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Ask Amy

Do you have a sexuality-related question for Amy to answer? If so, email amy@sexedsolutions.com

The following questions are answered below:

What do I say to my child who saw my husband and me making love?

What do I do when my autistic son is being sexually inappropriate at school?

Do I need to tell the other parent that our kids were playing doctor?

When does childhood sexual behavior become a cause for concern?

How do I handle my pre-teen viewing porn on the Internet?

My teen is writing erotica. Does this mean that she is sexually active?

What do I say to my child who saw my husband and me making love?*

Q The other night, my husband and I were making love and our 8-year-old daughter walked in on us. She seemed very confused and embarrassed, and it was a shock for us too! We didn't give her any explanation at the time and I think she is still curious about what she saw. Is it too late to say something, and what do I say?

A At some point in their lives, most couples with children will be walked in on in the heat of the moment. The best thing to do in these situations is to calmly ask the child to step outside the room for a minute, get dressed, and then go talk with him/her. Just remember, how you react can send a stronger message than what you actually say. So, be calm and keep your explanations simple.

Most adults, however, are understandably flustered when they are interrupted and many do not handle the situation immediately. The good news is that it is never too late to talk to a child (in this case your daughter) about what she saw and answer any questions she might have. Simply let her know that you were caught off guard when she came into your room the other night and although you've wanted to talk with her about what happened, you haven't been sure of what to say. Then start by explaining that you and your husband were sharing special time together, showing affection by kissing, hugging, and touching. After this simple explanation, pause and see if she has anything to say. If not, you can ask her if she has any questions.

If she doesn't have anything to ask, let your daughter know that if and when she has questions or concerns, you will always be there for her. Stop the conversation at this point, as pushing your daughter further is not necessary.

If your daughter does have questions, answer in an honest and straightforward manner. Before answering, however, you might want to ask her what she thinks. This will give you an indication of what she is really asking, and will help you give a response that is age-appropriate.

When talking about having sex, you don't need to tell her the details of the act, simply let her know that making love is something that adults do to make each other feel good and show their love for one another. You might also want to use this as an opportunity to talk about privacy. Let your daughter know that she can always wake you or your husband in the middle of the night but explain that if your bedroom door is closed or locked, she should knock. Reassure her that although you want privacy, you will always answer the door. Let her know that this is a two-way street: If she wants alone-time, like when she's in the bathroom or getting ready for bed, you will respect her desire for privacy the same way that she respects yours.

What do I do when my autistic son is being sexually inappropriate at school?*

Q My son is a 9 years old and has autism. He is a non-speaking child. Lately he has been rubbing his penis against his teacher's leg and the school has threatened to send him home if the behavior doesn't stop. Can the school do this? Aren't the schools supposed to have qualified special education teachers that understand how to handle these situations as they arise? What can I do so my son isn't kicked out of school?

A It's perfectly normal for your son to be curious about his body and masturbate or rub his genitals against objects such as a pillow or blanket. But, it's important that he understands that these behaviors are something that are done in private places, like his bedroom, and that it's not appropriate to rub his genitals against another person.

Your first step is to work together with his teacher to make sure that your son receives consistent messages—both at home and at school—that he can understand. Find out what your son's teacher has told him about his behavior. Did she talk to your son about it in a way that he was able to understand? Did she unintentionally embarrass or scold him? It may be that you can work together to determine a more effective way of modifying his behavior. Or, it may be that the teacher handled the situation in the best way possible, but that your son's behavior is a symptom of a deeper issue. If that is the case or if the behavior continues despite everyone's best effort, you may want to have your son evaluated by a school social worker (if there is one at his school) or a professional that specializes in childhood sexual development.

Next, you will want to work closely with school administrators to try to avoid negative action on their part such as suspending or expelling your son. Schools have different policies regarding behaviors that they find to be acceptable and unacceptable. Start by finding out the specific policies that are in place at your son's school. You may find that the school has strict policies about inappropriate sexual behavior that do ultimately call for expulsion. Or, you may find that the school's policies do not address sexuality issues, and that teachers and administrators have a great deal of discretion.

Hopefully, by working together you can find a solution that works for both the school and your family.

Do I need to tell the other parent that our kids were playing doctor?*

Q The other day, my 4-year-old daughter's friend came home with her after school for a play-date. When I checked on them, I found them playing doctor. Do I need to tell the friend's parent?

