If the thought of talking about sex with your kids makes you sweat bullets, you’re not alone. More than half of parents haven’t discussed sex with their preteen, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But, experts say, it’s not something you should skip. “If parents begin having age-appropriate, positive conversations with their child about sex and sexuality at a young age, they will create an atmosphere of open communication where their child can come to them with questions or concerns as they arise,” says Kathy M. Smith, Prevention/Education Director for Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo.
Communication is key and parents’ opinions and advice have more impact than they realize, says Molly Secor-Turner, assistant professor at NDSU School of Nursing. “Parents are often named as the biggest influence on teens’ decisions about sex. Teens who report talking with their parents about sex are also more likely to delay sex, have fewer sexual partners, and to use contraceptives when they do have sex,” says Secor-Turner.
Here’s how to approach the topic with your children, from preschool through the teen years.
0-6 Years: The basics
Though toddlers and preschoolers are too young for clinical descriptions or copious details, it’s never too early to begin preparing for a healthy understanding of sex.
“Children this age are often curious about the differences between boys and girls. It’s helpful for parents to talk to their child about the differences,” says Smith.
Beginning in toddlerhood, all children should learn the names of their body parts, including their genitals. “Many parents think it is ‘cute’ to have slang words for body parts, but it is so critical for the child’s safety that they use the correct terms,” says Mandy Bernardy, child and family therapist at The Village Family Service Center in Moorhead. “This allows for them to have a firm understanding of what teachers, grandparents, or daycare providers are talking about, and they can verbalize more effectively if there ever is any inappropriate touching occurring.”
Children may begin to ask questions about where babies come from around age 5 or 6. This doesn’t need to be an anxiety-filled discussion; keep answers simple and straightforward, without going into too many specifics. There’s plenty of time for that later.
7-12 Years: Personality pointers
The best way to talk about sex depends on your child’s personality: Some kids are full of questions, while others specialize in squirming and eye-rolling when parents go anywhere near the topic. Sean Brotherson, professor of human development and family science at NDSU, believes these are critical years for parents to pursue open, frequent communication with their children. “Put time into the relationship with kids at this age so you are ready and available to answer any questions a child might ask,” says Brotherson.
Smith tells parents to talk with children as they
ask questions instead of waiting for one big “talk” with them about sex and sexuality. “Children ages 7 to 12 are able to understand the basics of intercourse and, at this age, it’s also important to talk to them about the changes that occur [in their bodies] during puberty,” says Smith.
Look for teachable moments. “Our society is full of messages about sex and sexuality on TV, in magazines, newspapers, etc.,” says Secor-Turner, “so using those instances to spark conversations can be more comfortable for kids, yet still allow you to convey valuable information and answer questions.”
By age 12, children should know facts about conception, pregnancy, and birth; that sex is part of loving adult relationships and feels good; puberty-related body changes; how to handle increasing feelings of attraction; the meaning of slang words and jokes; and their family’s social and moral values regarding sexual expression.
13-18 Years: Open platform
Sex is very much on the minds of most teens, says Susan Kuczmarski, author of “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go.” Unfortunately, few adults initiate conversations about sex with their teens, but they should, says Kuczmarski. “The most important thing you can do is talk. This establishes openness between you and your teen on sex-related issues. You want your teen to feel comfortable coming to you to talk later, and the best way to ensure this future dialogue is to initiate it early yourself.”
Can’t muster enough cool to bring it up? That’s OK, says Kuczmarski. “If you’re not comfortable talking about sex, fake it. Comfort will grow with frequency.”
The conversation at this age, according to Brotherson, needs to focus on relationships. “Guide your children to understand that sex occurs in the context of relationships and values, and encourage them to think about those things as part of the sexual experience. Help teens develop safe, caring relationships with others as a context for sex. No conversation on sex is more useful to teenagers than a dialogue about not just the “what” of sex, but more importantly, the values and choices that will inform their decisions about when, where, why, and with whom they choose to pursue a sexual relationship.”
Conversations about sex, dating, love, desire, and even passion are best discussed casually and often. All of our experts agree, if you start talking to your children about sex at an early age, you’ll be more comfortable with the topic as they enter their teen years. However, if you didn’t get around to discussing it when they were young, Kuczmarski says, “There is no time like right now. So just start.”
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mother of three. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.
About the Author: