Let's Talk About Sex (and other hard stuff)

It seems like every month has at least ONE cause or reason to celebrate. I did a little Google search this month and came up with a huge list of health awareness topics for each month. Spring seems to be full of topics. A small sampling includes awareness for: Autism, Sexual Assault, STD, alcoholism, child abuse, and, of course, a plethora of cancers ranging from childhood to oral. World Health Day was April 7th and National HIV/AIDS Day is the 10th. Is your head spinning, too?

What so many of these tie into is the topic of sexual activity and the risks that come with being sexually active. If you've got middle schoolers or teens, this is a hard topic for many of us to even broach. Who wants to admit our children are possibly considering this?

It is also scary fact that teenage girls with ADHD are twice as likely to become pregnant than their peers, particularly when not actively managing their ADHD. Managing ADHD, my friends, is a passion of mine. Getting our young adults (and even pre-teens) to actively participate in their health plan is mission critical to fostering positive outcomes as they develop. These young minds are more likely to make impulsive decisions. Add raging hormones, and the decision-making becomes even less discriminating when it comes to the laws of attraction. It inspired this post on tough conversations around sexuality with my own kids and what I learned in the process.

Many of you don't know this, but my mom was the birth control educator for my local high school growing up. She was a public health nurse, and all of my friends knew her. In fact, if they were in school for 10th grade sex education, they most definitely listened to her safe sex and contraception presentation before imparting on carrying their sugar babies around school for a week. Today, many schools have actual baby dolls with microchips in them - collecting care data and instigating random cries from this trial run tool in teenage parenting.

While my older brother was publicly humiliated - I thought it was kind of bada** that my mom was the adult who showed teenagers how to properly use a condom, who hit home the dangers of unprotected sex and boldly discussed the risks and how to reduce them. Ironically, we didn't talk a lot about sex at home - perhaps she figured it was all covered in that class. The one thing I learned from observing her in action was not "have safe sex". That was a given, and even more the values in our home were to wait until we had found our life partner. What I DID glean from this experience is that parents should be having those tough conversation with their kids, often and early. Regardless of our own feelings about sex and what is developmentally healthy, our kids are getting exposed to these topics at lunch tables in middle school. Do we want them to have the correct information? Aside from the obvious health risks of STIs (for those of you over 30, this is the new “STD”) and pregnancy, there are so many opportunities to discuss heavy emotional and mental health topics related to sexuality.

What is the balance between educational and developmentally appropriate? As we know, that can differ for each kid. For one child, we sought out the help of a pediatric therapist on what was developmentally appropriate for a pre-k child showing curiosity. She recommended the book Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle and it was invaluable in broaching that topic in a respectful, factual, thoughtful and appropriate level for a smart, curious, and very young mind. We read the book together, and the burning questions of a 4 year old were answered.

Fast forward a few years to middle school. I felt forced into the conversation when my oldest was in 6th grade - the rumors of unsupervised parties that went way beyond "spin the bottle" for 6th graders necessitated conversations with our boys around consent, rumors, respect, responsibility, consequences, and repercussions from the male and female perspective were all topics we tackled in open and honest conversation. It was hard to let go of the innocence you want to covet for your children. In a world full of narratives, it is super helpful to open up that dialogue - our kids have questions they may not be asking us. Would we rather they come from our mouths or their peers?

Most middle school brains cannot fathom the impact of sexual activity on their physical, emotion, and social well-being until after the fact. Time is still a fuzzy and developing concept. Executive function is still grappling with forward thoughts and planning. Heck, there are still several adults in my generation that have a hard time discussing sex. And we fumbled through the first half of that conversation in 6th grade, but what it evolved into was less of a conversation about the birds and the bees and more of a discussion about feelings and the definition of consent - what it feels like to be the other party, and what role everyone plays in making big decisions.

Talking about the hard topics like sex can open up the conversations for other difficult conversations. Figuring out what is developmentally appropriate can be hard. I would be the first to say there is no shame in seeking out a little extra help when it is hard to come up with the words for big talks. Often, these are hard because we are in new territory. Even more likely, these kinds of talks can conjure up our own values and feelings that form the narrative that we have come to accept for ourselves.

Add in executive function challenges for ADHD and the importance of having these tough conversations beforehand can be crucial to facilitating good choices. Discussing the different scenarios and choices that we might make when presented with them facilitate stronger decision-making practices overall. Stress can be kryptonite for highly emotional or stressful scenarios. Building plans that are centered around your values beforehand can help to cement those choices when your brain shuts down in the moment.

These conversations were challenging for my husband and I to have. What we never imagined was the positive results of opening ourselves up to those feelings, being vulnerable enough to sit with that discomfort, and creating a safe space for our kids to process the big stuff. We all squirmed a bit in the beginning. What we left with were strategies for potential scenarios, including escape plans when things got too scary or overwhelming.

Today, with the boys now 20, 19 and 17, we have gotten much better at embracing the squirm and holding space for the kids to ask hard questions, process big emotions, and feel 100% supported.

Here are the three questions I ask myself before tough conversations before I step into the unknown. Perhaps they will offer you some inspiration in your journey through the squirm:

  1. Who should be a part of this conversation?

  2. What role does the story in my head play in this?

  3. What is the change I want to see?

In the case of our 6th grade talk, we wanted to create a safe space for both parents to convey concerns and clarify the risks and responsibilities of all parties with respect to their bodies. In my own head, sex was not something I thought any child of their age was ready for, but I wanted to be a part of the conversation before my children were ever confronted with the decision and help them plan their own actions, understand the impacts and implications. We didn’t want the lunch table gossip to control the narrative. The change I wanted to see was to take a taboo subject and confront it head-on, letting my child know that we were there for him no mater what.

Stepping outside of that comfort zone is hard sometimes. The long-term payoff can be worth the initial discomfort. What makes your squirm? How could you step outside of your comfort zone in your parenting and reframe the opportunity for growth?