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Why we need to talk to our children about sex

A recent incident in Pune about a 16-year-old recording his teacher in the washroom clearly indicates a gaping lacuna in sex education in India.  Experts tell us more. 

Parents need to understand that attraction to the opposite sex and curiosity about sexuality are natural
Parents need to understand that attraction to the opposite sex and curiosity about sexuality are natural (Pexels)

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Recently, many parents' groups were anxiously discussing a news report about a 16-year-old in Pune who was booked for recording his 56-year-old teacher while she was in the washroom. Police have cited loneliness due to the lockdown as a possible cause, but experts say that loneliness rarely triggers such crimes. Instead, experts say that our inability to openly discuss appropriate sexual behaviours and our reluctance to provide age-appropriate sexual health information to teens is the cause.

Tanvi Jajoria, counselling psychologist and founder of The Artsy Cure, says technology coupled with a lack of knowledge about appropriate behaviour plays a crucial role in fuelling such behaviours. Children have access to all sorts of content without guidance about how to consume it and no space to share their thoughts about it. "That's when you see behaviour and actions like these," she says. However, parents need to understand that attraction and curiosity about sexuality are natural. 

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In adolescence, when puberty hits, children go through many hormonal changes. This causes behavioural and emotional challenges. Alongside this, the child becomes aware of their sexual wellbeing. Yet, sexual health is neglected, which has an impact on physical as well as mental wellbeing. "Irritability, mood swings, lack of understanding of themselves, suppressed emotions and even guilt and shame start building as adolescents feel bad for thinking about their sexuality, sexual wellbeing or anything related to that because it's considered 'bad' to talk about it," says Jajoria. "But isn't it just natural development that they're experiencing? By not talking about it, we are suppressing a huge part of their health and identity."

A 2016 study by the US-based Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine connected better sexual health with less frequent nicotine and substance use, lower self-reported depression, lower thrill-seeking, higher self-esteem, having fewer friends who use substances, better social integration, lower frequency of delinquent behaviour and crime, and more community group membership. 

Mumbai-based consultant psychologist Dr Sheba Singh says adolescents may land up in a state of emotional turmoil and confusion if they don't get proper guidance when they are going through physiological changes. They may also experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and guilt due to misinformation. All of this can lead to sexually inappropriate behaviour. 

Dr Meghna Singhal, an internationally certified positive parenting coach, says sexually inappropriate behaviour occurs because of our country's lack of age-appropriate sex education. She says, "Most inappropriate sexual behaviour occurs because we haven't taught kids from an early age about consent, boundaries, and what's appropriate and what's not. There are double standards in our society where men can move around wearing whatever they want in private and public, but women's bodies are sexualized/objectified." For us as a society to be open to having these conversations with our kids, parents and educators need to understand that age-appropriate sex education has many benefits. Research has proven that sex education helps reduce unsafe sexual activity among teens, helps with awareness about their own bodies, helps prevent sexual abuse, and reduces teen pregnancy rates. 

Jigyasa Tandon, a mental health educationist at NIMHANS Bengaluru and a counselling psychologist, says she was suspended from a school as a counsellor because she used the word 'masturbation' during a session with a female student. "Sex education is not just about using sanitary napkins during menstruation. Schools have to get comfortable with it; only then will it not be such a big taboo," she says.

Jajoria says sex education is important not just for kids but also for their parents and teachers because a whole generation has been deprived of it. "It's important for them to understand what it is and why it is necessary," she says. 

Very often, open-hearted conversations between parents and children can prevent such behaviours. "Parents are the best resource, but unfortunately, sometimes they are unreachable because of their busy schedule or lack a strong relationship with their children, based on trust and confidence," says Dr Singh. 

Jajoria gives an example of how parents can start such conversations: "When parents don't want a child to play with a knife, what do we tell them? 'Don't play with it. You can hurt yourself and others.' We communicate what should not be done and why that is important. Communication is the key, especially at this age when teenagers are leaving their close-knit world and exploring so many new fascinating things." 

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Parents need to acknowledge that their child is a growing human being whose physical, social, emotional and biological needs are evolving. Talking to them about the changes happening in their body, how they feel about it, and asking if they have any questions will be helpful. "Yes, it can be uncomfortable at first because we are not used to such conversations, but that's exactly what needs to change," she says. "That change has to start with you."

What parents can do

Source: Dr Meghna Singhal, internationally-certified positive parenting coach 

* Have ongoing, open-ended conversations. Talk with your teen about risks (online and offline), instead of banning internet use. Rather than wielding authoritarian control, having open-ended conversations enables your teen to build the critical thinking skills needed to make smarter decisions.

*Support your teen and help them develop good judgement. Trust your teen and encourage them to develop good judgement through their own experiences. Tell them you're there for them if they need to share or confess. 

*Be aware of your teen's connections and activities. If you notice your teen withdrawing, being secretive, and hiding online interactions, it's time to ask some questions. 

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) counsellor



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