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HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX
By John T. Chirban
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLearning to Really Talk with Your Kids: Warming Up for Good Communications
The time to stop talking is when the other person nods his head affirmatively but says nothing. —Henry S. Haskins
Let's consider two sets of parents who each think they have clearly addressed sexual values with their children following very different approaches to see what can be learned from their stories.
John and Mary: Monitoring Her Moves
John and Mary decided the subject of sex would lead to too many questions or sexual behaviors. Therefore, they monitored and censored their daughter Kathy's social activity from infancy through adolescence, keeping her out of contact with anything having to do with sex. From age 3 she was in carefully structured gymnastics and dance programs and was not allowed to watch TV without a parent, but she kept busy with school, family events, and sports.
When I met Kathy in therapy at age 16, she was very self-conscious and had a number of physical symptoms that doctors diagnosed as emotional rather than physical in origin. Kathy said her parents were "terrified" of her developing sexuality and of the fact that she was "growing up." She had had limited contact with boys, as she had attended an all-girls religious school and hadn't interacted with boys her own age since elementary school. She felt especially sad that she hadn't been asked to the junior prom. Kathy's disappointment over not being asked to the prom was compounded by the fact that she had never experienced an actual crush on a "real guy" but had only fantasized about boys.
Kathy had been essentially quarantined from sex because her parents were afraid of the pain that Kathy (or perhaps they themselves?) might feel in confronting sexual issues. They intentionally tried to shut off her sexual energy and, in the end, shut down what Freud properly called her "life force."
Paula and Martin: Sex Is Natural
In contrast, Paula and Martin anticipated "normal" sexual issues with their daughters, so they attempted to head off the subject with a very different approach.
Ellen was their third daughter. Both parents were academics and boasted that they were solidly realistic about sex. They regularly stated that "sex is nothing to be afraid of " and talked about it a lot at home, so Ellen got the message early on that sex was okay. However, though she understood that "healthy" sex was a "fact of life," Ellen never actually talked with her parents about what healthy sex really meant and how it related to her daily life. Sex was so casually accepted, in fact, that when Ellen was 16 years old, her mom brought her to her doctor, ordered the Pill, and didn't say anything else about it. Following this cue, Ellen had sex with several boys during high school. She even remembers accompanying her older sister to an abortion. At the time, her mom commented, "These things happen." Ellen was led to believe that "going for the abortion was no different than going to the dentist." While she appeared sexually uninhibited, Ellen admitted what she had was "fake sophistication." She was confused and unhappy about her sexual freedom and felt she was missing dignity, honor, and self-respect in her sexual relationships.
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In both stories, we see how powerfully parents' attitudes affect the sexual development of their children, even when they don't address it directly. Messages were sent, received, and absorbed based on the parents' conscious and unconscious beliefs and fears. The parents were shaping their kids without taking time to check in directly with the kids on their actual needs and experiences. Though these sets of parents had parental styles on opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, the results were similar: both girls grew up disconnected from their own feelings and were left confused and uncertain about their sexuality. What we can see from these stories is that sex involves a genuine connection of parents with their children. An obvious point, maybe, but one commonly missed. Even when the messages are loud and clear that doesn't mean we're getting through.
While both these couples dealt with sexuality for their kids, we don't get a sense that either of them really communicated with their kids. So how do we talk with our kids about sex? What do we actually say?
Do you think these parents were attuned to the experiences, feelings, and needs of their daughters? Did they listen and convey that they cared about what their kids were feeling? In these cases we don't get a sense of how the kids' thoughts and emotions figured into their own sexuality. And when a discussion is one-way, it can't really be called a discussion. Neither set of parents were attuned to their kids and neither involved their kids in the discussion; both attunement and involvement are necessary to ensure that the vital issue of sexuality is thoroughly addressed.
ATTUNEMENT: DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
"Attuning" means gaining understanding with your child—not just of him or her. Attuning is "tuning in," empathizing, resonating, caring, and "getting" how your child puts together the world around him. Attuning means being there to help.
