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Sex Talks with Kids: The What, When, & How

By Viviana Diaz, LPC

In our last blog The Sex Conversation: Why it Matters, we talked about the reasons for opening the lines of communication with your child around sex early in life and keeping them open. It can be challenging, but endlessly rewarding as you ensure your child is both accurately informed and feels supported through challenging and confusing times in their growing up.

Sex conversations start young and always need to occur in a kid friendly and developmentally appropriate manner. My first suggestion is to educate yourself first, arming yourself with information that can support you and help you feel confident in addressing any questions your child might ask. Your child will know if you feel hesitant, embarrassed, or uncertain of the facts.

Often, parents don’t need to initiate the conversation as the topic is often raised by curious children at a young age. Just remember to respond in an age-appropriate way. One rule of thumb is to answer the question asked, and not veer off into other related topics or offer more information than requested. It is common for children as young as two to ask where babies come from, or to point at a body part and ask what it is for. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to keep the conversation going, so answer the question simply and factually, and try to avoid messages such as, “We don’t talk about that,” or “That’s dirty,” or “Never talk about things like that.” Do not hesitate to seek support on specific suggestions by age.

Below are some general guidelines about when and how to talk about topics related to sex, body image, sexuality, gender, and more:

  • 2-5 years old: The primary goal at this stage is for children to understand that they have agency over their own bodies, the difference between good and bad touch, and the importance of communicating their feelings to a trusted adult—aka you—whenever they have questions, are curious, or are troubled by confusing feelings or conflicting information. Also, you can open the door to assist children this age to trust their gut feelings if they are uncomfortable with something they have heard or seen. Assure your child that he/she will not be in trouble for asking you anything at all. Also, take advantage of teachable moments presented by the culture around you to discuss gender norms and how these are expressed. Movies you see may raise concerns about how girls or boys are depicted, or unhealthy but subtly expressed attitudes about sex or gender. Feel free to utilize books with drawings and other visuals that help you initiate these discussions and provide useful scripts for answering questions. Then breathe! You are creating rapport with your child as well as establishing the normalcy of such conversations.

  • 6-8 years old: Helpful discussions during these years can be initiated by asking kids what they know about masturbation, affirming that exploration of their own bodies is natural and should not carry with it any shame or guilt, and discussing expected body changes in puberty for girls and boys as well as sexual orientation. Also discuss risk factors they may encounter like inappropriate websites, images, and language that they may come across with their peers or casually at home. Some of these conversations will offer themselves up naturally, for example if you notice your child touching him or herself (this can happen at much younger ages as well), are with them when certain things arise on mainstream media or elsewhere, or if your child simply asks you questions.

  • 9-12 years old: At this stage, it is important to have more discussions about puberty, following up on the groundwork you have laid prior to this about socialization, such as sexism and depiction of genders in our society and what is accepted and what is not. Any questions they have not previously asked about the mechanics and emotions of intercourse, oral sex, birth control, safe sex choices, sexual behaviors online and in person, including personal values, safe boundaries, no means no, and sexting and bullying behaviors. This is a good time to discuss porn, knowing they will probably see it at some point and be curious. They won’t know unless they are told that porn is not actually a reflection sexual activity but a fantasy, and that it often objectifies women and separates sex from feelings of any kind, which can be very confusing.

  • 12 and up: It is at this age that you will be glad you kept the door open to these conversations all along. Honest and open discussions have been normalized through your child’s life so that you can continue to offer support and guidance as they enter their teens. If you have established a meaningful rapport with your child, they will be more likely to keep asking questions and talking about experiences they have in and out of school, with strangers and friends, and anything else.

It is helpful to use the disclosures of adolescents to gauge their values, understanding, and misconceptions around sex. Throughout the teen years, you will openly talk about socialization and sexuality covering topics such as consent, dating, drugs and alcohol, risky choices and their consequences. It’s also important to talk about the fact that physical and/or emotional abuse sometimes happens in relationships, that it is never okay, how to notice danger signs, and to always reach out if they feel unsafe. Sexually transmitted infections (STI), birth control choices, love and infatuation, and becoming sexually active—all important topics to touch on and discuss openly and with trust at any time.

Be okay with saying “I don’t know” to questions you have no answers for. Then seek out the information and get back to your child with it. There are books, reliable online sources, and professionals who can help you stay up to date and confident in fielding any question your child has for you. Remember to respond to situations that may come up in daily life such as movies and other media. You can counter negative or misleading stereotypes, information, and assumptions by speaking up when you notice them. These are teachable moments and you get to see how your child is processing the onslaught of information out there.

At the end of the day, as parents, we want to support our children, and with the proper information and guidance these conversations will happen more organically. Parenting our children when it comes to sex and sexuality is about assisting them to feel trust in connection to their bodies and intuition and empowering them to handle the societal pressures that they will be exposed to regarding their own sexuality in the modern world. A sexually informed child with the proper tools may navigate their own sexuality safely, and this can be extended into their adulthood. I invite you to start these conversations right away.

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