Sexual health education within a family is not one big talk
Interview with Laura Hancock, Ph.D., Sexual Health Educator
Sexuality – especially when it comes to children – can be an uncomfortable topic. However, establishing a healthy dialog around sexuality is key to laying the foundation for sexual health across the lifespan. As parents/caregivers, it is our job to educate ourselves and get comfortable talking about sexuality in developmentally appropriate ways. By doing so, we can convey our values, share correct information, and help prevent sexual abuse.
As a therapist in training working at a practice that specializes in sex therapy, and as a parent of two young children, I wanted to know more about how to broach the topic of sexuality when it comes to children. So I turned to Dr. Laura Hancock, a sexual health educator and expert on this topic.
Dr. Hancock earned her Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and lives in Amsterdam with her husband and daughter. Laura’s work is currently focused on educating parents, caregivers, foster parents, grandparents, preschool and kindergarten teachers, and anyone else in a caregiver role about sexual health for children ages 0-6.
I interviewed Dr. Hancock to find out why the topic of sexual health for young children is so important and what we, as caregivers, need to know. Below are the questions that I asked, and a summary of her responses.
Why is it important to establish a life-long dialogue with your child about sexuality?
Humans are sexual beings from the beginning, and parents/caregivers are the most important sexual health educators in a young child’s life. It’s important to start early because as children get older, they’re going to get their information from peers, the internet, and society. If we start early, we can establish a dialog so that they get their information from us – and we can convey our values as well as accurate information. Conversations that are uncomfortable for caregivers can be easier to discuss when you begin early. Then it can become a habit and an ongoing practice.
How would you describe sexuality and what comprises sexual health for this age group?
Sexuality is complex and there are many different models people use to describe it. The way I think about sexuality is through the lens of four key elements that all affect each other:
Physical – physical health (i.e., the need for safe and healthy touch)
Emotional – emotional intimacy, trust, empathy, and attachment
Cognitive – these are the things that are consciously related to sexuality (i.e., identity)
Social – external influences (i.e., family, community, religion, laws, the medical system, education systems, and gender attitudes)
Sexuality is so personal. Caregivers should think about the adult values that they want for their children and those are the messages to be aware of and convey to children.
What is most important to teach your child to keep them safer from sexual abuse?
Every parent should get educated about preventing child sexual abuse. I recommend the following resources as a starting point:
Parenting Safe Children (https://parentingsafechildren.com/) – includes recommendations for books, resources, workshops, and other educational opportunities
Darkness 2 Light (https://www.d2l.org/) – nonprofit providing educational resources and safety toolkits
Take a class, read a book – it is too important to put it off!
The most important thing to know about child sexual abuse is that the vast majority of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who knows the child and family…not a stranger. Teaching your child about sexual health is very preventative. For example, if your child knows the accurate names for genitals, if you teach them about boundaries and what they should expect from others, and that their genitals are private – that has a preventative goal. It makes it harder for an aggressor to manipulate a child who has a dialog with a trusted adult. An important caveat: if abuse happens, it is never the fault of the child.
What is the biggest takeaway you have for parents/caregivers?
It is normal to feel uncomfortable with some of the topics that come up around sexuality and children. Self-awareness about what makes you uncomfortable is key.
Sex health education within a family is not one big talk. It’s an ongoing dialog comprised of a bunch of little conversations happening all the time. You may make mistakes. You may not get it perfect every time. You can go back and revisit conversations if you want to. The next time you will probably handle it better. Don’t let the anxiety or discomfort hold you back. Get educated, and try to make the topic of sexual health part of your family’s everyday dialog.
For more information, Dr. Laura Hancock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen Hill is a Counseling Intern at Enhancing Intimacy Counseling. She is in training pursuing licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist. Jen works with couples, families, and individuals working on relationship concerns, communication, parenting, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, or postpartum issues. If you are interested in scheduling a session with Jen, you can see more about her at www.enhancingintimacyaustin.com/jen-hill. Please call 512-994-2588 or email email@example.com for more information.