Over the last several weeks, AAS students across all 3 divisions have been learning about topics related to Health and Wellness. In the Middle School, this unit is known more informally as Sex Ed. For some of our readers, those words may conjure up awkward teenage memories of bananas and condoms. We have enjoyed creating new, awkward memories for the next generation, and have been impressed by the often poignant questions and comments from our Middle School students. Interspersed amongst the nervous and uncomfortable giggles, some insightful gems have emerged. During an introductory lesson, we asked the question, “Why are we teaching this?” One student, probably trying to be funny, said, “Well, there are some things you can’t learn from TikTok!” Too true.
Adolescents are curious. They want to know why their bodies are changing. They want to know what sex is all about. They want to know about how to have healthy relationships. They want to know about all of these things even when they groan and protest and say they don’t! One student shared this week, “When our parents don’t talk about stuff like this, it makes me more nervous, like it’s a problem or something.” If parents don’t talk to their kids about difficult topics, they can be sure that someone else will. That person could be another child on the bus, or a dubious article on the internet, or some influencer on Tiktok who is taking advantage of impressionable young minds.
So every parent is faced with the same task: How to have an uncomfortable conversation with your child?
A common misconception is that talking about certain topics will put the ideas in their head. This is simply not accurate. Research has shown that kids and teens who have regular conversations about sex and relationships are less likely to make risky decisions with their sexual health. Sex, porn, divorce, drugs, technology, school shootings, body image or death are all topics that may bring discomfort and varying levels of stigma. Not talking about these issues does not make them go away. When possible, parents should be the FIRST people to talk about these topics. Establishing a relationship in which your children see you as someone who they can talk to about sensitive topics is the goal.
Here are some ways in which parents can approach difficult conversations and create the right environment:
Use a Drip-Feed (rather than a Fire-Hose) Approach
Avoid thinking about the dreaded “Sex-Talk” or “Drug and Alcohol Talk” as a monumental, one-time, rite-of-passage conversation. A more effective strategy is to think more in line with a drip-feed system: Many small conversations, occurring naturally over time, with the intent of laying the groundwork for a trusting and supportive relationship.
Bring it Up Naturally
Leverage TV shows or media coverage of the topic to start a conversation. “Hey, I just read an article about…What do you think about that?”
Start talking with your kids as early as possible so they will feel safe asking questions. If parents have already begun the discussion, they will be more likely to seek you out when they have questions. No matter the age of your child, you can model being a good listener who is there for them.
Worry about putting thoughts into their heads. Talking about suicide does not lead to a greater risk of suicide. Talking about sex does not encourage kids to have sex. Talking about sexual identity does not “turn” kids gay (looking at you Florida). It’s quite the opposite actually. Talking about difficult topics with kids equips them to better understand the world around them, and to find their place in it.
Be reactive. Or judgmental. Or angry. How parents handle these conversations will determine whether kids will feel safe asking them about something the next time they feel scared or confused. These topics are uncomfortable and emotionally charged for some. If you are upset by what your child is saying, try to remain calm and just listen.
Feel like you have to be the expert or have the answer for everything. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
Parenting is hard. There is no perfect time or perfect way to do any of this. Try to be ready for the opportunities that arise naturally, and seize them. Thankfully it doesn’t have to be perfect, we just have to keep the door open and be ready to listen.