A report came out earlier this year that showed teen pregnancies have dropped to historic lows in Louisiana. While that’s certainly encouraging, our rates of sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. We lead the nation for congenital syphilis and gonorrhea, come in second for AIDS, and third for Chlamydia. A quarter of new HIV cases and over a third of new syphilis cases in 2015 occurred among adolescents and young adults. Now, more than ever, it’s time for ‘The Talk.’

   Really, ‘The Talk’ shouldn’t be just a single occurrence, according to experts. “Parents often feel as though it is their one and only chance to cover everything important about sex,” says Kirby Jane Smith with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. “This puts a lot of pressure on both the parent and the child.” Instead, talking with children about sexuality should be a lifelong conversation. “Regular chats and discussions help set realistic goals for all stages of life,” Kirby says.

 

starting off right

The earlier you can begin talking about sexuality with your children, the better. The biggest hurdle for parents, though, is just starting the dialogue regardless of the child’s age, says Jenni Evans, an educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. Another one is making it comfortable.

   “I don’t think I know anyone who can say that when talking with their three year old, the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ just rolled off their tongue the same way ‘truck’ and ‘dinosaur’ did,” she says.

   But she warns against using inaccurate, cute terms for anatomy when children are very young in an effort to shield them. “You get into the ‘Santa Claus’ situation, where suddenly they’re five or six and they have valid questions, only up until then you’ve been talking about storks and cabbage patches.”

   Jenni suggests that parents look for opportunities to talk. “Grab a book, take advantage of a sign that you see, or of a question that your child asks. And just make sure that sexuality is a topic in your home that people treat with respect instead of just either making it a joke, or a top secret area of conversation about who can touch your privates.”

   Katy echoes Jenni’s advice about being ready and willing to talk whenever the moment strikes, and it will strike often when kids are young. “Children are curious about their bodies, and that curiosity creates a natural opportunity to begin the conversation,” she says.

   That’s when remaining calm and being ready are essential. “Kids can sense when something is a tense topic,” says Jenni. “They’re concerned that [we’ll think] they’ll be bad if they asked certain questions or show curiosity.”

 

older, and more awkward

Even if you did everything right, and you’ve been talking with your child about sex and sexuality in age-appropriate ways beginning when they were preschoolers, things get complicated as they reach puberty and beyond.

   “How a parent would describe childbirth to a five year old is different than the description that would be used with a 12 year old,” says Kirby. “The hope is that as those conversations continue, it makes it easier to talk with them about the more complicated aspects of sexual intimacy as they get older, such as consent.”

   The Parenting Center holds two popular classes—Growing Up for Boys and Growing Up for Girls—that address puberty and related issues with adolescents and their moms or dads.          

   “As boys grow up, [they] struggle with self-esteem issues, what they are hearing from others about puberty, sex and the new found need for privacy or independence,” says Bobby DiMarco, the instructor of the Parenting Center’s Growing Up for Boys. “As a parent myself, we never knew when or how to approach the topics of growing up. How much do they know and what are they ready to discuss? It is an awkward conversation for the parent and the boys.”

   Neither of the Growing Up classes delve specifically into sex; however, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast offers a program, Real Life, Real Talk, to help parents learn how to talk to their teens about healthy sexuality.

   “[We’re] working with community partners to offer the workshop in English and Spanish to parents in the New Orleans area,” says Kirby. “This is intended to be a fun group activity—think Tupperware Party—and we encourage parents to host individual sessions for their friends and neighbors.”

   Kirby says that among parents’ top concerns for their adolescents and teens are that they are having sex (“We know that teens are more sexually active than their parents think,” she says); that they aren’t practicing safe sex; and that their reputations might be damaged from making poor decisions about sexual behaviors. Again, communication is key. And it’s essential for parents to be the first go-to, reliable source of information for their children, say both Jenni and Kirby.

   “If you’re able to treat bodies and sex and sexuality as not a titillating or threatening subject, then that the first step in becoming a reliable source,” says Jenni. “If you’re faced with a question or topic and you’re able to clarify the question and provide a developmentally appropriate answer, and always end with, ‘Did I answer your question?’ or ‘Let me know if you have any more questions,’ then you’ll become a reliable source.”

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