When and how to talk to your children about sex

How to talk to your child about sex: Mother and young daughter talking on bed

Sex can be an awkward topic for both parents and children alike. But being prepared for questions can help make the conversation a bit easier when the time comes.

The foundation of “the talk”

Long before you have “the talk” with your kids, it’s important to have conversations about their bodies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the proper names for body parts and explaining which parts are private. An easy way to explain this for kids as young as age 18 months to 3 years is that any part covered by a bathing suit is private.

“If you start young—start with genitalia—that takes away some of the taboo for kids to talk about it, but also for the parents to talk about it,” said Dr. Gina Montion, a pediatrician with the Banner Health Center on Greenway in Phoenix.

Age-appropriate information

As children approach school age, they may become more curious about themselves and the opposite sex—why boys’ and girls’ bodies are different and where babies come from. They may also touch their own genitals, which is a sign of normal interest and not an adult sexual activity.

Dr. Montion says you can use your child’s questions as a guide to decide how much information they need as you talk to your children about sex.

Father and his son talking and laying on the floor

“Often in kindergarten and first grade, they start laughing about things they hear from school. As the questions start coming from the child, use that to guide you to decide how much to tell,” she said. “They’ll want to know how babies are made. Talk about it like a source of reproduction. ‘Mommy and daddy have different pieces of a puzzle they put together to make a baby.’ Keep it vague. Only give them more detail as they ask for it. Most kids can handle it.”

While it’s up to parents to establish limits as far as their child’s behavior, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following:

  • Interest in genital organs is healthy and natural.
  • Nudity and sexual play in public are not all right.
  • No other person, including even close friends and relatives, may touch their “private parts.” The exceptions are doctors and nurses during physical exams and their own parents when they are trying to find the cause of any pain in the genital area.

Older children want more info

As children get older, their questions will evolve and may include questions about love, romance and marriage. These conversations can be sparked by anything—something they heard from other kids at school, or even a song lyric or television show—and can provide an opportunity to share your family’s values.

The AAP recommends keeping information generic instead of personal, but ensure it’s accurate and factual.

As kids approach puberty, Dr. Montion said, conversations about sex should include the topics of relationships, safety, self-value, self-worth and expectations.

“It’s OK to put expectations on your kids,” Dr. Montion said. That can include letting them know that sex is for adults in committed relationships, she added.

“We always frame it as abstinence. That’s our first choice,” she said. “But we need to make them aware of how to be safe if they make a different choice. Let them know the risks of pregnancy and infections. When the subject is too secretive, the risk of unprotected sex is greater.”

Dr. Montion said masturbation is one of the hardest topics for families to discuss as they figure out how to talk to their children about sex, but it’s an important one.

“The message should be that they are free to explore their bodies in privacy and only by themselves,” she said. “Self-exploration and self-stimulation are natural sensations they should be free to explore in privacy. To say it’s bad puts a stigma on sensations that are good, and it’s confusing.”

Parents should agree about “the talk”

Parents should be on the same page about communicating to their kids about sex, but their approaches can be different. While parents should consider their child’s feelings and be careful not to laugh or embarrass them, Dr. Montion said it can still be done lightheartedly—especially for kids who are uncomfortable with the topic.

“Truly when kids don’t want to talk about it, giving them little packages of information and sneaking it into conversation is a good way for them to passively acquire information. Don’t force it,” she said. “Sometimes, just mentioning things in a lighthearted manner with the kids present—such as parents talking to each other while the kids are in earshot—can help them learn the information without putting a child on the spot.”

Dr. Montion recommends the book “It’s Perfectly Normal” to help answer questions in a factual way for pre-teens and teens who are uncomfortable asking their parents questions about sex.

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