Part of helping our kids develop healthy sexuality is looking at what we as parents are bringing to the table.
For a lot of us, the thought of talking to our kids about developing a healthy sexuality is hugely anxiety producing. Now part of that may be that it’s just new; anything thats new and never experienced before is going to inherently make us a little nervous because we can’t fully predict what’s going to happen – that’s totally normal! Also normal is that this feeling might come from a sense that we’re not equipped to have the conversation. For a lot of us, we might no have had the best examples to follow. For most of us I would imagine, our parents or caregivers or community didn’t do an adequate job talking with us about sex.
For me, this looked like my mom sitting me down over a bowl of ice cream, I had to have been 8 or so, and reading Dr. Spock’s “Where did I come from?”. It’s a picture book with funny illustrations that says an orgasm feels like “a sneeze, but much better”. I distinctly remember laughing out loud when she told me a man’s penis goes inside a woman’s vagina. I’m pretty sure I thought the whole thing was really funny at the time. As I got older though and had a lot of questions starting to build up about sex, but I never quite felt it was okay to bring up again. From my perspective, my mom sat me down very formally and basically said here’s this big secret that adults know and kids don’t and then never brought it up again. It felt very similar to when she told me that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy weren’t real. Both those secrets though had few lasting consequences in comparison to the complexity of sex. This feeling of secrecy made it difficult for me to know it was okay to ask questions when I started to have experiences around sex, like when I stumbled upon pornography watching tv late one night after my parents went to sleep, or when I hugged a boy in 8th grade and felt that he had an erection.
This feeling of not being able to ask questions forced me to get my sexual education elsewhere and what I was hearing really scared me. Though I was not raised a Christian, from an early age I actually chose decided not to have sex until marriage because I was afraid of it, though I still had some. And because I didn’t have a healthy view of myself sexually I ended up having some very damaging experiences in late high school and early college. Then I became a Christian and heard the whole “no sex before marriage” business and I REALLY became scared. I never developed an understanding of sex as being a good thing.
Needless to say when I got married, my husband and I have had to work on a few things after we got married. But the important thing is we have. Over the past six and a half years Dave and I have spent many hours in long conversations and in individual and couples counseling tending to the unhealthy patterns that developed in our sexual lives, among other things. And because of this I can stand here and confidently say that sex is a beautiful, sacred part of my life where I find joy and intimacy. And it is also something I will be journeying through for the rest of my life.
Now imagine for a minute if I hadn’t invested all of that energy coming to a more healthy place sexually, what kind of message do you think I would have offered my kids about their sexuality? If I allowed the fear of sex to be my only understanding of it? What I know is that fear breeds fear. Our kids look to us as a guide for what is safe and healthy and good and if sex is not one of those things for you right now, despite how much you might want something different for your kids, it might be difficult for them to get that message.
Your story may not look like mine. There may have been shame, abuse, confusion, anxiety, addiction or there may have been confidence and support and wholeness and self love. But whatever it was and is for you right now, we have to understand that it is going to affect the way we present sexuality to our kids. So my hope for you is that not only do you desire to look at your own sexuality for the sake of your children, but that you might be encouraged to understand yourself in this area for your own emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Some helpful questions to consider (some adapted from Parenting from the Inside Out):
What did your parents, family, and community teach you about sex?
What examples did you witness of sexuality?
How did that information shape your view of your own sexuality?
How have your childhood experiences around sexuality influenced your relationships as an adult?
Are there elements of your sexual past that are particularly difficult to think about?
What would you like to heal or change about the way you understand your own sexuality?
Best wishes in this important season for you and your family. We’re here to journey with you through it,
I get asked this question in its various forms, especially in Christian circles, all the time.
Is maturbation, same-sex marriage, sex before marriage, pornography, etc. okay? All these difficult sex conversations can be difficult to answer as a family. Please let me preface this conversation by saying that I am not going to give you an answer at the end of this post. My hope however is to give you a little bit of a road map on how to come to a more comfortable and confident stance by giving you some questions to ask yourself (and your partner). See, when it comes to uncomfortable conversations, often times our first response is to look for a quick yes or no answer – is it okay or not? But in reality, this does little for us in the long term because it doesn’t answer the “why?” part of these conversations, which in my experience, is essential to finding lasting wholeness and creating positive habits.If you take the time to answer “why?” for yourself and your family, regardless of someone else’s opinion, you can stand firmly on yours.
So, how do we get there? First, know that it will hopefully be through a series of conversations, rather than happen overnight. On a couple of these issues, my husband I have spent months talking through their many layers. In some instances, we sought out the counsel of trusted others whose wisdom and guidance helped us find confidence in our positions. The process can be slow, which requires patience and diligence, but the payoff is absolutely worth it. You will find yourself confidently owning your convictions, knowing you put in the work to get there, which makes having conversations with your kids around these topics way less anxiety producing!
Here are some helpful questions to consider as you discuss these (and other) nuanced issues related to sex:
What is your belief in the purpose of sex?
What is your personal experience with _________? Is there any healing that needs to happen around that area?
If you are coming from a faith background, what evidence do you see regarding God’s posture towards it?
Does this action (or acceptance of an action) help you love yourself and others more freely, and does it allow you to love God more deeply and with more of yourself? (Question from Tara Owens of http://www.anamcara.com/)
If it is an action, is this part of our life known? Do we have a support system outside of our family to seek guidance if issues do arise?
