This week's episode of "Perfectly Imperfect Parents" on The Chopra Well is all about how to talk with your kids about sex. Dr. Cara Natterson from the show shares her thoughts and tips. Her number one piece of advice? Have more than one talk!
WATCH: How to Have 'The Talk' With Your Child
Early in my career as a pediatrician, I saw a 16-year-old girl for a routine check-up. Once a girl becomes a teen -- and sometimes even before -- I like to speak with the parent and child together, and then with each separately. It takes time, mind you, but most teenagers are not going to disclose things with a parent in the room. You would be amazed at what comes out in those precious one-on-one moments -- not just about sex and drugs, but about plans to pierce their tongue or to get a tattoo.
So, early in my career, I was seeing a polite teenage girl who arrived at the office well-groomed and dressed fairly conservatively. I spent time with the girl and her mother, reviewing her questions (Am I done growing? Do I really have to eat breakfast? I'm not hungry in the mornings...) followed by a physical exam. Finally, with her mom out of the room, I started down my own road of questions.
It took all of 30 seconds for her to disclose that she was sexually active. I emerged from the room several minutes later, after a densely packed conversation, and met her mom in my office.
"Well," said her mother. "All I have to say is that I am so glad she is nowhere near having sex. I mean, thank goodness for that, right?!"
Medical school had not prepared me for this.
Fifteen years later, I am used to the conversation. I know how to talk to parents about their kids without violating confidence. And I know how to talk to kids about talking to their parents.
But success on this front does not lie with me, or with any pediatrician for that matter. It is best achieved by you: the parent. You need to have The Talk with your kid. And not just once but many times, slowly, over many years. Parents who do it once think it is among the biggest moments of their parenting lives; but when parents do it only once, oftentimes, it doesn't even register with the kids. Literally. When I ask them if they have had The Talk, the one-time-only kids will often deny it. And when their hyperventilating parents remind them about it, they say they simply forgot. Grossly unfair, I know, but it's true.
The goal of The Talk is not just to teach your sons and daughters to understand what they are getting themselves into physically, with all of its possible consequences, but also (sometimes even more so) to help them understand what they are getting into emotionally. Teenagers fall in love and then suffer heartbreak. They aren't mini-adults, but they have adult-sized bodies and adult-sized feelings, as well. When parents and kids don't talk about sex and all that goes along with it, then kids who are sexually active (or who are thinking about becoming sexually active) turn elsewhere for their information and a shoulder to cry on.
Today, more than ever, you want to be that source for your child. When we were growing up, the alternatives to mom and dad were very limited: there was the fast friend who seemed to know a lot about everything (though in hindsight, it is clear the information was often wrong), and there was a handful of books or magazines that covered the topic. That was it. Today, we parents are in direct competition with the Internet, a 24-hour anonymous source of graphic over-information. Like the precocious kid from our youth, the Internet is often flooded with believable but wrong information. But unlike that kid, it's never unavailable.
I have a 7-year old and a 9-year old at home. They are really different kids, and the ways they process all of this information will be equally different. One is a boy, one is a girl. One is more stoic, the other an emotional puddle. One is curious, while the other is very happy to stay young and not know too much (ironically, that would be the older child). But, I do my best to talk openly with them and answer their questions. Right now it's about basics -- seriously, do I really have to go over why you need to take a bath or shower every day again? -- but soon enough, the subject matter will advance. And I know I will make plenty of errors as I go along, but I also know the more I talk with my kids the less those screw ups will matter. They only make a big impression if you have just one Talk... assuming your kid even remembers it.
Have you started talking to your kids about sex? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Cara Natterson, MD is a board-certified pediatrician, pediatric consultant, and media expert. She is also the author of several books on child health and parenting, including the best-selling American Girl book series, The Care and Keeping of You.