Saturday, November 06, 2010

GUEST BLOG POST: Smart Talk about Sex by Heather Simonson

An open and honest relationship - started early and continued throughout adulthood - between parents and children is the foundation for healthy and responsible decision-making about love, life and sex. Research indicates that strong family connectedness will help children develop positive self-esteem, resist peer pressure and make responsible choices independently.
Unfortunately, many parents feel uncomfortable tackling such difficult subject matter on their own, especially when their children are still young. Some are unable to broach the topic because of their own lack of information, while others feel that addressing such a mature topic will encourage unhealthy behaviors.

But we know the opposite to be true— starting early, and talking often about sex and sexuality by first starting with more comfortable issues such as love, relationships and responsibility will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of open communication and trust. Moreover, parental involvement in young people’s lives improves youth’s self-esteem, positively influences their decision-making skills and delays the onset of sexual activity.

Sharing your expectations with your kids, expressing why you feel the way you do and giving them the accurate information they need to stay healthy will help to keep the lines of communication open and make you an “askable” parent. Education is power. Sharing medically factual and honest information does not give permission to have sex, just as teaching your child how to use their seatbelt doesn’t send a message that you want them to drive haphazardly.

Be the source and keep an open ear when they need it. With so many messages about sexuality bombarding young people, you want to be sure your kids can sort out the facts from the fantasy. Teens rank parents as their #1 influence – they need your guidance on sexuality whether or not they ask. Studies show that kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex - because their parents speak openly and listen carefully to them - are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens than kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject. Effective parent-child communication is the cornerstone of strong and healthy families and will lay the groundwork for keeping our kids safe and resilient.

Here are some tips to help get the conversation started:

Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes -Talking to your children about love, sex and relationships will be more successful when you're clear about how you feel about your own values. You are the strongest influence in your child's life. Share your values, but understand and accept that your child may not share your beliefs about sexuality. If they share their values with you, by really listening to them, they will feel valued by you, and in turn learn to have a strong sense of self-worth.

Also, be on the same page with your parenting partner. You don’t have to agree, but being consistent in the messages you send is vital, especially since youth receive so many mixed messages from all the other influences in their lives.

Be an Askable Parent - Reassure the child that it’s good to ask questions, for example always respond with saying something like “That’s a great question.” Affirming a question may be more important that the answer itself.

Teachable Moments - Use moments that arise in everyday life, as occasions for discussion; by doing so your children will be a lot less likely to tune you out. Watch a TV show, use a public service announcement, a pregnant friend of even a pet, a movie or magazines to create these teachable moments. Ask your child what they think rather than lecturing, and in the process, share your messages and values on the topic.

Don't wait for your child to start the conversation - Just because they haven’t asked, doesn’t mean they don’t need to know. Many adolescents wish they could talk to their parents about sex, but feel uncomfortable asking questions- Then they may end up getting all the wrong information from their friends and TV!

Schools and Parents Working Together: A Powerful Partnership - We know that in order to promote positive and healthy views around sexuality we must work together with our community and our schools. Do you know what your school teaches? The only sexual health related state mandate is HIV/AIDS Education. Advocate for a comprehensive sexuality education curricula in your school and couple it with a parent education program either through your PTA or SEPTA.

Be Positive and Encourage Health - Sending affirming messages about sexuality will help your child to formulate a positive outlook and learn to respect their bodies. One way to do this is by normalizing sexuality, making talking about it as common and as important as brushing your teeth.

Heather Simonson, LMSW, a Licensed Social Worker and Certified Sexuality Educator, is the founder of Sexuality Education and Counseling Services, an organization that empowers others to embrace sexuality with pride and respect through.  She is a nationally known trainer and counselor specializing in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, youth development and parent/child communication. Heather created PEP Talks, the Parent Empowerment Program, to provide parents with the support, education and tools needed to help their children successfully navigate through life.

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