Keep those lines of communication with your kids open- even when it's tough!
Lisa here. I hope you got a lot out of Sarah’s last two blog posts on talking to your kids about sex. I know it can be a tricky topic for many families, so I hope you found those posts helpful. This week, I’m revisiting a topic I covered a few weeks ago- your kids’ friendships. In the 7/27/23 post, I talked about how to talk to your kids when they have problematic friendships. While many parents found that topic helpful, it raised an additional question:
What happens when your kid is the problematic friend?
A lot of conversations about kids’ friendships revolves around helping them manage difficulties with friends and helping kids improve general social skills. But who helps the kids who struggle to be good to their friends? Let’s be clear, there are kids who have deficits or disorders that make it hard for them to understand and/or react appropriately in social interactions. There are a lot of resources out there to help kids who struggle in that way to develop or compensate for the skills they are lacking. That’s not who today’s post is about. Today, we’re talking about the kids who have developed an age-appropriate social understanding but who, for some reason, still struggle to be a good friend.
It can be hard to detect when your kids are the ones causing problems in their friendships, especially as they get older and you have fewer opportunities to observe their social interactions. But here are a few clues that this might be the case:
The above observations are not definitive signs that your kid is the one being a bad friend- they are just signs that something is going wrong in their friendships. So, how do you figure out the problem? Here are a few suggestions to help you have that conversation with your kids.
Find out how your kids view their friends. Ask them to tell you about their friends, including what they like about them and what they don’t. Ask questions about how they get along, particularly if there tends to be a high level of drama in the friend group. How your kids answer these questions can give you some insight into how they treat their friends. If your kids are full of complaints about their friends or they talk about how often their friends get upset with them because of something they say or do, this is an indicator that you need to investigate whether the friends are at the root of the problem or if your kids might be at least part of the problem. A major sign is if your kids do not take responsibility for their actions (e.g., “They always get mad at me because they don’t know how to take a joke” or “I only did that because they wouldn’t play what I wanted to play.”)
If you get the sense that your kids are the ones not being great friends, resist the urge to give them a lecture about being a good friend. Just like trying to talk them out of being friends with kids that you’re not a fan of, a lecture about their behavior is going to make them shut down. Instead, you can take a similar approach that you take when you’re trying to get your kids to see that other friendships are unhealthy. Talk to them about what they want in their friendships and how they figure out if someone is a good friend. The addition to this conversation is helping them think about what kind of friend they want to be.
When Sarah and I talk with kids about their own friendship behaviors, we get them to describe how they want to behave toward their friends, as well as how they want to think and feel about their friends. We then get kids to compare their current behavior with their ideal behavior. While we may point out inconsistencies or ask clarifying questions, we focus on helping kids identify their own problematic behaviors. Again, we help them come to their own conclusions.
For most kids, it’s way harder for them to accept that they’ve been behaving badly than it is to identify other kids’ bad behavior. So don’t be surprised if you get some resistance or excuses during this conversation. That’s ok. You can reassure your kids that you are just trying to help them have the healthiest friendships possible. Remember, you will have spoken to them about their desires for their friendships, so you are just supporting them in reaching those goals.
You may come to realize that your kids’ intentions are not matching with their behavior. Help them brainstorm ways to change how they talk to their friends or react to situations. If you begin to see a pattern in which their behavior seems more impulsive or that they have a hard time controlling themselves, you may need to seek help from a mental health provider who can teach them specific skills. But it many cases, just having this conversation can increase your kids’ awareness of their own behavior, which will allow them to be more intentional in their interactions with their friends.
It may take multiple conversations to help your kids realize that they are the ones who need to change their behavior in their friendships. Once they come to this realization, it may take time to see an actual change. That’s ok- change takes time. Check in with them regularly to see how things are going. You can help them problem-solve situations that come up or just provide support for their efforts. Keep the lines of communication open and your kids will feel comfortable talking with you about their friendships. Remember, you are a great resource and support.
Sarah here. We’re continuing our mini-series on challenging conversations. Last week, I started tackling the sex talk by focusing on when and how to start that conversation. Hopefully you did your homework from last week! Remember that I had you think about your own experience of learning about sex as a young person and consider what you want your child’s overall learning experience to be like. Today, I’ll dive into some highlights to cover when you have the talk.
I want to cover a few important considerations at the front end. First, talking to your child about sex does not increase the likelihood that they will have sex. Giving your child appropriate information will not actively encourage them to have sex. Talking about sex—especially in the context of healthy relationships, boundaries, and communication--does increase the likelihood that your child will be equipped to deal with situations that arise as they get older. They will be better able to make safe and informed decisions. Second, talking about sex is not incompatible with being religious. Again, the goal of the conversation is to provide age-appropriate information about sex, which is a natural part of life. You can incorporate your religious views into the talk, but the key facts won’t change. Third, if you do not talk to your child about sex, they will learn about it from someone else. By having the talk with your child proactively, you provide the framework for their knowledge about sex. You’ll also ensure that they have the facts rather than misinformation.
