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Unspoken Sexual Messages

How parents' sexual values build healthy sexual confidence in kids

Let’s consider two sets of parents who each think they have clearly understood how their sexual values will support their child’s sexual growth:

John and Mary: Monitoring Every Move

John and Mary decided that the subject of sex would lead to too many questions or provoke sexual incidents. Therefore, they monitored and censored their daughter Kathy’s social activity from infancy through adolescence, protecting her against contact with potential sexual material. From age three she participated in carefully structured gymnastics and dance programs and was not allowed to watch TV without a parent. She kept busy with school, family events, and sports.

When I met Kathy in therapy, at age 16, she was very self-conscious and had a number of physical symptoms that doctors diagnosed as “emotional-based” rather than physical in origin. Kathy said her parents were “terrified” of her developing sexually as she was growing up. She felt especially sad that she hadn’t been asked to the junior prom. She had limited contact with boys, attended an all-girls religious school, and hadn’t interacted with boys her own age since elementary school. Kathy’s disappointment over not being asked to the prom was compounded by the fact that she never experienced an actual crush with "a real guy, much less dated,” and had only fantasized about boys.

Kathy had been essentially quarantined from sexuality because her parents were afraid of the pain that Kathy (or perhaps they themselves?) might feel in confronting sexual issues. They intentionally tried to suppress her sexual energy.

Paula and Martin: Sex Is Natural

In contrast, Paula and Martin anticipated “normal” sexual issues with their daughters, so they attempted to head off the subject with what they considered a pro-active approach.

Ellen was their third daughter. Both parents were academics and boasted that they were “totally realistic” about sex. They regularly told Ellen “sex is nothing to be afraid of ” and openly discussed sexual issues at home. Ellen got the message early on that expressing her sexual feelings was okay. While Ellen understood the message that sex was a “healthy fact of life,” she never actually spoke with her parents about what "healthy" sex really means.

Sex was so naturally accepted in her home, in fact, that when Ellen was 16 years old, her mom brought her to her doctor, ordered The Pill, and didn’t say anything else about it. Following this cue, Ellen had sex with several boys during high school. She even remembers accompanying her older sister to an abortion. At the time, her mom simply commented, “These things happen.” Ellen said that she was led to feel that “going for an abortion was no different than going to the dentist.” While she appeared socially uninhibited, Ellen confided that her game face “fakes sophistication.” She felt overwhelmed, confused, and unhappy about her sexual freedom and choices and told me, “Dignity, honor, and self-respect are missing in my sexual relationships.”

In both stories, we see that parents’ attitudes powerfully affect the sexual development of their children, even when the parents don’t directly speak about sexuality. In both instances, the teenagers said that their parents "didn't get it!" However, messages are sent, received, and absorbed based on the parents’ conscious and unconscious beliefs, values, and fears. The parents in these vignettes were guiding their kids without taking time to check on the kids’ actual needs and experiences. Though these parents present us with parental styles on opposite ends of the sexual continuum, the results were similar: both girls grew up disconnected from their own feelings and were left confused and uncertain about their sexuality.

In addition to sexuality involving physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and relational spheres, it also involves a very special relationship—the genuine connection of parents with their children. An obvious point, maybe, but one commonly missed. Sometimes, the messages are loud and clear verbally and non-verbally, but that doesn’t mean people are communicating.

While both of these couples dealt with sexuality for their kids, we don’t get a sense that either of them communicated directly with their kids. In these cases we don’t find evidence of how the kids’ needs figured into the exchanges about sexuality. When a communication is one-way, it isn’t effective communciation. Neither set of parents were attuned to their kids and neither engaged their kids in this critical discussion. Both attunement and engagement are necessary to ensure that the vital issues of sexuality are thoroughly addressed.

Attunement: Deeper Understanding

“Attuning” means gaining understanding with your child. Attuning is “tuning in,” empathizing, resonating, caring, and “getting” how your child puts together the world around him or her. Attuning means being there to help.

While most parents acknowledge sex as an important topic of life, their approaches to talking about it run the gamut. Many parents provide too little information, leaving out whole spheres of concern—they may get through the physical details but neglect to ask how their children feel about what is being said or lead their kids to say what the parents want to hear, by asking questions such as “You feel okay with this, right?” (in addition to neglecting one or more of the five spheres mentioned above).

Sharing facts is certainly important, but attuning to your children’s experience of what’s being shared and what’s going on in their mind during your conversations is the critical part of talking about sex. Often our children will have questions that are different from those we are answering. Thus when talking with our kids, we can’t just recite facts; we must make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Asking open-ended questions instead of leading questions is key. For example, you might follow a conversation on puberty with “How do you think (a specific physical change) will affect you?” or “How do you make sense of what we just talked about?” That kind of questioning also helps you to understand how much they’re taking away from the conversation.

The information we impart is important but even more important is the relationship we establish with our children in speaking with each other—a two-way, open relationship based on attuning and engaging our kids. What we hear from them should establish the agenda for our conversation. After all, this conversation is really about them and their needs—not ours.

Listening in a manner that shows you understand what your child feels will draw the two of you closer together. Ask how your child feels and respond to the reply. Try to put your child’s thoughts accurately into words; then ask your child, “Is this what you mean?” This approach will assure him or her that you get it!

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, and

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