Twenty years ago, our nation's children learned about oral sex from the headlines surrounding President Clinton's "inappropriate sexual relationship" with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Today's children are hearing about sexual assault, indecent exposure, drunken orgies, and more as the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh flood the daily news. How can parents turn these troubling headlines into teachable moments with their children?
1. Use wisdom and courage in answering tough questions. Even just passing through the living room with the morning TV news on can generate questions on these difficult issues. Don't fear the questions- but rather be ready with a calm and confident response. You want to be the key information source for your child. You want to be the "expert"- the one they come to with all their questions like this. A few points to consider when answering tough questions:
Start by affirming the ask-er. "I'm so glad you asked me that. You can always ask me questions like that." (If you'll practice that response, and say it every time, it buys you a few seconds to come up with the next reply!). If you panic and tell the child, "Go ask your Dad" or "Go ask your Mom"- you are discouraging the next question they have.
Ask a clarifying question. "Well, what do you think that means?" Assess what they already know on the subject and listen for any misconceptions. Get a starting point from your child, then you'll know how to build on their current understanding.
Consider the age of the ask-er. A five-year-old answer should be very different than a twelve-year-old answer. Be as honest as you can for their maturity level, being careful not to give information that is beyond their understanding. Keeping in mind also that the information you share is likely to be shared at the school lunch table the next day. Sexuality education happens best incrementally over time, building one idea on the other as the child matures.
2. Share your family's values on these important life issues. Children are more likely to take on the values of their parents than any other influence. A study by the National Campaign to Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy asked teens who most influences their decisions about sex. For teens up through age 19 years old, parents were the greatest influence, even ahead of friends. (Power to Decide (formerly The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy). (2016). Survey Says: Parent Power. Washington, DC: Author.) Use these discussions to share your values and expectations related to sexuality and relationships. Your children care what you're thinking, so process through some of the different perspectives that you're hearing and circle back to your family's perspectives.
3. Capitalize on the opportunity to grow your parent-child relationship. You've heard the expression "a family that plays together stays together." We would say it, "A family that talks about sex together stays together." If your family can talk about these sensitive, difficult issues, you can talk about anything. And it is that talking that grows your parent-child relationship, which serves as a protective factor for a whole host of risk-taking behaviors. Keep the channels of communication open, and you will find the turbulent teen years to be less turbulent. And in turbulent times in our nation, your family will find strength from within.
Lori Kuykendall is the Executive Director for Aim for Success, the largest provider of live health education programs in Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.