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Why you should talk openly with children about sex and relationships

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It’s hard to keep pace with our children’s digital lives. It’s next to impossible to know what they are being exposed to by friends, the media, social media, and the internet – and when.

But there is something you can do that will help safeguard your children. Something that will support their mental health and, in the process, strengthen your connection to them. You can involve yourself in your children’s sex education. You can start the conversation.

Sex is everywhere, yet we find it difficult to talk to our children about sex and relationships. Most of us didn’t have much sex education ourselves or parents who talked to us openly. It's not surprising that we don’t have the language, the skills, or the confidence to talk freely with our children. No wonder it doesn’t always come naturally.

But talking openly is a surefire way to support your children and help them become resilient. That might feel like a challenge. But if you become comfortable talking about tricky subjects, you’ll give your children confidence too. Sex-ed begins at home. You are your children’s first and most influential teacher. Talk openly as soon as possible – and continue, little and often, over time. Listen and ask questions. Bring up news stories, the ads you see, and other people’s experiences as ways into the conversation. Use humour. Be factual. Keep going.

Knowledge is power, so if children can talk and think about their changing bodies and brains – if they learn about puberty before puberty hits, or if they realise that the brain is still developing up to the age of 25 – it will be easier for them to take different phases of development in their stride.

From the start, use correct names for body parts. It helps to protect children, in case anything happens to them, if they are armed with anatomical knowledge. And, if you don’t say “vulva” or “penis” out loud, you are suggesting secrecy and shame about body parts that shouldn’t feel any more awkward to label than eyes or elbows.

Encourage young children to understand that they have a right to personal space. They can choose not to be hugged or tickled. This will lead them to understand consent: to know when touch is unwanted and what to do about it, and to appreciate that other people have limits. It will make it easier for them to be clear about their boundaries.

Talking to older kids about consent helps them recognise whether something feels physically right or emotionally comfortable so they can act on those feelings. They will learn to read other people’s verbal and non-verbal cues. By looking out for ongoing enthusiastic consent, they will show respect for the other person. If they can express this enthusiastic consent themselves, they will develop greater self-knowledge and have greater self-respect. It’s helpful for girls and boys to acknowledge that boys are conditioned to expect entitlement while girls tend to feel they are expected to please.

Encourage your child to think critically. Children are conscious of gender roles by the age of two. So encourage them to question why it isn’t OK for girls to play with tractors or boys with dolls. Choose books, clothes and toys on the basis of children’s interests, not because they're pink or blue. With your children, think critically about magazine ads, billboards, music videos, movies, TV programmes and song lyrics. Question the imagery and messaging about sex, sexuality, sexiness, gender stereotypes and the objectification of women that we all take for granted.

Talking to kids about porn is incredibly hard. But try. Tell younger children to talk to you if they see something online that upsets them. If they’re older, do your best to demystify porn. You could talk about the profit motives of the industry and how it exploits people. You could point out that the majority - 88% - of porn is violent and degrading towards women, and can set up unrealistic expectations of sex and bodies, which can have damaging effects on attitudes and behaviour. Children learn in the classroom and the playground, from the world around them and from what they find and are shown online.

But what makes the biggest difference and affects how they react is their family’s values and their parents’ views. So, think about your own experiences, your opinions and your hopes for your children. Sex, love, pleasure, consent and relationships are all important – we need to have everyday conversations about them. Your children will notice your willingness to talk. That will help them to feel good about themselves. It will help them to express their own emotions. And it will make it easier for them to ask for help and cope when they feel under pressure. Above all, it will help them to make better decisions. You stand to learn a lot from each other.

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