Talking to Your Child About Sex

Talking to your children about love, intimacy, and sex is an important part of parenting. Many parents feel uncomfortable talking about sex with their children, and so the discussion is avoided, or gets postponed.  Each year about one million teenage girls become pregnant in the United States and three million teens get a sexually transmitted disease.  Children and adolescents need input and guidance from parents to help them make healthy and appropriate decisions regarding their sexual behavior since they can be confused and overstimulated by what they see and hear. Information about sex obtained by children from media sources can often be inaccurate and/or inappropriate.

Experts generally recommend that beginning to have a dialogue about reproduction should begin at age 8. However, preparing to have this conversation can start much earlier, by communicating openly with our children from the beginning, and helping them come to understand their  bodies as healthy, beautiful things that provide them with the resources to experience the world in cognitive, emotional, and physical (sensory) ways. We talk with our children about how wonderful it is to hear beautiful music, to see the pretty seasonal decorations, to feel the soft fur of a puppy or kitten. Most parents have no trouble talking to a toddler about their bodies, and we start to label things for them. “point to your nose.” “where is your mouth?” “close your eyes”.  In these same ways, we need to help them understand the rest of their body in age appropriate ways. This includes being able to name their “private” body parts with real terminology, in a way that we as adults can be comfortable with.

As children start to express an interest in the toilet, we start to talk to them about urinating and defecating. Often these are body processes that can be uncomfortable for parents to talk about, but the more we work on making ourselves comfortable with talking about these things, the better we will do for our children. Finally, though we allow our toddlers to run through the house naked, and to touch their bodies without much concern, we start to talk with them about privacy. The best way to talk with our children at this age is not to begin to teach them that their bodies are something to be embarrassed about, but to talk about how their bodies are very special things, and that they should care for them by choosing the right foods and maintaining appropriate activity levels, caring for our skin with appropriate hygieine,  and  enjoying the parts of our body that can provide personal and private pleasure when we are in private places.

At this young age, we can prepare a foundation for children that their bodies are special things to be cared for, or dirty things to be shameful about.  For example, I often hear from women that they were publicly embarrassed or ashamed by their parents’ public reprimands for touching themselves. I have heard from women who’ve been told to go wash their hands after their parents became distressed when they saw the girls touching themselves.  Many of these women have continued to be ashamed of their bodies, have avoided getting to know their own bodies through masturbation, and have had difficulty with sexual intimacy.

Our own feelings, beliefs, values, and experiences with our bodies and with sexuality can have a profound impact on whether and how we communicate with our children about these topics. I often encounter parents who are so uncomfortable with the subject, or with their own bodies, or who have such substantial sexual issues that they are simply not prepared to have discussions with their children about sex.  If a parent can work through their own concerns related to sex and sexuality, the discussions that they have with their children about sex can be enjoyable and natural – and can build a powerful and deep emotional bond between you and your child that facilitates other kinds of communication and trust.

We will also prepare our children to understand sex within the context of healthy relationships, if we talk to them and model for them the healthy aspects of human relationships, including loyalty, love and commitment. We can share stories about how our families showed their love for one another. We can share,  in an age appropriate way, a little bit about the ways that we have been hurt by disloyalty. We can remind them that one of the most important things in a family is to know that family members love one another, no matter how difficult life’s challenges can be.

Maria Montessori was a psychiatrist who helped to develop the first daycare centers, and who, along with her contemporaries, such as Anna Freud,  identified childhood and adolescence as distinct times in the development of emotions and cognition, and promoted the understanding that children were not simply adult minds in child bodies.  She taught that we should “follow the child”. And this is certainly the right approach to talking about sex with our children. Children have different levels of curiosity and understanding, depending upon their age and level of maturity.  When talking with children about sex, we must offer no more and no less information than the child is asking for, or that the child will be capable of understanding. As children grow older, they will often request more details about sex.  It is important to encourage children to talk about their bodies, and sex, and to feel free to ask questions without the fear of shame or criticism.

Many children have their own words for body parts.  It is important to find out words they know and are comfortable with to make talking with them easier.  It is also important to understand your child’s level of knowledge and understanding. Maintaining your own sense of humor, sharing your own values and concerns openly, and acknowledging your own discomfort will facilitate open communication and trust. Talking about sex is just one of many times that we can talk with our children about the responsibilities that come with making certain choices and decisions. We can talk with them about the value of delaying gratification, and to talk about sex as being related to love, intimacy, and mutuality, as well as respect for oneself and one’s partner.

  • A 5-year-old may only need a simple answer, such as that babies come from a seed that grows in a special place inside the mother. After the father’s seed combines with the mother’s seed, the baby starts to grow.
  • At age 8a child may wonder how the parents’ seeds combine.  It may be helpful to explain that the father’s seed (or sperm) comes from his penis and combines with the mother’s seed (or egg) in her uterus.  The baby then grows in the safety of its mother’s uterus for until it is strong enough to be born, usually 9 months.

As children grow older, they will want to know more details. It remains important to talk about the relationship between sex and intimacy, love, and respect for oneself and one’s partner.  Talking about sex with our children provides them with an awareness of the beautiful power and positive commitment that can come when a sexual relationship is healthy and right.

  • An 11-year-old may want to know even more and parents can help by talking about how a man and woman fall in love and then may decide to have sex.
  • Adolescents are able to talk about lovemaking and sex in terms of dating and relationships, and may need guidance in dealing with the intensity of their own sexual feelings, confusion regarding their sexual identity, and sexual behavior in a relationship.  Concerns regarding masturbation, menstruation, contraception, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases are common.  Some adolescents also struggle with conflicts around family, religious or cultural values.

Open communication and accurate information from parents increases the chance that teens will postpone sex and will use appropriate methods of birth control once they begin. Ongoing dialogue about the responsibilities and consequences of our decisions is important throughout a child’s development, and as a child becomes a teenager, it is important to speak specifically about the responsibilities and consequences that are related to sexual activity, including pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and powerful emotional feelings.

To Summarize:

  1. Prepare the groundwork for discussions about sex by talking with children about their bodies in ways that help them appreciate what their body can do for them and how important it is to take care of it.
  2. Be aware of your own sexual issues, and if they will impede your ability to communicate openly with your child about sex, seek your own therapeutic support to work through those issues and prepare to speak with your child.
  3. When talking with children about sex, we must offer no more and no less information than the child is asking for, or that the child will be capable of understanding.
  4. Create an atmosphere that is not judgmental or critical, and using words that are understandable and reasonably comfortable for the child.
  5. Discuss and model the values of loyalty, love, and commitment, and present sex as a component of a nurturing, loving, and intimate, healthy relationship.
  6. Continue to be available and responsive to your children’s questions as they continue to mature and develop.
  7. Talk with them about things they may be hearing or seeing in the media, and from their friends, about sex and sexual relationships.
  8. Some parents may choose to have a book available to use for the discussions.Two popular options include:
  • Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle.
  • An alternative is How Babies Are Made by Andrew Audrey and Stephen Schep. Both of these are candid and clear and have a nice tone of importance balanced with “lightness” so the subject doesn’t seem oppressive.