How to encourage a safe space to talk about sex with your children

Raising children comes with many complex and somewhat tricky situations. One of these is definitely when, as they become toddlers and enter primary school, they need to be aware of and understand different aspects about their physical and sexual health.

Nadine Thornhill, a sex educator and mom to an 11-year-old, says: “This is what I do for a living and I still struggle to have these conversations with my own child. While it’s normal to feel awkward and nervous, it’s important to focus on being honest. There’s more risk with not telling them enough than telling them too much”.

Here are six tips to make the talk easier:

Listen more than you talk

While it’s tempting to think that because as the parent you know more and are guiding them, you should talk more than them. This is not correct.  If your child asks what a sexually related word means, for example, sex educator Cory Silverberg suggests you first ask a clarifying question such as “Where did you hear that word?” in order to give an appropriate response.

Gauging what their current understanding of the subject is will create a good starting block to build and direct the conversation.

Don’t give anatomical parts pet names

One of the first challenges for parents is usually knowing when and how to term anatomical parts to your children. Thornhill advises parents to be casual and treat those terms as they would words like “arm” or “ankle.” The older generation of parents gave genitals pet names, and this increases a child’s curiosity on sexuality and might raise alarm. It also makes it feel like conversations around genitals are something to shy away from.

According to South African sexual expert and the author of A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, people need to be comfortable enough to state their anatomical part without it sounding vulgar. She says “even as adults when we say any of these words out loud it’s as if we are sharing a disapproving voice in our heads”.

Children need to be comfortable naming their anatomical parts without feeling uncomfortable.

Teach them about personal space and boundaries

It’s particularly important, for their safety, to explain to children at a young age what others may or may not do to them. Silverberg says “learning about boundaries and what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to touching — or being touched — by other people is fundamental. It’s crucial that even young children learn to ask before they touch someone else.”

It is important, therefore, for children to learn what people are allowed and not allowed to do with their bodies.

Create and open door policy

Highlight that they can tell you about anything inappropriate, and welcome this without making them feel uncomfortable.

“While you can skip the explicit details, now is when you should be telling your child that others should never ask to or try to touch their genitals. It’s important to convey that your kids can tell you about inappropriate actions at any time, even if they’ve previously kept it a secret,” adds Silverberg.

Explain bodily changes

It’s important to prepare and guide your children about how their bodies will change. Thornhill says: “When kids are around age six, this can be a simple discussion about how bodies change as we grow. For example, you could compare photos of when they were little with what they look like now.” Silverberg recommends saving the more detailed puberty talk until just before your child or those in her peer group start experiencing it.

Use media stories as examples

When children reach the 9 to 12 year age group the discussions you have can get a bit more detailed. Silverberg says: “Now is when you should start talking about sexism and sexualisation. Use examples found in the media or even in your own community — for example, a grandparent who thinks boys should only have short hair — to spark discussions. These chats can support kids to find their power, and point out positive examples of individuals who have overcome stereotypes.”

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