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Talking to your kids about sexual health

It is important to initiate conversations about puberty and sex early on and keep discussions relaxed and informal.

Growing up in today’s world is a lot different than when I was younger. The Internet is an infinite universe of “anything goes.” It is no wonder boys and girls are being exposed to sexual behaviors much earlier than even a couple of decades ago.

It is important to initiate conversations about puberty and sex early on and keep discussions relaxed and informal. The cloud of awkwardness will subside if you are confident, straightforward and keep the lines of communication open. Opening the conversation will also make it easier for your child to come to you later on when more questions arise.

Talking to girls

Paige Hertweck, M.D., pediatric and adolescent gynecologist with Norton Children’s Hospital Gynecology Specialists, recommends that parents start to talk about puberty with their daughters by age 7 or 8. She also recommends continuing to look for opportunities to discuss changes that happen as a girl grows into a young woman. For example: Talk about when another family member is growing taller or a sister is developing breasts. This can help the conversation feel “normal.”

Dr. Hertweck also recommends a couple of helpful resources: “The Care and Keeping of You,” a book divided into two age-appropriate volumes for reading and discussion, and “What’s the Big Secret?” for younger children.

Dr. Hertweck says the conversation about ever-changing bodies should be ongoing and reflect every stage of life, so use your best judgment about being age-appropriate. Focus on these topics of discussion:

  • Female reproductive system (using correct names for genitalia)
  • Menstruation
  • Tampons, pads and other hygiene products
  • Irregular periods
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Breast self-exams
  • Finding the right bra
  • First gynecological visit (between age 13 and 15)
  • Pap smear
  • Pelvic exam
  • Bring the following information: date of last menstrual period, medications you take, lifestyle and health habits, family health history
  • Sexual harassment and bullying
  • Sexual attraction and orientation
  • It’s OK to say “no” (virginity)
  • Birth control
  • Abstinence
  • Pill, patch, ring, shot
  • Condom
  • IUD
  • Body hygiene
  • Internet safety and “sexting”

Dr. Hertweck says the first appointment with a gynecologist is a time for preventive care and discussion, privately and with parents. Taking your daughter to the first gynecological visit may be nerve-racking for both of you. Be sure to give your daughter privacy, but be there with her to ask the doctor questions if she is too nervous to ask herself.

Talking to boys

Dennis Peppas, M.D., pediatric urologist with Norton Children’s Hospital Urology Specialists, recommends beginning the puberty and sexual health conversation with boys around age 10 to 12.

“Although boys are still slightly immature at those ages, by beginning slowly and simply parents can get their children to understand the changes they will undergo during the puberty process,” Dr. Peppas said.

He also recommends that boys have yearly genital exams and encourages parents to stay up-to-date with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, available at www.AAP.org.

Dr. Peppas recommends these main topics of discussion to use as a guide:

  • Male reproductive system (using correct names for genitalia)
  • Gynecomastia (enlarged breasts in men)
  • Erections
  • What’s normal?
  • Wet dreams
  • Testicular exams
  • Testicular injuries
  • Sexual attraction and orientation
  • It’s OK to say “no” (virginity)
  • Condoms and birth control
  • Voice changes
  • Hair growth
  • Body hygiene
  • Internet safety and “sexting”

Dr. Peppas suggests that any issues a parent or child feels uncomfortable discussing should be brought up with the child’s primary care provider or a pediatric urologist.

“It is important to understand that any concerns by the child or parent need to be addressed by the health care provider as early as possible,” he said.

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