Talking to Your Kids About Sex: The Surprising Way to Reduce Anxiety and Depression
The following is a transcription of an interview between Kristen Jenson and Dr. Christy Kane. Kristen and Dr. Kane discuss the importance of talking to kids about sex and how that contributes to their mental health. Watch or read the interview below (edited for clarity).
Why we should be talking to kids about sex
KRISTEN: Hey everyone! It’s Kristen Jenson with Protect Young Minds and today I am so happy to welcome Dr. Christy Kane. She has been with us before speaking about the addictive nature of electronics and digital devices.
Dr. Kane is a licensed mental health clinician. She’s a business leader and a mother who believes in empowering people through positive mental health.
I have learned from Christy that mental health is who we are. And it includes questions about sexuality so today we’re going to be talking a little bit about how children need good information about sex in order for them to navigate their way through a hypersexualized world.
Welcome Christy. Thank you so much. Tell us what you’re working on, what’s your latest research?
DR. KANE: Thank you very much. I’m excited to be back. Let’s see, what am I busy doing? My corporation is working on a micro-learning module for the empowerment of families, educators, youth and communities. So that’s our big push right now. We’re visiting with various entities about how we stabilize mental health. We have to switch from triage. Our society is so good at intervention and triage. When there’s a crisis we send resources, right? But we’re not very good at prevention. And so we’re really working from the preventative perspective and helping kids and families and communities in the field of mental health.
The other exciting thing is that I have a book being published. The title’s going to be Fractured Souls and Splintered Memories: Overcoming the Impact of Trauma. I’m excited for it to come out. It’s a story of an individual and the journey that they took to overcome trauma they experienced in their life. So that’s fun that I do have a book being published in July.
DR. KANE: Thank you.
And this is a great topic. I’m so glad you’re covering this topic because from my field as a mental health professional in the last two weeks, I’ve probably had about ten teenagers come into my office as new clients and they present with anxiety or depression. And as we begin our conversations, it comes down to sexuality, gender orientation, and being able to talk about and ask questions.
And what I find so concerning is that as I visit with these young people, one of the biggest questions I ask them is “Have you been able to have a conversation with your parents?” Or with a legal guardian or whoever is in their lives. And it’s really interesting because I get the answer “No, they don’t want to talk.” And we have to somehow break down that barrier.
Because as you know, the world is more than willing to display sexuality and more than willing to imply or to suggest that someone is of a certain gender orientation. And we also know that there’s a lot of evidence we’ve researched to show that there’s different gender orientations and none of that is a negative.
But if we don’t start having conversations with our kids, being more open around sexuality, we’re going to continue to have young people afraid to discuss important conversations that they’re translating into anxiety and depression. And then, unfortunately, when they feel like there aren’t any resources or any way to have conversations, then we end up with suicide ideation. And teenage suicide is the second leading cause of death for our teenagers.
So I’m glad you’re talking about this and what parents can do in this particular area.
Talking to kids about sex counteracts the toxic messages of our hypersexualized world
KRISTEN: I know [talking to kids about sex] can be uncomfortable for parents. Many of us were not given a great example of how to talk about it. Our parents didn’t talk to us about sex and so we don’t know how to talk to our kids.
We have several articles on Protect Young Minds about books that we have vetted and other resources about how to talk to children about sex and the things that they should know by around seven years of age. But there are many [important] conversations.
You mentioned how kids are just showing up depressed and anxious and they don’t really have anyone to talk to about these topics. We did some research a few years back--and in fact I’m working on publishing a paper that is describing that research project. It’s basically a qualitative study with ten people who identified themselves as addicted to porn or recovering from an addiction to pornography. And they had lots of different reasons why they used pornography--why they “hired” pornography to do a job for them, is how we frame it.
But the one thing all ten of them had in common was that no one had any meaningful conversations about sex when they were young. And so given the digital world and how easy it is to access information, they just went to their friends, they went online, they found pornography and so they didn’t have the support that they needed to really thrive in this hypersexualized world, to thrive with a healthy sense of what sexuality can be. Then they get influenced by the toxic notions and ideas and violent things that they see in porn.
