Sexual health and mental health are closely intertwined, and for adolescents just beginning to explore their sexuality, this relationship can be particularly challenging. As a parent wanting provide the right amount of parental guidance without being overbearing, sexuality and sexual health can be awkward conversations to have with your child. But if approached with honesty and candor, satisfying, safe, and healthy relationships can be had all around.
Communication Is Key
How we communicate with our partners sexually is an extension of our communication style, in general. Encouraging children from an early age to feel safe communicating their thoughts and feelings honestly and openly, without fear of judgement will establish healthy communication as they grow and will enable them to carry these communication skills into their adolescent and adult relationships. In romantic relationships, this means feeling comfortable and confident in telling your partner what feels good to you as well as asking your partner about their needs and preferences.
Healthy Boundaries and Sexual Consent
Similarly, conversations about consent should start at an early age when children are beginning to learn social skills. At this stage, brief conversations about personal boundaries and respect for others can center around learning when it’s appropriate to touch another person and when to refrain from touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched, as well as how your child can respectfully yet firmly communicate to someone else when they do not want to be touched.
Continuing to have these conversations on a casual basis will ensure that these skills, established at an early age, will carry forward as they grow and mature. But don’t worry if you’ve missed the early age window, simply open the conversation at the appropriate level for your child’s age and stage of maturity.
Sex Ed in Schools
Though sex education classes are taught in many schools, they are not a replacement for parent–child conversations, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, who advise taking an honest, clear, and direct approach. This is your opportunity to share your personal feelings about sex with your child. Avoid using scare tactics as these can cause your child to shut down, leading to reactive or rebellious behavior.
Body Image and Sexuality
The advertising and social media industries have a big, and mostly unhealthy, impact on women’s body image. As a result, most women are self-conscious and insecure about how their bodies compare to the idealized images portrayed in media. A woman who feels embarrassed or ashamed about her body may be reluctant to express herself sexually, which can shut down a romantic relationship, or she can feel worthless, which, can lead to more risky sexual behaviors, like having multiple partners and unprotected sex, potentially resulting in sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.
Healthy Sexuality Starts With Good Mental Health—Or Does It?
Research shows that adolescent girls have higher levels of anxiety and depression than boys and this trend continues into adulthood. Studies also show that, among adolescent girls and young adult women, those not in romantic relationships tend to have higher rates of anxiety and lower levels of sexual satisfaction than those not in relationships.
But, do mental health issues have a greater negative affect on sexual satisfaction than the positive effects of romantic relationship on mental health? Certainly, young adults can perceive a lack of sexual satisfaction as a personal failure in their ability to pursue or maintain a romantic relationship, which can increase anxiety and depression. However, it turns out that helping young adults “get it right” in terms of their romantic relationships may be more beneficial than dealing with sexuality as a mental health issue. Yet another reason to have these important conversations about sexuality and sexual health.
Real Talk About STIs
Adolescents and young adults make up a quarter of the sexually active population yet they are responsible for half of all new STI cases each year. The reasons for this involve a complex mix of biological, behavioral, and social factors.
Research shows that children of parents who maintain open communication with them about sexual values tend to adopt safer sexual practices. However, almost a quarter of adolescents and young adults say their parents aren’t having these discussions with them.
HPV is a major cause of several types of cancer in both men and women. Since the vaccine Gardasil was first introduced in 2010, by 2016 the rates of HPV infections have dropped by 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women. The CDC recommends that children ages 11 to 12 years receive the two-dose HPV vaccine.
Your child’s sexuality is an essential part of who they are. As a parent, you can help your child develop healthy, safe sexual behaviors by starting with boundary training in early childhood and continuing the conversation into adolescence and young adulthood.
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