While most parents acknowledge sex as a reality of life, their approaches to talking about it run the gamut. Many parents provide too little information, leaving out whole spheres of concern—they may get through the physical details but neglect to ask how their children feel about what is being said or lead them to say what the parents want to hear, by asking questions such as "You feel okay with this, right?" Sharing facts is certainly important, but attuning to your children's experience of what's being shared and what's going on in their minds during your conversations is the critical part of talking about sex. Often, our children will have questions that are different from the ones we think we are answering. Thus when talking with our kids, we can't just recite facts; we must make sure we're talking about the same thing. Asking open-ended questions instead of leading questions is the key. For example, you might follow a conversation on puberty with "How do you think puberty will affect you?" or "How do you make sense of what we just talked about?" That kind of open-ended questioning also helps you assess how much they're taking away from the conversation.
The information we impart is important. But even more important is the relationship we establish with our children in such exchanges—a two-way, open relationship based on attuning to and listening to our kids. What we hear should establish the agenda for the conversation. After all, this conversation is really about them and their needs—not ours.
Listening in a manner that shows you understand what your child feels will draw the two of you closer together. Ask how your child feels and respond to the reply. Try to put your child's thoughts accurately into words; then ask your child, "Is this what you mean?" This approach will assure him or her that you get it.
WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?
When it comes to talking with kids about sex, the majority of parents fall somewhere between the extremes of the two families we just discussed—with most erring toward the side of Kathy's reticent parents, John and Mary. In most cases, parents and kids both know information about sex, but neither is necessarily clear about the meaning and significance of that information for the other. Kids often think that their parents "don't have a clue" and are way out of touch, whereas parents begin with the assumption, "I've seen everything—and even if I haven't done it all, I know all about it." This, they presume, prepares them for all possible exchanges because their kids must surely recognize what a wealth of information their parents possess and will come seeking answers. Such assumptions coupled with the anxiety of talking about sexuality often lead to what I call "telegraphic exchanges." Telegraphic exchanges are what happen when bits of unclear information are passed between parents and their kids and no real heartfelt attempts are made to create open communication.
AVOIDING TELEGRAPHIC EXCHANGES
Because we're sometimes uncomfortable with what we think and feel, we often communicate as if by telegraph, using short words and symbols or avoiding sexual terms—essentially leaving children to fill in the blanks. For example, we may have "conversations" without using words like sex, penis, or intercourse, and we may smile or literally use the word blank as we leave out the sexual term or example, thus conveying anxiety. The single most common characteristic among the patients I see for sexual dysfunction—men and women alike—is a lack of good, clear communication about sex during their childhood and adolescence. This communication gap often becomes a trend that continues through adulthood. Because they never received clear guidance as children about how to attune to their own feelings and develop the confidence needed for asking real questions about their sexuality, they are unsure about themselves and don't address their sexual concerns and are not able to mature sexually. The ambiguity that resulted from murky communication in childhood can lead to anxiety, which sets the stage for a whole host of problems later on.
You have probably experienced telegraphic exchanges. For instance, there you are at a baseball game with your daughter or son, and staring you in the face from behind left field is a huge billboard with the letters V-I-A-G-R-A next to a picture of a man smiling. Your child asks, "What's Va-gra? Vi-a-gra? What does that mean?" to which you probably can't come up with a better response than, "Let's just watch the game!"—ignoring the fact that it is between innings. Though it may seem minor at the time, this communication essentially sends a telegram to your child that reads something like this:
DEAR CHILD—I'M UNCOMFORTABLE WITH TALKING ABOUT SEX (STOP) PRETEND NOTHING HAPPENED (STOP) DON'T ASK IN THE FUTURE (STOP) SUPPRESS CURIOSITY (STOP) XO—PARENT
What beneficial information might your child possibly take away from this verbal exchange? He or she gets the sense that whatever Viagra is, it must be either very stressful or very bad, neither of which is the message you ultimately want to communicate. You can imagine how hard it must be for our kids to understand such exchanges, especially since they're looking for clear, simple answers, but these interactions don't produce any. They're effectively being told to be quiet, but they don't have the tools to figure out why. The real message of the telegram is, "Don't ask!" and that's just what your child learns to do!
You're probably wondering what I might say to my daughter or son about that Viagra sign at the baseball stadium. It would depend on his or her age, but I might have said to my daughter, when she was 7, "It's for a medical problem that some men have when they get older." If it seemed like the child wanted to pursue this discussion and was near puberty, I would say that we would talk more about it when we got home. And then, of course, we would.
