Sex can be an uncomfortable topic of conversation for parents of teens—but experts say it shouldn’t be.
Instead, local pediatricians and sex educators say parents should work to nourish an open and transparent environment where families are comfortable discussing the birds and the bees.
“I’m always an advocate for [children] having open communication with their parents,” says Dr. Lisa Hoang, a pediatrician with St. Joseph’s Heritage Medical Group. “If you don’t make it safe for them to ask the questions, then they’re not going to ask you. And then they’ll turn to other places that may or may not have accurate information.”
Discussions about how—and when—to discuss sex with children were met with controversy earlier this year when California introduced the state’s new sexual education curriculum.
But experts say sexual education shouldn’t begin in the classroom anyway—it should begin at home.
Statistics show that communication on these topics with parents plays a small, protective role in teens practicing safe sex. This is especially true for girls, according to a U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health study.
Yet, it seems some parents are reluctant to have the talk.
At Hoang’s Tustin office, parents are consulting her daily about how to best approach sexual education.
“They’ll ask me questions about how they should address it, or take tips,” she says. “And then we have parents that are just kind of nervous about it and say: ‘I don’t want you talking to my kids about sex or puberty or anything.’ I get the full [gamut] of responses about that.”
Conversely, she often finds herself correcting the misinformation of young patients, who believe it’s impossible to get pregnant during their first time having sex. Others believe they can’t contract sexually transmitted diseases through oral sex.
“I do talk to the teens alone and a lot of them are scared to ask questions,” she says. “I do get a lot of information about some of the misinformation out there. But I do have to say this: It’s probably less and less because information is literally at their fingertips. Kids are really smart and sophisticated nowadays.”
Parents who need a little help addressing the topic can turn to The Birds and Bees Connection. The Aliso Viejo-based company hosts courses that celebrate the transition between childhood and adolescence. The courses create a safe and engaging environment where parents and children feel comfortable discussing the physical and emotional changes of adolescence.
Leslie Dixon launched The Birds and Bees almost 20 years ago. She previously worked as a school nurse and was tasked with educating children about sex and puberty. But although her lessons were a hit, she suspected the conversations weren’t going so well at home.
“I loved doing it,” she says. “And then I sent them home to talk to their parents. And it wasn’t successful.”
She says the majority of parents don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about sex.
“We are one of the most sexualized societies, yet we are one of the most [conservative] societies that is really uncomfortable talking about it,” she says. “Even the word puberty makes people cringe. Yet, we know that puberty is beginning earlier.”
Parents who are wondering when to start discussing sexual education with their children can turn to Dixon for a blunt and succinct answer.
“Birth,” she says with a laugh. “It isn’t a conversation. It’s an ongoing openness.”
Parents of babies and toddlers can begin opening the dialogue by using proper terminology to describe body parts and functions, she says.
“This is the beginning of the talk,” she says. “It’s the beginning of parents feeling comfortable having those conversations with their children. If you’re open and comfortable and lay the groundwork, then your child will come to you—no matter what age—to have the talk.
“The reality is, the more we have those conversations, the more it supports healthy self-esteem.”
This is the type of advice Karen Boepple, a Lake Forest mother of three, has been following since her children were babies. She refers to anatomical parts by their proper names, and is always honest with her children about sex.
“My overall philosophy is: ‘Just answer their questions,’” she says. “Whatever the question is, I’m going to answer it, even if it makes me uncomfortable.”
She says she began educating her three children—now aged 5, 8 and 10—when they were babies. She started out by naming their body parts in the bath.
As they grew older, Boepple’s conversations with her children grew more sophisticated.
“I want them to come to me and talk to me about anything,” she says. “I felt like the more I talked to them about it at a younger age, then as they get older it won’t be weird and they won’t feel uncomfortable about it.”