For those of you dealing with Betrayal Trauma, her website has wonderful resources for hope and healing.
While you are certainly not the first parent to ask this question, fortunately the resounding answer is “No!” All the research indicates that the opposite is true. Not only are children whose parents talk to them about healthy sexuality less likely to be promiscuous, there are a number of other wonderful effects. Let’s talk about why. Whether or not children let on, your opinion as a parent is invaluable. Your values and connection with them is a commodity they crave. They instinctively look to you for truth and guidance. And if you can impart those values in a calm and non-judgmental way, they will absorb it.
One analogy I like to use with parents is to tell them to imagine that they live in an inner-city rife with drug dealers. Imagine you can see them out your window. Now imagine sending your children out the door every day for school and never talking to them about drugs. Sending them out the door hoping and praying they never become addicted to drugs. The scenario is unthinkable. None of us would ever do that. Apply this scenario to pornography, which not only lurks outside our homes, but often enters our homes, despite our best efforts, through the TV, internet, and other devices. It is equally unthinkable a situation to simply hope and pray our children will not be influenced by the unhealthy sexual messages they see around them.
This page is a good place to emphasize your child’s connection to God and God’s love for them. It also emphasizes their connection to truth, which connects them to God. It helps them to see how truth brings happiness, peace, and God’s presence in their hearts.
Some parents struggle with saying that God, or they, are happy when children make good choices. They may feel that putting the label “good” on something feels shame inducing, or that if God/parents are happy if children make good choices then that means they’re not happy or loving if children make choices parent’s/God don’t believe are good. God and truth are unchanging and the results from making choices that are in alignment with God’s truth always bring peace. Can a message be sent that God/parents don’t love us if we make “bad choices”? Absolutely. How can that be avoided? Talk about it! Clarify over and over.
- So if God (substitute “I” or “mom and dad”, etc) loves you when you take care of your body (or choose to be modest), will He love you if you don’t? Of course He will! He always loves you! What if it’s not just one time, but all the time—like you decide you’re never going to take care of your body again. Will He stop loving you then? Nope, He will love you no matter what you choose to do (also: no matter what others choose to do to you).
- If God is happy when you choose to take care of your body (or choose to be modest), will he be sad if you don’t? He may feel sad, just like you might feel sad if your friend did something that ended up hurting themselves. But does that mean he doesn’t love you anymore? No! He absolutely still loves you. Does it mean He doesn’t want to be close to you? Nope! If your friend hurt himself would you not want to be around them? Nope, and God feels the same way. Does it sometimes feel uncomfortable when we know something we choose to do made someone feel sad? Yes. But that just means our feelings are telling us we have made a mistake and all we need to do is fix it. Just like the book says, making mistakes is part of learning and growing up. God knows you’re just learning and that you’ll figure it out. That makes Him happy and proud of you—even while you’re making mistakes.
These pages are a key part of this book. All children are exposed to things. Many children have things happen to them. Most children don’t talk to their parents. Why? They feel fear, shame, and have no idea how the conversation is going to go. These pages tell children exactly how that safe conversation is going to go and set it all up ahead of time so children know exactly what to expect. This is done by simultaneously teaching both children and parents what to do. Children then know how to approach their parents, and their parents know how to respond in a way that will invite safety and reduce shame and fear. Because the point of the book is to initiate and continue conversations about healthy sexuality, creating a safe space to have those discussions is paramount and that takes work on both sides of the relationship.
- Have I ever reacted in a way that was not like this? Yes? I was pretty sure I had. (This may be a reaction to a completely unrelated topic that inadvertently made your child feel like they couldn’t always share). Remember how the book said that making mistakes and fixing them is a part of figuring things out? Did you know that parents still make mistakes too? I’m sorry for reacting in a way that made you feel like you didn’t want to share hard things. I’m learning how to be better while I’m reading this book with you, and I’m going to try to be like the book says all the time, so you can always feel like you can share with me. I do always love you, even when you make mistakes. And do you know what? You can help me out. If I ever react in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable, or makes you feel bad, will you tell me? Then I can change right in that moment and be the way you need me to be. (In full disclosure, I’ve also needed to have these discussions with my kids, so we are all imperfect and feeling this out. And from personal experience, this invitation will quickly cover many more areas than discussions of healthy sexuality, so be prepared to be called on unhealthy parenting reactions across the board!)
