Parents often have a hard time talking to their children about sex for many reasons. Some parents may, understandably, feel a little embarrassed to talk to their child about sexuality. Other parents might worry that they don’t have all the right answers or that even talking about sex may encourage or promote sexual behavior. To help combat these common issues with discussing sexuality with your children, here are some helpful guidelines.
Since sexual development is something that humans experience across the lifespan, there’s no need to wait until the child is an older teen to have the first "sex talk", which is when many teens may already be sexually active. By having many small conversations about sexuality throughout their childhood, you are not only giving them important factual information, but also helping them to develop their own personal values, and giving them the confidence to make responsible and healthy decisions throughout their adolescence and beyond. This strategy will also make talking about sex much easier as they get older, and you can avoid the often daunting task of having one big "talk" later.
Even young children can learn some of the basics, such as the proper names for their genitals. Using made-up names like “pee pee” might sound cute, but may also reinforce the idea that our genitals are something shameful or "dirty" that we’re not supposed to talk about. As parents, we don’t usually teach our children improper names for other body parts like their knees or elbows, so it just makes sense to teach them the correct terms for their genitals, as well. It is also important for kids to possess the right language to be able to clearly tell an adult if they are experiencing a medical issue, or if they have been sexually abused.
Children are also curious and will discover their own bodies - including their genitals. It may be shocking or make parents a little uncomfortable, but its important not to yell at or punish your child for exploring their own body. This is a totally normal part of childhood development. It is alright, however, to teach your child that this is something that should be done in private.
If your child asks a question about sex, try not to give an answer that’s overly complicated or you might lose them completely. Try to keep your responses simple and age-appropriate. Also, make sure you are answering the question they asked! There’s an old joke where a child comes home from school and says, “Mom, where did I come from?” So the mom launches into a lengthy biological lecture all about sperm, eggs, and fertilization. The confused child says “Oh…Sally said she was from Ohio, so I was just wondering where I came from”. Usually, a very simple answer will satisfy a child’s curiosity. If they want more information, they’ll ask.
Using teachable moments is another helpful strategy. Simply be on the look-out for opportunities in your everyday life to bring up sexuality. Sexuality is everywhere! For example, maybe you see a pregnant woman walking down the street, or perhaps a relative is expecting a baby. You can use this opportunity to ask your child what they might already know about pregnancy, or questions they may have about how a baby develops, where babies come from, or about different types of families. If you are the parent of a teen, take advantage of commercials for contraceptives that come on TV, or even an episode of MTV's "Teen Mom", to talk to your teen about the importance of waiting to have sex until they're ready, or how they can avoid becoming a pregnant teen themselves.
Lastly, try to remain calm and stay positive! It can be intimidating or even a little scary when your child approaches you with questions about sex. Remember that if you become angry or visibly upset by their questions, your child may regret asking you, and probably won’t approach you or trust you with another difficult question again. This reaction will also give them the impression that sex is shameful, wrong, and shouldn’t be talked about. Also remember that if your children aren’t getting this information from you, they will likely look elsewhere, such as from their friends or other sources that might give them inaccurate or even harmful information.
It’s also easy for parents to focus only on the negative consequences of sexuality such as STIs and unplanned pregnancy, but you should also be sure to talk to your son or daughter about the positive aspects of sexuality, such as closeness and intimacy, pleasure, being in love, and even health benefits. Parents may be concerned that by discussing the positives of sex, they may be encouraging their son or daughter to engage in sexual behavior. Research has shown, however, that children whose parents communicate positively with them about sexuality are more likely to delay sexual activity and to make responsible decisions when they do become sexually active(Breuss & Greenberg, 2004). Regular positive communication about sexuality is the key to guiding your children's growth into confident, healthy, and happy sexual beings.
For more information, check out the following resources:
Advocates for Youth
Breuss, C., & Greenberg, J. (2004). Sexualtiy Education: Theory and practice (4th Ed.). Boston: Jones & Bartlett.