Navigating the Uncharted: Discussing Sexuality with Your Young Ones

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash
08 July 2024

By Nina Kralj, MSc (University of Edinburgh), www.apparently-parenting.com

As a mom, wife, counsellor, and head of a nonprofit in Slovenia working with abused children and their families, I’ve spent over 6,000 hours talking with kids and their parents answering their toughest questions. In the past eight years, I’ve seen too many times how crucial it is to talk to our kids about sexuality and personal boundaries. It’s not just about preventing the worst nightmares a parent can think of; it’s about making sure our kids feel safe, respected, and heard. So, here I am, asking you to sit down and have those awkward conversations. Trust me, it’s worth every uncomfortable moment if it means our children know how to stand up for themselves and understand their worth.

The refrain “You’re too young for that!” is a familiar response from parents when a child begins to inquire about private parts, sexuality, pregnancy, and other related topics. But is this response accurate? Is the child genuinely too young, or are we merely uncomfortable addressing the subject, unsure of how to navigate these delicate questions? When is the appropriate time to broach this still-taboo topic, and how can we effectively communicate with our children?

I believe the key lies in first understanding what sexuality truly is. If we limit our perception of sexuality to encompass only intercourse, arousal, and eroticism, it’s understandable that we might shy away from discussing it with children. However, viewing sexuality through a more holistic lens, recognising it as a fundamental and central aspect of the human experience present from birth, changes the narrative. In this broader perspective, sexuality involves not only sexual intercourse but also the exploration of one’s own body, understanding it, sexual identity, roles, pleasure, intimacy, reproduction, eroticism, and more. It becomes evident that sexuality is inherently present in a child from the very beginning, not something activated magically only in adulthood when one is ready for sexual intercourse.

This realisation underscores the importance of addressing sexuality with the youngest children, aiding them in comprehending and making sense of this integral part of their experience in a developmentally appropriate and understandable manner. There is a growing awareness that open communication about sexuality with children is crucial for their holistic development and protection from potential dangers and abuse. Experts and numerous studies in developmental psychology affirm that providing appropriate education and facilitating discussions about sexuality with children are essential, enabling them to build a fundamental understanding of their bodies, relationships, and safe behaviour.

Why Is It Important To Talk About Sexuality With Young Children?

A good and solid foundation:

Open dialogue about sexuality with parents or caregivers empowers children to develop a positive self-image and a healthy relationship with their bodies. This is crucial as fundamental patterns of behaviour and beliefs are already being formed at an early age. Children encouraged to ask questions and communicate about sexuality learn more quickly to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touch, better expressing their boundaries.

Another important aspect is naming the body parts correctly, for example “penis” instead of “willy,”. This is vital for several reasons. Firstly, it promotes body literacy, ensuring children have an accurate understanding of their anatomy, which is essential for their health and well-being. Using correct terminology demystifies the body, reducing shame and embarrassment around natural functions and parts. This approach also enhances safety. Children who know the proper names for their body parts can communicate more clearly if they ever need to report inappropriate behaviour or abuse. Moreover, it fosters an environment of respect and openness, laying the groundwork for informed and respectful discussions about health and sexuality as they grow older.

Safety:

Children equipped with an understanding of their physical integrity and information about sexuality are better able to identify potentially dangerous situations. Knowing what is appropriate in a given context enables them to stand up for themselves and respond appropriately in uncomfortable situations.

If you don’t, someone else will:

When children seek answers, if they don’t find them from their parents, they will look elsewhere — peers, online, etc. Providing timely and accurate information through conversations with parents or caregivers helps children understand sexuality in the right context, developing critical thinking skills that protect them from the potentially harmful influences of society.

Trust:

Open dialogue about sexuality with children helps build trust between parents or guardians and children. When children are aware that they can rely on their loved ones for information, advice, and support, it increases the likelihood that they will openly discuss any problems or issues in the future. Open communication about sexuality and dialogue with children are key to their healthy development, safety, and self-esteem. Parents and caregivers play an important role in conveying accurate and understandable information that enables children to develop positive attitudes toward their bodies, protect themselves from danger, and learn respectful behaviour in interpersonal relationships. All this lays the foundations for future healthy relationships and independent decision-making.

When to talk about sex with children:

While there’s no universal answer to the best time, two guidelines can help parents navigate:

When a child asks or starts a conversation:

Whenever a child initiates a conversation or asks a question like “Where do babies come from”. Children thinking about these topics independently are not “too young,” as they are already grappling with these concepts.

