and sexual relationships needs to be addressed when your child is ready, and that is different for every child,” she told EducationDaily.

“Sexual development and sexual expression need to be positive for children. They should not feel ashamed of their natural development.”

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Read more: Teaching consent – real voices from the consent classroom

Dr Ey says that when children begin engaging in developmentally appropriate sexual behaviours such as exploring their genitals in early childhood, it is important that parents don’t tell them off but rather redirect the behaviour with explanations.

“For example, ‘touching your penis/ vulva is something that you need to do in private – you can do that in your bedroom, but it is not ok to do that at school or in the park’,” she says.

The Western Australian State Government released a downloadable pamphlet called Yarning Quiet Ways, which, while aimed at indigenous people, gives some great advice for people of many cultural backgrounds when it comes to talking to your pre-teen about sex.

‘Make sure kids are in a space where they feel safe to talk,’ it writes.

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‘You can try to start yarning by asking questions like ‘What do you and your friends think about people your age having sex?’ If we only talk about the bad parts about sex, like diseases and unwanted pregnancies, kids might not want to listen to us.’

Tell the truth – sex can be exciting

Teaching young people that sex can be exciting and nice is an important part of meaningful sex education, Dr Ey says.

“We should teach kids that they will enjoy sex more when they are ready.”

Dr Ey echoes this sentiment, stating that is very important not to shame your child for sexual behaviour.

“Most children start having sexual attractions at about the age of ten. Parents will notice that their child might have a crush on a peer,” she told EducationDaily.

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“This is perfectly normal. Sexual expression at this age is hand holding, closed mouth kissing, sitting close to one another, hugging, and wanting to spend extra time with each other. By picking up on these behaviours and being openly accepting of these behaviours and discussing the normality sends the message to the child that developmentally appropriate sexual expression is ok and normal.”

Setting up this bond, she says, increases the likelihood that the child will turn to their parent and ask questions as they arise.

Dr Ey says this bond is essential as your child may have concerning questions, questions best answered by a trusting adult.

“For example, a parent may ask where the child has learnt those behaviours and explain why those behaviours are unhealthy,” she told EducationDaily.

“It is important that parents do this calmly, not angrily, if they want their child to open up and be honest. Parents often don’t know why certain behaviours are unhealthy thus, they could search sexual development and harmful sexual behaviours, impacts of pornography etc, on parent help sites such as the Raising Children network, Act for Kids, Bravehearts or the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.”

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Understanding the impact of peer pressure

The Yarning Quiet Ways resource says its equally important for kids to recognise peer pressure when it comes to sex and how to navigate when they genuinely are ready or just ‘trying to fit in’.

‘Having sex for the wrong reasons can make you feel disappointed, lonely, sad, used or unloved,’ it writes.

‘A young person might know that they are ready for sex when they: are over 16, know how to stay safe from sexually transmitted infections by using condoms, feel right about having sex, feel comfortable with the person they want to have sex with, know that they can say no, and that would be OK, but still want to do it, don’t feel forced, don’t feel scared, care for the other person and the other person cares for them, aren‘t doing it to be popular, aren‘t doing it to make someone love them, aren‘t doing it to stop the other person from leaving them, or are ready for a baby or know how to stop getting pregnant if they don’t want a baby.’

Talking to the under-12s

In an era of shifting perspectives on sex education, more psychologists are recommending having the ‘sex talk’ earlier. Dr Elizabeth Westrupp is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Deakin University; she says children are exploring their sexuality well before high school, and it’s best to start those conversations at that time, too.

“As soon as they’re talking at all, you can start having these conversations about their body and things like body safety,” she told EducationDaily. 

“Then [talking about sex] becomes a continuum – start with the body and work from there. There are book options the whole way that can help.” Dr Westrupp says it’s imperative that parents first recognise whether they have any of their own shame around sex first before approaching the topic.

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“Lots of generations leading up to now treated the subject as something very shameful, and it was not talked about openly,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable sometimes to even use the real names of some body parts, to talk about sex, to say sex in public or even worse with our parents. What I advocate for is to really try and look at that shame and the role that it plays in safety and in how people feel about their body. I think there’s also a bit of a false idea that if we talk about sex then it’s more likely going to be that a child is going to have sex. That is absolutely not the case; if anything, it’s going to be the opposite.”

Dr Westrupp suggests choosing appropriate settings for these conversations, especially as children grow older and may feel more embarrassed. 

“I would try and think about it from the child’s shoes, so sitting down at a table and staring them in the eyes and suddenly out of nowhere talking about sex, it’s going to be pretty embarrassing, particularly if they’ve already started going through puberty,” she told EducationDaily. “I would recommend, once they are a little bit older, it can be good to have conversations when you’re driving in the car if you’re going for a walk together, it’s kind of when you’re together, and people around you aren’t likely to hear – teenagers can be particularly embarrassed – but, in the car, you won’t be having eye contact, it can be quite tricky to have uncomfortable conversations when you’re next to each other but not staring each other in the eye.” Dr Westrupp says drawing from experience and sharing your own embarrassing stories can be a great way of breaking the ice. 

“I think just be slow and gentle because you want to watch the reactions of your child,” she told EducationDaily. “You don’t want to make it excruciating and uncomfortable for them. Start light and joking – sharing an embarrassing story can be a nice way of engaging them, letting them know that you’re a human being too who has also gone through puberty. Parents can often come from an authoritative place; in these conversations, it can be good to equalise the playing field.”

Ultimately, she emphasises the importance of these conversations in teaching family values and shaping a healthy understanding of sexuality within individual households and communities.

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Conversation starters help

Starting the conversation, however, can be the hardest part.

Dr Ey says being calm, knowledgeable, accepting, and casual about the conversations is the best approach. To be comfortable in that situation she shared the following tips:

  • Parents can do some background research on any sexual topics and raise it as ‘this is what I learnt today’.
  • Parents can invite the conversation – ‘You’re talking a lot about ‘name’ lately – are you two getting close? If you want to talk about anything or ask any questions, just let me know’.
  • Parents can respond to media announcements e.g: ‘The news said kids are accessing porn at much earlier ages these days – that’s dangerous, porn is nothing like normal sex. If you ever wanted to know anything about sex, please ask me rather than try to work it out by watching porn’.
  • Parents can talk about what they are seeing on social media and ask for their child’s opinion to generate a conversation – but be sure not to dismiss or overpower their opinion. Listen, reflect out loud, put your opinion forward, and ask them to reflect and respond.
  • Parents can respond to their child’s sexual behaviour – as outlined in my response to the previous question.

With much of the research surrounding sex education suggesting parents do not feel comfortable talking about the topic, hopefully, with a little knowledge and a bit of practice, more parents can begin to be more open to talking about sex with their children.

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