What parents can do to help their kids thrive in our hypersexualized culture
KRISTEN: What do kids need most from their parents in order to navigate the current world that we find ourselves in?
DR. KANE: I think parents need to be more mindful and connected than ever before. It’s interesting--you said perhaps we grew up in a generation where sex wasn’t necessarily talked about. Or it was “The Talk.” And by the time parents had that talk with us, we already knew everything anyway.
Parents today have to create an open door platform so that those conversations can come into play. I’ve had many moms visit with me about seven or eight year olds who have been viewing stuff online and scared to tell their mom or their dad.
And so first of all we’ve got to be able to remove shame around the topic of sex. It’s interesting how in previous generations sex was bad. And yet, sex is a beautiful and amazing part of life. And we have to start helping our children understand that.
Kids who believe there’s a secret will go searching for the secret. So at Christmastime if you hide the Christmas presents, trust me, kids are going through the house knowing that they’re going to find the Christmas presents.
We have to stop making sex a secret. We need to be talking about it openly and we need to be able to talk about it frankly.
I have a good friend who spends a lot of time with young men. And he’s just the type of person that the guys feel very comfortable with. Sometimes he shares with me the questions that these young men ask him that they won’t ask their dads. But they’ll ask him. And he just handles it and he answers them. And they’re very interesting questions that really the parents should be answering.
So the first thing is parents have to be comfortable with their sexuality. Some of the biggest barriers are adults don’t even know how to talk about sex in their own marriage, in their own relationships, in their own home. So parents have to get comfortable with sex and realize it’s not bad or taboo or something you keep behind closed doors.
And then second of all, constantly creating open communication. It shouldn’t be “The Talk”. It should be a talk all the time. “Hey, what are kids at school saying about sex?” or “Do you have any questions?” “What are you learning?” “What are you hearing about sexual orientation? And have you ever questioned your own? Would you like to talk about that?”
There are so many questions that parents can ask kids if they keep the shame out of the room, that will allow for open and honest communication.
KRISTEN: I think a lot of parents would be afraid to ask that question about sexual orientation only because they would think that would promote some view of it--positive, negative, whatever--but I do believe that asking then gives you the opportunity to talk. Because if they are questioning, talking about it is not going to change anything, other than you can give them good information.
5 things parents can do to make talking about sex easier
- Be more mindful and connected
- Get comfortable with your own sexuality
- Constantly create open communication
- Remove the shame surrounding the topic of sex
- Stop making sex a secret
How do I talk to my kids about sex when I’m not comfortable?
KRISTEN: We had someone write in and say she was married, but she said “I don’t enjoy sex. I haven’t had a good experience with it, but I don’t want to pass this on to my kids. So what do I do?” So we had a therapist write an article for that and it’s a great article for anyone experiencing the same feelings.
So what do parents do if they can’t talk with sex openly with their partner, then how do they start getting comfortable enough to talk to their kids? Is that an absolute prerequisite? Do you have to be 100% comfortable to begin these conversations?
DR. KANE: No. And the wonderful thing is kids allow us to make mistakes. They’re very forgiving and it’s trial and error. If you’re not comfortable with your own sexuality and your intimacy within your relationship, I think you need to talk to a mental health professional because it’s a very important part of marriage. If you look at the statistics the number one and number two reasons why divorces come about have to do with finances and the bedroom. So it’s going to be very important if that’s something that you’re struggling with.
And to that person’s credit, a lot of the older generations grew up hearing “Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Sex is bad.” And then the honeymoon night, sex is everything. And they can’t make that shift. So I’d recommend talking with a mental health professional.
And no, you don’t have to be perfect. You can explain to your children that sex is something that is amazing and wonderful and you learn with your partner.
I remember listening to different couples when I was growing up talk about how their sexual relationship was a learning curve. And the first time around didn’t go so well and they laughed and it was funny. So parents just need to be able to have all those conversations with kids.
Discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with your child
DR. KANE: To go back to your point in discussing sexual orientation and gender identity--talking about it is the most important thing that we can do. Because trust me, the world is talking about it. The kids in the locker room are talking about it.
And one of the difficulties is if a kid begins to question, there are many groups that are going to help them identify. But that identification may not be accurate. So it’s really important that the parents are having those conversations and that they’re there to support that child as they go through that journey.
Sexual exploration is a normal process of maturation. We need to be able to have open conversations with that. Someone who might be questioning as they explore and they feel supported, they may think they were headed in one direction and then discover they’re really headed the other. But if they find that they’re surrounded by peer pressure or certain cultures, that may not be the case.
KRISTEN: I heard of one woman who said that she had a dream one time and it made her think that she had lesbian feelings. Then she talked to a psychologist who was a friend who told her “No, don’t worry about that. That’s not actually an indication. That was just your brain trying to process.”
I’ve heard of kids who are sexually abused by someone of the same gender and they have an arousal experience and then they feel like they must be gay or lesbian. Or they watch lesbian or gay porn and find they are aroused by it so they think they must be gay or lesbian. If we are talking with our children about this, we can dispel some of those notions.
And there is a lot of learning. Sex is on a spectrum. It’s very individual. But I worry for the kids that watch gay porn that they are being convinced of an orientation that may not be actually what they’re truly experiencing or who they are.
Do you have any thoughts on that?
DR. KANE: You’re accurate in the sense that oftentimes the first sexual experience may sometimes begin to create their own identification even though it may be inaccurate. And so what we know is it’s critical to explain the biology of arousal to children so that they understand that if there’s any type of friction stimulation--whether it’s by a female or a male--there’s going to be a response whether you’re male or female.
So those are some of those important conversations. Especially going back to what you said about gay pornography. You might have a heterosexual youth respond to a gay video and then begin to question, when in reality optical stimulation is as powerful as physical stimulation. And it’s the sexual act more than it is the identity of the individuals in the video. So those need to be conversations that parents are having with children.
You are accurate that oftentimes kids who are abused--especially if the abuser was the same gender--they sometimes question their sexuality. And that will be part of that healing process--to help them understand that regardless of the gender of the abuser that they did nothing wrong and there is going to be a response if there is stimulation. We’re biologically wired that way.
Explaining the difference between love and sex
DR. KANE: I think it’s important that parents have frank conversations--like what’s the difference between sex and making love? They are not the same. They need to be able to have all those conversations so that as children are watching movies--which do the greatest disservice of all to the intimate bedroom of a couple because what’s portrayed on the screen most of the time is not accurate to real life events. But if no one’s having conversations with children, then they grow up with expectations that are not realistic.
So you’re right--it’s a broad spectrum, sexuality. But it’s a broad spectrum of daily, weekly conversations with our children with no shame. If our kids sense that we’re embarrassed about the conversation, they’re not going to come ask us. But if they sense that [your attitude] is “Hey, come ask me. If I don’t know the answer I’ll go look it up.” Then we have a better chance that the children will come to us.
KRISTEN: And if you are embarrassed, you can just admit it. “This is a little hard for mom. I admit it. But we need to do this. And I want to do this because I want to be there for you.” I think, like you said, kids are forgiving. I think when you come at it that way, they’ll understand.
DR. KANE: It comes down to do we want the world to give them the message? Or do we want to give them the message?
KRISTEN: Right. And when you were talking about making love verses sex, there’s the act and then there’s the purpose of it. Often when I speak I share an article we have about how there’s the sex that’s portrayed in porn and the healthy sex that is going to be creating an intimate relationship and a strong marriage. They’re pretty much polar opposites and that really needs to be clear in the minds of the kids.
How does talking to kids about sex help them reject pornography?
KRISTEN: How do healthy conversations about sex impact a child’s curiousity to look at pornography? If you start the conversation about sex at a young age, are parents worried? What’s your experience as a professional and as a clinician? What’s the best way to tamp down that curiosity about pornography?
