Talking with Children about Sex
87% of teens say it would be much easier for teens to delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, August 2012). 87%! That is a big number! But what if open and honest conversations about sex make the YOU, the parent, uncomfortable?
- Explore your feelings about sex
- Read some books (see Additional Resources section)
- Discuss your feelings with a good friend, religious leader, physician, spouse or family member
- Remember the more time you spend with the subject, the more confident you’ll feel talking with your child
- Relax. It’s OK if you don’t know all the answers. What you know is less important than how you respond. Your goal is to let your child know that you are open to discussing any subject, including sex.
- You might not feel open to discussing a subject like sex with your child. That’s OK. But know that your child will likely get information – accurate or not – from somewhere. Wouldn’t you rather it be information you know is correct? Plus, having conversation with your child allows you to include your personal values – which teens find valuable (even if they don’t share that with you).
- Still uncomfortable? Say something like “I feel a little uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything, so please come to me if you have any questions. If I don’t know the answer, we’ll find out together.”
Talking with Younger Children
Be sure you understand what a young child is asking. You don’t want to give a long, descriptive reply that doesn’t answer the child’s question. Use phrases like: “I’m not sure that I understand what you are asking” or “That’s an interesting question. What made you wonder about that?” or “Tell me what you think about that.” This encourages the child to give you more information about what she wants to know.
Answer the question at the time it is asked. Answer briefly but honestly – even if it feels embarrassing to you or other adults. The child learns it is OK to ask and is more likely to continue to ask questions in the future.
Answer questions in clear, simple terms. If someone is old enough to ask, he is old enough to hear the correct answer and learn the correct word(s). Tailor your answer to your child’s age or developmental level. Avoid giving overly complex or sophisticated answers. When asked about the differences between boys and girls, simply say, “A boy has a penis and a girl has a vulva.” A young child doesn’t need a lengthy anatomy lesson, she/he wants to know what is on the outside. Be sure to give your child the verbal cues needed in order to continue asking questions. Examples of verbal clues include, “I’m glad you brought that up,” “If you have any more questions, let me know and we’ll talk some more,” or “That was an important question. I really enjoyed talking with you.”
Be matter-of-fact in your reply. If you giggle or make a big deal of the question, your child may receive the message that sexual questions and terms make people uncomfortable. That message could make the child stop asking OR encourage the child to use sexual terms as a way to tease or make someone else uncomfortable.
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 a 9-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.
Plan ahead. Children can become anxious due to the sudden changes their bodies begin to go through as they reach puberty. Talk about what is currently happening, but touch on 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 in upcoming years.
Talking with Teenagers
Talk WITH your child; not AT them. Avoid lecturing. Share your feelings, attitudes, and values. Share what you feel are the advantages and disadvantages to different choices.
Listen to your child. Listen to his/her feelings, attitudes, and values.
Avoid making assumptions. Asking questions about sex, relationships, birth control, etc. doesn’t automatically mean your child is sexually experienced. Respond to the teen’s actual question, not to your own worries.
Give accurate information to your child. If you don’t have it, find it together. If you give your teen misinformation, she/he may lose trust in you, just as he/she will trust you if you are a consistent source of clear and accurate information.
Don’t worry about being embarrassed. Your teen may feel embarrassed too – it is OK to say “I’m a little embarrassed by that question but I’m glad you asked, and I’ll try to answer it.”
Use other people’s experiences to begin conversations. For example, if your teen shares a story about a pregnant classmate, use that as an opening into a discussion – not a lecture. Pose questions like “how do you think that will change things for your friend?” or “how would you handle a situation like that?” or “tell me how you feel about that?”
Talk about more than the “Birds and the Bees.” While teens need information on sex and birth control, they also want to talk about issues such as love and relationships. According to a poll conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 39% of 12th grade girls wanted to be able to talk with their parents about sex and 38% wanted their parents’ help in getting birth control, but more than half of the girls (53%) said that during their high school years they wanted to be able to talk to their parents about love and relationships. By discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship with your child, he/she will be better informed to make healthy decisions and resist peer pressure.
Keep your sexual history and experiences to yourself. Many teens don’t like to think of their parents as sexual beings and/or view your experiences as irrelevant to their situation. If your child does specifically ask about your personal sex life, it is okay not to answer. Parents have the right to privacy.
Know what your child is watching, reading and listening to, talk with him/her about it and encourage critical thinking. Are the messages your child receives from the media (messages such as sex has no meaning, unplanned pregnancy seldom happens, sex without commitment is simple, women are objects for male sexual pleasure) consistent with your expectations and values? Rather than trying to completely avoid these media messages, use them to open conversation with your teen.
Talk with your child of the opposite sex. Some parents feel uncomfortable talking with their child about topics like sex if the child is of the opposite gender. While that’s certainly understandable, don’t let it become an excuse to close off conversation. Young women and men can benefit greatly from hearing the perspective of the opposite gender.
Remember that you are talking to your teen because you care about their happiness, safety, and well-being AND tell them so.