Talk with your kid about sex

How to talk to your child about sex
Talk with your kids about sex
Talk with your daughter about safer-sex
Talk to your teen about...


How to talk to your child about sex

What to expect at this age

By age 3 or 4, children begin to feel strong gender identification. Boys don't want to be mistaken for girls, nor girls for boys, and their bodies become a natural focus for figuring out social behavior and relationships.

Preschoolers also start to wonder where they came from, and pregnancy and the growth and birth of babies fascinate them, particularly if they have a sibling on the way.

It's natural for preschoolers to want to understand more about their own body, and yours, and they're not embarrassed to ask. (Parents are much more likely to be the ones blushing or avoiding the topic.)

At the same time, preschoolers can't – and don't need to – grasp the mechanics of sex, they don't understand the emotions behind adult love, and they may be frightened by discussions of erections, periods, labor, and other natural bodily states that they can't yet understand.

How to talk about it

Be calm and relaxed. It's best to be as matter-of-fact as possible when your child asks questions about sex or any other tricky topic so that he doesn't get the message that talking to you about certain things can be embarrassing or taboo.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Many adults feel awkward talking about sex with a child because they don't have much practice doing it and because they're afraid of telling too much once a discussion gets going. The best strategy is to try to answer questions kindly and calmly, however unusual or embarrassing it seems.

If talking about sex with your child is difficult for you, try rehearsing your answers in advance, either in your head or with your spouse or partner. Take advantage of questions that come up when you and your child are both at ease – in the playroom while you're working on a puzzle, at snack time, or during those quiet moments when you're tucking him into bed. The car is also a great place to talk about touchy subjects, since having to keep your eyes on the road allows you to avoid eye contact, which may help you stay more relaxed.

"The important thing is for a parent to explain difficult topics without seeming anxious," says Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University. "The child is picking up the melody line, not the words."

Keep it simple. At this age, the best answers are short and uncomplicated. "You're wondering where you came from? You were made in Mommy's tummy, and that's where you grew until you were ready to be born."

While you don't want to sound like a doctor, use the correct names for body parts ("penis" and "vagina," not "wee-wee" or "pee-pee"). It will lessen any sense that sexual topics are off-limits and embarrassing.

A 3-year-old may very well be satisfied with a one-sentence answer to his question. A 4-year-old may want to follow up: "Did Billy grow in Daddy's tummy? How does the baby get food when he's in there? When's he going to get out?"

Keep answering his questions as long as he shows interest, but don't overload him with information if he's ready to stop and go play with his blocks.

Encourage his interest. No matter what your child's question, try not to snap, "Where did you get that idea?" or dodge the conversation with, "We'll talk later; now it's time for lunch." Either way, your preschooler will get the clear message that his natural and sensible questions are taboo, and that he's bad for even thinking of them.

Instead, compliment him with, "That's a good question" (which also buys you a moment to think about your answer). After your talk, encourage him to "Ask me some more any time you want to."

Of course, you never know when or where a preschooler's questions will pop up. He may ask what a vagina is – loudly – in line at the supermarket, in which case you can quietly answer his question and then explain that it's best to have discussions about private parts in private.

Even if your child creates an embarrassing situation for you, try not to put him off. Your child will need to rely on your willingness to talk honestly with him as he steers his way through the confusions of childhood, adolescence, and beyond.

Use everyday opportunities. You don't have to wait for your child to start asking all the questions. Find opportunities to talk about sex when they come up naturally. For example, talk about body parts when your child is having a bath or conception when you let him know he's going to be a big brother.

Many children's books and videos also provide opportunities for talking about babies and how they're born. Some parents use story time to look at children's books that are specifically about reproduction.

"I recommend How Babies Are Made, by Andrew Andry and Steven Schepp," says Pearl Simmons, an education specialist who teaches parenting classes at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "You can sit down with your child and say you have a great book to share with them."

Teach privacy. Your preschooler can understand about "private time," and he can learn that he needs to knock before coming in when your door is closed.

Be sure to follow the same rule yourself when your child's door is shut. He may not really desire privacy at this age (in fact, he may still want bathroom company), but he'll better understand the household rule if you follow it, too.

