"Talk to my kids about AIDS? Are you kidding? My daughter's only three years old. My seventh grader gets all that stuff in school. Besides, AIDS is only a problem in cities like New York, not the suburbs. And I wouldn't know what to say, anyway. I don't know anything about AIDS."
Like many other tough topics - death, divorce, sex and drugs - many parents have a hard time talking with their children about AIDS. Yet youngsters are growing up in a world where AIDS is a fact of life...and death.
The Nassau-Suffolk region, far from exempt, has the highest number of reported AIDS cases for any suburban metropolitan region in the United States. Many of these reported cases are young adults who probably contracted HIV during their teen years.
Where do parents begin?
During their first few months with a new baby, parents are teaching their child fundamental lessons about trust, safety and security. By responding to a baby's needs for food, comfort and cuddling, parents are teaching their child to feel safe and to trust them. This is the solid basis for all parent/child communication during the child's lifetime.
Self-care is a key lesson
As children develop and grow, they become more independent and assume more responsibility for their own care. What we call self-care includes behaviors such as dressing, feeding themselves and hygiene habits like washing hands before meals and brushing teeth after. It may also include ways to play safely indoors and outside -- not touching electrical equipment or talking to strangers for instance.
Your example and the words you use to guide children's behavior communicate your concern for their health and safety. When we help children develop positive health habits, like flossing and brushing teeth, we also encourage them to respect and take care of their bodies. A basic respect for one's own body is often the key to avoiding risky behaviors.
Building trust, showing love, setting a good example, and developing positive health habits are, educators agree, the building blocks for talking with your kids about AIDS.
Sorting out facts and fears
Just as parents respond to an infant's crying, they need to respond to their children's concerns about AIDS and help them sort through often confusing information in a reasonable and supportive way.
Once they enter daycare or start school, children receive information from many sources - from other adults, their peers, television and other media. Often they do not understand the words or the context. Some will be afraid for themselves or others they care about. For example, a parent may need to clarify that a "shot" from the doctor is safe. They may need to explain that "Needles cause AIDS" refers to sharing needles and syringes that contain traces of another person's blood. Parents can alleviate fears by explaining that doctors and nurses don't re-use needles.
Parents must be good listeners and observers. We listen well when we keep an open mind and don't jump to conclusions or interrupt just as our children have mustered the courage to introduce a sensitive subject. Parents also need to be on the lookout for "teachable moments" -- those times when something comes up that leads naturally to an explanation or illustration of a point. For example, the family may hear a story on the six o'clock news that inspires a timely dialogue over dinner. A child may come home voicing a concern, "Joey's brother, Kevin, has AIDS. Will Joey get sick, too?" The question provides an opportunity for reassurance that AIDS is not spread through casual contact.
Even a difficult time can be turned to good use, for example, when our children seem anxious or angry about something but aren't talking. We can take this opportunity to say, "It seems that something is bothering you. Would you like to talk about it?" When children ask tough questions, they deserve accurate and thoughtful answers. This doesn't mean that parents have to be experts on every facet of AIDS. The parent, who says, "I don't know, I'll find out," is teaching the child that it's ok to keep learning. Working together to find an answer at the library or online can be a rewarding experience.
The challenge of the teen years
As children reach their teen years, their behavior may put them at risk for HIV infection. Parents should be unafraid to have frank conversations with them about dating, sexual behavior and substance abuse.
Although the relationship established in the early years helps parents initiate meaningful dialogues with their teenage children, it is still not necessarily easy for the parents or adolescents to talk about sexuality, condoms or drug use. Parents certainly need to clarify their values and feelings before engaging in these discussions.
Parents will also want to find a good time and place for these conversations. It's best to talk when both you and your teen have time to fully discuss a sensitive subject like risk reduction. These discussions should be relaxed and respectful. Show acceptance for your teen's ideas. Do something that is fun before or after the talk.
Resources for parents
Parents are more likely to feel confident and comfortable when they are informed. Your local library or the internet is a good starting point. In addition to information about AIDS in books and current periodicals, there are resources for parents to learn how to discuss the topic with children. Many community organizations like Cornell Cooperative Extension offer a variety of parent education classes, including specific programs to help you talk to your children about AIDS.
Source: Susan K. Young, AIDS Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County and Tim Jahn, Human Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 66
Last updated December 14, 2015