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  • Writer's pictureDevin Olivia Barton-Torres

Sex Education for All Ages: Nurturing Healthy Conversations about Identity, Sex, & Relationships

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Sex education is an essential part in helping children develop a healthy understanding of their bodies, relationships, consent, and understanding of sexuality. As parents, it's important to approach sex education in a comprehensive and age-appropriate manner. Starting conversations about sex and relationships early ensures children have not only a solid and accurate understanding of these topics, but also a safe and supportive environment to ask questions. Parents can begin these conversations by teaching children basic concepts such as body parts, consent, and boundaries starting at an early age. The stronger a child’s understanding of these concepts outside sexual and romantic associations, the easier it will be for them to apply them in healthy ways when they are ready for romantic and sexual relationships. As children grow, the conversations can become more nuanced to include puberty, caring for their bodies, hearts, and minds, and understanding increasingly complex friendship and relationship dynamics.

Open and Non-Judgmental Communication

Open, honest, and non-judgmental communication are key to creating an environment where your child feels comfortable discussing sex and relationships. These conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward for parents and kids. Parents that are able to remain grounded and open provide their children a space to work through the discomfort in supportive and loving ways. It models how to have hard but important conversations. It demonstrates their needs are important enough for parents to work through the things that make us uncomfortable. Some ways parents can support ongoing and open communication include:

  • Encourage questions and answer with honest, medically-accurate responses.

  • Practice active listening.

  • Use clear and age-appropriate language.

  • Allow your child to express their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgment or embarrassment.

  • Use reputable sources and be prepared to answer questions honestly.

Create a Queer Affirming Home

Queer affirming homes are supportive and inclusive environments that acknowledge, validate, and celebrate individuals that identify as queer. They are spaces where people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions feel safe, accepted, and celebrated for their authentic selves. Parents don’t have to be queer themselves to create these environments. They can also create these environments regardless of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Cisgender and straight youth benefit from queer affirming homes in powerful ways because of the model of acceptance and love that’s established as the baseline norm in these homes. Parents can foster an affirming home environment by:

Fostering love and acceptance

Inclusive and affirming environments are built on a foundation of radical love and acceptance. They prioritize valuing and supporting all family members and actively work to ensure all family members feel safe, respected, and valued within the home environment.

Promoting authenticity and self-expression

Environments that encourage and celebrate authenticity create room for the diverse ways people exist and show up. Connecting with your own authenticity and self-expression is the most powerful way to model this for your children. This can also include giving them the freedom to explore hobbies, interests, and activities they’re curious about without expectations of committing to it. Simply allowing them to exist, explore, create, and express.

Supporting mental and emotional well-being

Simply accepting children for who they are provides them with a strong foundation to develop their sense of emotional and psychological well-being. This can be further supported by normalizing getting support for emotional or mental health needs, asking for help, and prioritizing rest and connection. These actions affirm emotional and mental wellness are a critical part of a sustainable and connected life.

Nurturing healthy relationships

The ways we connect and relate with other people in all relationship structures informs how our children begin to think about relationships. Cultivating healthy partnerships, friendships, and family connections provides critical relationships to sustain not only us, but also our children. We demonstrate what healthy boundaries, communication, and interdependence looks like. We teach our children how to say no to people that don’t uplift and celebrate them, and how to seek out connections that fulfill them on a deep level.

Challenging heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions

Heteronormativity is a belief system that assume heterosexuality is the default and normal sexual orientation. It reinforces gender binaries and centers romantic and sexual relationships as the ultimate relationship goal. Cisnormativity is the belief system that assumes cisgender identities are the norm. Societies with this belief system reinforce the idea that gender and sex assigned at birth are the same and marginalize transgender and non-binary people. Both of these contribute to the high rates of depression and suicidality among queer-spectrum youth. Parents can support their child’s mental health regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity by challenging these social assumptions and remaining open to the possibility that they don’t know their child’s orientation or identity. These are in constant development and giving children the space to connect with their identity and express that in authentic ways creates safety, acceptance, and resilience in children.

Cultivating empathy and compassion

Empathy and compassion are cornerstones for healthy relationships of all kinds. Leading with empathy creates openness, supports non-judgement, and centers love and care in all interactions. Cultivating empathy in children equips them to honor their needs and boundaries and those of others.

Modeling acceptance and inclusion

The home environment is the first example of what children can expect in the world. A home that actively practices acceptance and inclusion teaches this as the baseline norm to children. They learn what genuine acceptance looks like. They know it’s something that occurs at a personal, relational level first. They’re given the language, tools, and resources to bring these values into their relationships outside of the family home.

Creating space for self-discovery

A key aspect of challenging heteronormative and cisnormative norms is encouraging self-discovery. For young children this may be simple things such as the clothing they wear, the colors they like, the art they create, and the activities they participate in. As they grow this can also include how they express themselves inside and outside of the home, who they’re friends with, and who they choose to have early dating and sexual experiences with.

Building resilience

Resilience is often associated with trauma, however it can be cultivated outside the context of trauma. Building resilience is about equipping children with emotional intelligence, communication skills, and self-awareness that allows them to navigate the various challenges of life with love, empathy, and care for themselves and others.

Supporting queer-spectrum family and friends

Children learn how to treat others by observing how their parents treat people in their lives. Being strong allies and advocates for queer-spectrum family and friends shows children this is a value that’s actively practiced. It gives them concrete examples to reflect on as they grow into their own identities so they’re equipped to recognize what safe love feels like in a variety of relational contexts.

Teach Boundaries and Consent

Boundaries are the limits we establish for ourselves to protect our emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. They guide how we expect to be treated and what we are or aren’t willing to accept in a relationship, whether it’s romantic, sexual, platonic, or familial. Consent is an ongoing practice of mutual agreement regarding the activity, interactions, or behaviors we engage in with other people. Consent is often considered to have a primarily sexual nature, however it’s a critical part of any and all interactions with other people. Consent is only truly present when a person knows what they’re agreeing to, understands the risk (if any) involved, and is able to say no without fear of punishment or retaliation.

Boundaries and consent can and must be taught early in life. Simple acts such as asking permission to hug a child, seeking their input on the clothes they want to wear, and communicating with them in ways that make them feel safe are ways parents can teach and normalize establishing boundaries and practicing consent. Normalizing this early in life teaches children these are simply part of any healthy relationship. As they grow and develop increasingly complex friendships, and eventually romantic or sexual relationships, boundaries and consent will be a natural part of interacting with people.

Consent is often considered to have a primarily sexual nature, however it’s a critical part of any and all interactions with other people.

Continuing the Conversation

Sex education is an ongoing process. There are seasons it will be at the forefront of your parenting journey and seasons it will be in the background. Staying open to the many conversations that arise as you raise children into adults is critical to equipping them with a strong foundation for developing a healthy sense of identity and relationship to sex. Sex education can feel intimidating for many parents, and it’s often confusing, uncomfortable, and awkward. Staying centered on your love for your child, open to new information, and willing to ask for and receive help are powerful strategies in cultivating values, beliefs, and attitudes that will guide your child’s lifelong relationship with their own sexual identity and expression. Connect with us for tools, resources, and ongoing support as you navigate these new waters with your child.

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