Birds, Bees, and Babies: Talking about Healthy Sex and Relationships with Young Children
Most parents want to best prepare their children for the good, weird, and even bad parts of life, but most parents have valid concerns when it comes to actually talking to children and youth about healthy intimacy and relationships. To answer this growing need, in honor of both Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and Child Abuse Awareness Month (“Blue Ribbon Month”), we thought we would address our best practices in talking to young children about healthy relationships and consent.
“When should I start teaching children about healthy sex and relationships?
There is no age that is too early to start giving children a foundation of knowledge that will support the development of healthy relationships. Talking with kids early and often helps establish you as a safe adult they can talk to, reduces their risk of abuse, and empowers them to make their own boundaries in a diverse array of situations. We have to acknowledge that parents and caregivers have unique relationships with their children. The key is to balance your own comfort, experience, and parenting style as well as your child’s individual maturity level and learning method. Here are some suggestions and guidelines. Small children absorb more information than we often give them credit for. Developmentally, a child may not have many verbal or analytical skills, but they are learning how the world around them works, and how to engage with others. Here are some ways to give your child a strong foundation for safe interpersonal relationships.
Respect their Boundaries:
Showing respect for a child’s body autonomy creates a foundation of understanding that they have the right to accept touch, and are not required to submit to activity that makes them uncomfortable. This is most relevant when a child is starting to understand communication; a child in diapers likely doesn’t have the verbal skills to consent to having their bottom wiped but it still needs to be done! This might look like asking “Would you like grandpa to hold you?”, “We need to go. Can I help you into your car seat?”, “The doctor needs to make sure your private parts are healthy, is that okay? Would you like me with you?” “Would you like to give Auntie a hug good-bye?” etc. Follow this by honoring the child’s response.
If a child says “no” to a touch that you feel is necessary there are several options to work with the child’s comfort levels but do your best to avoid force, corrosion, guilt or bribery. Utilizing these negative methods teaches the child that they are acceptable, even from the people who love and protect them. A child that is forced to hug, for example, might later think it is acceptable to be forced to be sexually touched. The key to avoiding these practices will be identifying why the child has said “no” and being prepared to help make the experience go as smoothly as possible.
- Are they afraid?
- For example: Is the child afraid of the doctor touching them to give them a shot? Help the child feel grounded by offering them a comfort item or person, explain the procedure and how it will help. “The doctor needs to give you a shot so that you don’t get sick and stay healthy. What if we ask the doctor if you can sit on my lap while they give you a shot; would that make you feel better?”
- Is the child overstimulated?
- For example, a child is having a tantrum and refusing to sit on a holiday characters lap for a photo. Try having the child out of, or take a break from, the overstimulating area if possible. If they are hungry, offer a snack; if they are tired, offer a nap and then try again. Compromise with the child- “What about sitting next to the character, giving them a hug, sitting on a trusted persons lap next to the character, meeting the character with a sibling or friend.” If all else fails, consider that this is not necessary for the child’s health and safety, but rather the satisfaction of someone else. Is this activity important enough to instill the message in your child that submitting to something that makes them uncomfortable, for another person’s satisfaction, is acceptable?
- Are they in pain?
- For example, the child has a rash making the area painful to clean. Tell the child that to make them feel better you have to clean it and put medicine on it. Offer a distraction while you clean up the area. Or if they are able, offer to help them clean the area or apply the medicine themselves. “I know it hurts there but you need the medicine to make it feel better. What if we watch a cartoon while I do it? Would you feel better if I helped you do it yourself?”
- How well do they know this adult?
- For example, the child does not want to give their grandma a hug. Acknowledge that it’s okay to be uncomfortable with someone you don’t know very well. Offer a compromise and the ability to do something to get to know the person. “It’s okay, I get nervous when I don’t know someone. Do you think you might be okay giving Grandma a high-five? Maybe you can spend some time coloring a picture or playing with grandma?”
- Did something bad happen before?
- For example, the child typically looks forward to staying at their friend’s house when you are on a business trip, but now they are unsure and upset. Ask why. Did they get in a fight? Did something happen there that was different than at home? Did someone there hurt them? Do they get lonely and miss you while you are gone? The answers to these questions will help you determine if you need to be protective of the child, help them make a plan to make-up with their friend, talk to the friend’s parents, or make a plan to call them before bedtime.
Create Opportunity to Explore:
Opportunities to talk about healthy relationships might come up organically in a child’s life. Talking about these examples can be a great way to teach your child and grow together. Sometimes, however, we aren’t there to guide our child on the playground or when they aren’t at home. Watching age-appropriate movies or shows that deal with interpersonal relationships and then discussing them is one way to preemptively teach your child. Storybooks are particularly helpful as well and we encourage you to consider books like those listed on our Children’s Reading List or explore a wider array of topics found in the Abuse/Violence and Relationships book lists published by A Mighty Girl.
Another way to breach these topics is to educate yourself by attending one of our local parents and caregivers workshops where you get to learn how to, get support in talking about tough issues with kids and how to cope when a tragedy does occur. You can also advocate for us to bring our Child Abuse Prevention Program (CAPP) to your child’s school by communicating with their school counselor or principle. If you need assistance with these either of these options you can learn more from our Education and Programs Guide.
However you work with your child, remember that raising kids is hard! Education and growth take patience. Your child didn’t come with a handbook and we are all learning as we go. Some of these strategies are very different than how we were raised and can take time to get used to. We might not be able to make these changes overnight. Maya Angelou was right: “When you know better, you do better.”
We are all human and there is a time between knowing better, and doing better, where we make mistakes. Give yourself room to grow into these suggestions and remember that we at Verity are always happy to do what we can to support you and your child in this journey!