How do I talk to my kids about sex and their sexual health? It’s one of the most angst-ridden questions every parent faces. Many parents get stressed just thinking about when that time will come.
But talking about sex with kids is vital for every parent. And it’s a conversation that should happen earlier and more often than you think. That’s because sexual health affects your child’s physical, emotional, and mental health.
Open communication about sex can not only help them avoid unwanted pregnancies and infectious diseases. It can also help them avoid abusive relationships or stand up to sexual assault. Being open about gender and sex can help them understand their LGBTQIA+ status.
What Is Sex Education?
Talking about sex means more than discussing sexual intercourse or “having sex.” Sex education is an umbrella term that includes talking about:
- How to form a healthy partner relationship and what one looks like.
- Consent and communication, including peer and partner pressure.
- Birth control.
- Body image issues.
- LGBTQIA+ issues, including gender identity and expression and sexual orientation and expression.
- Prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Puberty and changes to their body.
- Reproductive health, including female and male anatomy, intercourse, and pregnancy.
- Sexual violence prevention, including sexual harassment, abuse, or assault.
Students who participate in sexual education programs at school are more likely to:
- Delay having sexual intercourse.
- Have fewer sex partners.
- Have fewer experiences of unprotected sex.
- Increase their use of condoms.
- Improve their academic performance.
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How Do I Talk to My Kids About Sex?
Talking about sexual health is as vital as discussing other health topics. Sex, gender, and relationships should be as high on your priority list as diet, exercise, or sleep. But it’s common for parents and guardians to struggle to talk about sex, especially if their parents or guardians weren’t open about it.
As kids get into their tween and teen years, they will likely struggle with talking to their parents about it, too.
Age-Appropriate Ways to Talk About Sex
What you say to your child about sexual health depends on their age and stage in life. There are age-appropriate ways to talk to kids of every age about reproduction, sex, gender, and relationships.
It’s never too early to talk to your kids about sex in an age-appropriate way. It helps lay the groundwork for open and honest conversations in the future.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids often become curious about their bodies between the ages of 3 and 6.
At this stage:
- Provide information on a need-to-know basis and in simple terms.
- Establish a “come to me with any questions you have” rule and make it clear that questions won’t make you upset.
- Talk about body parts using their anatomical names, such as penis and vagina.
- Discuss consent and body boundaries as giving someone permission.
- Use clear language: “You get to decide what happens to you and your body. If someone wants to hug or kiss you, they should ask you first. It’s okay to say no.”
For little kids
As kids get older, they often become more curious about their and other people’s bodies. They may start hearing about sex from other kids. Not discussing these things can leave them confused.
At this stage:
- Begin talking about periods and puberty as a normal part of life as they age. This can help calm some fears from hearing older siblings and friends talk about their body changes.
- Continue talking about consent and boundaries. Help them learn to talk about their feelings if someone hugs or touches them without asking. Practice helping them say no to unwanted touches.
- Explain to your child that it’s okay to say no to touching. They shouldn’t feel bad or guilty for saying no. And they aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings if they say no.
- Reaffirm your “come to me with any questions you have” rule.
- Model healthy relationships with your partner, family, and friends.
For tweens and teens
Many tweens and teens today have constant access to social media, search engines, and information about sex and sexual health. The tween and teen years are often when children get sexual health education in school.
At this stage:
- Talk to kids about what they are learning in sex ed at school. Ask if they have any questions and want to discuss it more.
- Bring up more specific consent issues. This includes social media, online safety, and what’s appropriate for friends to ask and share online. Remind them that their body boundaries apply to the digital space.
- Walk your tween and teen through “what if” scenarios so they know how to handle situations when they come up.
- Discuss safe sex and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and infections.
- Ask your kids how they’ll know they’re ready for sex, and practice saying no when they’re not.
- Discuss different gender identities and sexual orientations.
Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Sex
Here are some general tips to make discussing sex feel more natural and less stressful for you and your child.
Embrace the awkward
Feeling awkward talking to your kids about sex is normal. But you can’t let that stand in the way of having these crucial health conversations.
As a parent, your children look to you for answers and guidance. You know the saying, “If they don’t learn it from you, they’ll learn it from someone else.” That’s true of sex, where kids often get harmful or inaccurate information from their peers or social media.
Even if talking is awkward, you can provide your child with a safe and trusted source of honest and accurate information. You’ll also show them how to have these conversations, even when it’s hard.
Give yourself a sex education first: sexual health resources
Sexual health includes numerous topics. Some can be complex and difficult to explain. Before you talk with your child or teen, read up on what you want to discuss.
Here are some science-based, in-depth resources that can help:
- For Teens: How to Make Healthy Decisions About Sex.
- Sexual Behavior In Children: What’s Normal, What’s Not.
- Sexual Health from the CDC.
- Talking to Kids About Identity.
- Teen Sexual Health.
Share these resources with your tweens and teens. You can also find lists of age-appropriate sex education books online to help spark conversation.
Create an open and ongoing conversation.
Talking about sex and sexual health with your child isn’t a one-time thing. Your child’s questions about and understanding sex and sexual health will change as they grow.
Over the years, they’ll have new feelings and experiences that will change their perspective. That’s why it’s vital to keep the conversation going.
Talking about sex should also be a two-way street, not a lecture. Listen to what your child has to say and how they’re feeling. Ask them how they would handle a given situation.
Let them know if they have any questions or concerns, they can come to you.
Practice being proactive, not reactive
Instead of reacting to situations as they’re happening, plan ahead. Talking to your kids about sex early and often helps them mentally prepare to handle problems before they happen. Look for teachable moments through topics in the news or real life.
Take the shame out of it
Talking about sexual health should not feel taboo. Never make your kids feel like what they ask or want to discuss is wrong or shameful. If your kids feel ashamed to talk to you, they may not get the help they need to make healthy choices.
This may mean you must come to terms with and work through your feelings of shame around sexual and gender identity. Use this time not only as a lesson for your kid but for yourself as well.
Sexual Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.
What Works In Schools: Sexual Health Education. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.
For Teens: How to Make Healthy Decisions About Sex. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link.
Sexual Behavior In Children: What's Normal, What's Not. American Academy of Pediatrics. Link.
Talking to Kids About Identity. Planned Parenthood. Link.
Teen Sexual Health. National Library of Medicine. Link.
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.