Learning about sexuality and romantic relationships is a journey individuals embark upon from a young age. Recognizing their own identities, their desires, and their bodies is a process that is constantly ongoing both as they are growing up and well into adulthood.
Few days can create and contribute to the confusion of navigating through these topics other than Valentine’s Day. For our populations, seeing peers engage in romantic relationships or acts of affection can seem like an entirely foreign world. Getting through a typical day in school or with friends is often complicated enough – the prospect of throwing sexual identity and romantic relationships into the mix can be daunting for both parents and their children. This blog post will help parents receive a framework and starting point to initiate conversations with children as they begin to develop their identities and possibly romantic interests in other individuals.
Acknowledging the very real nature of these topics as potentially awkward or uncomfortable to discuss is important to recognize early on. This goes for all parties involved. These conversations are often challenging for parents of typically developing peers – for children with social or cognitive challenges, additional conversations and tailored approaches are often necessary, which may result in additional opportunities for discomfort. By accepting the potential for uncomfortable topics being discussed, the likelihood of skipping over and leaving out important information is reduced. Parents may instinctively want to reserve or hold back information for the fear of their children pursuing sexual experiences early, but research overwhelmingly shows that children who are well-informed about topics on sexuality are more likely to delay these encounters and engage in safe encounters (UNESCO, 2015).
When engaging with children who may be beginning to develop romantic interests, recognizing and identifying these feelings as real and valid is important to avoid feelings of guilt or shame. Encouraging them to feel comfortable talking about these topics with you is an important starting step in conversations with your child about relationships. Engaging in these conversations with your children will help you continue supporting them in a way to ensure healthy and safe choices that are consistent with your family, cultural, or religious values. Avoiding judgement and condescension will foster an environment where children will feel less inclined to keep feelings to themselves.
Be honest about the both the joys and challenges of romantic relationships when engaging in dialogue with your children. Younger populations derive their understanding of relationships through a variety of sources, that can often have contradictory, confusing, or at times, unhealthy portrayals of romantic relationships. Take advantage of opportunities to discuss a relationships that may be demonstrated on a television show or a movie and recognize gestures that may be used for dramatic effect may translate less well to real-world implementation (dodging through airport security and causing mayhem to declare your affection for someone you’ve barely talked to? Looking at you, Love, Actually). Discussing socially expected ways to approach and interact with a romantic interest are important to help avoid uncomfortable or unwanted situations.
As mentioned, the variety of sources that provide information on relationships for younger audiences can often provide mixed lessons about what defines a healthy and normal relationship. Conversations between parents and children to affirm and clearly explain values on these topics are critical to avoiding any confusion. In addition to media, opportunities to discuss romantic relationships can arise in social media (i.e. implications of posting information about relationships online), current events, or in their own social circles. Explaining what is expected in terms of appropriate or inappropriate behavior early gives children the opportunity to learn and discuss topics of confusion or concern.
Throughout your child’s experience, validating your child’s self-worth and value as a person is always a priority of parents. Continuing to emphasize this is important as children begin to explore romantic relationships, as anyone who has experienced rejection or a breakup will attest. Taking time to remind your children their relationship status does not define them and normalizing any experiences they may experience can help to reassure them. Navigating relationships can be immensely challenging, for people of all ability levels and cognitive function – there rarely is a one-size-fits-all approach to the situations that may arise. Instead, general suggestions and ideas that can help provide a framework to growing individuals are likely to be the most helpful for children beginning these conversations and journeys. Consider the following ideas for activities and conversations to have with your child:
Discussing expected and unexpected behaviors and conversations with romantic interests.
Your family’s cultural, religious, or social values
Respecting boundaries and obtaining consent from partners
Physiology of sex and the potentials
Remember that there is always a strong chance, that, like most teenagers and children, your advice or attempts at initiating conversation, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, will be ignored or met with resistance. This is normal (as some of you who were young once may remember). What’s important is establishing that your child knows they are able to talk to you at any time about these topics and that they feel safe discussing any concerns with you.
In addition, your child’s therapist or support staff are equipped and happy to help with these issues. Having these conversations and figuring out solutions is not something you should feel like you have to do on your own. These areas can be relevant to goals in improving socially expected behaviors, perspective-taking, body awareness, self-advocacy, personal safety, and several other areas. If this is an area that you feel your child could benefit from help with or you just have questions, contacting your child’s therapist is a great starting point – we have resources and ideas to help.
We hope you have a happy Valentine’s Day! Check out part two of this blog series geared towards a younger population.
Written By: Ismail Umer, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “Emerging Evidence, Lessons and Practice in Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a global review.” UNESCO, 2015. Available at: http://www.unfpa.org/publications/emerging-evidence-lessons-and-practice-comprehensive-sexuality-education-global-review.