A Yes, it's important to mention what you observed. Parents appreciate knowing what goes on with their children when they are not around—whether it's that the play-date went splendidly, that the child was given a snack after school, or that she/he fell and scraped her knee when playing outside. And, while it may not be as easy to bring up, you should also share the sexuality-related scenario and how you handled it.

If after finding out, the other parent doesn't agree with what you did and said, don't take it personally. The reality is that child-rearing styles vary. Nonetheless, most parents will be glad that you brought it to their attention, giving them the opportunity to share messages and values with their child.

When does childhood sexual behavior become a cause for concern?*

Q When in the bathroom at school, my 8-year-old nephew touched another boy's penis. He was told that his actions were inappropriate and it hasn't happened since, still I am concerned. Is this normal behavior?

A Yes, it's normal for children to be curious about body parts. And, since this hasn't happened again, it is likely that your nephew really was just curious. If however, this or other sexual behaviors continue after the child has been told that what he did was inappropriate, it could be a cause for concern. If this happens, parents or caregivers may want to consider having the child evaluated by a professional that specializes in childhood sexual development and/or sexual abuse.

The book Understanding Your Child's Sexual Behavior: What's Natural and Healthy by Toni Cavanaugh Johnson, Ph.D., can help parents learn more about childhood sexual behavior. The book addresses healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors of children and adolescents from birth to 12 years of age, and provides information to help identify, understand, and respond appropriately to these behaviors.

How do I handle my pre-teen viewing porn on the Internet?*

Q My 12-year-old son is always using the Internet. He says that he is doing homework. After checking his computer without his knowledge, it seems that he has been viewing adult websites, possibly for hours on end. How can I bring up the topic without letting him know that I "spied" on him?

A While it's possible that your son is deliberately looking at adult websites, it could also be that someone else has used his computer or that the sites appear spontaneously as pop-up ads. Whatever the case may be, the truth of the matter is that today's youth are bombarded by sexy images of scantily clad bodies on the Internet, billboards, television, and in magazines. Not to mention, if he hasn't already, within the next few years, your son will be going through puberty. Whether or not he's looking at porn sites, he's likely curious about how his body will look and may wonder what the female form looks like nude.

In the meantime, if you are concerned about his computer usage, set ground rules. Try limiting his computer time; moving the computer to a space where you can observe his viewing habits (you can explain this by telling him that everyone in your family wants easy computer access); and most importantly, give him sites where he can find credible, age-appropriate sexuality information like www.teenwire.com, www.sexetc.org, and www.scarleteen.com.

As a parent, you are the primary sexuality educator of your child. So, if you haven't already, think about the messages you want to share. Then, open the dialogue and keep it open, addressing various topics as teachable moments occur. For example, use a magazine like Maxim (which is definitely for young men, but easily accessible to young boys) to illustrate that many of the models in the magazine are airbrushed to look "perfect" rather than realistic. And, let him know that many companies use sex to sell sneakers, computers, and other popular items by positioning models in very sexy poses." Flipping through the magazine, you'll likely find a few photos to illustrate your point. As you discuss each concept, ask your son what he thinks. While it may not happen overnight, hopefully over time, a full-fledged conversation will transpire.

My teen is writing erotica. Does this mean that she is sexually active?*

Q When I was in my daughter's room, I stumbled across her diary. While I know I shouldn't have looked, the book was filled with explicit erotic stories. Some seemed to be made-up scenes with characters from her favorite TV show. One entry described her having sex with a guy. I think these entries stem from her imagination rather than real-life. But, I wonder if I am being naïve. Do you think this is an indication that she's sexually active?

A Young people are inundated with sexual messages and images. Coupled with an active imagination and love for writing, these journal entries could simply be your daughter's way of expressing herself sexually as well as an outlet for her curiosity about sex. But, as hard as it may be for you to think about, it is also possible that she has been intimate in some way with another person. There's no way to know for certain unless you talk with her.

Try initiating ongoing conversations about all aspects of sexuality and sexual health with your daughter. This will not only foster a stronger bond and allow for you both to talk openly about sexuality, but it will also let her know that you are there to support her and answer questions. Share your messages with her about puberty, body image, decision making, the media, masturbation, fantasy, peer pressure, contraception, etc. as "teachable moments" arise. You can even start watching that favorite TV show with her and asking her to explain the characters' personalities and relationships. Share with her what it was like for you growing up—if you were curious about your body changes, or had questions about sex, and also your experience talking with your parent(s) or what you wished you would have been able to talk about with your parent(s).

*Amy created and answered these column while employed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.