Beyond the birds and the bees: What children really need to hear from their parents

Mother and teen daughter hugWhen most parents think about talking to their kids about sex, it makes them very uncomfortable. It’s not exactly easy to discuss the specifics of how babies are made — especially when you are hoping that your kid doesn’t have sex until they are, well, much older. Which makes you not want to discuss it with them until they are, well, much older.

The problem is that kids need to have conversations with their parents about sex and sexuality earlier rather than later, certainly by middle school.

But while learning the biological details is important, I think it’s perfectly fine for parents to leave that to school health class or a book (I encourage buying a book — it allows opportunities for conversation and asking questions). What kids need from parents is context, confidence — and strategies.

Here’s what I think parents should talk to their kids about:

Self-esteem.

All of our children are beautiful, each in their own way, and it’s really important that parents make that clear. We need to challenge stereotypes about what is beautiful — and help all children feel confident and comfortable in their bodies. We also need to challenge stereotypes about gender and sexuality — and stress to our children that they are absolutely fine just the way they are.

Healthy relationships.

Parents should talk to their children about (and hopefully model) what healthy relationships look and feel like. They should talk specifically about how they should expect to be treated in a relationship — and how they should treat others. The media is full of good and bad examples; there are always conversation starters.

Strategies for managing sticky situations.

We all find ourselves in them, and if we’ve thought about them ahead of time, they are easier to handle. Some examples might be:

  • What do you do if someone does something that makes you uncomfortable?
  • What do you do if someone wants to have sex — but you don’t?
  • How do you keep yourself safe?
  • How do you let someone know you like them — or kindly let them know when you don’t?

The role of peers.

Peers are central to the life of a teen, and that can cause trouble sometimes. It’s important to talk about peer pressure and how it can push us to make bad decisions sometimes. It’s also important to talk about being a good friend, something that is particularly important when social media is involved; talk about the importance of being respectful and kind. The media is full of conversation-starters for this one, too.

Getting medical care.

As kids become teenagers and high-schoolers, it’s best if they can have easy access to confidential health care. It can be hard for parents to let kids talk to their doctor alone, let alone make their own appointments and go alone, but it can make all the difference for a teen to be able to do so. Talk about it ahead of time; make sure that your teen knows the doctor’s phone number — and knows that they have your permission to use it.

Managing a broken heart.

Nobody goes without getting their heart broken at least once. If you make sure your child knows this, and knows that you will be there to provide hugs and ice cream without judgment when it does, it can help them weather the inevitable when it happens.

Ultimately, that’s what teens need their parents for: to help them navigate life’s storms — and live happy, healthy lives.

About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.