Talking to your kids about sex can feel a bit intimidating. There’s a lot to cover, and you may be feeling pressure to do it ‘right.’ However, it’s never too early or too late to start talking to your children about sex, relationships, and their bodies. Having open and honest conversations about sex with your children can make a huge difference in their lives.
According to the CDC, teens report that their parents have the most significant influence over their decisions about sex—more than friends, siblings, or the media. Research shows that kids and teenagers who have regular conversations with their parents about sex and relationships are less likely to take risks regarding their sexual health, are more likely to use condoms when engaging in sex, and are more comfortable with their sexuality.
When parents communicate honestly and openly about sex, relationships, prevention of STIs, and pregnancy, they can help promote a safe environment for their children to be honest about their thoughts and experiences around these topics. These conversations are most helpful with the intention of helping your kids get in the right headspace to be strong, empowered people in future sexual relationships.
Here are some tips that may be helpful to consider when having conversations with your children about sex and relationships.
Cut the Shame
Having conversations about sex can be uncomfortable for both parents and children, especially if the exchanges are not common or familiar. Talking about sex in a way that is not focused on shaming or scaring your children regarding sex is most beneficial, as it promotes a safe space for your child to communicate with you about their honest feelings and experiences.
One way to do this is to refrain from using ‘dont’s’ in conversations about sex. Unfortunately, many parents approach talking to their children about sex from a “don’t have sex,” “don’t get pregnant,” and “don’t get a disease” point of view. While it is important to communicate your parental concern about having safe sex, it can also lead your child to feel ashamed or scared to engage with sex and speak about it with their parents or others.
Instead, try to have a conversation about the ‘do’s’ are regarding sex, Like “do use a condom” and “do practice safe and consensual sex”. Telling your children what they should do rather than what they shouldn’t do regarding sex promotes openness and empowerment rather than shame and guilt.
Talk About Sex Early and Often
Teaching your children from a young age that sex and relationships are a natural part of life can greatly benefit them. Having conversations regularly can also open up space for your kids to openly share how they are feeling about their own sexuality and relationships.
Marriage and family therapist Mila Wold states that one of the most common mistakes parents make when discussing sex with their children is assuming one conversation is enough. “One common mistake is that you think you should just have one thirty-minute conversation and your good. It should be little small ones, like 30-second ones in passing. Kids lose interest pretty quickly, so having one big one can be odd and awkward.”
Talking about sex early and often can make it feel less uncomfortable and embarrassing for your children to talk about sex since that is a common experience children have when discussing sex with their parents. It’s okay if talking about sex feels embarrassing, but treating sex as a normal and natural part of life and discussion will ease the feelings of embarrassment and allow your children to feel confident in discussing sex. Start early by asking age-appropriate questions about friends and crushes. This will create a foundation that you can build on as your child grows up.
Take Charge of Opportunities for Conversation
There are many times in your child’s life where they will be exposed to information about sex that are prime times for conversation. These experiences can be used as opportunities to talk to your children about sex and relationships. These opportunities include:
- A friend or family member getting pregnant.
- Exposure to sexual content in media (movies, tv, advertisements).
- Advertisements for birth control or menstrual products.
- Seeing unrealistic or harmful portrayals of sex and sexualization.
These experiences can be confusing and intriguing for your children, and it’s natural for them to want to know more. Starting the conversation with an open-ended question to gauge how your child is feeling about the situation can help them feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and feelings, and allow you to respond to help them understand better. Asking questions like:
- “What do you know about how people get pregnant?”
- “What did you think about that scene?”
- “Do you have any questions or concerns about sex?”
Provide Healthy Exposure to Sexual Education
There are multiple ways that you can provide sexual education for your children based on their age. Giving your children outlets to learn more about sex and relationships can build their sense of empowerment in learning about sex. Here are some ways you can educate your children about sex based on their age.
For children in elementary or middle school, buying books about anatomy, sex, and puberty can help your child make sense of the time of transition they may be going through. Allow them to explore these resources on their own, and check up on them and ask them what they have learned and whether they are confused about anything.
Check on your children regularly and ask what is going on with their peers at school or other extracurricular activities. Many children learn information about sex and relationships through conversations at school with their peers, so having regular conversations about their social experiences may help them feel more open in discussing this with you.
In middle school and high school, you may want to have conversations about if your child has a crush on someone. If they do, see if you can help them navigate those feelings and help them gain a sense of empowerment and knowledge about romantic relationships and all that comes with them.
When your children are tweens and teens, you may want to ask them how they think they’ll know when they are ready to have sex. Having these conversations can provide an opportunity to educate your kids more on sex and how to navigate sex healthily and positively.
There are many great online sexual education resources for teens, such as this resource page on planned parenthood. Simply giving your teens resources like this can allow them to learn on their own and let them know that they can come to you with questions if they have them.
Ask Them About Sex Ed at School
Most adolescents begin to receive sex education at school between grades 6 and 12. However, education in public schools is not always the best, so it can be helpful to ask your kids what they are learning in their health classes and if they have any questions or concerns. Doing this can show your kids that they have another outlet to learn about sex other than school, one where they can ask personal questions without judgment.
Be Aware of How You Talk About Sex and Bodies
Children are very perceptual and pick up on how parents interact with themselves and the world. This is why it is important to be aware of how you are talking about sex, body image, and sexuality.
Dr. Wold states, “be aware of how you talk about your own body and other people’s bodies. Bodies are a huge part of sex, and if you are commenting on things like weight or awkwardness about your body or other bodies, your children will notice.” The way that you discuss sex, relationships, or your body can affect how your child relates to them in their life.
Being aware of using positive language when talking about your own body in front of your children can help them build a healthy relationship with their bodies. In this case, leading by example is a great way to teach your children to have an empowering relationship with their own bodies.