Health care professionals providing sex education?

Dear Alice,

Hello. How do you feel about health care providers offering sex education to the school age child (children younger than 12)? Do you know of any resources/publications which address this issue?

Thank you!

Dear Reader,

Health care providers, including nurses, pediatricians, social workers, and health educators, care about the well-being of their patients, clients, and students, and are often trusted by them. Therefore, it's not uncommon for questions about sexuality and sexual health to arise in these interactions. As with most adults, providers have different comfort levels when talking about sexual health. Some may be embarrassed and uncomfortable having these discussions; others are comfortable bringing up information and answering questions that patients have. The training and level of comfort a health care provider may have with sexual health can vary based on their profession and specialization. For many, a health care provider may be a trusted resource, especially for children who may not feel comfortable asking their parents or guardians about sexual health. Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)  provide guidelines for health professionals and educators about the role of sexual health education and what topics are to be covered at what ages. 

Sexual health education is a lifelong process that begins at birth. Since some pediatricians have an ongoing relationship with their young patients throughout childhood, they're in a unique position to address age-appropriate issues. Parents may want to discuss their values with their child's pediatrician or other health care provider so that the messages are consistent. When discussing sexual health with school age children, providers may talk about reproductive anatomy, how the body works, puberty, body changes, and feelings that they may be experiencing now or will be having in the future. With older adolescents, discussions of sexual behavior, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and contraception are appropriate. Conversations emphasizing sexual abuse and violence prevention are also common. Discussions with pediatricians or other health care providers can also educate parents about children's growth and development and what to expect. Parents can then follow up on discussions with their children.

While some providers may talk with young children individually in an office or clinic, they may also offer education to young people in the school setting. Depending upon the type of sexual health education that children receive in school, if at all, a provider might be invited to talk with a group or class of students. If this is the case, parents may want to talk with the teacher or principal before a health care provider speaks to a class to find out about their background, training, approach, and goals. It's worth noting that requirements for sexual health education vary by state in the United States, and it's not required to be medically accurate or comprehensive in every state. 

If you have a child, have you thought about what messages you want to convey and when? Have you already spoken with your child’s health care provider about how you want to approach these topics? If you're a health care provider, have you talked with your patients about their needs? When it comes to sexual health education, there are many resources and potential approaches that'll support the well-being of young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics is one of the few organizations whose policy statements address the issue of health care providers talking with children about sexual health issues. One statement, "Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents," specifically discusses the pediatrician's role in providing sexual health education. Additionally, if comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education is of interest to you, the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a publication from SIECUS, is a great place to start. This identifies developmentally appropriate messages related to sexual health issues. Designed as a framework to assist local communities in developing new education curricula or assessing existing programs, it can also be used as a guide for parents and health care providers.

Trusted health care providers can be a great resource to teach children about sexual health education. Here's to learning more about the body!

Last updated Jun 10, 2022
Originally published Nov 02, 2001

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