- When you have something hard to talk to me about, will you be brave and talk to me anyway? What will you do to get up your courage and be brave?
- Did you know that I love you no matter what? Did you know that one of the times I love you the most is when you come talk to me when you’ve made a mistake? It’s because you have to make mistakes to learn and grow, and I’m proud of you for learning and growing up!
- Did you know that I love you no matter what? Did you know that one of the times I love you the most is when you come talk to me when you’re nervous or uncomfortable. It makes my heart so happy to see what a big boy/girl you are when you choose to be brave.
- It makes me feel so close to you when you come to me so that I can help you figure things out. How do you feel when we figure things out together as a team?
- You may have a discussion with your child about a specific phrase or word they could say that could alert you to a conversation they want to have that they feel uncomfortable about, or nervous about your reaction toward. This can alert you to putting yourself in a safety-creating frame of mind, and help you if you need to reschedule the conversation for any reason (you’re late to get your preschooler, or your teenager just backed the car into the mailbox, your boss is chewing you out on the phone, etc). You can reschedule, prioritize, and have the conversation in a way that helps your child know they are loved and will be heard. Normally I encourage parents not to associate talks about healthy sexuality with a special set aside time (sending the message instead that these topics can be discussed at any time), but uncomfortable disclosures often need to feel safe and private, so some of these phrases reflect that space. Phrases/words can be whatever the two of you come up with:
- I’m having a hard time.
- Can we have a chat?
- Will you love me no matter what? (This invites the safe space)
- Can we have a special time?
Things you may choose to say to your child when they come to you:
- Thank you so much for coming to me to talk about this. It makes me feel good that you love and trust me with your questions/worries/concerns.
- Do you feel nervous or worried? Wow—I’m so proud of you for being brave and talking to me anyway.
- You are being a rockstar at learning and growing up right now.
- Did you make a mistake? Sounds like you’re learning and growing up—that means you’re half-way there! Now all we need to do is figure out the fixing it part. We can work on that together. What do you think would be best?
- I love that you talk to me!
- We are a good team. I’m glad you picked me to be on your team with you.
- How did [the situation] make you feel? (Feelings and intuition are a great protection. Teach your child not to discount their feelings. Sharing your own feelings can be helpful. Remember they might have felt “good” and also shame/fear, etc. Help them pull those feelings apart and identify why they felt each. Additionally, if a difficult situation has occurred, remember that children often share information little by little as they feel safe.)
The one area of sexual abuse that is not covered by this book is parent on child abuse. While this could be considered a flaw, the purpose of this book is to develop a pattern of healthy conversations between parents and children around sexuality. After much deliberation trying to cover everything, it was important to stick with the intent of the book. In some instances children told simply to tell “a trusted adult,” did so, and because of the dismissive or shaming attitude of that adult, the child chose not to tell a parent and the parents could not take necessary steps to protect their child, or help them through the healing process. Further, it is less likely that parents choosing to engage in parent-child abuse will be interested in this book and its purpose, and any spouse or grandparent can always clarify in those sections (as in all sections) what they want the child to take-away: come tell ME, or add “a trusted adult” and give examples or ask for examples from the child. This helpful follow-up discussion question is found in the back of the book:
- Who are other trusted adults you can talk to when you have questions,feel uncomfortable, or need help? While the purpose of this book is to connect parents and children, having a predetermined network of support and safety for your child is very valuable. You can then consider giving those trusted adults this book, or having discussions with them on how to respond in healthy ways to any disclosure or reaching out from your child.
