Talking to your child about sex

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Dr Melissa Kang

AUDIO

Listen to Dr Melissa Kang, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a specialist in adolescent health, chat with Rachel Friend on how to talk about sex with your child.
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Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities

At a glance

  • Parents should start to talk to their children about sexuality and sex in general when their child gives them cues, such as asking questions or experiencing new life stages.
  • Discuss sexuality and sex with children on an ongoing basis – information needs change as children grow up.
  • While it is natural to feel embarrassed, parents should take the lead and try to keep communication open with their child.
  • Safe sex is sex that is wanted, desired, consensual, mutual and protected from unwanted consequences, both physical and emotional.
  • If you're worried about your child's sexual behaviour, the best place to start is by talking to your child.
transcript:

Rachel Friend
Hello, I'm Rachel Friend, and welcome to School A to Z.

I think it's fair to say most parents dread having the ‘where do I come from?' talk with their kids. There is just no easy way to talk sex with your children – or is there?

Dr Melissa Kang is with us; she's a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a specialist in adolescent health, and dare I say it, an expert on sex education.

Melissa, it is a big topic and it's often an awkward one for parents – how and when should we begin to talk to our children about sex?

Melissa Kang    
Hi Rachel. Look, sex and sexuality are part of being human, and they start from the moment that we're conceived. And in fact, sex education starts to happen really once a baby's born, because there are assumptions that parents make about girl babies and boy babies, and that's all to do with their sexuality – so the way they might talk to them, the way they comment or observe the children's behaviours when they're little – a lot of that is very subtly giving them messages about how to be a girl, how to be a boy, how to be sexual. So it's absolutely appropriate to be thinking about sexuality – not so much having sex, but just who this young person is – from the moment that they're born. And it's really appropriate for parents to start to talk to their children when the children give them the cues, and they usually do. So for example a child might walk in while you're having a shower and see you naked and might point to a private part, and you might want to talk to them about what that's called or what it's for, and that's perfectly appropriate. When they're a bit older they might start to ask questions like "where do babies come from?", and it's absolutely fine to give a child an appropriate answer that sort of answers the question without going into so much detail that it's over their head.

Rachel
What are they learning at school, and when does the sex education program kick in at school?

Melissa
Well in NSW, there's a mandatory syllabus from Kindergarten right through to Year 12, that's personal development, health and physical education – PDHPE – and in fact, sexuality education in its broadest sense is incorporated into the syllabus right from the beginning. So some of the more detailed and specific information about sexual behaviour, reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, where to go for help – that doesn't come till later in the second part of high school usually. But early on, in the infants and primary school years, kids are learning about feelings, about communication, about friends, and that can all be part of a broad sexuality education.

Rachel
What's the best approach for parents? Should it be a one-off conversation or should it be an ongoing conversation?

Melissa
Absolutely an ongoing conversation. A child or an adolescent doesn't just need one piece of information given to them at one point in time, and certainly they're growing and developing, and once they go through puberty, they're experiencing all sorts of urges and feelings and fantasies, and they're seeing things that their friends are doing and they're very curious, but they're also quite naturally extremely self-conscious and embarrassed, so they're not getting that information from parents – they're not going to go and ask for that information from parents, they're getting it from their friends and they're getting it sometimes from school, so it's really, you know, it's really important for parents to keep up with their child's development and to bring it into the conversation as they're going through each sort of stage of their childhood and adolescence.

Rachel
And you talk about feeling embarrassed, is it OK for a parent to feel a bit embarrassed and sheepish?

Melissa
It's perfectly natural to feel embarrassed, but my view is that the parents ideally should take the lead and try to overcome that if they possibly can. I get very sad when I hear from young people who say, "I can't talk to my mum about this", you know, periods for example, and "she won't talk to me, what do I do?", and I advise them to be the ones to sort of take the lead and ask the parents the question, when I really think ideally it should be the other way around.

Rachel
Absolutely.

What's your advice to parents who find themselves disapproving of their child's behaviour?

Melissa
What I say to parents is that it's absolutely fine to disapprove – you have to hang on to your own beliefs – you might mould them and change them and reconsider at certain times. And it's OK to communicate those beliefs to your adolescent child. However if the child is going to go ahead and do something that you disapprove of, then you need to enter into a kind of negotiation. Set some boundaries, set some rules. For example, I would say to parents if you don't smoke and you don't want your children to smoke, don't let them smoke on your property. If the child's going to go away and smoke, they can suffer the consequences of that and you can't condone that. Now when it comes to sex, you can say, "I don't want you to have sex, I think you're too young, and you can't have sex here", however it's really important to equip your child with all the other information that they might need. Because children are going to go and do things and experiment – probably just as most parents did as well – when they're young.

Rachel
Is there any truth to the idea that the earlier you have ‘the talk', the earlier that they'll then go on to have sex?

Melissa
No, that's a real myth, and that's a common reason why parents avoid bringing up sex, particularly as their children start to go through puberty. There is research to show that, particularly for girls – and perhaps this is because this is where the research has been done – but for girls who can talk to their mothers about sex from as young an age as they need to, when they first begin to get curious about it, and where the mother gives them lots of information and they can have easy communication around it, those girls in fact either have sex at a later age than you would otherwise expect, or if they do and when they do have sex, they have it in a protected way, and that's the best possible outcome I think – for a parent as well as for the child.

Rachel
Absolutely.

In terms of trying to ensure your child does engage in, you know, protected sex, what do parents need to do? So you need to have that conversation; do you need to sort of direct them to see a doctor, or…?

Melissa
Look, for me the whole notion of ‘safe sex' – we've distilled it down a little bit too much to think that safe sex equals sex with a condom. And while that's an important part of it, for me safe sex for a young person, or for anybody, is sex that's wanted, that's desired, that's consensual, that's mutual, that's protected from unwanted consequences, be they physical or emotional. So it's much broader than just perhaps, you know—

Rachel
Avoiding pregnancy.

Melissa
That's right.

Rachel
Yeah.

Melissa
Or knowing where to buy your condoms. But I think that's part of the equation. So I would encourage parents to talk about the relationship their child is in and their feelings around that, without prying too much – and your child will give you the messages if they don't want you to go any further. So start to talk about this person that they're seeing and what the feelings are and, "oh, I've noticed you getting a little bit closer, you know I want to ask you about some pretty personal stuff and I want you to feel that you can talk to me about this." So begin to explore that and continue that. But in terms of actually seeking medical or health advice to prevent things like pregnancy, absolutely, I think children, even those under the age of 18 or 16, have the legal right to obtain confidential health care from a doctor. Parents perhaps need to know that. So I would encourage parents to say to their children, "if or when you need to get advice from a doctor about your health – be that for contraception or something else – you can go and see our GP, or you can go find your own GP, or I'll help you find a GP." And you can do that confidentially.

Rachel
For parents who are worried about their child, where can they go for help?

Melissa
If you're worried about your child's sexual behaviour and you feel that it's problematic, that it's dangerous, that they're not using protection, really the best place to start is with your child. It's very counter-productive to go behind your child's back and try and get professional advice. Now if there's signs of sort of disturbed behaviour, or you think that your child is having a lot of unprotected sex, or displaying signs of really what's underlying that – a sort of psychological disturbance, that's a different thing all together. But I think when we're talking about normal adolescent development, when the average age of having sex today in Australia is about sixteen and a half, most parents are going to find that they want to have this conversation at some stage.

Rachel
Dr Melissa Kang, thank you so much for your time today.

Melissa
You're welcome Rachel.


Dr Melissa Kang
Dr Melissa Kang
Dr Melissa Kang is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a specialist in adolescent health.


 


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