In our latest Uplift Live series, Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife joined Michelle Larson, Uplift cofounder, to discuss how to talk to kids about sex.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Illinois with a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology from Boston College. While she specializes in helping clients within her faith tradition, her insights are universal. She has been featured in HuffPost, NPR, and The Washington Post. She also offers online courses on these topics, including a course on how to talk to your kids about sex. You can also follow her on Instagram.
We’ve captured ten principles from the conversation below, followed by the full video recording. These ten principles coincide nicely with our resources to help parents talk to their kids about sex as well as our lesson Sexuality: An Ongoing Conversation.
1. Help your kids celebrate and accept their bodies.
“An important part of kid’s sexual development is just learning to accept themselves,” says Finlayson-Fife. “Celebrate your child’s body when they’re a little person — kissing them, holding them, adoring them.” As you do this, your kids learn that they can accept who they are without anxiety or fear or self-loathing.
2. Encourage positive anticipation about sex.
In her PhD dissertation, Finlayson-Fife found that women who had a healthy “sexual friendship” were those who grew up with a positive anticipation about sex. “They were excited about the fact of being a sexual being, so they didn’t have a negative response to the fact that they were capable of pleasure,” Finlayson-Fife. She tells a story about someone who, after first learning about sex, didn’t understand why anyone would want to do it. This person said that one of the most helpful things they were told back then was that people liked how it felt and that they would understand when they were older.
3. Help kids understand that their desires matter.
Finlayson-Fife also found that women who had a healthy “sexual friendship” were those who “saw their desires as being equal, to any man.” She says, “they saw what they wanted and valued in their lives as something they needn’t be apologetic for. They weren’t sexist within their own meaning frame.”
4. Teach kids to never betray their own desires.
“One of the messages is that you don’t want to ever betray your own desires in order to have someone love you or desire you,” says Finlayson-Fife. It’s a powerful teaching for all of life. When we learn what we desire and stay true to that desire, we practice self-respect. This in turn allows us to better respect others.
5. Adapt your approach to the personality of each child.
How you talk to your kids about sex depends on the kid. “I had some kids who were asking me questions at age six, and it was clear that they were ready for me to explain things more,” Finlayson-Fife says. “And I had another child who was more anxious about it, so I felt like I was watching her to see when she was ready to hear more.”
6. Be honest about any discomfort you feel.
“You want to be comfortable enough that your child will trust that you can handle it when they come back with questions,” says Finlayson-Fife. “I know that’s kind of a hard thing to say. …
Even if you’re not fully comfortable, you can say to your child, ‘These are things I’m also learning. I’m sometimes anxious, but I really do want to be a resource for you’. If the child can see that the parent really wants to be a good guide, that’s going to be important.”
7. Being overly anxious can backfire.
Finlayson-Fife tells the story of a mom who was “so afraid that her boys were going to grow up to become porn addicts” that she would “insert herself between the boys and the magazines” at the checkout line in the grocery store. She talks about how such a move means that the magazines start “taking on this power like it’s forbidden, so I want it, but that makes me bad because I know I want it.” In contrast, she says we “do a much deeper service to our kids” when we step back and say, “Yeah, sometimes people try to sell things with sexual images, because people like seeing naked people or people in bikinis.”
8. If a kid or teen has compulsive behavior, find the root cause.
When a listener asks what to do if a teenager is compulsively drawn to sex or pornography, Finlayson-Fife says that she would try to pinpoint out what is driving the behavior. She says, “Some kids are more anxious than others, and they may be scrupulous and so some of their scrupulosity actually drives — paradoxically — compulsion around sexuality. Sometimes kids are very anxious because every time they feel guilty it actually drives them back into that repetitive cycle.”
9. Help kids focus on life — not distractions from life.
In the same vein as the question about compulsive behavior, Finlayson-Fife adds that she might tell the child, “I’m not concerned about the fact that you’re drawn to it, because that just makes you normal. What’s concerning me is how much you’re doing it — because it feels more like it’s a way of getting away from life than living your life.” This simple question — ”does it help you live your life or get in the way of living your life?” is an excellent guidepost for kids.
10. Guide kids to integrate their sexuality alongside the rest of their life.
Finlayson-Fife wraps up the conversation by saying that she recommends that parents guide kids to integrate their sexuality with the rest of their life — ”both with their sense of self and with their values,” as well as with all other areas of development such as academic, physical, and spiritual development. When kids see that sex is one part of a larger wholeness, they have healthier relationship to it.
All of these principles align with our resources to help parents talk to their kids about sex as well as our lesson Sexuality: An Ongoing Conversation.
Watch the whole conversation below.