Valley Parents: Addressing big topics

Valley Parents Correspondent
Published: 2/8/2019 11:33:27 AM

As a father and a pediatrician, Michael Lyons often considers the best way to talk to kids about sexuality. Lyons is a family practitioner at White River Family Practice in White River Junction and a clinical assistant professor of community and family medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. In those roles, he encourages parents and doctors to talk openly about issues surrounding sexuality.

“This is a part of all humans,” he said. “It’s so odd that it’s so much a part of everyone’s body and we don’t talk about it. It seems like something that could be smoother, easier, give people a better sense of well-being and help avoid abuses.”

The best way to talk to your kids about sex is to just start, Lyons said, and to keep talking, layering conversations throughout the years. Over time, the topics that you talk about will become more complex, but you and your children will both be more comfortable, he said.

Cindy Pierce, an Etna mother of three and sexuality educator, said that parents need to resist the temptation to hope that schools or doctors will talk to their kids.

“It’s tricky, but parents need to really take the lead on it and know that they are the primary sexuality educators,” she said.

Alice Ely, a Grantham mother of a 12-year-old boy, said that addressing topics as they come up — in movies or conversation, for example — makes talking about these topics less awkward.

“Kids are not often going to want to sit down and have the talk, but they are going to hear what you have to say when something sparks their interest or discomfort,” she said.

When her son comes to her looking for information, Ely, who is director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, has learned to ask questions in return so that she’s addressing what he’s curious about, rather than delivering a preconceived speech, she said.

Ely realizes that her son will soon be a teenager, and the more complex conversations still may be ahead of her, but she’s prepared to keep the conversations open.

“We’ll figure that out as we go,” she said.

In case you’re also trying to figure it out, here are some tips for talking to kids about common issues.

Sexual abuse

Talking to kids about sexual abuse can be triggering for many parents. However, it’s important to empower kids by discussing it openly so that they know how to react if they’re ever in a dangerous situation, Lyons said.

Start to talk to kids around age 3 by using appropriate terminology for their body parts and asking permission before touching them. This also is the time to introduce the idea of appropriate boundaries.

By age 5, parents can ask children what they would do or who they would tell if they were in a situation that made them uncomfortable. As children mature, parents can be more candid, saying that most adults are kind, but it is never OK for anyone to inappropriately touch them. Tell kids they can stand up even to authority figures or people trusted by the family.

“We’re taught to be kind, but there’s appropriate times to be assertive,” Lyons said.

Sexual orientation

Same-sex relationships are more widely accepted today than in decades past, but it’s still important to reinforce to children that they can choose any partner and their family will still love them. Ely has a family member who is in a same-sex relationship, but she still points out to her son that he can be in a relationship with anyone he chooses.

“We make it clear: We’re going to love you,” she said. “We don’t sit down and have a conversation, but when we talk about family members and their relationship, it’s normalized.”

Lyons said that emphasizing acceptance can help LGBTQ youth avoid depression and other mental health issues that they face at higher rates than other kids.

“That’s a huge message to give to a kid,” he said.


Of all sex-related topics, parents find it most difficult and awkward to talk about pleasure, Lyons said. How and when to talk about pleasure from sex will depend on the individual family, but it’s important to have the conversation, Pierce said.

“Parents would love their kids to grow up and have healthy relationships, but that’s not going to land on them: Parents have to invest in that early,” she said. “It will be awkward and painful, but if you want them to have a healthy relationship with their body and healthy sex, it’s investing in that.”

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