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Sex education by age – key messages for parents

April 3rd, 2009

Dr Petra

Today I was on ITV’s This Morning programme discussing how to talk to your kids about sex and relationships.

One of the things the programme makers asked me to outline was the general messages parents could be giving children and teens at different ages.

Here’s a summary of the things your child/teen is capable of understanding at different points in their lives and some pointers on what you can talk to them about. These are very rough pointers, and it’s important to remember that children mature at different rates and have different tolerance levels to hear about sex and relationships issues. Links to resources for talking to your kids about sex are listed at the end of this post.

Age 0-2

They’re too little to ask many questions but they notice lots as they grow. During this time you can help them feel safe and secure with you as their carer, tell them the names of all body parts so they don’t think genitals are bad/dirty/invisible, and set an example so they see you being assertive, kind, caring and attentive to others. It’s okay to show affection to your partner in front of your child. You may want to think about being naked in front of them (in the bath or shower for example) so they don’t think naked bodies are rude/bad/shameful. Baby massage can also be very relaxing and bonding at this time. Sharing reading books with them and asking them to think about how different characters are feeling can be good to help them start recognising emotions.

Age 3-5 or 6

They’ll notice boys and girls are different and may become quite obsessed with body parts, toileting and ‘rude words’. Quite often in public or when you’d least like them to say them! They may experiment with ‘doctors and nurses’ play, mainly out of curiosity. They will want to know where babies come from, usually because they see pregnant mums and babies. A simple explanation (daddy gives mummy a seed, it grows in her tummy and comes out through a hole between her legs when the baby is ready to be born) will do. They don’t want a long or biological explanation from you. Although if you seem embarrassed or flustered you can bet they’ll start asking you loads more questions! Focusing at this age on friendships, sharing, caring and recognising the feelings of others is very important groundwork for being responsive to others as they get older.

Age 6-8

They may increase an interest in the body and you can give them more detailed information on how their whole body works. During this time it’s important to really stress key messages of friendship, respect for their own body and other people’s, healthy living (exercise, diet), and encourage them to recognise and respond to emotions in others. You’re teaching them assertiveness and emotional intelligence at this age so they can use it when they’re older. You may want to begin discussing different positive ways people enjoy relationships and families at this time.

Age 9-11

Some young people may go into puberty now, but most kids at this age need to be told what’s going to happen, so they don’t fear things or get any surprises. That includes making them aware their bodies will change (hair will grow for example), and talk about getting a bra and periods starting for girls, or what will happen with wet dreams (and why they happen) for boys. Make both events seem matter of fact, and something to anticipate but not worry about, discuss all aspects of puberty with boys and girls so certain aspects aren’t made into ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ issues. Make it clear you’ll be ready to talk about these changes as they happen. Talk also about emotional changes and feelings so they’re prepared if they go on an emotional roller coaster courtesy of their hormones. They may also ask questions about sexuality at this time, if they’ve heard about it on TV or through teasing or general chat at school. Be prepared to answer their questions and use examples of different families/relationships stressing the importance of respect and caring for each other.

Age 12-14

They’re most likely going through puberty now, so it’s time to talk about dealing with that. By this time they should be aware of contraception and STIs, but not as a means of scaring them off sex. The focus should still be around taking care of themselves and being mindful of others, with a particular focus on getting them to think about being assertive and not to coerce other people. We often make the error at this age that we don’t need to talk to boys as they ‘know it all’ and are ‘naturally sexual’, while we teach girls the negatives – they must be the ones who say no and we tell them about how they’ll get pregnant or an infection of they don’t. At this age it’s good to start using the media (soaps, magazines etc) to get them thinking critically about relationships and ensure boys are aware of other people’s boundaries and girls are aware they’ve a right to pleasure in a respectful relationship when they’re older.

It’s a good idea to reassure them that masturbation is normal and won’t hurt them as this is the age when they’ll think about trying it (if they’ve not already started). Some may be worrying they’re developing later than their peers, so reassure them if they are concerned. Discuss ground rules with your teen at this stage about privacy and respect, so you’ll want to know about who they’re talking to online, but you will also give them time alone to have privacy they may want to chat to mates or explore masturbation.

Age 15-18

They’ll now start thinking about planning relationships, although they may not have a relationship yet. Focusing on how they’d handle being assertive with a partner, how to avoid being in an abusive/exploitative relationship and how to negotiate safer sex are all important things to cover here – building on the skills they were learning when they were younger (friendship, respect, assertiveness). Signposting them to clinics for contraception can happen now (if you’ve
not had to mention it earlier) as well as making it clear they manage their sexual wellbeing. You can also bring in the positives here, so what’s to look forward to in an adult relationship, how they can respect those they’re with. So things are positive. Within this you can talk about drugs/alcohol as often this causes problems around STIs/unplanned pregnancy. Some may still have concerns over their physical development at this age, and may want support on their sexuality. The focus needs to be about looking forward to sharing intimacy and understanding this can come in many forms.

Key things to remember with all the above include:

- You’re not focusing just on ‘sex’ or ‘relationships’ but are giving your child the life skills to enable them to have happy, confident and enjoyable relationships as an adult.

- You need to bring up topics around sex/relationships as your child may not always come to you

- Pay close attention to what’s going on in your child’s world and use this as a learning point, particularly look at what their peers are saying, what their media covers, and what’s being sold to them commercially (music, fashion etc). Encourage them to reflect on and critique this.

- Don’t worry if you don’t have answers or if you think one explanation wasn’t that good, you’ve got time to find out more. You don’t worry if you don’t always have the best answer to their maths, english or science questions, so don’t worry about this either – it’s not a test!

- Lead by example. If you’re in a relationship or single, make it clear to your child how to be assertive, confident and make your opinions heard. Show affection to your child and others around you so they learn how to express love. It’s okay to argue in front of them so long as this isn’t violent and you demonstrate resolutions.

- Naming the body, and making it feel special to the child won’t encourage experimentation, but it can help if someone tries to exploit them as the child can tell you what’s going on. Also a child raised to be self confident is less likely to be a target for abuse.

- Your child is likely to experiment with sex early and without protection if you don’t talk about sex at all, or if you only focus on protection/performance and don’t put that in the context of a relationship they’ll be having when they’re older.

- Paying attention to your child’s life is the most important gift you can give them. Research shows parents who take an interest in their child, encourage them to have ambitions and aspirations, who can help them with clubs, hobbies and activities have children who delay sex and use protection when they do so. So focus on the whole of your child’s personal development, rather than thinking about this as having to talk
about relationships every so often.

Further resources (including books and websites for children, teens and parents) can be found in this blog.

You can find out more information on the training courses I offer on sex and relationships issues for parents, teens, teachers and healthcare professionals here.

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