If you are even just a casual reader of this blog, you know I am a strong advocate of having “The Talk” early and often with your kids. I know some parents are uncomfortable with that philosophy and I have to acknowledge that my introduction to parenting is not the same as most other mothers which may account for why I am so passionate about answering kids’ questions about sex from a young age.
My first experiences answering those questions came during a yearly educational event where I would sit with all our group home kids (boys ages 6-18) and read a very basic book about where babies came from. After I finished that book I told them they could ask me any questions at all and I would answer them honestly. (After the first year, I learned to let the little kids ask questions first and then send them to bed before I let the bigger kids ask questions. . . rookie mistake.) I would answer other questions as they came up throughout the year, but I wanted to make sure that at least once a year I was initiating the conversation and being sure we had covered the biological basics in a safe, open, and honest dialogue.
What I learned during those conversations was that kids from trauma often have a very disjointed understanding of sex and sexuality. A child can have little to no knowledge about the actual biological process of reproduction, but can have shockingly detailed questions about particular sex acts. This is what happens when sexual abuse and/or porn (and I fully believe introducing a child to porn IS sexual abuse) are your introduction to the mechanics of sex. And even in the best case scenario for kids from trauma when there is no history of inappropriate sexual exposure, there often haven’t been the necessary conversations about privacy and boundaries when it comes to their bodies or the bodies of others.
For those of us raising kids with an uncertain history of sexual experiences and education, we need to be even more intentional with how we talk about sex. We cannot assume either that they already know everything they need to know because they are old enough OR that they don’t know anything because they are too young. They may know way more than they should and also far less than they need to. As you’re walking them through “The Talk” here are some things to keep in mind:
Answer questions honestly. This matters because it’s important that kids have accurate information about sex, but it also matters because you are working hard to prove that you are a trustworthy person. If you lie about this or tell them you’ll answer when they’re older, you’ve missed out on a major opportunity to build trust and to show them that you will also tell them the truth in other areas (like about their history or why they came to live with you). I want my kids to know I will ALWAYS tell them the truth, even when it makes me a little uncomfortable.
Be prepared for a difference between their academic knowledge and functional knowledge. Imagine if everything you knew about sex you learned from porn or through sexual abuse (your own of what you witnessed happening to others). There would be some HUGE gaps between healthy sexuality and what you THINK sex is like. I was heartbroken to read an article about interviews done with middle school kids where they were allowed to ask any questions about sex to these researchers and the majority of their questions centered around why women liked certain violent or demeaning sex acts. As women, we know that we DON’T like those violent or demeaning sex acts, but for kids who are raised on a sex education of porn, these things have been normalized. And these kids weren’t specifically from abusive backgrounds, so how much more is this an issue for our kids? We need to be prepared to give correct information, counter wrong information, and not respond with shock when we hear what they know.
Work to eliminate inappropriate shame. These kids may already be dealing with an intense level of shame because of what they’ve seen, done or had done to them. We do not need to add to that with ill-timed purity conversations. We want them to know we are okay hearing about what they’ve been through and our first goal is to then help them understand that it wasn’t their fault. Ask questions. Be a good listener. Don’t add to the burden they’re already carrying by assuming we’re all starting from the same life experiences and pushing them to hide their shame even more deeply.
Don’t assume they know anything. Start at the beginning, no matter how old they are. Use appropriate names for body parts. Explain reproduction. Talk about privacy and boundaries. Let them know they can ask ANY question they need to, even if they aren’t ready to ask that question for another week because they’re processing what they’re learning. Be aware that even a child who seems preoccupied with sex may not actually understand sex.
Don’t act shocked. If they ask you a question that makes you blush, just go with it. If you aren’t sure what to say, tell them you need to think about it and you’ll get back to them. AND THEN BE SURE YOU GET BACK TO THEM. If you are concerned about abuse that hasn’t been documented yet, there are people to help your kids walk through what they’re processing and you need to find help and report this. But in all of it, keep your cool. Your shock may be one more thing that makes them feel like an outsider and unworthy of love, so hold it together.
Do express sadness. We can help our kids have compassion for themselves when we express compassion for them and what they’ve been through. It may be entirely appropriate for you to say something like, “I am so sorry you already know about that. That’s not okay for a child to be exposed to those things and I wish I could take that out of your brain. It’s okay to feel upset about that. I feel sad about it, too.” We want our tone to be one of compassion and empathy as we work through these tough issues.
Give them words for what they’ve seen or experienced. When we teach them the correct language, we give them the power to report what has happened to them or just to feel knowledgeable and empowered about their own bodies and boundaries. We can’t be afraid of those words or be too delicate to use them appropriately. Ask them questions and let them lead the way with what they are ready to talk about and then give them words for what they’re expressing.
It could be that your child hasn’t had any inappropriate exposure to sexual topics. That’s great! I’ll have another post up soon about how even in that situation there are some uniquenesses in having “The Talk” with our foster and adopted kids. But especially for our kids who have experienced some level of sexual trauma, we need to be sensitive, informed, compassionate listeners and we may need to intentionally create a safe space for them to share their stories.