I want to acknowledge that these issues are nuanced and complicated in nature, making firm answers hard to find. My hope for you is that this would not bread anxiety but that you would have peace knowing you have done hard work on your journey of seeking truth.
When I’m considering a concept like healthy sexuality, I like to think of the end product.
So if you produce children who have a healthy concept of sexuality, what will they be like in their teens, in their 20’s, and in their adult years? I’d like my children to have confidence in who they are, I’d like them to be safe and be able to protect themselves sexually. I’d like them to be able to manage their sexual urges and make wise decisions with their sexuality. I’d like them to have rewarding sexual experiences in life, being able to participate in a reciprocal sexual relationship within a loving and committed partnership, knowing what feels good and what doesn’t, and to have the confidence to get their sexual needs met.
Where would you like your children to end up?
To achieve these goals I think our children need to have a strong self-esteem, effective communication skills,comfort with their own bodies. I’d venture to say that a healthy sexuality entails understanding your values, being able to regulate yourself, being comfortable with vulnerability and intimacy. I think we’d all agree, that healthy sexuality goes way beyond the sexual act itself. Sex is more than just sex, it’s more than an orgasm. It’s couched in a relationship with self and with other.
I spoke with a mum recently who was worried that her children would grow into promiscuous teens. We talked about her fears, and ways she could work on their resiliency. Do they have good relationships with men and women? Are they starved for affection, do they struggle with their self-esteem, are they looking for attention and do they struggle to regulate themselves? I believe that if your child has experienced joy and excitement in life in healthy settings, then they are more likely to be able to regulate this emotion in the teenage years. They are less likely to seek this out in unhealthy ways.
I love this American concept of the daddy-daughter dance. To give young girls the experience of having fun and feeling treasured within a healthy relationship, goes far in building their self-worth. It gives them a template of feeling loved and of being treated with respect. Of course not all girls have fathers, but I’ve seen young girls and women go to these events with an older brother, with a grandfather, with a friend of the family.
The concept of regulation is so important, to teach children how to say no, to manage their desires, to manage down time and quiet time. My children are addicted to their Ipads, and so this becomes a natural environment in which to teach them regulation skills. We expect our children to develop an internal monitor to tell them when it’s time to take a break. As they were 3 – 5 years old, we’d do the monitoring for them. But now that they are 5, 7 and 9 years old, they can put on a timer and stop themselves when they’ve hit their time limit. We talk with them a lot about regulating themselves, and reward them when they remember to do it for themselves.
Being comfortable spending time alone is something else that I want to work with them on. I recently decided I would give them an hour on weekends to play by themselves. I think that it’s important to know how to be with others, but also how to be comfortable within yourself and to enjoy spending time alone, to develop comfort with silence.
Some of the greatest joy I feel as a parent, is when I see my children being free and spontaneous. Seeing my 7 year old today, dancing and singing at the top of her lungs without any shame, brought a smile to my face. I found myself thinking, if she can feel this good and this free on a regular Saturday afternoon, then perhaps she won’t believe that she needs drugs or to be promiscuous one day, in order to feel good and to lose herself in a false sense of freedom.
Masters and Johnson (from the book Sex and Human Loving) have a saying that I appreciate, that as parents we don’t really have a choice about whether our children get sex information, instead we can only choose whether or not to participate in the sex education and definition of sexuality that is already taking place.
So it is with this outlook, that sex education is going to happen whether we like it or not, and whether we are involved or not, that we suggest that sexuality is not a single act, but instead it is a journey and a lifestyle. As parents, we are often most focused on one single point on the map, explaining to our children what sex is, and what menstruation is. This single point is a ticking time bomb, and many of us feel ill prepared for this conversation and end up dreading it. But what if we took the pressure off this one point of time, and take a whole childhood to seed that conversation.
Being able to take this journey I believe consists of three parts:
Step 1 is our definition of healthy sexuality. With a broad definition, we will see the opportunities throughout the developmental stages, to discuss sexuality.
Step 2 is considering our own sexuality and understanding what we bring to this conversation. Whether that is our own anxiety or our comfort in approaching sexuality.
Step 3 is understanding who our child is, so that we can adequately meet them on this journey. Our knowledge and attunement to our child, will help us know when and how to address this topic.
During this blog series, we will discuss each of these three Steps to helping our children develop a healthy sexuality. We did an informal survey of parents, asking for questions about this topic, and so we will also be covering a number of these, including: sexual exploration versus molestation, discuss sexuality at the developmental stages, etc…
Mariah and I hope that with this blog series, we might be able to show you what this journey could entail, and perhaps steer you in the right direction or at least show you the next step.
We’re excited to walk alongside you in this series,
Kathryn and Mariah
ABOUT KATHRYN DE BRUIN
Kathryn de Bruin is a Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in San Diego. She teaches play therapy at the UCSD Play Therapy Extension program, and trains therapists around the world in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. With a specialty in working with families, Kathryn has spoken on this topic of Developing Healthy Sexuality in Children in a variety of settings.
ABOUT MARIAH MCQUEEN
Mariah McQueen is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and has been working with Kathryn for three years. She works with couples and families using Emotionally Focused Therapy. She became passionate about the topic of healthy sexuality after going through her own healing journey individually and in her marriage. She has spoken and facilitates groups on the topic.