In my home, we strive to harbor an environment in which our entire family communicates openly. My wife and I especially want our son to feel comfortable sharing about what’s going on in his life – to tell us about his day, his relationships, whether he feels happy or sad or even confused and has questions. In short, we want him to know he can talk to us about anything.

It’s common for parents to want healthy communication with their children from the earliest ages and even into adulthood. It’s relatively easy while they’re young and still in your care, but the reality is, as kids grow up and lives become more complicated, lines of communication often start shutting down. Unfortunately, this typically begins just when a child would benefit most from having a trusted source of information, a place to vent frustrations and somewhere to turn when troubles arise.

So what can you do to keep lines open? How can you do it in ways that build lasting self-esteem, mutual respect and healthy communication skills? A mindful, informed and consistent approach is needed to raise a family that truly talks to one another.

Michael Moore, a professor of psychology at Boston College with a Ph.D. in Child Development, says parents who openly communicate with their kids are often better able to address topics that are difficult, such as gender issues, sex and death.

“There’s evidence if the parents stimulate those types of open communications, feel at ease talking about them, the kids themselves will increase their tendency to open up,” says Moore. He adds that children growing up with the notion of talking about personal things will be better equipped to do this with those who are important to them throughout life.

While our first inclination as parents is often to initiate conversation and ask lots of questions, Moore cautions to take a broader perspective that includes being mindful of our own actions and using practiced techniques. “Results may not be due to the conversations, but those other parental behaviors that co-vary,” says Moore. “I believe children learn much more by observation and modeling. Telling a kid to feel free to talk about their emotions is not going to have much of an effect. Modeling over time will.”

Moore says one method is for parents to talk about themselves and be comfortable enough to tell your child when you aren’t feeling well or are unhappy or maybe even scared. “It has to do with the development of the child growing up and acquiring empathy and eventually starting to understand their parents as real people, with real needs, rather than a cross between a chauffeur and an ATM machine,” he says. “That is a necessary step as they grow in the sense of being able to have adult relationships. The person who is going to be your significant other is certainly going to have to be more than a chauffeur or ATM machine.”

Read Conversation Starters on the next page!

Conversation Starters

To open lines of communication with your children, Moore offers the following tips and truths:

• The “family meeting” isn’t always the most appropriate place to encourage your children to talk about their deepest emotions. Make yourself available at a time and place where you can be alone. Rather than announce, “It’s time to talk,” simply present the opportunity in case there is something on their minds.

• Pushing for better communications without the right approach can have negative effects, such as the child becoming defensive or lying.

• Never turn away a child who wants to talk. If you happen to be busy or distracted, choose a time in the near future to give them your undivided attention. Follow through!

• Be sensitive to the external clues as to how your children are feeling and really listen to what they say. Sometimes you have to read their moods and also read between the lines.

• Don’t lie to your kids! Not about how babies are made or anything else.

• It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” not as a way of avoiding questions, but as a way of telling the truth.

• Even though you want your kids to talk to you about anything, let them know certain things are only appropriate to talk about in private.

• No question a child comes up with is taboo, but adults might address a topic that they don’t need to tackle at the time. Only answer the question the child is asking.

• Don’t take your child’s question as an opportunity to give them the entire lecture on the subject, particularly with young children, who are asking about things they may not be ready to talk about.

• Be aware of how much your children can tolerate when you speak to them. If they are asking questions, it’s a sign they are still interested and engaged. If they grow quiet and distracted, they are likely bored and tuning you out.

• A child’s ability to process abstract reasoning, analogies and hypotheticals is very much limited (especially below the age 5). Keep it simple.

• If you are going to invite your child to open up, be prepared to hear truths that might not always be convenient. Laying down negative consequences as a result of your children telling the truth is a sure way to make them apprehensive about coming to you.

• Talk about everything, not just the serious stuff. Tell them about your life and listen to what they have to say about theirs. These conversations build your relationship, introduce new perspectives and teach communication skills.

Now, Let’s Talk About Sex

In his insightful new book, For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, Al Vernacchio takes an enlightened approach to handling a subject that has been shoved in the corner for far too long. But according to the author and school sexuality educator, there is plenty of evidence that the topic needs to take a more prominent place in the home and at school.

“What research has shown is kids really do want to talk to their parents about sexuality,” says Vernacchio. “They often pretend like they don’t. They get nervous. But when you actually ask them, ‘Who do you want to talk to most about this?,’ they say their parents.”

Vernacchio says talking to children about human sexuality directly benefits future behaviors. “Kids who talk to their parents about human sexuality … are much more likely to use safe behaviors when they initiate sexual activity. They are much more likely to be able to talk to partners. And they are much more open to just generally having these conversations about sex because they are getting good modeling from their parents.”

Read more on the next page including suggestions on how to talk to your child about sex at any age! 

On the flip side, says Vernacchio, “When kids are just met by silence from their parents, they get the message this is not something people should talk about. And that’s when they turn to alternate sources of information like the Internet or their friends or something that might turn out to be less helpful.”

Vernacchio sees healthy sexuality as creating a more just society. “A lot of countries that have more positive attitudes toward sexuality, and more comprehensive sexuality education in schools, have far fewer teenage pregnancies. They have far lower rates of sexual assault and rape. They have more inclusive policies when it comes to things like childcare and paternity and maternity leave,” he says. “We make a more loving, connected, whole, deliberate world when we have healthy sexuality.”

If not today, some day soon, your children are going to be exposed to information about sex. If you are uncomfortable, ill-equipped or unwilling to talk about it, you are pretty much leaving them to the wolves. If you are ready to step up and join the conversation, Vernacchio offers the following suggestions:

• There are age-appropriate ways to talk about healthy sexuality from as soon as kids can talk all the way up. Having really simple conversations early sets the stage for more intense conversations later on.

• Start at toddler age by letting them know the proper names of their body parts, including genitals.

• Little kids often like to touch themselves, and if we shame them about it we create negative body image and negative ideas about sex. If we tell them it’s a private behavior versus a public behavior, that’s a different and better message.

• Let your child know they are not limited to any narrow band of expectations based on gender. Boys can play with dolls and girls can play with trucks and there’s nothing wrong with that.

• Be open to diversity, including gender diversity and sexual orientation diversity. Use the term “sweetheart(s)” in place of boyfriend or girlfriend or for couples of the same or different genders. It says all kinds of relationships are good and important.

• It’s impossible to insulate kids from negative influences. Our big job is to put the information kids are getting into the context of our family values – to let them know who the people are who are really looking out for them and those who aren’t.

• Explore your own basic assumptions about sex and sexuality. What holds many of us back is we see something suspect or dirty or shameful about being a sexual person. If that’s where you are starting from, it’s really hard to have a conversation.

• It is important for parents to be able to show affection, and different kinds of affection, with their sweethearts – to be able to talk freely and without shame about sexuality and to be able to talk at your child’s level.

• Sexuality is a natural and normal part of life, and it connects to lots of other aspects of life. If we just keep sexuality to this little thing off to the side, we are not helping kids integrate sexuality into the full framework of their lives.

• Send the message to your children early on that who they are is fundamentally OK. As they grow, learning more about themselves, their gender and sexual orientation, we want them to be able to seek advice from those who know them and love them without fear of being judged.

• Just as it’s never too late to start making healthy decisions about diet or exercise, it’s never too late to start talking to your kids about sex or any other topic.

Brian Spero is a frequent writer for Boston Parents Paper.