Talking to your child about sex doesn’t have to be difficult (or embarrassing). Have the conversation early and often. Your home will become a safe and comfortable environment for your child to ask questions. Your child needs to hear accurate information about sex from you. This includes the basics (vaginal, oral, and anal sex), birth control, sexual assault, sexual molestation, and your family’s moral beliefs. Your child needs to know that he or she can talk with you about sex. They can talk with you about their changing bodies, their feelings, their concerns, and their confusion. You don’t have to know all of the answers to their questions. However, you should be willing to help them find those answers. Help them do the research when you don’t know the answers. You want to be approachable. You want them to feel comfortable talking with you about sex.
Don’t wait until your child asks you about sex before you find the right words. Plan ahead at every age and stage. Be prepared to discuss all kinds of sexual activity as well as same-sex relationships.
Path to improved health
What and when you tell your child about sex depends on a lot of things. Age, for example, is the most important guide.
Young toddlers will not understand sexual intercourse. At this age, it’s important to teach your child the correct names of their genital parts. For boys, use the word penis. For girls, use the word vagina. Your preschool child may want to know where babies come from. Don’t ignore the question. Keep your answers short and simple. Use language a toddler would understand (for example, tummy vs. uterus). It’s okay if your child asks you for more information. Don’t worry that you are telling them too much. When they are younger, they often hear only as much as they need to know.
Elementary school children:
Continue to answer your child’s questions about their bodies. Use language they can understand at their grade level. Around 4th or 5th grade, your child’s school will teach students (in stages) about their bodies, puberty, and how it relates to sex and pregnancy. This will prepare your child for the changes coming to his or her body. Once your child understands puberty, use this new knowledge to continue conversations at home about sex and pregnancy. Again, keep it simple, honest, and accurate.
Middle and high school children:
Your child is old enough to use the correct words for sex. Some ‘tweens’ (boys and girls on the verge of turning 13 years old) have sex in middle school. So it’s important to be truthful and accurate. Explain birth control. This does not mean you are giving your permission for your young teen to have sex. It simply educates them about sex. This also is a time to discuss the dangers of having sex at an early age. In addition to pregnancy, tell them that unprotected sex can lead to sexually transmitted disease and other risky behaviors. Always talk with them about respect. No means no. It does not mean “maybe.”
As your young teenager gets older, continue talking with them about sex. Don’t be afraid to share your family’s moral (or religious) beliefs. Be sure your teenager understands the responsibilities that go along with having sex (birth control, protected sex). Always remind your child about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. This is also a time to remind your teenager how their feelings may be changing. Hormones may make it difficult to resist sexual activity and think clearly.
Be specific when discussing vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Describe what each is and the risks associated with each. Many children don’t know that unprotected oral and anal sex can lead to sexually transmitted diseases in boys and girls. This includes:
- HPV — human papillomavirus (which can cause genital warts and can lead to cervical cancer in women).
- Genital herpes.
- Viral hepatitis.
- Pubic lice (the slang term is crabs).
- Trichomoniasis, and more.
As puberty begins, it is normal for your child to start to feel a variety of physical urges. Be calm and patient if your child talks to you about same-sex relationships. If you disagree for moral or religious reasons, love your child unconditionally. Remember, they may be fearful of your response. Make it easy for them to continue the conversation by not reacting angrily.
You want to have your child’s full attention when talking about sex. However, a TV show or movie might be a natural starting point for a conversation. Talk to your child about sex and love. Teach them that hormones can confuse sex and love. Hormones make it difficult to tell if their feelings are love or just the desire for sex.
Another good opportunity for a discussion about sex is between your child and his or her doctor. Your child’s next checkup will give them a chance to have a confidential and nonjudgmental conversation about sex. It might make it easier for your child to ask questions, too.
No matter how old your child is, always listen to their questions and opinions.
Things to consider
- Don’t judge your child’s opinions about sex. However, don’t ignore the facts. Present the facts about unsafe sex and sex before you think your child is ready.
- Talk to your child about how to handle pressure to have sex from friends or a partner. Role play with your child by practicing what another child might say and how your child should respond.
- Give your child a code word to signal that they need help getting out of a situation that could lead to pressure to have sex.
- Continue to set curfews and know where your child is. Avoid letting your child be alone with a partner. Don’t be embarrassed to check with other parents to make sure there will be adult supervision at their home.
- Be a good example of respect in your own adult relationship.
- Talk to your child about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Unhealthy relationships involve pressure, physical abuse, rape, or sexual molestation.
Questions to ask your doctor
- If I suspect my child is having sex, should I confront him or her?
- Should I provide birth control for my child as a precaution or just tell them about it?
- Can being overprotective push my child into having sex before he or she is ready?
- Should my daughter’s routine exam include a pregnancy test?
- Are there signs that indicate my child is having sex?
- If my child is interested in a same-sex relationship, should I take him or her to a doctor who works with that population?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.