As parents, we have the critical task of shaping an ongoing exchange to zero in on pertinent issues related to our children’s healthy sexual development. If our children find that we’re up to the job, they are likely to bring to us their questions and concerns that get stirred in daily life.
During middle school, you’ll want to ask what’s going on in health class, so that you can help deal with any questions they feel uncomfortable asking in school. Regardless of what’s being taught, it’s helpful to review details so that you know what points have stuck and what’s still not so clear. There may be a lag between sex ed and your own child’s needs, so tune in to tailor your comments accordingly.
Here are some of the most important topics to review with you’re your daughter:
Physical: Time to Go into Detail
Though you probably have been discussing changes that occur to your children’s body, as puberty comes into sight, this is a particularly important time to return to the subject again. When kids approach the age at which big changes begin, they need more detailed and concrete understandings of what to expect and how to deal with it.
Review with her changes that occur in the body as a result of hormone changes during puberty. She will notice differences in her genitals and also experience secondary changes (e.g., developing breasts). Remind her that such changes occur at different ages for different kids, so she doesn’t worry if puberty comes faster or slower for her than for their friends. Other priamry topics include:
Menstruation: A girl’s period and the changes that come with it can create very stressful and confusing experiences. Since everyone reacts differently to this rite of passage, you want to be sure your daughter knows she can talk to you about any questions or concerns she might have.
Sexual intercourse: Sexual intercourse as a requirement for reproduction will have been inevitably discussed with your child. Now you may want to discuss sexual intercourse in view of pleasure—answering a bit of what’s the “big deal” or “secret” about sex. Children express their degree of comfort and need for detail either verbally or nonverbally through body language and gesture. Keep the doors open for her messages to communicate and engage.
When introducing the topic let your child know you’re open to going into detail and finding out information that isn't at your fingertips. Some parents think it is only helpful or necessary to speak about changes affecting their son or daughter. However, it’s also very helpful to demystify the sexual changes affecting your child’s peers or siblings of the opposite sex.
Hormonal changes and Identity formation are two of the most challenging aspects of puberty (for both you and your child). Hormones have a powerful impact on mood, so warn your child how these changes affect how she feels. In addition to the emotional impact of physical and hormonal changes, kids also experience emotional swings over how they feel about themselves personally and socially. Riding a rollercoaster of highs and lows, at one moment they feel on top of the world for no extraordinary reason, and moments later, they feel genuine despair over something seemingly trivial. Another great life challenge that begins in preadolescence is clarifying identity. As kids search to uncover their real self, it helps to remind your children to make time to delve deeper into thinking about who they are and who they want to be.
Relational: Increased Exposure
At this age, kids start hearing more about sexual intercourse and encounter stories about kids who are already either “doing it” or at least experimenting sexually. Even if you wish you could shield your child from exposure to the realities of sex at this young age, the truth is they have access to so many outside outlets that shielding them entirely is impossible. Television, movies, the Internet, magazines, music, and the mouths of their schoolmates are all filled with sexual connotations and imagery, from seemingly innocuous ads for soft drinks to the innuendo that pervades evening sitcoms. This exposure is nothing to be afraid of if you really speak (relate) with them about sexual intercourse, the importance of safe sex, the threat of AIDS and other STIs, and sexual abuse.
Though kids at this age are old enough to understand the physical aspects of sexual intercourse, chances are they aren’t feeling ready to pursue or act out any curiosity that they might feel. Because our culture is so saturated in sex, you want to remind your child that engaing sexually is something for adults, and it’s okay if they’re not ready to think about it for themselves. The bottom line is that your 9- to 11-year-old child has the intellectual and relational capability to understand sex and know your readiness to offer perspective.
Social: Expanding World
By preadolescence, kids are ready to expand their friendships and activities to include both girls and boys. Often this is because they feel a physical interest in another person. The same feelings produce urges and desires that get directed into crushes on celebrities and crushes on friends. Talking about these feelings and offering guidelines for dating, dancing, and other age-appropriate activities is a significant part of your role in this stage of their life. In this period of transition into adolescence, it’s essential to establish rules that protect your child yet also demonstrate your trust in her judgment.
Spiritual: Sustaining Connections
As preadolescents develop an understanding for interpersonal relationships, their capacity for empathy and love increases. Their spiritual resources become more personal and relational. An engagement with one’s own spiritual tradition and its values that improve life—such as fair play, respect, and responsibility—can be meaningfully applied to sexuality. Children look for consistency and principles that support well-being, trust, and integrity. Encourage their spiritual growth.
What can I expect of my preadolescent?
• Understands changes brought on by puberty.
• Develops decision-making skills regarding sexual actions.
• Gains awareness of budding emotional and sexual feelings in relationships.
• Realizes that sexuality can be a source of pleasure.
• Understands family values to guide sexuality.
With preadolescents, do not:
• Dismiss romantic feelings as insignificant or neglect to express empathy as tender feelings for others develop.
• React to emotional changes. Instead, stay above the emotional swings and offer stability.
• Criticize those whose sexual values are different from your own.
• Demean others on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes.
• Ignore the strength of peer pressure and its influence on your child.
• Develop strategies for decision-making: role play and talk through scenarios that could create sexual dilemmas for your child.
• Discuss peer pressure and how your child negotiates with peers.
• Talk about your child’s feelings for others or how he or she manages the romantic interests of others.
• Spend private time with your children and set up other ways for them to talk to you about things they want to share.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.