Does talking to my child about sex have to be a mortifying nightmare?
There doesn’t seem to be a word for “fear of talking to your young children about sex” but it’s a phobia so widespread that surely someone should have coined one by now. But there’s good news: like many phobias, with a bit of deep breathing and some light mental reprogramming it can be overcome.
The first conversation you’ll have with your child about sex will be most likely be The Talk. At least that’s what it’s known as – ideally it’ll be a series of talks over many years. The original Talk is The Answer to The Question (ie where did I come from?), a question often delivered when parents aren’t entirely prepared.
It’s important to note that when kids ask this question, they’re usually not asking specifically about sex. Parents, with a rising sense of panic and a lifetime’s worth of baggage, often assume they are.
Children, on the other hand, are baggage-free. They’re not after an in-depth conversation about sex and sexuality. They’re asking about how babies are made – a story that’s much bigger than the (admittedly important) intercourse. It’s about bodies and puberty, about using proper terminology for genitalia, about how babies grow and develop, how they’re born and fed. With almost one in every 20 babies in Australia now born through alternative reproductive techniques, it’s also about other forms of conception and different types of families.
Sex is part of the whole story though and in this scenario it’s all about procreation. You don’t need to go into a great amount of detail. It’s good to include some loving feelings and kissing and cuddling, but – fear not – you’re not focusing on the foreplay. The whole thing is basically a way for that all-important sperm to meet that special egg and for the story to go on.
Relieved parents often report a lack of follow-up questions but children learn according to their own level of comprehension so there’s a very high chance this won’t be your first and only conversation on the subject. That’s a GOOD THING and will form the basis for trust and future communication.
If the idea of talking The Talk still mortifies you, remember that the whole story of human conception is something that all children need to know. It’s science, and not only is it science, it’s incredibly, amazingly cool! On top of all that, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to sit with your child and share the story of how (most) little humans come to be. Don’t forget to include alternative conception. It may not involve sex but it’s another side of the story too.
Humour is also a great embarrassment buster so try to take a light-hearted approach. If your child senses that you’re uncomfortable or that the subject is taboo, his or her friend The Internet is happy to help. Typing “s-e-x” into Google may get you a smorgasbord of options but none are likely to be healthy for children.
Finally, remember – you’re not alone. There are books and other resources out there that can help you find the right words.
But wait! Just when you thought you’d got that talking-about-sex stuff out of the way, there’s more! This time it’s about sex as recreation, not procreation and this time it’s not YOU who’s feeling mortified.
Unsurprisingly, few teenagers are champing at the bit to talk about their sex lives with their olds. Parents may hear of – even meet – girlfriends, boyfriends or partners and have good reason (ie their kid has access to the internet) to suspect their child is familiar with at least some pornography but that side of their teen’s life is usually shrouded in mystery.
Small children may want to know where they came from but teenagers are interested in where they’re going to and who they’re becoming. Their bodies are developing and so are their attitudes to sex and sexuality. It’s no longer just about making babies – it’s about lust and desire but also about respect, relationships, consent, communication, gender, masturbation, pornography, body image, boundaries and a whooooole lot more.
Even if you’ve managed to establish good communication with your kid, talking about sex and sexuality can still be tricky. Teenagers like to be treated like adults but sometimes the best way to initiate a potentially difficult chat is to break the rules of adult conversation.
Do not look your child in the eye. Go for a drive or walk the dog or find an activity that involves neither of you facing each other. This makes it feel like less of an interrogation and opens up space to talk. Eye contact may come later if circumstances permit.
Another tactic (and here eye contact is allowed) is to avoid directly addressing what you’re trying to talk about. Rather than asking them about a particular issue, try mentioning that a “work mate” (ie imaginary friend) has a teenager going through said issue and ask what they think. Your kid might not open up to you about their own experience but they’ll know that you’re aware of these things and you value their opinions.
Alternately, talk about something you – or they – have seen in a TV show or movie or read in a book. Art is a great way to talk about hypothetical moral quandaries, relationship concerns, matters of sexuality etc that might not be so hypothetical for your teenager. Stories in the news, such as the Brittany Higgins allegations or Chanel Contos’ private school survey, can also be used to start a conversation. These all help you discuss issues in an abstracted sense and make your child feel they can explore opinions without being judged.
There’s one adult conversation rule you definitely should follow: listen. Not only is it important for teenagers to feel heard but you’ll learn something too. They’re growing up in a different world, one which in many ways is more open and accepting than that of their parents.
Sex is never a topic in isolation. Whether procreational or recreational, it’s always part of a bigger story about who we are and how we relate to others. Take a deep breath and master that mortification. It’s all going to be alright.
• Fiona Katauskas is a cartoonist and author and illustrator of The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made (Harper Collins 2015)