A preschooler can also learn that his private parts are private, and that no one should touch him there but Mom, Dad, the doctor or nurse, and then only for help after using the toilet or for a checkup.

Talk with your kids about sex

Most parents want to do their best in talking with their kids about sex and sexuality, but we're often not sure how to begin. Here's our advice:

1. Explore your own attitudes

Studies show that kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex -- because their moms and dads speak openly and listen carefully to them -- are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens than kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject. So explore your feelings about sex. If you are very uncomfortable with the subject, read some books (see Readings for Parents) and discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, relative, physician, or clergy member. The more you examine the subject, the more confident you'll feel discussing it.

Even if you can't quite overcome your discomfort, don't worry about admitting it to your kids. It's okay to say something like, "You know, I'm uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything -- including sex -- so please come to me if you have any questions. And if I don't know the answer, I'll find out."

2. Start early

Teaching your children about sex demands a gentle, continuous flow of information that should begin as early as possible -- for instance, when teaching your toddler where his nose and toes are, include "this is your penis" or "this is your vagina" in your talks. As your child grows, you can continue her education by adding more materials gradually until she understands the subject well.

3. Take the initiative

If your child hasn't started asking questions about sex, look for a good opportunity to bring it up. Say, for instance, the mother of an 8-year-old's best friend is pregnant. You can say, "Did you notice that David's mommy's tummy is getting bigger? That's because she's going to have a baby and she's carrying it inside her. Do you know how the baby got inside her?" then let the conversation move from there.

4. Talk about more than the "Birds and the Bees"

While our children need to know the biological facts about sex, they also need to understand that sexual relationships involve caring, concern and responsibility. By discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship with your child, she will be better informed to make decisions later on and to resist peer pressure. If your child is a Preven, you need to include some message about the responsibilities and consequences of sexual activity. Conversations with 11 and 12-year-olds, for example, should include talks about unwanted pregnancy and how they can protect themselves.

One aspect that many parents overlook when discussing sex with their child is dating. As opposed to movies, where two people meet and later end up in bed together, in real life there is time to get to know each other -- time to hold hands, go bowling, see a movie, or just talk. Children need to know that this is an important part of a caring relationship.

5. Give accurate, age-appropriate information

Talk about sex in a way that fits the age and stage of your child. If your 8-year-old asks why boys and girls change so much physically as they grow, you can say something like, "The body has special chemicals called hormones that tell it whether to become a boy or a girl. A boy has a penis and testicles, and when he grows older his voice gets lower and he gets more hair on his body. A girl has a vulva and vagina, and when she gets older she grows breasts and her hips grow rounder."

6. Anticipate the next stage of development

Children can get frightened and confused by the sudden changes their bodies begin to go through as they reach puberty. To help stop any anxiety, talk with your kids not only about their current stage of development but about the next stage, too. An 8-year-old girl is old enough to learn about menstruation, just as a boy that age is ready to learn how his body will change.

7. Communicate your values

It's our responsibility to let our children know our values about sex. Although they may not adopt these values as they mature, at least they'll be aware of them as they struggle to figure out how they feel and want to behave.

8. Talk with your child of the opposite sex

Some parents feel uncomfortable talking with their child about topics like sex if the youngster is of the opposite gender. While that's certainly understandable, don't let it become an excuse to close off conversation. If you're a single mother of a son, for example, you can turn to books to help guide you or ask your doctor for some advice on how to bring up the topic with your child. You could also recruit an uncle or other close male friend or relative to discuss the subject with your child, provided there is already good, open communication between them. If there are two parents in the household, it might feel less awkward to have the dad talk with the boy and the mom with the girl. That's not a hard and fast rule, though. If you're comfortable talking with either sons or daughters, go right ahead. Just make sure that gender differences don't make subjects like sex taboo.

9. Relax

Don't worry about knowing all the answers to your children's questions; what you know is a lot less important than how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home, you'll be doing just fine.

Questions & Answers

What's safe sex?

If two people have sexual intercourse or oral sex and one of them has HIV or another sexually transmitted disease, they could give it to their partner(s). Doctors believe that if the man wears a latex condom whenever he has intercourse, it helps to protect him and his partner from giving each other HIV. That's why people call sexual intercourse or oral sex with a latex condom "safer sex."

