As parents and caregivers, one of your most important characteristics and roles is to be askable. What does that mean? How do adults become askable?
Being askable means that young people see you as approachable and open to questions. Being askable about sexuality is something that most parents and caregivers want to be but often find very difficult. They may have received little or no information about sexuality when they were children. Sexuality may not have been discussed in their homes out of fear or embarrassment. Or, they may fear
- Not knowing the right words or the right answers
- Being out of it in the eyes of their young people
- Giving too much or too little information
- Giving information at the wrong time.
Being askable is an important goal. Research shows that youth with the least information about sexuality and sexual risk behaviours experiment more at earlier ages compared to youth with more information. Research also shows when teens are able to talk with a parent or other significant adult about sexuality and protection, they are less likely to engage in early and/or irresponsible sexual intercourse than are teens who have been unable to talk with a trusted adult.
Because being askable is so important and because so many adults have difficulty initiating discussions about sexuality with their children, adults may need to learn new skills and become more confident about their ability to discuss sexuality. Here are some tips for communicating with young people about sexuality.
Communicating with Young People about Sexuality
- Acquire a broad foundation of factual information about sexuality from reliable books or a course on the subject. Remember that sexuality is a much larger topic than sexual intercourse and includes emotions, gender, intimacy, caring, sharing, loving, sexual orientation, feelings, attitudes, and flirtation as well as physiology and sexual intercourse.
- Learn the correct terminology for body parts and functions. If you have difficulty saying some words without embarrassment, find a private place with a mirror and practice saying these difficult words until you are as comfortable with them as with non-sexual words.
- Thoughtfully explore your own feelings and values about love and sexuality. Include childhood memories, values, and how you feel about current sexuality issues, such as contraceptive use, gender equality, etc. You must be aware of how you feel before you can effectively communicate with young people.
- Talk with your child. Being more ready to listen than to speak and open, two-way communication form the basis for positive adult/youth relationships. Only by listening to each other will you understand one another, for adults and youth often perceive sexuality and love differently.
- Don't worry about -
- Being "with it." Youth get that from their peers. From you, they want to know what you believe.
- Being embarrassed. Young people will be embarrassed, too. It's okay, because love and many aspects of sexuality, including sexual intercourse, are highly personal; youth accept this.
- Which parent should talk with a child. A parent or caregiver of either gender can be an effective sexuality educator for youth of either gender.
- Not having all of the answers. It's fine to say that you don't know. Just follow up by offering to find the answers or to work with the questioner to find the answers. Then do so.
Communicating with Young Children
- Remember that if they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to learn the correct answer and the correct words.
- Be sure you understand what they are asking. Check with them. For example, you might say, "I'm not certain that I understand exactly what you are asking. Are you asking if it's okay to do this or are you asking how to do it?" What you don't want to do is to launch into a long explanation that doesn't address the child's question.
- Answer the question when it is asked. It is usually better to risk embarrassing a few adults (at the supermarket, for example) than to embarrass your child or to waste a teachable moment. If you cannot answer at the time, assure the child that you are glad he/she asked and set up a time when you can answer fully. "I'm glad you asked that. Let's talk about it on the way home."
- Answer slightly above the level for which you think your child is ready both because you may be underestimating her/his readiness and because it will lay a foundation for future questions. But, don't forget you are talking with a child. For example, when asked about the differences between boys and girls, don't get out a textbook and show the standard cross-sectional drawings of the reproductive organs. The young child wants to know what is on the outside. So, say simply, "A boy has a penis, and a girl has a vulva. As they grow up, a boy also develops hair near his penis and on his chest and face, and a girl develops breasts and hair near her vulva."
- Remember that even with very young children, you need to set limits. Explain the differences between values and standards. For example, if a child asks whether it is bad to masturbate, you might say, "Masturbation is not bad (value); however, we do not ever masturbate in public (standard). It is a private behavior." You should also warn your child that other adults may have different values about this subject while they hold to the same standard.
Communicating with Teens
- Try to recall how you felt when you were a teen. Remember that adolescence is a difficult time for many youth. One moment they are striving for separate identity and independence, and the next moment they urgently need adults' support.
- Teens are sensitive to mutually respectful conversations. Avoid dictating. Share your feelings, values, and attitudes and be willing to listen and learn about theirs. Remember that you cannot dictate anyone else's feelings, attitudes, or values.
- Don't assume either that a teen is sexually experienced and knowledgeable or sexually inexperienced and naive.
- Don't underestimate teens' abilities to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of various options. If you fail to tell a teen about certain options, such as contraceptives, he/she will lose trust in you. Teens have values, and teens are capable of making mature, responsible decisions, especially when they have all the pertinent facts and opportunities to discuss the options with a supportive adult. Of course, a teen's decisions may be different from ones you would make; but that goes with the territory.
Being askable is a life-long component of relationships with young people. It opens doors to closer relationships and to family connections. It's never too late to begin!
This article is published by kind permission of Advocates for Youth