How to Talk to Your Children About AIDS
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS refers to a group of illnesses due to infection by HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus.
A person can be infected with HIV and not know it. People who are infected with HIV often have no symptoms and feel healthy.
On average it takes more than ten years for a person who is infected with the virus to become ill with AIDS. AIDS is the last stage of HIV disease. The virus weakens and finally causes a collapse of the body's ability to fight off illness.
When this happens, people with AIDS are vulnerable to other diseases, including rare types of cancer and pneumonia, and infections that do not threaten people whose immune systems are healthy.
How do you get infected with HIV?
There are three major ways of becoming infected with HIV:
Can you get infected with HIV from food, air, or water?
No. There have been no known cases of HIV infection from toilet seats, clothing, dishes, sneezing, coughing, sharing food, biting, kissing, or simple contact with a person who has AIDS or is HIV-positive. In families where children have played, eaten, slept with, or kissed a brother or sister with AIDS, there have been no cases of child to child or child to adult transmission. In fact, there are no cases of family members being infected simply living with someone who has the disease. Because HIV is found in blood, toothbrushes and razors should not be shared. Families need information about how to safely handle blood.
Are blood transfusions safe?
The U.S. blood supply is very safe. Before 1985, several thousand people did become infected as a result of blood transfusions. Now all blood is screened for HIV. In very rare cases (one out of 40,000 transfusions), infection still occurs. You can donate your own blood before an elective surgery. Donating blood for other people is needed and poses no risk of infection.
Can anyone become infected with HIV?
Anyone who practices unsafe behaviors is at risk for HIV infection. Men, women, and children have become infected. Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic people have become infected. Heterosexuals, bisexuals, gay men and lesbians have all become infected. It is not who you are that puts you at risk, but what you do.
Is there a cure for AIDS?
No, not at the present time. Unfortunately no cure is likely to be discovered in the near future, although there are treatments helping people with HIV disease to lead longer, healthier lives.
How do you know if you have the virus?
There are tests that can tell if a person has been exposed to HIV. Your local health department can refer you to a testing site. Counseling should come before and after the test. You may want to go to a clinic where the test is tracked by numbers and you do not have to give your name.
What if a child in the local school district has AIDS?
You don't need to worry about your child becoming infected by playing with, or studying next to, a child who has AIDS or is infected with HIV. HIV is not spread by any type of casual contact. Children with HIV infection have the right to attend school.
How can you protect your children from AIDS?
Because there is currently no vaccine or treatment to prevent or cure AIDS at this time, the only protection is to teach your children about HIV and AIDS and about how they can protect themselves.
Many parents share concerns about talking with their children about sexual matters. Some parents may feel uncomfortable because they do not know what to say or how to say it. Some parents feel that talking to children about sexuality might either scare them or encourage them to have intercourse at too young an age. However, almost all parents want their children to learn accurate information about sexuality and HIV prevention that is right for their age.
Whatever your views about sexuality education, you must understand that AIDS is life threatening. To protect children, parents must now, more than ever, overcome their discomfort in talking about sexual health. The following ideas may help you talk with your child.
Talking With Infants and Toddlers (0-2 Years)Of course, infants and toddlers do not need to know the facts about HIV/AIDS. But they are beginning to learn about sexuality, and you are their main teachers.
By naming all the parts of their body, you are teaching them that their entire body is natural and healthy. ("This is your arm. This is your elbow. This is your vulva/penis. This is your knee.") By reacting calmly when they touch their genitals, you are teaching them that sexual feelings are normal and healthy. By holding them, hugging them, talking with them, and responding to their needs, you are laying the groundwork for trust and open discussions.
Talking With Preschool Children (3-4 Years)Children at this age are learning about their bodies. They learn about their world through play. They begin to ask questions about where babies come from.
They can understand simple answers. They do not understand abstract ideas or adult sexual behaviors. They can learn simple things about health, such as bathing, washing their hands, brushing their teeth, eating good foods, and napping. They can begin to accept the need for privacy.
The best thing a parent can do at this age is to create a home where children will feel free to ask questions about their bodies, health, and sexuality. Children will then learn that sexuality is one of the things they can talk about in their homes.
Talking With Young Children (5-8 Years)Children at this age understand more complex issues about health, disease, and sexuality. They are interested in birth, families, and death. They have probably heard about AIDS from television, friends, or adults.
They may have questions or fears about HIV/AIDS. They may have heard that people get AIDS from being bad. They understand basic answers to questions based upon concrete examples from their lives.
For example, if your child cuts his/her finger and blood appears, you have an excellent opportunity to explain how germs (things that make you sick) can get into the blood system from cuts in the body. If they are in a school with a child who is infected with HIV, they need to know that they cannot get AIDS from playing, studying, eating with, or talking with that child.
Talking With Preteens (9-12 Years)Because of the strong social pressures that start at this age, it is important that you talk about HIV/AIDS regardless of what you know about your children's sexual or drug experiences. As a concerned parent, you must make certain your children know about prevention now.
During the changes of puberty, preteens are very curious about sex and need basic, accurate information. They need to know what is meant by sexual intercourse, homosexuality, and oral, anal, and vaginal sex. They need to know that sex has consequences, including pregnancy, diseases, and HIV infection. They need to know why sexual intercourse is an adult behavior and why it is a good idea for young people to wait to have sex. They need to know how HIV is transmitted, how it is not transmitted, and how to prevent transmission, including talking about condoms.
This may seem like a difficult task, but it will give you a chance to teach your children the values that you hope they will adopt in their lives. It is also the time to let your children know that they can come to you with questions about HIV/AIDS or sexuality.
Talking With Teens (13-19 Years)You should tell your teenagers and preteens that the best way to prevent HIV infection is by not having any type of sexual intercourse or using any type of drugs. At the same time, you should share your values about sexual behaviors.
Many parents want to tell their children to wait to have intercourse at least until they are no longer teenagers. However, most children today are not waiting -- the majority of Americans have intercourse by their twentieth birthday. Therefore, most parents also want to make sure that their children can protect themselves. We can explain to our children that if they are going to be involved in sex, they must protect themselves against teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
You can talk to your teens about the full range of sexual behaviors that people find pleasurable. Many of these activities are "safer sex" -- not transmitting HIV or causing pregnancy. They include kissing, hand holding, caressing, masturbation, and other sexual behaviors that do not involve the exchange of body fluids.
Social pressure to try sex and drugs are often very strong for teens. All young people must, therefore, know that:
You can raise your children to feel good about themselves, to enjoy sex when they are adults, and to protect themselves against unwanted sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
To read more about AIDS for yourself and with your children, see "HIV/AIDS: A SIECUS Annotated Bibliography of Print Materials."
SIECUS publishes an annual up-to-date list of books on AIDS for professionals, parents, and children. A single printed copy can be obtained, free upon request with a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope by writing to: Publications Department, SIECUS, 130 West 42nd St., Suite 350, New York, NY 10036.
$5.99, Clarion Books, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003; 212/420-5800.
Come Sit by Me
Losing Uncle Tim
You Can Call Me Willy: A Story for Children About AIDS
Whisper, Whisper Jesse, Whisper, Whisper, Josh: A Story About AIDS
Karen Hein, M.D. and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo
$4.95, Consumer Report Books, 9180 Le Saint Drive, Fairfield, OH 45014; 800/272-0732.
Risky Times: How to Be AIDS-Smart and Stay Healthy: A Guide for Teenagers
What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS
This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.