When And How Parents Should Talk To Their Kids About Sex - Don't Leave It To The Internet
Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University Dr. Cecilia Ma Man-sze found that parents should talk to children about sex early, before they are exposed to such content online.
Earlier this year, the UK updated its sex-education curriculum for schools to include topics such as healthy relationships, same-sex relationships and online safety. The lessons, to be implemented in 2020, are to prepare students for modern society.
Sex education continues to evolve globally, but Hong Kong still lags behind. The city’s Education Bureau has not revised its sex-education guidelines since 1997.
Currently, coverage of the topic in Hong Kong secondary schools varies widely as the city does not have a mandated sex-education curriculum. Sex-ed lessons could be on sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases, but it depends on the school and the individual teachers.
In primary schools, however, lessons on human-development topics such as puberty and menstruation are mandated, according to Chau Wai-wai, an education officer from the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong (FPAHK).
Chau, who has visited schools in Hong Kong to provide sex education for more than a decade, says the situation has got “slightly better”. For example, at schools where she gives talks on safe-sex practices, she often uses a real condom to demonstrate.
“In the past, schools preferred we don’t mention this part in sexuality education, or use a cartoon instead,” she says.
Chau believes this shift shows more school leaders and parents recognise that this knowledge is important for students. Young people need such instruction, she says, especially as they can now easily access sexualised imagery and information online through smartphones and other devices.
Dr Cecilia Ma Man-sze, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who has conducted research on the impact of pornography on young people, encourages parents to talk to children about sex early, before they are exposed to such content.
Ma found a link between pornography exposure and students’ well-being in a study published this year in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, which involved 1,401 Chinese adolescents. The more a person consumed pornography, the more likely they were to report symptoms of depression.
“We don’t know why they suffer, but we know these are related,” says Ma, who attributed the findings to the discrepancy viewers find between porn and reality.
Another study Ma led in 2016 examined the relationship between porn exposure and an adolescent’s “family functioning”‘ ” how well they communicated and showed mutual support and love, among other aspects.
The research, published in the International Journal on Disability and Human Development and based on the same Chinese adolescents who took part in this year’s study, showed the higher the level of family functioning, the less likely an adolescent was to have watched pornography.
“We found family functioning ” showing love for each other, having that sense of mutuality, talking to each other ” results in less conflicts and usually their better well-being,” Ma says.
“Even if they consume pornographic information, it may not result in poor well-being because they are able to talk about it … and [this parent-child relationship] may have helped them develop critical thinking to differentiate whether it’s true, bad or good.”
Greater access to online information does not necessarily mean youngsters are learning accurately about the birds and the bees, as noted in FPAHK’s Youth Sexuality Study in 2016.
The organisation conducts the survey every five years; its eighth edition in 2016 polled 5,146 respondents ” 3,907 secondary school students and 1,239 young people aged between 18 and 27 ” and found their sexual knowledge is declining.
On a dozen key questions regarding conception, sexually transmittable infections and HIV/Aids, students in forms three to six (around ages 14-18) averaged only eight correct answers, down from nine in 2011. Form one and two students (around ages 12-14) also performed worse, averaging a score of five in 2016 versus six in 2011.
Chau encourages parents to have conversations with their children on themes such as how to make responsible sex-related decisions. Parents can use this opportunity to impart their values to their children.
“If [parents] are not secretive about it any more, young people don’t have to explore other sources for such information,” Chau says. Such communication increases the likelihood that a young person will grow up to be happy and healthy, she adds.
Extensive research supports her view. A meta-analysis published in 2016 in the journal JAMA Paediatrics looked at 30 years of data on parent-child communications on sex, analysing more than 50 studies that included 25,314 adolescents. The US researchers found a significant positive link between parent-teen communications and safer-sex behaviour. Young people who had good exchanges with their parents were more likely to use contraceptives and condoms.
But do such discussions encourage sexual behaviour among young people? No, Chau says.
“This is one of the biggest myths we have to debunk in sexuality education. Research from other countries shows comprehensive sexuality education actually delays their first sex attempt rather than make it earlier.”
Tips on talking about sex with your children
1. Start early
Talk to your children before they hit puberty or are close to that phase. This is an opportune time to discuss the bodily and psychological changes they can expect, and how to cope with them. This way, Chau says, “when they have problems when they grow up, they will come to you.”
As parents are more attuned to the maturity of their children than their teachers are, they should bring up the topic when it seems appropriate for their stage of development, Chau adds.
2. Conversations should be regular, not one-off
It’s a shock to teens when parents routinely tell them to study, then suddenly inject the topic of sex.
“Build a routine of discussing and sharing your thoughts with each other before doing that,” Ma says, and broach sensitive topics gradually.
She adds that if parents learn their children have been exposed to porn, don’t react badly or order them to stop. Instead, they might ask why and for what purpose they viewed such content.
3. Listen to their views
Children are curious about their body parts and may play with and touch their anatomy, particularly boys, says Cynthia Ho, a senior sex therapist at Neo-Health Group in Hong Kong’s Central district.
“A lot of parents end up stopping them, saying things like ‘that’s bad’ or ‘if you keep doing that, I’m going to disown you,'” she says. The child thus learns not to repeat this behaviour, but may feel shame around that body part as they mature into puberty.
“If they feel ashamed about themselves and have questions, they won’t dare ask their parents, having remembered how angrily or embarrassed they [reacted] before,” Ho says.
Instead, parents should ask how their child feels about what’s going on with their body. Find out what they want to know and give them the best answers you can.
4. Discuss sexual consent
Discuss appropriate versus inappropriate behaviour. Teach them no means no, and that consent can change, too.
“If someone changes their mind and says ‘I don’t want to do this any more’ you have to respect that,” Chau says, adding that this should be made clear to both boys and girls.
Arm children with language to get this communication across clearly, such as “I’m OK to kiss but I don’t want to go further,” Chau suggests.
5. Both parents should take part in talks
“This helps avoid confusion if they have different views,” Chau says. “Also, input from different genders gives a more full experience.”
The FPAHK’s Chinese-language book A Parent’s Guide on Tackling Sexual Queries of Pre-Teen Children (2017) details further strategies on this topic; the publication is available in Hong Kong bookstores including Cosmos Books.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.