Now that we’ve covered those important considerations, I hope your resolve to have this conversation is strengthened! Once you’ve assessed what your child knows about where babies come from, how babies are made, sex, and physical intimacy (see last week’s blog for more on this), you’ll be ready to take the plunge. Exactly how you talk about sex and what information you share will depend on your child’s age and what they already know. Rather than providing a detailed script, we’re going to provide some talking points and examples that you can use or adapt as needed.
Where do babies come from?
Even very young children (4- to 5-year-olds) can understand a simple explanation of where babies come from. You can talk about how babies grow inside of their mother’s body. It’s helpful to use actual names for body parts. So, you could say something like, inside a mom’s body is something called a uterus and that’s where babies develop and grow until they’re ready to be born.
How are babies made?
If your child is really young (less than 8 years old), you can tell them that to make a baby you need an egg and a seed. The egg comes from inside the mommy’s body, while the seed comes from inside the daddy’s body. And what happens if your young child asks how the seed gets in mommy’s body? Tell them the truth. It’s okay for them to know that when a mommy and daddy want to have a baby, they have sex and that’s how the seed gets to the egg. It’s also okay for them to know that sex is something that’s only for grownups and it’s something you’ll talk with them more about when they get older.
If your child is a little older (8-11 years), then you can tell them that to create a baby, you need a tiny egg from a woman’s body and a tiny “seed” called a sperm from a man’s body. When a seed gets planted inside the egg, a baby develops. Adults do something called “having sex” to create a baby. To have sex to create a baby, a man’s penis fits inside a woman’s vagina.
Safety and what seeing/touching is acceptable
It is important to make sure your child knows that no one is allowed to touch their bodies without their consent. This is especially true for touching the parts of your body that your clothes cover up- your chest and your private parts. Teach your child the actual names for their body parts. When your child is young, it can be helpful to talk about how their penis/testicles or vagina and their butt are private- they are just for them! Make sure your child knows who is allowed to see their private parts or touch their bodies- this is a short list and generally only includes parents, pediatrician, and any caregiver who helps with bath time and getting dressed.
While families may differ on how they view physical affection, it can be a good place to encourage your child to assert their own judgment. Think about it- would it be normal or appropriate if someone required you to hug or kiss them? Nope! While it’s often expected that children kiss and hug their families, it’s also okay if a child does not want to do so. Just be sure to talk with your family about this ahead of time, so people don’t get their feelings hurt or feel your child is being rude. It’s not rude to say that you aren’t in the mood for a hug or kiss! Encouraging your child to make their own choices about physical affection also teaches them that they are in charge of their own bodies, not anyone else.
Sex in the context of a trusting, caring relationship
Younger kids respond well to clear rules and instructions, so you can let them know that sex is only for grownups. Depending on your child’s age as well as your beliefs, you may say that sex is only for when people are married. Otherwise, you need to convey that sex is only okay when it happens in the context of a trusting, caring relationship. This does leave latitude for many kinds of relationships—not just marriage or monogamy. The important point here is that regardless of how committed or casual a relationship is, sex is a really intimate, personal thing that you should not do with someone you don’t trust.
If you are talking to a tween or teen, this is a great place to open the discussion to them. How would they know whether they were ready to have sex? How would they know if they could trust the person? How would they know if the person really cared about them? Remember- this isn’t a one-shot conversation. You will circle back to discuss sex, relationship issues, and intimacy multiple times. And even if it seems like these aren’t things that tweens need to worry about, the truth is that a tween who is well-informed, has thought through these issues, and knows how to speak up and be assertive is a tween who will know how to deal with stressful situations that could come up. With all of this in mind, here are some points you may want to bring up in this part of the discussion:
Safer sex practices
If your child is older (tween or teen), it will be important to also discuss safer sex practices. Again, talking about these things does not mean that your child will have sex. But it does mean that whenever they decide to do so, they will know how to keep themselves safe and healthy! It’s important for your child to know that having unprotected sex can lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and not just pregnancy. Make sure they know they should talk with their potential partner about both of their sexual histories and that once they begin being physically intimate, they will need to get routine testing for HIV and STIs, even if they only ever have protected sex. Your discussion about safer sex should include key methods: condoms, oral birth control (“the pill”), and any other legitimate methods that may be utilized (e.g., implant, vaginal ring, birth control patch, etc.). It will also be important for your child to know that it is their responsibility to take care of their own health and safety- it is not something they should assume someone else will do for them.