The one area of healthy sexuality that is not addressed specifically in this book is is the names of body parts. This is an important aspect of healthy sexuality that parents have the opportunity to introduce separately from the text of this book. If you have not already done so, these pages are a good place to introduce the various sexual organs of the body including penis, testicles, breasts, and vulva (not vagina, as that is not a visible part of the female body, although if you want to explain where the vagina is inside that is fine). If you feel uncomfortable saying these words, practice ahead of time so you can be comfortable and send appropriate non-verbal messages about body parts. (Appropriate non-verbal messages are that these parts of the body are just like other body parts. They exist. And they are pretty amazing in their function just like any other part of the body. As you speak about them, treat them as you would an arm or toe). Children should be able to correctly identify their body parts without shame or confusion. This is an important conversation to have before discussions of sexual abuse.
Once you have addressed and are comfortable with names of sexual body parts, you can have more detailed and accurate discussions of sexual abuse. Some of those discussion options are listed below:
- Discuss the situations where they might be undressed in front of others (doctor, siblings sharing a room or a bath, etc.). Tell them why it is okay: you are there, it is for a specific purpose to make sure you are growing properly, siblings of the same gender can dress together, etc.
- Views of what is appropriate and not will vary between families, be sure to communicate your views, and in more advanced discussions you can talk about what to do when they are with other people who do not share those views (for example if in your family you don’t change in front of others at all, but they are at a friend’s house and they are fine changing with those of the same gender, how could they handle that? What are the specific words they can say?—example: we do things a little differently in our family. I prefer to change in the bathroom. When you’re done changing, come out of the room so I know you’re done. If they practice saying it matter-of-factly it will be less likely to offend someone. (Although it is a very important discussion to have that even if someone else is offended, annoyed or upest, it is still completely acceptable to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe.)
- What if someone tries to do something, or show you something that is not modest? What should you do? Walk them through a plan, and emphasize telling you as soon as possible.
- How do you think mom or dad will react if you come to us? Explain that you will protect them, that you will work to keep them safe, that you won’t be upset because what other people do is not their fault.
- When was the last time someone tried to touch your body in a way that was not modest, or asked you to touch their body in a way that was not modest? Emphasize that if this ever happens, they should tell you immediately, especially if others tell them not to. Be reassuring and calm no matter the response. This provides security and keeps important lines of communication open. Teach them they are not responsible for others’ behaviors.
Has anyone asked you to show them your, or has shown you their [penis, vulva, breasts, etc.]? Get the whole story, a little bit at a time, as they’re ready to talk and feel comfortable. Often children will share small amounts to see your reaction, so if you sense something more, gently probe for more details, even if it is over time.
Modest dress can be a heated topic among adults, and that is why it is addressed so carefully in this book. Everything is left to parents to determine. Parents decide their family values and implement them through the discussions that are introduced on these pages.
The central focus is that modest dress shows and invites respect for myself. A lot of parents have the experience of teaching their children about their family’s standards of modest dress just to feel some embarrassment as the children pointing out with fingers and loud voices when they see others dressed in ways that their family would not consider modest. There is a good question and discussion in the back of the book that helps parents have preemptive conversations about this.
Did you know that modest clothing is different based on what you are doing? Because modest clothing is about showing and inviting respect for myself, it will change based on where you are and what you are doing. Would you wear a swimsuit to school? Would you wear a leotard and tights to church? (Use other silly examples).
So what is modest clothing in our family for church? School? Play? Different kinds of exercise? Swimming?
Just as the initial pages of this book about body appreciation and body care are the foundation for healthy sexuality, this page teaches the foundational principle around prevention of sexual coercion. The concept that my body is my own and I have a right to determine how others interact physically with me is key to standing up for oneself and not being victimized. This may end up making changes in your family dynamics around physical affection. It certainly did in my family when I realized the subtle messages that were, or could be, sent to my children. Some of the messages in these examples may initially feel extreme, but is is the consistent subtle messages that give children the underlying foundation for how they live their lives. Every message counts.
