Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - Few topics give parents pause more than the idea of talking to their children about human sexuality. However, as “first educators” of their children, it’s a necessary part of parenting.
Issues of human sexuality have become more complex in recent years. The societal push to accept “alternative lifestyles” as equal to God’s plan for sexuality within a marriage filters into even the most faithful Catholic family’s home, through movies, music, books, television (even commercials), public education, secular clubs or sports teams, news media, and, of course, the Internet. Even one’s extended family can bring these issue to bear.
Aaron Stratman, Ph.D., is director of clinical services for Catholic Social Services (CSS) of southern Nebraska, and a licensed psychologist with experience in child, adolescent and family therapy, parenting, and other issues. He offers sound advice for parents.
“First and foremost, parents must constantly strive to build a secure relationship with their children,” Dr. Stratman said.
This doesn’t mean acting like friends with one’s children, he said. Rather, it involves allowing children to feel safe asking questions about any topic because they know their parents will take the question seriously and offer a caring response.
“The more this relationship can be cultivated, the more likely the questions about human sexuality will come to the parents instead of to peers,” said Dr. Stratman.
That alone can help prevent a lot of the misinformation that may lead a child into behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that are contrary to the Catholic faith.
Using a “virtue context” in parenting is also important. That’s something that can start from the early years.
“For example, when a child throws a tantrum, they are exhibiting a lack of temperance or patience. After the tantrum is over, discuss the importance of patience as a road to self-mastery,” Dr. Stratman explained. “Teach your children that true happiness comes through the practice of virtue.”
Another thing that parents should teach their children from birth, according to Dr. Stratman, is that we are all made in the image of likeness of God, by God.
“Therefore,” he said, “we have become a part of His plan as we are… Trust that God knew what He was doing when He created you.”
Dr. Stratman said there is no set age to start addressing human sexuality issues.
“Parents know their children the best, so they should determine their child’s readiness for information about human sexuality based on the child’s social, intellectual, and moral development,” he advised.
He also recommended that parents present information about human sexuality gradually, over time. Think in terms of a “need-to-know basis.”
“Too much information too early can cause some difficulties, and not enough information too late can also cause difficulties,” he said.
Parents should anticipate questions and watch for behaviors that are out of the ordinary, which may suggest something might have occurred that would have exposed a child to one of the many issues surrounding human sexuality.
Of course, finding out that one’s child has received unexpected information (or misinformation) about sexuality, or discovering that one’s child has been exposed to sexual content can bring out many strong feelings in a parent. Dr. Stratman recommends preparing in advance for those moments, because they can happen in any family.
Emotional temperance in such times is best for both parent and child.
“You might feel angry, sad, or disappointed, but utilize your best calming strategies to communicate with your child,” Dr. Stratman said. “Part of the planning might be to go through mental scenarios and how you will address your child’s behavior without diminishing their dignity.”
He said that even an unexpected exposure to a human sexuality issue is an opportunity to teach children about God’s grace, human dignity, virtue and the like.
“God will often send us great opportunities, if we only choose to look at them that way,” he reasoned.
As hard as it is to speak openly about it, parents must remember that if they don’t teach their children about human sexuality, the kids will learn it from somebody else.
“Make sure you monitor their use of the Internet,” Dr. Stratman stressed. “Innocent searches will sometimes generate immoral or impure images.”
He recommends establishing rules for using the computer, such as only doing searches with a parent in the room. Adding a filter or creating an access code for your children to limit their computer use to specific, pre-screened websites is another good solution. Covenant Eyes, a product recommended by the diocesan Family Life Office, is a way to add accountability for the whole family when it comes to Internet access.
Parents should also make sure that they know and understand Church teaching on human sexuality.
“When in doubt, consult your Catechism, your parish priest, or the Family Life Office,” Dr. Stratman said. “The teaching is quite beautiful and understandable.”