When sexual stories about sexual assault air on the evening news, Martha Perry, MD, has a message for parents: Don’t turn the channel.
Dr. Perry, an adolescent medicine specialist at UNC Children’s Primary Care Clinic, sees these stories, as well as popular music, television and movies, as important teachable moments parents can use in discussing sexual behavior.
She emphasizes that the days of having “the talk” about sex are long past; parents should encourage an ongoing dialogue with their children, starting early.
Talking to Very Young Children About Bodies and Consent
Dr. Perry encourages parents to use proper terminology when discussing “private parts” with young children. This eliminates the possibility of misinterpretation and helps children become comfortable talking about their bodies.
During physical exams, Dr. Perry emphasizes with young patients that it’s OK for her to check their private parts because their parent is in the exam room and supervising. “I usually say I need to check your private parts, and I call them private parts because they are yours and you should keep them private. This means it is not OK for others to touch your private parts unless, like today, you are at the doctor and your parent says it’s OK.” When doing the exam, Dr. Perry says, “I’ll use proper language and say I’m going to check the vagina or the penis or testicles, to model that for parents.”
Dr. Perry also emphasizes that while parents are usually worried about strangers and abduction, most children who are sexually abused or abducted know the perpetrator.
“That’s why it’s important to emphasize that it’s not OK for someone to touch your private parts, even if it is someone you know very well,” Dr. Perry says.
With younger children, all of these conversations will occur with the parent present during a medical visit. But as children get into their teenage years, Dr. Perry starts to have one-on-one conversations about sexual health and behavior.
Talking to Teenagers About Sex and Consent
“I’ll often tell parents that I’m going to take some time during the appointment to talk to the teen alone. And I tell them that I’m going to ask about sex, drugs, alcohol and other very important safety issues,” Dr. Perry says. “I emphasize that this is confidential, and it should be left up to the teen what they decide to share. I encourage parents to continue discussions about these issues at home, again reminding them to use teachable moments.”
Most parents, she says, do not object.
Dr. Perry uses this time to ask about relationships and dating, to gauge the teen’s feelings on sex.
“I’ll ask about relationships and whether or not a teen has ever felt uncomfortable or pressured to do something that they didn’t want to do,” she says. “I will always emphasize that your body is your own, and if you are in a situation where you are uncomfortable, you have the right to say no or the right to change your mind.”
When talking to young men, she emphasizes the need to listen closely to what a partner is or is not consenting to and to be cautious in situations where alcohol is involved.
All of this, she says, should be an extension of an ongoing conversation at home.
“Kids will get their values and their beliefs from their family,” Dr. Perry says. “I just want to talk with them about how to be as safe as possible and protect themselves and others around them.”
Advice for Parents
For parents, Dr. Perry encourages open dialogue.
“I tell parents it is important to have these conversations before there is a crisis,” Dr. Perry says. “Many times, parents think that if they don’t talk about it, then it won’t happen. But if parents don’t talk to their teens about these issues, then teens will be less likely to tell their parents if they are in trouble. They also may get information about these important issues from less reliable sources.”
She points out there are numerous teachable moments—like scenes in movies, news stories or even seeing a couple arguing in public—to talk to teens about sex and relationships.
“If there’s a scene in a movie depicting sexual violence, many parents’ first instinct would be to turn it off,” Dr. Perry says. “I’d use that as an opportunity to ask, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that?’ and emphasize that, ‘If something like that ever happened to you, I would want to know so that I could help you.’ Don’t be discouraged if your teen rolls their eyes or acts like they aren’t listening when you use these teachable moments; they are still getting the message.”
She suggests parents make sure their kids understand that if they feel uncomfortable in a situation and need a ride home, the parent will come get them. A good example is a party where teenagers are unsupervised and drinking. The parents should let their teens know they will pick them up, no questions asked—at least until the next morning.
“I’m not saying there is no punishment at all, but I advise waiting until the next day so everyone can be calm and rested when discussing the situation. We want teens to feel like if they have made a bad choice, then they have someone to call,” Dr. Perry says.
All these conversations, Dr. Perry says, are meant to make teens comfortable speaking the language of sex and consent.
“I want teens to be comfortable talking about these issues and understand what goes into decisions about sex, relationships and consent,” she says. “We know through research that providing teens with more information leads them to make better, safer decisions.”
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