How to Talk About Sexual Health As a Parent
Talking to your child about sex is a huge parenting milestone, but that doesn’t mean you’re jumping with excitement to take on the task, right? If just thinking about it leaves you with all sorts of fears — like not knowing the answer to an important question or that by talking about sex you’ll somehow be encouraging it — you’re not alone.
One of the best things you can do to relieve some of the pressure: Turn “the talk” into a series of smaller discussions that start at birth and continue as your child grows up.
“It’s less intimidating when you realize you’re just going to have to talk about it a minute or two at a time,” says Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and Chief of Digital Innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “So you can’t screw anything up too much when you know you can come back to it 35 more times.”
With that in mind, here are some tips to guide you through talking with your son or daughter about sex at various life stages:
It may feel weird to talk about these topics when your kids are so young, but they’ll be better off in the long run if you establish open communication early on and let them know you’re always available to talk. You may even find that it’s easier to have these conversations at this age — especially since there’s no stigma behind sex yet.
Educating little ones will probably involve a lot more modeling and demonstration than talking, experts say. For instance, books can be a great tool for teaching young kids about sex, bodies, and relationships because they’re already familiar with the idea of story time, says Dawn Ravine, sexuality education program coordinator at Lurie Children’s Division of Adolescent Medicine.
You’ll also want to model healthy relationships and consent from the earliest moments of your child’s life, explains Ravine. This could be anything from respecting your daughter’s request if she asks you to stop tickling her to honoring her privacy to ensuring she never feels forced to hug or kiss a relative if she’s not comfortable.
As for how you speak with them about body parts, Ravine says it’s OK to have informal words that you use with your family, but you want to make sure you’re teaching the formal names as well for safety reasons.
Ultimately, you’ll want to let your kid’s level of interest be your guide.
Now is when you can start having more frank and direct conversations about topics like safety, physical boundaries, sexuality, reproductive systems, consent, and relationships.
As some kids in this age range start to have crushes, you should encourage them to talk to you about it — just remember to keep the conversation lighthearted and don’t assume the gender of your child’s crush.
“If we want our kid to talk openly with us about their sexual orientation, it’s up to us from an early age to not make assumptions,” Ravine says. “So if we talk about crushes, we can talk about them in gender neutral ways.”
You’ll also want to model vulnerability, which could mean admitting when you don’t know something your son or daughter asks you about, or admitting you realized you haven’t spoken about something with your them that you wish you had.
This can be as simple as saying something casual like, “Hey, I feel like we never really talked about what a vulva is. And I realize that you are now 10 and you have a vulva and I really want to make sure that you know what those body parts are. I printed out this page. Let’s take a look at it together,” Ravine says.
You could also visit websites like kidshealth.org, where you can look at anatomy diagrams and learn about body parts together.
You’ll be talking with your children about sexuality and relationships for their whole life and may choose to broach different topics at various times based on things like their personality or your values. But talking about sexual intercourse needs to occur sometime when she’s between the ages of 10 and 12, Swanson says.
This is the age where kids tend to get more curious, may be having conversations about sex with their friends at school, and are consuming media that’s highly sexualized. By not talking to your child about intercourse at this age, you could be leaving their learning up to YouTube or interactions on the playground.
As you speak with them about sex, it’s important to remain open-minded and listen. Think about asking him or her what they think about sex, whether they have questions about their development, or expressing curiosity if they comes home from school and mention learning about sex during health class.
Whatever the case, you want to keep the conversation positive and enjoyable enough that your tween will want to talk with you more in the future. Additionally, this helps send the message that their sexuality, body, and gender are positive things that should make them feel good, Ravine says.
Ages 13 and up
If you have a daughter, you’ll want to make sure she has access to confidential reproductive healthcare (and knows it’s OK to use it) once she reaches her teenage years. This might mean setting up an initial appointment with a pediatrician, OB/GYN, or a community teen health center, so that she’ll feel more comfortable seeking support in the future if she has questions, requires help, or needs access to contraception.
“We know through research that access to confidential reproductive health care does not decrease the likelihood that a young person will talk to their parents,” Ravine says. “But it does increase the likelihood that they will seek adult support.”
This is also a time to talk about the risks of sex and make sure your daughter or son has access to information on contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
You may end up addressing aspects of sex at slightly different ages than we’ve mentioned, but the important takeaway is to keep demonstrating positive behaviors and engaging in these talks as it feels appropriate and when the need arises.
“The more we open up those conversations, the stronger our girls will grow up to be in protecting their own desires and their own sexuality and their own safety when it comes to sex, sexuality, or sexual intercourse,” Swanson says.