Why your paediatrician might start asking your child about sex

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report urging pediatricians to talk to adolescent patients about healthy sexuality and contraceptives.

Medical statements don’t usually make for captivating reading, but the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report Monday that ought to be shouted from the rooftops.

The statement, which will appear in the August Journal of Pediatrics, urges pediatricians to talk to their patients about sex, using evidence-based information about healthy relationships, contraceptives and responsible sexual activity.

“Sexuality education is more than the instruction of children and adolescents on anatomy and the physiology of biological sex and reproduction,” write authors Cora C. Breuner and Gerri Mattson. “It covers healthy sexual development, gender identity, interpersonal relationships, affection, sexual development, intimacy and body image for all adolescents, including adolescents with disabilities, chronic health conditions and other special needs.”

But wait! There’s more!

“Developing a healthy sexuality is a key developmental milestone for all children and adolescents that depends on acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about consent, sexual orientation, gender identity, relationships and intimacy.”

Consent! Intimacy! Relationships! Be still, my beating heart.

A third of all adolescent patients don’t receive any information on sexuality from their pediatricians, according to the report. And patients whose doctors do address sex say the conversations last “less than 40 seconds.” That doesn’t leave a lot of time for specifics.

“For providers, this statement is helpful because it calls for backing up what we do with science and giving some uniformity to what we do,” said Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Chicago’s Northwestern Children’s Practice and an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “For parents, the message is that we are helping children learn to be advocates for themselves and make healthy and safe decisions.”

All too often, our sex-ed conversations get bogged down in whether to stress abstinence as the safest (or only) option for teens. But an early, healthy understanding of sexuality can shape a person in ways that are significant and lifelong.

“Healthy sexuality,” the statement reads, “includes the capacity to promote and preserve significant interpersonal relationships, value one’s body and personal health, interact with both sexes in respectful and appropriate ways and express affection, love, and intimacy in ways consistent with one’s own values, sexual preferences, and abilities.”

That’s hard to cover in 40 seconds. It’s also pretty hard to Google.

Ideally, a pediatrician is just one of several respected adults talking to a kid about healthy sexuality. The report acknowledges as much: “Education about sexuality that is provided by pediatricians can complement the education children obtain at school or at home.”

And, as Unger pointed out, any fruitful conversation about sexuality needs to be ongoing.

“It’s not a one-time conversation,” she told me. “A child might see something in an advertisement or movie and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ And you want to answer that question in a developmentally appropriate way. It’s a lifelong conversation.”

I’m glad doctors are being urged to join it.