Confidence tricks – how parents can talk about sex ed topics
Sex educator Jonny Hunt of Going Off The Rails – himself the father of a 13-year-old girl – gives parents a steer on how to problem-solve 3 challenges in talking openly with their child about sex and relationships
1. What if I can’t answer my child’s questions?
Many sex and relationships questions don’t have right-and-wrong answers. It can depend on things like your culture or your experiences.
If you don’t have an answer to something, tell your child: “That’s a brilliant question! Let me have a think.” That buys you time to compose yourself, talk to someone, have a cry under the stairs, phone your mum or your friend and come back with an answer. You can also ask a question back, like: “What do you think?” or “What do you mean by that?” If they tell you what they know, that puts it into context for you. Then you can make sure what they’ve got in their head is right and build on it, correct what’s wrong and fill in the blanks.
Sometimes your child won’t ask you their real question. This question could be a test to see if you can cope with something else they really want to ask. If you can manage it, then they’ll throw something else at you. Basically you’re earning your right to have a conversation later with them that might be more personal. When I did youth work, a kid would come and say: “Do you have some condoms?” They didn’t really want condoms; they wanted to talk about their nan. So when I started a dialogue and asked: “Are you OK?” then the real question would come out.
Watching TV or Netflix creates opportunities for earning your child’s trust and earning your stripes for them to want to talk to you. An advantage is that you’re discussing a scenario onscreen rather than discussing you or them. Comment on storylines and ask: “What would you do in that situation?” With things like teenage sex, say: “That’s sad they have no one to talk to” instead of: “How daft are they!” That gives your child the green light that they can talk to you. If you’re judgemental about TV characters, other kids or the latest gossip, why would they talk to you when they have a problem?
But you don’t have to watch a show together in the same room – another time you can say: “Have you watched that yet? What did you think?”
How we do families now is different. Sometimes you can have a more meaningful and easier connection over text than face to face. For example, as parents we need to apologise to our kids, and if you text “I know you’re upset with me” they can read it in their own time.
There’s a passive way I recommend for building up a conversation: text your child a link to the latest Netflix, drop them a WhatsApp, share a board on Pinterest, send TikTok videos that are funny or cool or make nice points. It’s the equivalent for our generation of leaving a book in someone’s room because they were going through something or saying: “I saw this and thought of you.” It gives the message: “This is something we can talk about.” How you get there doesn’t matter – it’s about the conversation.
2. What if it’s awkward and my child won’t talk to me?
Discussing sex and relationships is embarrassing. These topics are taboo because we make them taboo. We don’t talk about them enough. So you might have to fake it till you make it. You could even make up an imaginary friend at work whose daughter is having problems with her boyfriend, and ask your child: “What would you do?”
It’s about giving your child permission not to be embarrassed – it’s about creating a safe environment and a situation where they can talk. That can include how you frame questions.
I’ve found when working in schools if I ask a simple question such as: “Should girls be able to wear what they want?” most people will agree and there’s very little conversation that follows. But if I start off with a more contentious point such as: “If a girl is ‘dressed like that’ she’s ‘asking for it’ and it’s her fault” I’ll get an emotional response from those with strong views on both sides, and it really opens up the conversation to include consent, body image, dressing sexually and female and male attitudes. Although you do need to make sure you have the time and ability to debrief the statement properly (clearly it is not a girl’s fault, but you would be amazed how many people will make excuses).
When your child is little, use correct names for body parts as a matter of course. So when they’re 10 and you’re talking about periods, words like “vulva” won’t be loaded, you’ll both be using them and it’s not so embarrassing, then you’ll find it easier to talk about sex because you talked about periods. It makes it easier to do the next bit.
Teach your child that they can ask you something whenever they want and you’ll want to talk about it but maybe not in that moment. Don’t stifle them. But let’s say you’re in a supermarket – explaining where babies come in the fruit and veg aisle isn’t the best thing. So say: “I’m really pleased you asked me – it’s a really good question and I want to give you a really good answer, but let’s talk about it at home. Can you go and find me the spaghetti?” So they know it’s OK, you haven’t told them off and you’ll deal with it.
3. What if my child asks me a personal question?
I always say that you’re one of your best resources. Sometimes it can be good to talk about what you went through. But do it on your own terms – only share what you’re happy to share. You might have come from a family where you never had conversations about some things that were taboo and shameful – for women that could be periods, abortions, miscarriages, menopause and sexual assault, and for men topics like suicide and mental health.
Having confidence comes with practice. If you’ve never had those conversations yourself, it’s embarrassing. But break that cycle so that when your child is an adult they’ll want to talk. Unless you talk about these things, how will it be any different for your child? You need to be that change. Say: “When I was a kid we didn’t talk about this, but I think it’s important that you know.”
We don’t have the confidence to talk about sex because a lot of the values we’re carrying around are still conservative, broken and wrong. They don’t fit; they’re baggage we’re not allowed to talk about. But secrets are dangerous. If we talk about things, like about sexual assault in schools, then we can change them.
You have to be the grown-up, swallow your feelings and earn the ability for your child to come and talk to you. If you react to a topic by getting shouty or embarrassed, why would your child approach you? With sex and relationships topics, adults will either shut a door or open a door in order for young people to walk through. The more you can leave the door open they will come and talk to you. They will if you do.
If you can get more credit in the bank of “I can talk about this and that”, the better it will be. It’s really that simple.
To see how we suggest problem-solving these exact same challenges in the classroom, see Confidence Tricks – How Teachers Can Talk About Sex Ed Topics