Dear Alice,

I have three young daughters (ages 8, 6, and 3 years), and I know that it is about time to begin teaching them and talking to them about sexual issues. But my mother never talked to me about such things, so I really don't know where to begin. I do need to do it soon, though, because I was molested as a child and I don't want my girls to go through the same thing, you know, thinking they have no one to talk to about such things. Because my Mother never believed me when I told her that someone had molested me, I want my girls to be able to talk to me about anything. But I am very shy and easily embarrassed by certain issues, such as sex. How can I overcome this, and how do I spark a conversation about sex with a six-year-old, what should or shouldn't she know, and how can I explain things so she will understand? Same thing for the three-year-old.

Thank you Alice,

Dear Mary,

You're not alone, many parents and caregivers feel uncomfortable talking with their children about sexuality. Some are afraid of providing too much information. Others are worried about starting this conversation too early. Still others worry that if they talk about sexuality, their children will have sex before they or the parents are ready. And some are simply wondering how they can start a conversation about sex while minimizing awkwardness for all parties. Don't worry, you and your kids will be able to figure out what works best for your family together, read on for tips and resources.

By taking the initiative to provide your children with information and support about sexuality issues early on, you are role modeling positive conversations and respect. The infamous "BIG TALK" of yore has transformed into a on-going series of small talks and teachable moments. These days, parents are encouraged to begin talking with their children in early childhood, creating a dialogue with openness and trust that can continue through the pre-teen years, adolescence, and young adulthood — thereby building the foundation for them to become sexually healthy adults.

You have probably already begun the conversation without even noticing; you likely have been holding your daughters tenderly and lovingly, providing your children with messages about appropriate touch and caring. You've bathed them in tubs, either washing or helping them wash their genitals, as well as teaching them about what they are, and how to wipe and wash them so as not to get infections. Perhaps you have been teaching them names for their body parts. You may have also discussed the different types of families and relationships represented by your family and friends. Sexuality is present in all of these acts and conversations.

Now that you're planning more intentional conversations, it may be helpful to think about the messages that you want to share with them. For example, you can let each of them know that you love them and want them to know that you will always be there to support them and help them. You can also let them know about "good" touching and "bad" touching, and teach them that their body belongs to them. You can ask them the different ways they have seen you and other important people in their lives express love and respect. Of course, there will probably be talk about babies, reproduction, and the many ways families are created along the way; kids have a natural interest in knowing where they come from.

The way that you talk with your three-year-old will be different from the way that you talk with your six- and eight-year-old, but the underlying message can often be the same. For younger children, such as your three-year-old, you can begin to talk about sexuality by using correct names for body parts. As you are identifying the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, neck, and chest, incorporate the breasts and vulva, and move down the rest of the body to the feet. Your older children on the other hand might wonder what different body parts do. For more specific suggestions on age-appropriate messages about many sexuality-related topics, you can check out the tips and information available from SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). Advocates for Youth also has a set of developmental milestones for infants through young adults that can help you plan what messages and conversations are appropriate for each of your children.

Some parents find it easier to start a conversation by reading books together. You may also find that certain books explain concepts in an age-appropriate and kid-friendly way, taking some of the pressure off. Two excellent book suggestions include It's So Amazing and It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris.

Communication about these issues is a learning experience for both you and your girls. Giggles, stunned silence, and other awkward moments are perfectly normal. Don't worry, if your conversation takes an unexpected turn, or stops entirely, you can always talk again tomorrow, or next week.

It is not clear if you have been able to find support over the years to heal from your childhood experience of abuse. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis's book, The Courage to Heal: A Guide to Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, has been helpful for many survivors. If you are interested in talking with someone about this, there are psychologists, social workers, and psychotherapists who are trained and have experience working with survivors. Support groups for women or adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse are also available. You can talk with a trusted friend, counselor, religious leader, or health care provider to learn more about seeking counseling, if you are interested.

Your children are lucky to have a parent so committed to their health, safety, and happiness. You can do this! You may even see and seize a "teachable moment" today.


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