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Editor's note: What follows is a guide to teaching children about HIV/AIDS prepared by the Cornell University Parent HIV/AIDS Education Project. The project offers its training and teaching materials free on the program's web site at www.human.cornell.edu/pam/extensn/hivaids/. AIDS Alert reprints this chapter of the program with permission from the project.
Any conversation about sex or drug use or disease may feel uncomfortable at the beginning, because these are topics that are rarely discussed between adults and young people in our society. Many adults don't even talk about these topics with other adults! Sometimes adults hide behind factual information when dealing with controversial subjects. Facts are important, but they are impersonal. Facts alone are not likely to change someone's behavior or to form the sole basis for their future decisions. Research has shown that young people who know all the right answers about AIDS still do risky things. To be effective, education must address both the factual and emotional aspects of charged issues such as AIDS.
Remember that you can have many types of conversations about AIDS with young people. Some may mostly involve listening, some may involve sharing feelings and discussing facts, some may focus on information you are passing on to your child, and some may focus on solving problems and planning what you or your child will do. All of these types of conversations are very important, even if each has a different style. It is also possible to have your child leave each type of conversation feeling accepted, valued, and supported in learning how to cope in a world with AIDS.
Once you have learned some basic facts about AIDS and ways of reducing the spread of HIV, you are ready to talk with your child. Make sure that you and your child both have an understanding of the clinical and slang words each of you uses to discuss sex and drugs. It may help if you teach children the correct terms for all their body parts in a matter-of-fact way when they are young. Parents can tell infants and toddlers, "This is your hand, this is your knee, this is your vulva/penis, this is your foot, this is your nose." This will build the young child's sense of comfort and respect for the human body. It will help to build the foundation needed for talking about sexuality later on.
Two common situations in which you may talk with your child about AIDS are 1) when you have made a special plan to have a conversation about AIDS, and 2) when a special opportunity for talking with your child about AIDS just happens. The building blocks for either talk are the same.
First, you need to think about your child: age, questions or concerns about HIV, what information your child already has about AIDS, where the information came from, and whether that information is correct. You need to think about any special circumstances your child might face in terms of AIDS: Does your child know or love anyone who has HIV? Is a child with HIV enrolled in the school? If your child has hemophilia, does he or she feel afraid or face stigma related to AIDS? Is your child sexually active? Does your child fear that you may be at risk? Also, think about times and situations when you and your child have had good talks. What went into making those talks comfortable and effective?
Next, think about the information you know about AIDS and HIV. Do you need to know more to feel secure in presenting the information? What pieces of this information does your child need to know now? Some information might resolve unrealistic fears your child might have about AIDS. Other information might be important for your child to have to change risks he or she may be taking. Your child may be too young to understand some of what you know about AIDS, so think about what information you can save to teach your child later on. Does your child have a grasp of the vocabulary and concepts that will enable her or him to understand the information you wish to present? Make a plan of what you want to say.
Third, think about your beliefs and values in relation to the information you want to share. Examine your values and try to determine where they have come from. Make a plan for what values you want to teach your child. Be aware of the impact of your values on the information you tell your child about AIDS. Do you have personal difficulties with any issues related to AIDS? Try to present a balanced point of view and admit that some of the topics are controversial and hotly debated. Sometimes it may be difficult to talk with your child about something very important, because you fear finding out that your child is doing something that goes against your values. For example, I may feel very strongly that shooting cocaine is wrong -- so I avoid frank conversations about drug use with my teenager. I may disapprove of premarital sex-so I avoid talking with my sexually active son about condom use. I may feel that vaginal intercourse is right and natural and may not talk with my college-aged daughter about the risks it presents for transmitting HIV. Research has shown that education about sex and drugs does not increase sexual activity and drug use. The effect of educational efforts is to increase the level of safety precautions taken by those who are already sexually active or experimenting with drugs. Think about ways to share your values with your child at the same time as you tell them the facts about HIV transmission and risk reduction.
Think about several ways you can affirm your child during your conversation: by listening to them, by praising them, by telling them you care. The fact that you are talking with them about AIDS shows that you respect and care about them.
If you are planning a special conversation about AIDS and HIV, think about a good time and place to have it. Make sure that the groundwork has been laid and that a climate of open communication about issues of sexuality has already been established. AIDS should not be the topic of a first talk with your child about sexuality. Think about how much time the conversation will require and plan for enough time. Plan something fun and relaxing to do before, after, or during the talk.
This kind of thinking will also help you take advantage of teachable moments - opportunities for talking with your child about AIDS and HIV that arise naturally. All of us are most interested in learning when we have an immediate need for information or when something happens that makes us seek answers to specific questions. Gifted teachers sometimes have a special ability to recognize teachable moments and to respond to them. You can take advantage of a variety of teachable moments in relation to AIDS. Your child may come home from school with questions about AIDS or see a show about AIDS on television. Your teenager may ask to go to a party and imply that some of the kids planning to be there are sexually active. You may learn that someone in your family or neighborhood has HIV or AIDS. Your child may simply ask you a question about AIDS out of the blue.
How you reach your child about HIV/AIDS depends on the child's questions and concerns, level of understanding, age, prior knowledge, learning style, and your communication style.
Common Sense About AIDS is written especially for your patients and other laymen. It explains important issues concerning AIDS in a thorough, yet easy-to-understand style. Although this material is copyrighted, the publisher grants you permission to photocopy Common Sense About AIDS and distribute it throughout your facility. We encourage dissemination of this information.