DR. KANE: I’m going to go back to the fact that curiosity is increased when there aren’t conversations. When we have healthy, age-appropriate conversations we mitigate that curiosity of secrecy. When children feel like their parents are willing to talk about it and parents are willing to be open and age-appropriate, it diminishes the desire of the kids to go look for it elsewhere.
We find in the uses of pornography sometimes it’s accidental, they stumble upon it. Sometimes they deliberately go looking for it, sometimes it can be curiosity because they’ve heard something at school. If the gatekeeper is the parent, having the open, frank conversations about it, then that curiosity is going to be directed more towards the parent. “Hey mom, I heard this,” or “Hey mom, have you heard about this?” And then [the parent] can go see what they can find on the internet.
KRISTEN: Right. We always advise parents to teach their children that if they hear any kind of slang words that they don’t understand, to go ask the parents and don’t Google it. Because there’s a lot of sexual slang that kids are going to hear and no kid wants to be the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on.
DR. KANE: And when you talk about that, there’s something else parents need to recognize. Today youth are growing up not trusting the world. Because you can prove and disprove anything on the internet.
So parents have got to have frank conversations about the internet. And that there’s stuff out there that isn’t accurate that’s portrayed to be accurate. There’s political cadences designed to turn them away from that perspective of the family and the support system and all kinds of things. And so parents need to begin discussing [these things]. I recommend everyone watches the Social Dilemma.
Parents have got to start explaining that Google is not God. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. But what it’s done for our youth, if you look at some of the research, they don’t know what to believe. And so they tend to trust less and they don’t have that same belief system as the generations of the past. And so that’s all going to be impacted by parents having honest, truthful, frank conversation about what’s out there on the internet--not just pornography. And inviting them to truth and values and principles and things that really do bring about positive mental health and positive sexuality within their lives at the right time with the right person.
KRISTEN: That is great. I think you’ve answered a lot of questions that our parents in the audience will be having about how to talk to kids about sex and when.
One more thing I would bring up is that we got an email recently from a parent who was going through a course that was helping her talk to her child about sex and so they were very comfortable talking about sex. And turns out that child was on a game and somebody started talking to him about sex. Well, he felt pretty comfortable and so he started talking about sex with this person who was grooming him.
So at the same time you are starting those conversations about sex, you want them to be open with you, but it’s also important to teach that these types of conversations are with parents or trusted adults and not with others--that there could be a real downside to that.
And make sure that when you’re starting that conversation about sex that you also talk about its counterfeit--which is pornography. Because I’ve also heard of kids who learn about sex, they want to know more and they do what they see their parents do--they go online and search and then the’re into pornography. So it’s just so important that we are mindful.
Any last comments on that?
DR. KANE: I agree with you completely. Included in that conversation on healthy sexuality is to also talk about channels. We have these conversations with people that we trust because we know that they’re going to give the right answers.
And that goes back to the beginning of our conversation, which is to keep the door open so that your children come to you. Because you’re right. The world is going to offer a smorgasbord of information. But that’s not where we want them to go. But if we haven’t established those good, open conversations about all kinds of topics, we run the risk that our children are going to go someplace else.
Foundationally, talking about healthy sexuality comes down to the relationship you have with your child.
Dr. Christy Kane
They know that you’re there. You support them, you love them, they can trust you and that you’re going to give them the right information. And then you always offer counter counsel-- DON’T go to these areas because they’re not accurate. And if the child happens to go to those areas, then we don’t respond with shame or blame, but with love and understanding and counter-directions.
KRISTEN: That sounds like very good advice.
Thank you so much Dr. Christy Kane for taking some time. I know you’ve got to get right back to work helping people. Thank you for helping us understand a little bit more about the role of having these conversations about sex and protecting children from problems and negative mental health issues around sexuality, as well as pornography. Thank you so much.
DR. KANE: You bet! And people can go to my website if they want to ask any further questions--I’m happy to respond.
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"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just "don't watch or look at porn." It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.