Most parents today are aware their children face numerous dangers to their sexuality. Parents know it will take work to protect their kids from outside influences. When I am speaking to parents I don’t spend much time trying to convince parents their kids need help because the parents who come already know. What parents usually do not understand, however, is how important their own story is as a tool for protecting their child.
Instead, parents are usually afraid that their children might find out about their past. Whether we are fathers or mothers, we are afraid that if our children knew the poor choices we made in our own past they would no longer respect us. Or we fear that telling our children about something we did with our sexuality will make them think it is okay for them to do as well. Most of the time telling our child about our past does exactly the opposite.
WHY YOUR KIDS NEED TO HEAR YOUR STORY
In 2019, Be Broken took a survey of Christian teens to find out why so many church-going families did not talk about sex at home. We looked for obstacles to overcome so teens were more willing to talk about sex with their parents. When asked what they feared most about talking to their parents about sex there were only two answers teenagers gave:
I’m afraid my parents won’t understand how I feel.
I’m afraid I will get in trouble for what I say or even what I ask.
This was an anonymous, written survey that was supposed to be private, but one boy, who looked about 14, just blurted out,
“We just want to have a punishment-free conversation!”
When asked what things they would want to be in place at home for them to feel comfortable talking with their parents, these were their answers:
47% said they wanted parents to gain their trust by proving they can talk openly without judgement.
27% said they wanted their parents to talk more openly about things at home.
27% said they wanted parents to be open and honest about themselves (and their past).
This means that the Christian teenagers we surveyed wanted more openness, including about their parents’ past. They are afraid to say this to their parents, but not afraid to say it on an anonymous survey.
The fact is children and teenagers do struggle with sexual feelings and want to talk about it. The fact is when a child discovers their parent struggled with the same thing they are struggling with it makes them feel understood by their parent, not more distant. The fact is, when a parent shares their story it is the story that connects the parent and child, more than anything else can.
Here is a quote from a 15-year old who struggled with pornography and his comments about hearing his dads story as he started working to resist porn:
What I really want to know is that my parents have gone through the same things as me. Knowing my parents have gone through similar things makes me feel less abnormal. Knowing they went through, and maybe got through, what I’m going through gives me more hope.
Our children do (or will) struggle with sexual feelings they don’t know what to do with. They will not always manage their sexuality in the most mature way, just as we didn’t. We’ve already seen that kids don’t think their parents will understand how they feel when it comes to sexuality. If they never hear our story, including confusion we had about our sexual feelings as well as mistakes we made, they will believe we don’t understand them. They will feel more isolated.
Sharing our story is the leverage to open the door to healing conversations about sex with our children. Children don’t look down on their parents for failures we had as children, they admire us for having the courage to admit it. Sharing something as personal as the feeling we got the first time we saw a naked image throws the door open to a deeper relationship with our child. Sharing our exposure to pornography and mistakes we made with our sexuality makes them feel, as the teenager above put it so well, less abnormal.
WHEN TO SHARE
Kids today are typically exposed to sexual information and situations earlier than previous generations. Here is a guide a therapist gave me for parents to use to know when to start different conversations about sex:
Think of how old you were when you were exposed to a sexual situation.
Subtract two years from this age.
This is when your child, living in the current world, needs you to talk with them about that sexual situation.
What does that mean? Most kids are exposed to pornography accidentally or because a friend showed them. If this happened to you when you were 10, then you need to start talking with your child about pornography when they are 8. Today, over 50% of children see pornography before they are 11, and a lot of those are by 8, if not sooner.
Just because you don’t think your child has been exposed to pornography does not mean they have not. Only 7% of girls and 9% of boys tell their parents when they are exposed to pornography. They are afraid they will be in trouble, even if it was not their fault. Parents have to tell our story with porn to prove to our kids it is safe for them to share their story.
Whatever you are willing to talk about in a healthy way with your kids signals to your kids that it is okay for them to talk about it, too.
Pornography is just one thing we can use our story to leverage conversation. Hearing sexual jokes, seeing a non-pornographic nude image somewhere, hearing older kids talk about sex, and sexual experimentation or abuse are all things we can share about if we experienced them. Most of these things, like coming across a nude image somewhere, are things all children experience.
We tell our stories when we realize our child is old enough to experience the same thing.
WHAT TO SHARE
There are some important guidelines to sharing our story with our children.
No Secrets. Never tell your child something about you that your spouse does not know or that you do not mind them knowing. It is never okay to put a child in a position where they feel they have to keep a secret about one parent from the other parent.
Age Appropriate. We only share what is appropriate to share with our child at the age they currently are. This means we may tell the same story again later with more detail.
For example, let’s say we realize we need to talk about pornography with our child because they are 8 and could be exposed at any time, if they have not been already. We might say something like, “When I was a kid one of my friends showed me pictures of naked people. It gave me funny feelings inside but I was afraid to tell my parents. I want you to tell me if you see something like that so we can talk about it. You will not be in trouble for telling me.”
When the same child is 11 or 12 we might retell the story but then include how we went back and looked at pornography ourselves later on purpose and needed help to stop. This gives the child permission to tell you if the same thing happens to them.
No Details. We do not want to paint a picture in our child’s head. We share broad categories of our past behavior. We can use words and phrases like, naked images, masturbation, jokes about sex, stories about sex, and so on. This makes sure our child understands what we are talking about but does not go into graphic detail.
Watch Their Reaction. If you see your child’s eyes grow wide, their face turn white, and their mouth drop open, it is probably time to stop talking. You know your kid better than anyone. You can tell when they are feeling shocked and overwhelmed. If they start to feel this way you should stop and comfort them. Ask how they are feeling. Ask if they need to stop talking about this for today. You can always come back to the conversation a different day.
AFTER YOU SHARE
Questions. After you share your story, always ask them if they have any questions or if they want to say anything. Your story may remind them of a question they had about sexuality that they’ve been wanting to ask. Your story may be the lever that gets your child to come to you with questions they need answers to. Or they may share that they too have experienced what you just shared. If so, be ready to comfort them and support them.
I am Safe to Tell. Next tell your child that you want them to tell you if what you shared, or something similar, ever happens to them. Assure them that they will not be in trouble if they tell you, even if it was their fault. This is really important and is explained more in this blog post from CovenantEyes.
Do Something Together. Instead of each of you running off to do your own thing after you share your story, do something together. Make sharing stories something your child associates with bonding with Mom or Dad. Take them to ice cream, watch a fun movie together, build something together with Legos, or whatever your child likes to do.
I understand that most parents are afraid for their children to find out anything about our own sexual past. But if we hide our story from our children we are cheating them out of what we have learned as a result. We are refraining from using the most powerful tool to opening up healthy conversations about sexuality. We are leaving our children to believe we don’t understand how they feel, when we do.
I encourage you to think of something your child could experience at their age that you have gone through. Then plan a time to get alone with them to share that part of your story. Have a plan of what you will do afterward that is fun. If you are nervous, practice telling your story to your spouse or another adult. You child is waiting.
For more resources, visit our Family Care Resources.