Jan. 16, 2008 -- Talking to your children about sex can be embarrassing, awkward, and uncomfortable. Just the thought of having this talk is enough to make many parents blush. But not having it may be setting your children up for serious problems down the road -- including teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases -- say leading psychoanalysts at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City.
"Many people aren't talking to their kids about sex. Or they feel very conflicted about talking to their kids about sex and they have their own personal conflicts which get into the mix," explains psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell School of Medicine.
"Parents still struggle for ways to talk about this all-important material, but they really have no choice because it is so prevalent," she says. "The current media is very glorifying of sexualized material, and today's children have Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears as role models," she says.
To make sure your children get the right message about sex and sexuality, follow these tips:
Tip No. 1: Start Young and Go Slow
"When children are aged 3 to 5 they will start talking about body parts and babies," says New York City psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, the director of the Pacella Parent Child Center. Now is a good time to start having the conversation. "Answer their questions and don't elaborate with more details then they are ready to hear."
Tip No. 2: Never Use Pet Names for Body Parts
"Parents refer to a sexual organ as 'down there' or 'that place' and that leaves children with confusion, and they grow into women who need help with sexual dysfunction," Saltz says. Or "a child may go to a doctor or nurse and say 'I have a problem with my woo-woo,' and no one knows what she is talking about and they laugh." To avoid this, use the correct terminology and explain what it is and what it does. "Say 'this is your vulva or vagina or penis' from the get-go."
Tip No. 3: View Current Events as an Opportunity
Whether it's the success of Juno, a movie about teen pregnancy, or the pregnancy of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, star of the TV show Zoey 101, Saltz says to "view these as an opportunity to discuss something that may now feel more personally relevant to your children. If your child asks why Zoey [the character played by Spears] is saying good-bye, talk [to them] about being responsible, the facts about intercourse, and the ways in which it changes you and your life," she says.
Tip No. 4: Don't Use Yourself as the Example
When you are explaining sexual intercourse between partners, don't use yourself as an example, Hoffman says. Instead, "use generic examples as most children don't want to hear about mommy and daddy in that context."
Tip No. 5: Talk About the Different Types of Sex
Tip No. 6: Don't Leave Anything Out
"Kids are sexual beings with sexual feelings," Saltz says, so masturbation and sexual fantasy should be a part of the ongoing dialogue. Parents should let their children know that it is OK to masturbate, she says, but that it should be done privately. Some children may masturbate excessively, and parents need to ask how much is too much because constant masturbating may be a sign of anxiety.
"Many parents would never broach the topic of sexual fantasy, but kids have sexual fantasies, [and] parents can be very reassuring to their children by letting them know this is normal," Saltz says.