You put the kids to bed.
The coast is clear, right?
You and your partner settle in for a little intimacy (not always easy after busy, tiring days when the kids are young).
You hear a door open....and, suddenly, your child is THERE.
What do you do?
“The assumption is that this is a really dangerous, potentially harmful situation, right?” asks Dr. Sandy Scantling, a certified sex therapist in Farmington. Well, rest assured, she says, this theory is wrong. “We have enough anxiety around sexuality. Parents today are trying so hard and we have to do everything right but we can’t do everything right," she says. "Try to step back from that anxiety and guilt.”
According to Scantling, how parents react will be different in every household. “There aren’t any absolutes about sexuality. Period," she says. “I think staying calm is really important and then dealing with it in a way that makes sense for your family.”
*Establish your beliefs about sexuality and privacy from the get-go. Meaning, this shouldn't be the first time you think about the family's attitude towards sex. “It’s a subject I don’t think parents talk about. I don’t think parents say, ‘How do we feel about our own privacy?’" says Scantling, noting that we need to have these serious discussions, much like we talk about school choices and religious upbringing. “The adults have work to do.” If our ideals are formed, a "surprise" should play-out in an organic fashion.
*Watch emotions. “I think what we’re really looking for are signs of distress and then, I suggest, that you follow that distress, whatever it may be," says Scantling. This can depend on how much the child knows. Is he afraid that mommy was hurt? Or, simply embarrassed? Assess these issues based on the age and maturity of the child.
*Be comfortable and consistent. “If we’re comfortable, they’ll be comfortable," says Scantling. And, don't push-it just because you feel awkward. “The anxiety that comes up in the parent is what makes the parent want to resolve it immediately instead of waiting for the right time for the child. It might not be the moment,” she says. “Try to reflect on: what is it about this situation that’s got me cranked up? What’s embarrassing about it? What are my fears? What are my anxieties? What are my past experiences?”
*Relax. “I think it’s more harmful - and I don’t have data on this, by the way - for children to see parents fighting, to hear them calling each other degrading names,” says Scantling. She says, toss out Sigmund Freud's view of the "primal scene" which he believed damaged the development of a child: “There’s no basis for this.” Rather, Scantling cites a 1998 study by UCLA researchers, offering "evidence that there is no harm with exposure to nudity in children."
*But, give everyone the respect of privacy. It's important to teach children that sex is a private act, not something we do in public. So, practice privacy in the home by giving everyone their right to alone time. “I knocked on my daughter’s door, even when she was little. I feel it should be reciprocal. I knocked on her door so she knew she had an equal sense of privacy," says Scantling.