Phew- we made it! While this 2-parter on talking about sex didn’t cover everything under the sun, we hope it gives you some ideas on how to start this conversation. You’ll revisit this topic throughout your child’s growing up years. More than anything else, make sure your child knows that you are someone that they can talk to about sex and relationships and everything else. Let them know it’s okay to have questions or talk about stuff, even if it feels awkward or embarrassing. And, let them know that you’re there for them. If they know those things, then they’ll come back to you with their questions and concerns when the time comes.
Sarah here. We’re continuing our mini-series on challenging conversations. We’ve covered medication as well as talking with your kids about their medical, mental health and/or learning diagnoses. Last week, Lisa covered talking with your kids about problematic friendships. This week, I’m tackling a conversation topic that creates a tremendous amount of stress for some parents: sex. Since this is a big topic that we get loads of questions about, I thought I’d break it up into parts.
Let’s be clear: whether parents talk with their kids about sex or not, kids get sex education from one source or another. Other kids or teens at school, older siblings, TV, the internet, school…kids are going to learn about sex from somewhere. As with most challenging topics, wouldn’t you rather they learn from you? What I’m focusing on today is parents opening the lines of communication to talk with their kids about sex. In other words, today is about just getting started.
One question that often comes up when Lisa and I work with families is, “At what age do I talk with my kids about sex?” That depends. In many cases, it’s better to start that conversation younger with developmentally appropriate information. You won’t be as detailed at that point, and it won’t be the last time you discuss the topic. But, for many families, starting the sex talk around age 8 makes sense.
Now, I know some parents may be thinking, “What?! That is way too young!” I’m suggesting starting younger for several reasons. First, by beginning the sex talk when your child is young, you get ahead of the curve- you’ll be the one framing your child’s sex education, rather than playing catchup or correcting misinformation they’ve received elsewhere. Second, talking about sex can go hand-in-hand with talking about development, puberty and physical changes. Some girls begin developing breasts and get their periods for the first time around age 8 or 9. While boys may not experience erections until they are around 11, some start puberty early. Third, whether adults want to acknowledge it or not, some youth begin having sex at a young age. One way to help ensure that your child knows that sex is for later in life—not for childhood—is to provide them with useful information about relationships, consent, and sex.
So, how do you start the sex talk? You can begin the conversation by assessing what your child knows already. You may find out what terms they’ve heard before (making out, hooking up, sex, etc.) and whether they’ve heard their friends or siblings talk about sex. You may also talk with them about whether they know where babies come from and how babies are made. Now, don’t start the conversation unless you’re ready to have it right then! Because while your 8-year-old may tell you that they haven’t heard of anything besides hugging and kissing and they have no idea how babies are made, they may already know some stuff you didn’t realize they knew or there may be some misinformation you need to correct. Or they may turn around and ask, “Hey, wait- how are babies made?”
To start that initial conversation when you assess what your child knows, keep it casual. It doesn’t have to be a big, serious thing. Have this initial conversation in a setting you and your child are comfortable in. It could be during their snack at the kitchen table or while you guys are in the car listening to tunes or watching TV.
You could start out by asking if any of their friends or classmates have a crush on anyone or have a boyfriend or girlfriend. You can also ask them if they have a crush or a boyfriend or girlfriend, but it may feel less threatening to ask about peers first. From there, talk about what it means to them to have a boyfriend or girlfriend or be “dating.” Ask directly whether it involves hugging or kissing or “other stuff.” Whether in the same discussion or another, talk with your child about what friends and classmates talk about. Like, do they talk about stuff like kissing or making out or sex? You can just ask these things in sequence- not making a big deal out of any one term. See what they say. Similarly, in that same conversation or in another, ask them whether they know where babies come from and how babies are made. Sometimes there’s a natural context to bring these things up- if characters in a TV show or movie you’re watching kiss or there’s a character who is pregnant, it may be an easy time to have these conversations.
Next week, we’ll cover key points that you may make during the sex talk. To prepare, take some time over the next week to reflect on what you think your child knows and messages that you want to make sure your child takes away from “the talk.” Think about how you and your partner learned about sex- did someone have “the talk” with you? Did you learn at school? From friends? Or were you sort of left to figure it out on your own? And finally, think about what you want your child’s overall learning experience to be. Most parents do want their kids to develop a healthy attitude toward sex, but do you want things to be very didactic and informational or do you want it to be more of a discussion? Thinking some of these things through will help you figure out your own personal approach to the sex talk. We’ll provide more ideas for how to have the talk this next week!
Feel free to peruse our blog and see what Sarah and Lisa had to say about topics related to your needs as a busy parent. We will talk about everything from parenting values, to life hacks, to realistic self-care.