- Give your sister a hug. I know you’re mad but just make up. (The message: Others get to decide what I do with my body, not me).
- Grandma/Other Adult: Give me a kiss. Oh come on, it’ll make me feel bad if you don’t. (The message: Other people’s feelings are more important than yours, and if they’ll feel bad if you don’t do something physical that you don’t want to do, you better just do it. The especially dangerous part of this is the family/well known component—not many of us would try to convince our child to hug/kiss a stranger—since most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family or someone well known to the child.)
- Girls chasing a boy on the playground trying to kiss him. “Oh, it’s fine, they’re just playing.” (The message: It’s okay to sexually assault someone if it is billed as “fun and games.”)
- Boys chasing girls on the playground to pull their pigtails. “Boys will be boys.” (The message: By virtue of being male it is acceptable to physically assault others. This is important in teaching healthy sexuality because if a boy learns always to respect others’ bodies he will not ever get in a space to be sexually coercive. He will also have learned to reject out of hand the vast majority of pornography because of its violent nature.)
Make a family plan of how to respond when a child doesn’t want to physically engage with someone else. What should they say? What should they do? Can they come find you and talk to you about it if someone is persistent?
Have a family discussion about the culture in your family. Is there anything you want to change? We simply started repeating to our children, especially in their interactions with each other, “I get to choose who touches me.” This reminded them of this concept when they were poking each other to be annoying, wrestling without consent, etc.
Page 16 helps teach children at an early age about appropriate responses to peer pressure.
Has anyone ever said something, or showed something, to you that was not modest? What happened? Did you know what to do?
Role play situations in which they might be exposed to something in front of, with, or by friends/other children. How can they respond? What would they do if others made fun of them? Help them to develop a plan. Situations may include the following, and should be varied to include being with friends, acquaintances, bullies, really popular kids, older kids, etc.:
- Sitting at a computer at school
- On the bus with a smart phone
- Inappropriate jokes
Have conversations about being a good example and helping others to make good choices. But always help them recognize that others get to make their own choices, and that if others don’t want to change their actions, [in our family] we choose to be modest by leaving, moving somewhere else, etc. Making it a family decision helps with accountability and solidarity. Give examples of when you have, or have not, made modest choices in similar circumstances and what you would want to do differently in the future.
These two pages introduce the topics of pornography and other sexual content—written or heard. The great thing about this is that parents can decide when to introduce the words associated with these types of explicit content while still giving children protection. It also allows parents the ability to teach their own values around these issues. Parents may have differing values around what content they do not want their children to be exposed to. This may include different words, pictures, etc. Each parent is entitled to, and has the responsibility to teach their own values.
What are the kinds of things that are not modest that you might see in a book/magazine, or on the computer? (…also hear in music, etc.?) This is a great starting point to teach and develop family values around modest language and images. This is also a great time to add new things that come up that haven’t been previously discussed.
When have you seen or heard things that were not modest? (You can also break this out into several discussions by being specific: in books, in magazines, in music, on the TV, on the computer, on my smartphone, on your tablet, etc.)
What is the child doing in each situation? That’s right, they are telling their parents right away.
- Why do you think they are doing that/Why do you think that’s important, or a good thing to do?
- What do you think their parent will do/say when they tell them?
- If you saw or heard something that was not modest, and you came to tell me right away, what do you think I would do or say? (Or simply tell them: If you saw something that was not modest and you came to me right away I would be so proud of you. I would talk to you about it and how it made you feel and we would take care of it together.
- Are you the kind of kid that would come and tell your parents right away if you saw or heard something that was not modest? You are! And that is awesome!
- Can you think of anything you’ve seen or heard lately that you want to tell me about? It’s always good to talk about it with your parents.
