As parents and caregivers, many of us will ask “when is the best time to discuss sex?” with the children in our care.
The answer is right from early childhood. But if you haven’t started, it’s never too late.
Some may remember “the talk” from our own parents who sat us down and awkwardly discussed the ‘birds and the bees’ leaving everyone feeling uncomfortable.
According to the Department of Communities and Justice psychologists*, Jodi Barton and Dana Cooper, best practice is to start right from early childhood as part of an ongoing process.
“Research tells us that sex and relationships are things that children should always be learning about. Therefore, this is not just one big talk, but lots of little talks,” says Dana.
From the outset, use the correct names of body parts to help children learn about their genitals.
If the child in your care asks questions about their bodies or others, or sexual development, provide understandable answers to them according to their age.
If problem sexual behaviours emerge, then children can be taught about their bodies and social rules for their age around sexual behaviour. They should also be taught how to respect themselves and others, says Jodi
“From a very early age we should be teaching accurate and age-appropriate information. We should help them develop important skills to protect their personal safety and wellbeing,” says Dana.
If you want to gauge developmentally normal versus worrying sexual behaviour in your child click here.
Children and young people with a history of sexual abuse or trauma need patience, encouragement and safe opportunities to talk openly with trusted adults, says Dana.
You might need to choose the most appropriate person to talk to the child. You should make sure they feel safe and are talking to someone they trust.
During sex education a child might realise what’s happened to them in the past isn’t right. So they may use it as an opportunity to disclose abuse for the first time.
Let them know they’re believed
If it happens, Jodi says, stay calm. It is really important to let them know you believe them. Validate how this must have made them feel when it happened.
“Research repeatedly shows people who are not believed at the point of disclosure have significantly poorer outcomes in life,” says Jodi
Make sure you report it to the Child Protection Helpline promptly so the child can be linked with professional support and offered the opportunity for a formal investigation.
Adults sometimes worry that providing education about sexual development, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases to children below the age of consent will encourage sexual activity.
However Jodie reports that children who have had the support of parents and caregivers to learn about healthy relationships and development generally become sexually active later than those who don’t.
What they should know
Children and young people need guidance and support to work out what they are, and aren’t, ready for, says Jodi
They need your help to grow the confidence the ability to say ‘No’ if they don’t want something.
They need to know that they have you, and a network of safe people, to turn to if something happens.
It’s very important for children and young people to know how to obtain consent from another person before engaging in sexual behaviour with them. They need to know in NSW the legal age of consent is 16.
They also need to be taught about online safety, about why pornography is a problem and how to manage online problems when they occur. For more information on impacts of pornography click here.
*Jodi Barton is a Senior Psychologist and Dana Cooper is a Clinical Psychology Registrar with the Department of Communities and Justice (formerly Family and Community Services). They are members of the Problematic Sexualised Behaviour Clinical Reference Group.