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Talking with kids about sex and safety

This is a guest post from Janet Rosenzweig, M.S., Ph.D., M.P.A., interim executive director of Prevent Child Abuse - Pennsylvania, a program of the Pennsylvania Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics. Rosenzweig is the author of The Sex-Wise Parent: The Parent's Guide Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family, and Talking to Kids about Sex, Abuse, and Bullying, (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012)

The sexual abuse stories in the news these days can be hard to read, but they provide parents and caregivers with a good opportunity to open dialogue with our kids about sexual health and safety.

Imagine the drive to soccer practice. No sooner do you get your child to remove the earphones that generally appear to be permanently implanted in their ears then the radio announces the latest development in the clergy scandal or Sandusky case. Great, just what you had in mind.

But please, resist the urge to pretend you didn't hear the newscaster. Take a deep breath, turn off the radio and ask your child their thoughts about what you both just heard. "That's gross" is a likely reply. "I think so too," you could answer. "How much do you understand about what happened to the victims?"

And the conversation starts.

All parents can do their best to make sure their kids have age-appropriate knowledge and language about sex and sexuality, and keep lines of communication wide open. Kids of different ages will have different impressions about what all of this means, and parents may be surprised. I recall a five-year-old sibling of a victim I was counseling years ago who thought the word rape was "rake."  She thought all the pain in the family happened because her sister had been beaten with a rake. Another youngster thought that sex abuse meant kissing someone who didn't want to be kissed.

Lacking information, kids fill in the blanks with what they know or can imagine and it usually is wrong. Ignorance can appear cute when we hear the story of the two-year-old girl who points to her new brother's penis during the first diaper change, and asks, "Tail?" But ignorance is far from cute and can be downright dangerous.

Our kids need to know that sexuality is like many things in life: when it's experienced in the right context it can be wonderful, but it also can carry risks that need to be understood. We can tell kids that sex involves sharing special feelings and special parts of their body with people they love, and that sex abuse is when someone forces you to share those parts when you don't want to. Parents can tell older kids that sex is wonderful in the right context; then, a parent has the golden opportunity to tell their child what THEY mean by the right context. Is it when two grownups are really in love? When people get married?

Life brings us so many opportunities to make sure that our kids know what we want them to know about sex – at every age.  We start when we cuddle our infant so they learn that touch means warmth and intimacy. We build trust when we answer our toddlers question about why boy bodies look different than girl bodies. We teach the importance of sexual health when we make sure our grade-schooler learns the reproductive system along with the digestive system. And, our relationships with our adult partners teach children the basic lessons about what grown-up love looks like.

Parents are the primary sex educators of their children, and many underestimate their influence. Here are some surprising facts:

  1. Teens continue to say that parents (46 percent) most influence their decisions about sex. By comparison, just 20 percent say friends most influence their decisions.

  2. Eight in 10 teens (80 percent) say that it would be much easier for teens to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.

  3. Six in 10 teens (62 percent) wish they were able to talk more openly about relationships with their parents.

Parents must send their children out into the world filled to the brim with the values and morals they wish to instill. This, combined with accurate information about how their body works, is a wonderful gift a parent can share. Have you talked to your kids about healthy sexuality? Are you using current news stories to explain the ugly side of sexuality to your kids and how to protect themselves? Are you ready to now?

What do you think? Have you discussed sexual abuse cases in the news with your kids or teens? Why or why not?