Tell me about what you’ve seen/heard recently at school that isn’t modest. Did you know that lots of times kids and even adults say or do things that aren’t modest to try and be funny or cool? Does that seem funny or cool to you? Why/Why not? It doesn’t to me because… (maybe add a time if you have laughed anyway to fit in, etc. and what you would choose now).
If you’ve taken the time to introduce the connection between the body and the soul inside on the last 2 pages, then these pages can continue that line of discussion. These pages address healthy sexuality at some of the deepest levels: our thoughts and words. It is important for us to convey to our children that healthy sexuality does not mean that we simply don’t look at pornography. It is not simply on the outside. Healthy sexuality is also found inside—what we dwell on, how we interact with others. Additionally, many of these questions are meant to be asked repeatedly. Weekly discussions of what children have heard is very important in keeping updated on their experiences away from you.
Have a discussion about modest thoughts: What are modest thoughts (adjust to the age of the child)? What are thoughts that are not modest?
When have you heard people use language that is not modest? (For a 2 year old you may be discussing potty-talk, for a teen you may be discussing what comes up in the locker room).
Everybody sometimes makes mistakes as they learn how to be better. When have you said things that weren’t modest? (Perhaps include an age-appropriate example of a time when you said something that wasn’t modest).
With an older child you could discuss how to recognize nuances about what would be healthy and not healthy when it comes to sexuality in what people say, or in their conversations.
With older children you can also have discussions about why thoughts are important. dwelling on (fantasizing about) things that are not modest.
- What is the big deal with choosing healthy or modest thoughts?
- Why can’t we just think whatever we want? What if we just don’t tell anyone? Does that make it okay? But it isn’t hurting anyone, and no one will know, right? (Perhaps add what your experience has been with thoughts leading to actions and character. There are many well-used quotes on thoughts that may add to the discussion. James Allen wrote a famous book in 1903 entitled “As a Man Thinketh” that contains several such quotes, two of which are below).—“You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.”
— “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”
- What can you do if you find yourself thinking about something that is not modest? (Tell mom or dad: I’m having a hard time not thinking about something [I saw or heard] that wasn’t modest. Telling a parent is one of the best ways to move on and not have shame. We can process it with you, and help you come up with other things to do that can engage your mind and body to change the focus of your mind. *Active things help the body engage brain chemistry that can help move past a stagnant thought. Helping other, especially if they can engage their brains in empathy and think of a need someone else might have, is also a positive substitute).
This page addresses the healthy sexuality topics of body image and body appreciation, as well as introducing concepts of self-worth, and appreciation for different races, genders, ages, and abilities including special needs.
How does your body look different or act different than others’ bodies? Does that make you better or worse than them? No! It just makes you different and that is wonderful! All of your bodies are still amazing even if they look different! Brown and blue eyes are both beautiful and both can see…that’s amazing! Round tummies and flat tummies both help bodies get nutrients…that’s amazing!
Ask them about their friends, how are they different, and discuss how that makes them wonderful. Add discussions of what things they love about those friends.
Did you know that your body is special and wonderful just because it IS? Just because it exists! Do you know why? Because it’s a gift from God! So all bodies are special, wonderful, and unique just by existing!
Extra Questions for Older Children:
What messages do you hear about the way bodies “should” look? What do people say is “attractive” or “ugly?” Do you think those things really matter? Why/Why not? What do you think does matter? (This is a great opportunity to link the body with the soul inside).
I highly recommend the organization Beauty Redefined. They have done phenomenal work on body image. In a TedEx talk of theirs, Dr. Lindsay Kite says this: “Girls and women aren’t only suffering because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined, they’re suffering because they are being ‘defined by beauty.’ They are bodies first and people second. So, rather than working to ensure more women’s bodies are viewed as valuable, we are working to make sure women are valued as more than bodies to view. Our work is founded on the premise that positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it is believing your body IS good, regardless of how it looks.” I would add that boys and men also have acceptable and/or ideal images that should not define them either.