One of the primary challenges of childhood, and particularly adolescence, is clarifying identity. Our children question all sorts of things about themselves—their likes and dislikes, their desires, their wishes and hopes for the future, their budding sexual selves. To understand who they are, they begin to construct and internalize an identity based on how others see them, all the while trying to understand the actual messages both internally (such as their feelings) and externally (such as what people say about their attractiveness or competence). Their confidence develops based on the information they receive and how successfully that information is communicated to them. Thus, as parents, we must do everything we can to provide them access to good, clear information. If my younger daughter had further questions about Viagra, I might say, "Viagra is a medicine for a man's privates."
As parents, we are the translators for our children: we are in an excellent position to decode messages sent by outsiders. And we have to be careful not to further complicate matters by sending telegrams ourselves. When our kids come to us, they are looking for honest information that will help them better understand themselves and the world. If they receive secretive, inauthentic, or confusing telegrams from us, they will learn that we are not the ones they should be asking and will be confused. They will also try to find their answers by themselves or from other, often less-reliable, sources—which is precisely what we've indirectly suggested that they do when we don't come through for them.
Talking indirectly about sex or avoiding it altogether during our kids' childhood often evolves into more fully developed and unhealthy telegraphic exchanges between our kids and us as they get older. In addition to conveying that we don't talk about sex, such advanced telegraphic exchanges create doubts, anxiety, and confusion about sex. Here's an example of an "advanced" telegraphic conversation:
(Connie comes down the stairs, looking beautiful in a floral summer dress, hair and makeup in place, to go out on a date.)
MOM: Just be careful.
DAD (chiming in from the living room): You know how we raised you. Don't make any mistakes!
CONNIE (running toward the door): Yup, Dad. Of course.
MOM (teary-eyed, whispering to her daughter in the corridor as she exits): You know that we love you, honey.
CONNIE: Okay. I love you too.
This is an awkward moment for everyone. While Connie's parents are worried that she will do something that's sexually inappropriate, Connie's night out is tainted by her parents' anxieties, and she wants to get out of the house as quickly as possible!
Beneath the surface of this half-hearted exchange, Connie's parents are genuinely concerned for their daughter's welfare; they just don't know how to express their concerns clearly and openly. As a result, Connie receives many rapidly sent telegrams containing numerous mixed messages: "You know what you're supposed to do," "Don't make any mistakes," "You'll possibly do something other than what we're suggesting," and "We love you." But how can Connie's parents clear the air and share what's on their mind? Connie's date was probably an important, exciting occasion for her. And if her parents had fears and anticipations regarding sex,
Connie would have genuinely benefited from a loving conversation with her parents—rather than this lightning attack ten seconds before she ran out the door! Supportive encouragement before her date is replaced by a pseudo-connection wrought with fear, guilt, and anxiety. By now the family is in advanced telegram mode—it seems too late to have the frank discussion about relationships that's needed.
Although many parents would tell you that their kids can talk with them about anything, the degree to which this actually happens greatly depends on the way the parents have handled previous exchanges. In general, parental approaches to conversations with their kids about sex fall into three categories.
1. Limited exchange. Questions about sexuality get raised and quickly dismissed. In such a scenario, telegraphic messages are sent and communications remain unclear, as in the case of Connie. (Parents in this category may say it's best to let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to sex and blindly trust that their kids will be proactive and somehow obtain answers to their questions from somewhere.)
2. Basic talk. Discussion occurs, but it is limited to specific issues. The exchange feels unnatural and constrained for everyone involved. While facts get out there, it's clear to the children that from then on they should fend for themselves. (This category includes parents who prepare for the One Big Talk on the Birds and the Bees.)
3. Ongoing conversation. Rather than approaching sexuality as if it can be covered in a single conversation, the ongoing conversation invites a living and loving dynamic in which your child is free to communicate spontaneously her questions and concerns. In such an environment, parents realize that they don't necessarily have all of the answers, but they are still willing to help their children find the answers they're seeking and to openly initiate conversations in the course of life.
By now you realize that you're aiming for category three!
Excerpted from HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX by John T. Chirban Copyright © 2012 by John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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