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When your kids get their vaccines at school, they may have questions (Picture: Getty)
It’s time to talk to your kids about HPV.
Considering that around 80% of us will get HPV at some point, it isn’t spoken about nearly enough.
It also isn’t tested for in routine sexual health screenings.
This obscurity can mean people feel isolated and afraid when they are told they have HPV, also known as human papillomavirus, they don’t really know what they are dealing with.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can help dispel some of the myths and confusion around HPV by having open conversations with your kids.
They’ll be given the HPV vaccine at school, and will probably have questions about what it is.
How great would it be if you knew how to answer all their questions, so they felt informed, and – should they get it later in life – knew what it meant?
Talking to your kids about sexually transmitted infections, or anything sex related for that matter, can be awkward. But it doesn’t have to be.
As part of our series You, Me & HPV, we asked some parenting experts for tips on making it easier.
What are the basics of HPV?
To talk to your kid about HPV, you need to know what it is, how it spreads, how you test for it and what the risks are.
Most people don’t know that they have HPV. It can sometimes cause genital warts, but usually, it will be symptomless. It can spread even without symptoms, so people can be passing it on and not know.
This is why people will cervixes are encouraged to get tested every few years.
Women over the age of 25 who are registered with a GP will be offered smear tests every three or five years to check if they have HPV cells. In severe cases where the body isn’t getting rid of the virus on its own, doctors might offer surgery.
These screenings are available to anyone with a cervix, including trans men. But if you are registered as a man with your GP, you won’t be invited automatically.
In most cases, people’s bodies will fight off the HPV infection within around two years.
Sometimes, however, HPV can make people vulnerable to some cancers, including cancer of the cervix and anus.
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal and oral sex.
There is an HPV vaccine that has proven to be very successful. It has saved lives, but it isn’t being offered to everyone and doesn’t provide lifetime protection.
Right, now you’ve educated yourself, you can educate your kids.
How to talk to your kids about HPV
There’s no hard or fast rule for when to talk to your children about HPV.
However, the experts recommend doing it when your children are pre or early teens before they’ve started having sex.
Nancy Arulraj, founder of AllNaturalMothering, research officer and data scientist says one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to talk to your kids about HPV, so they can make informed decisions about their sexual health before they become sexually active.
Charlotte Johnson, a sex and relationships expert at MegaPleasure agrees: ‘Although HPV is usually harmless and goes away by itself, some types can lead to cancer or genital warts so it’s very important that as a parent you’re educating your children on this topic.’
Slowly building on your child’s understanding means that when they do become sexually active, they will understand the risks and how to practise safe sex.
Deciding on the right time to talk about the topic is hard, but that decision may be made for you when they are given the HPV vaccine at school.
Charlotte says the first dose of the HPV vaccine is routinely offered to girls and boys aged 12 and 13 in school Year 8.
The second dose is offered 6 to 24 months after the 1st dose.
‘Therefore, when their child gets the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine this will give you an opportunity to further inform your child,’ she adds.
Parenting expert Chizzy Chukwukere, who has worked in the childcare and education sector for over 10 years, says we can’t ignore the fact that kids talk a lot about sex at school.
So, while you think it’s too early, they could already be gossiping with their mates. Be prepared to answer questions.
When it comes to HPV, kids under 10 will struggle to grasp the ins and outs of it. To avoid confusing them, you can simply mention it is virus, Chizzzy says.
For older children, (and bare in mind, it is never too late to start the conversation), you can talk more frankly about STIs.
Chizzy says: ‘It’s important to educate them about their bodies, and how it can affect their health.
‘The internet is rife with misinformation so it’s your job as a parent to educate them fully. I would even suggest taking them to sexual health clinics.’
To be in a position where your kid would be happy comign to a sexual health clinic with you, you need to have built a ‘level of trust where so they can talk to you about anything,’ Chizzy says.
Be prepared to answer questions, and use pictures to re-enforce the point if you need to.
‘You need to be constantly reading so you can teach your kids, and practice your communication skills, and this something I practice myself,’ she adds.
Communication is key here. It has to be open, direct and factual.
How to have open conversations with your children
You’ve educated yourself, and decided when to have the conversation… now what?
Nancy says it is necessary to talk openly about the virus with your kids in order to explain how it can be transmitted from person to person, even when there are no symptoms present.
It is therefore a priority, she adds, to maintain open communication with your children so that difficult conversations can be had more easily.
She adds: ‘When parents and children have a good relationship characterized by openness and communication, difficult conversations are less likely to escalate into arguments, and both parties are more likely to listen to and understand each other.
‘Additionally, open communication can help prevent misunderstandings and provide children with a support system when they need it most.
‘When children feel like they can talk openly with their parents about anything, it becomes easier to have tough conversations because there is already a foundation of trust and mutual respect.’
Practising open communication is simple: have daily conversations with your kids (if you see them every day), listen to them attentively, and responding to their needs.
Kids will talk openly when they feel comfortable and know they can share whatever is on their mind.
Another way to build this environment is through regular family meetings where everyone gets a chance to share what is going on with them.
‘This is a time for everyone to listen to each other without judgment or interruption,’ Nancy says.
You have to practice what you preach. Nancy explains: ‘If you want your kids to be open with you, they need to see that you are open and honest with them.’
It’s important to discuss sex and intimacy with your kids at an early age, to help them understand their own bodies and how to express themselves sexually.
Stay calm and open-minded, use proper anatomical terms, and avoid judgment or shame.
Be clear, concise, and honest. And always, above all, respect their needs and comfort levels, and make sure that they feel safe to ask questions.
You, me & HPV
This week, Metro.co.uk is looking at HPV and its related cancers from a range of perspectives.
By and large HPV isn’t something to worry about – but it is something to be aware of.
HPV is something that eight in 10 of us will encounter at some stage of our lives. It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, not just penetrative sex. There is even some evidence to suggest it can spread through deep kissing.
It isn’t tested for in a standard sexual health screening, so it’s near impossible to know when or where a person might have contracted it or who they might have passed it onto.
For most people, their bodies will fight the virus off in around one to two years without any lasting effects. For some people however, it can make them more vulnerable to cancers of the cervix, anus, head and neck, penis, vagina and vulva.
Over this week, we’ll be exploring the human issues that come with HPV and its related cancers.