Is it true that you can't get pregnant the first time that you have sex?

No. You can get pregnant anytime you have sexual intercourse. Wearing a latex condom, taking birth control pills, or using other contraceptives are very effective at preventing pregnancy. However, the only absolute way to not get pregnant is to not have sex at all. You might also use this question as an opportunity to point out that not having sexual intercourse is a good idea for teens. Help them understand there are other ways to show affection.

Talk with your daughter about safer-sex

When to Worry About Your Kid Having Sex

It's important to think about how and why teenagers become sexually active—not just whether and when they do.

Like it or not, it's a sexy world. The media ensures that children and adolescents are exposed to sex earlier than ever; girls are going through puberty earlier; and, as always, many teenagers are having sex.

As parents, we all have our opinions about when and with whom our children should be sexually active. So when is that age? And when should you worry? (Keeping in mind that "always" is not a viable answer.)

It should come as no surprise that there is little consensus among cultures about young people and sex. Take, for instance, a recent study that compared American teens with their Dutch counterparts: In the Netherlands, where parents routinely allow their children to become sexually active when they feel ready and host their children's partners for sleepovers, the rate of teen pregnancy is an eighth of that in the US. "That's all well and good," a more conservative American parent might retort, "but abstinence is still the only foolproof method of birth control, and I'd prefer if my child waited until marriage to have sex."

So: Are there any rules?

First off, children are not sexual beings. If a prepubescent child displays "sexual" behaviors, like touching genitalia, they could be the result of normal curiosity about his or her body and the bodies of others. If the behaviors occur more than occasionally, on the other hand, or include overt attempts to mimic or perform sex acts, it might be something to worry about.

Kids are "curious, and that's how they learn about the world," says CMI clinical psychologist Dr. Samantha Miller, "but they're also wired to mimic." Remember—kids aren't born knowing what sex is; if they're aping it, they've been exposed to it. The exposure might be to pornography, which could indicate neglect, notes Dr. Miller; or it could be to actual sex, or even abuse. A child who acts out sexually doesn't really understand the behaviors as sex, which is why, if reinforced, they can lead to an unhealthy relationship with sex, their bodies, and the bodies of others that may be very damaging emotionally later on.

After puberty—whenever it happens—adolescents are sexual beings, with urges that are fundamentally human. So-called "normative" sexual behaviors vary by culture. The point, according to Dr. Miller, is that whether you want a child to wait until marriage to have sex or just until she thinks she's "ready," it's up to you to pass on your values by talking to her early and often.

So if no one can really tell you when to worry about a sexually mature young person having sex, what should you do if you are worried? Think about why you're worried. It is of course your own business if you object to the behavior on religious grounds, or you think that it's simply inappropriate; but there are other reasons to worry that cut across cultural and societal considerations.

First, some sorts of adolescent sexual activity are clear warning signs of underlying problems—if your son coerces or even forces others into sex, he's not only going against societal norms; that behavior is one of the symptoms of conduct disorder, a serious but treatable psychiatric disorder. If you're alarmed by your daughter's promiscuity, sexually transmitted disease is just one thing to be worried about. Risky, reckless sexual activity is also symptomatic of the mania found in bipolar disorder, and also may indicate a history of sexual abuse. And of course sex brings with it real risks—of pregnancy, disease, etc.

Beyond that, you might worry if you think your child is having sex for the wrong reasons. Maybe she sees sex as a means to validation, to deal with low self-esteem, to seek attention. Or as a way of dominating other people. Sex shouldn't be a tool—if a young person is using sex to try to get something else or deal with troubling feelings, her attitude about sex can become distorted, and lead to problems down the road.

"There are no set rules about when children should have intercourse," says CMI psychiatrist Dr. Alan Ravitz. "But there are probably good rules about why children should have intercourse. They shouldn't be having sex because they want somebody to like them. They shouldn't be having sex because they feel coerced into having sex."

Attitudes like that threaten a "wonderful thing," Dr. Ravitz continues. "Having a great sex life is a blessing." So how do you protect your child and make sure he or she grows up to have a healthy sex life? "Supervise and give guidance," suggests Dr. Ravitz.