When knowing contact is inevitable:

If a parent anticipates their child encountering specific content (e.g., expecting a baby brother or sister), preparing them with a conversation can prevent shock, confusion, and misinterpretation.

How to empower your child about body boundaries:

Teaching your child to embrace a positive attitude toward their body from a young age is a crucial foundation for future conversations about sexuality. The journey of understanding one’s sexuality commences with the relationship to one’s own body and the bodies of others. Here’s a playful activity to convey this important message, requiring only a few items:

Photo by Ashin K Suresh on Unsplash

Materials:

  • A box with a lid or a simple chest
  • A hand mirror
  • A pinch of imagination.

Activity Steps:

The Hidden Treasure:
Place the hand mirror inside the box or chest, close it, and present it to your child. Explain that their greatest treasure is hidden within. This simple act sparks curiosity, and children often delight in guessing what might be concealed inside. Allow your child to open the box and observe their reflection in the mirror.

Defining the Treasure:
When the child inquires about the meaning of this activity, elucidate that their body is their greatest treasure.

Why? Offer a simple explanation:
“Your body is your greatest treasure because it allows you to do all kinds of things. Without your arms, you wouldn’t be able to hug your friends; without your eyes, you couldn’t watch your favourite cartoon; without your legs, dancing would be impossible, and so on. Your body enables you to do everything you love, making it your greatest treasure. And like any treasure, it deserves to be cared for.”

Caring for the Treasure:
Open a discussion with your child about the various ways we take care of our bodies. Discuss routine activities like sleeping, eating, drinking enough water, brushing teeth, bathing, exercising, and more. Emphasize that these practices contribute to the well-being of their precious treasure.

Protecting the Treasure:
Encourage the child to contemplate how treasures are protected. Draw a comparison with pirates safeguarding their treasure in a chest. Explain that while their body isn’t in a chest, they wear clothes that serve as protection. Introduce the concept of private parts, those hidden under their underwear—such as the penis, testicles, vagina, buttocks, and breasts—being a bit more protected.

Initiate a conversation about why these parts are different and introduce the underwear rule.

What is The Underwear Rule? It’s simple: a child should not be touched by others on parts of the body usually covered by their underwear. And they should not touch others in those areas. It also helps explain to children that their body belongs to them, that there are good and bad secrets and good and bad touches.

Good touch – bad touch

Children do not always recognise appropriate and inappropriate touching. Tell children it is not okay if someone looks at or touches their private parts or asks them to look at or touch someone else’s private parts. You can also explain that some adults (such as carers, parents or doctors) may have to touch children, but children should be encouraged to say “No” if a situation makes them feel uncomfortable.

Good secrets – bad secrets

Secrecy is a main tactic of sexual abusers. That’s why it’s important to teach the difference between good and bad secrets and to create a climate of confidence. Every secret that makes them anxious, uncomfortable, fearful or sad is not good and should not be kept; it should be told to a trustworthy adult (parent, teacher, police officer, doctor).

If someone asks to see, or tries to touch you, underneath your underwear, say ‘NO’ – and tell someone you trust and like to speak to.

Defending the Treasure:

Engage the child in a hypothetical scenario: imagine pirates defending their treasure from enemies. Relate this to their body, emphasising that if someone hits or touches them inappropriately, they should firmly say STOP.

Reinforce the idea that this is how they defend their precious treasure. If the person persists, teach them to confide in a trusted adult who can help. Stress that if one adult doesn’t believe them, they should seek assistance from someone else.

These steps provide a flexible guide. Tailor the approach based on your child’s interests and your comfort level. Allow your child’s curiosity to guide the conversation, ensuring you provide them with the information that truly matters to them.

As we embark on the journey of empowering our children about body boundaries and sexuality, it’s essential to recognise the significance of these conversations in shaping their holistic development. The information, presented through a simple yet impactful activity, lays the foundation for open dialogue and understanding.

By fostering a positive attitude towards their bodies, children not only learn to appreciate the uniqueness of their physical selves but also develop the confidence to navigate the complexities of personal boundaries and relationships. As parents and guardians, our role in this empowering narrative is pivotal.

The road ahead may include more questions, discussions, and shared moments. Embrace each opportunity to guide your child through the maze of curiosity, ensuring they feel secure, respected, and informed. Remember, your open communication serves as a compass, steering them toward a future where they can confidently make decisions, form healthy relationships, and cherish the treasure that is their body.

By Nina Kralj, MSc (University of Edinburgh), www.apparently-parenting.com

This article was first published in the 2024 spring edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.

This article is about: parenting | sexuality

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