Talking about sex with your children is important. Children who have open and positive conversations with their parents about sexuality are more likely to make safer decisions. Parents should approach sexuality as an ongoing conversation starting in toddlerhood. As children progress to adolescence, parents can provide more in-depth information and guidance.
When Should I Start Talking to My Child About Sex?
There is no “right” age to talk to your children about sex, but it can start as early as the toddler years. When and how you approach the conversation will depend on your child’s age, maturity level, and interest It is best to approach it as an ongoing conversation, rather than a one-time talk.
Many think that talking about sex means only talking about the act of having sex. In fact, talking about sex includes and involves topics such as:1
- Sexual activity
- Intimate relationships
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Sexual orientation
Talking about sex with your children can bring up a lot of emotions, including fear, anxiety, and dread, for both parent and child. These reactions are normal, but should not get in the way of having a positive conversation. Teens are more likely to delay having sex and use protection when they do have sex if their parents talk to them about it.1,2
An Age-By-Age Guide to Talking to Kids About Sex
As children age, the way you talk to them about sex should evolve. Young children can benefit from learning the words for their body parts, while teens require more in-depth information and an opportunity to share their own experiences.
Here are ways to approach talking about sex with your children at each age:
Young Children (Under 5)
Toddlers may seem too young to begin speaking about sex and sexuality, but talking to them about their body parts is important. Just like you would teach them about other parts of their bodies, children this age should be taught the correct words for their reproductive organs.3 Avoid using immature slang like “down there” or “pee-pee;” instead, teach the correct terminology, like “penis” and “vagina.”
Direct communication with young children about their bodies is necessary for a number of reasons.3,4 First, If something hurts, they will know how to tell you. Additionally, if children experience any sexually inappropriate act, they will have the language to describe what happened to them. Using clear language also supports a positive body image and decreases shame.
5-8 Years Old
When children get past the toddler years, you can start thinking about what age you’d like to talk to them about puberty. Depending on your child’s physical development, you may need to have a conversation as early as seven or eight years old. If your child isn’t showing signs of puberty yet, you can hold off until they are nine or ten.
At this age, it is important to talk to your children about what is and isn’t appropriate. Explain to them that no one should be touching their bodies and encourage them to speak up if they are uncomfortable with anything. If your child is engaging in masturbation, avoid shaming them. Simply explain that this is normal behavior that can feel good, but should be done in private.
9-12 Years Old
By this age, speak to your children about puberty. Explain what kinds of changes they can expect and why. Share your own experiences and invite them to ask questions. They may have emotional reactions, like fear and anxiety. Try to quell their anxiety by explaining that while these changes can be difficult, everyone goes through them. You can read a book together on puberty for further information.
During this time, you should also educate your child about sex, including what it is, how it is done, and that it can lead to pregnancy. At the same time, it important to provide information about safe sex practices. Some parents fear that being open about safe sex will encourage their children to have sex earlier, but this is not the case.4 If you’re struggling with how to talk to your tween about sex and puberty, speak with your child’s pediatrician or consider reading up on the topic.
Talking to Your Teen About Sex
By this point, you should have had conversations with your teen about their body parts, puberty, and sex. Now is time to go more in-depth and have open conversations about their feelings about their bodies and sexuality. Around 15% of teens are sexually active by age fifteen.5 Even if your child isn’t sexually active, they likely have friends who are, have thought about it, or may be in a relationship where it’s being discussed.
Ask your teen questions and remind them that you are here to talk. If they are uncomfortable, don’t push too hard. Simply remind them that they can come to you if they need advice or support.
How to Start the Conversation With Your Kids
If you find yourself feeling nervous to start the conversation about sex with your kids, seek advice or support from other parents, your child’s pediatrician, teachers, or a therapist. Remember, your child will likely feel nervous too, so approach them in a comfortable and safe environment. Plan time to talk with them when you will both be alone (no younger siblings present).
As discussed, talking to your child about sexuality should be an ongoing conversation. You can take advantage of “teachable moments” to continue the conversation when an issue is presented.4,5 For example, if you are watching a television show that has sexual content, you can use it as an opportunity to talk about what is going on and allow your child to ask questions. This gives teens an opportunity to reflect on applying these questions to their own lives.
How to Respond to Your Child’s Questions About Sex
Give your child the opportunity to ask questions about sex. They will likely have questions at different points in time, especially as they become exposed to new information and experiences. Thinking about what questions your child might ask in advance can help prepare you.
Questions your child may ask include:
“Is sex bad?”
Depending on children’s knowledge and exposure to sex, they may wonder if it is bad. Talk to your children about the fact that sex is not bad, but it is something that does have real consequences. You don’t want them to have a negative association with sex, but you do want them to make informed decisions.
“What if someone asks me to do something that I don’t want to do?”
Encouraging children’s ability to define and assert their own limits and boundaries is an important part of talking to them about sex. Talk to them about the importance of consent and brainstorm ways that they can communicate their limits.
“Am I ready to have sex?”
Be prepared for your child to ask you directly about having sex. If this question comes up, it is most helpful to help your child think about whether they are ready for the changes that having sex can bring to their lives.
“When did you first have sex?”
This question can be particularly challenging for parents to answer. Prepare yourself for this question in advance by thinking about how much you are comfortable sharing with your children. Try to use it as a teachable moment by acknowledging anything that you might have done differently and talking about the pros and cons of your choices.
Do’s & Don’ts For Talking to Your Kids About Sex
During these conversations with your children, there are certain things that you should and should not do; however, there is always an opportunity to correct mistakes by acknowledging them and giving the correct information.
When talking with your child about sex, do the following:
- Use direct and clear communication, even if it feels uncomfortable
- Tailor your conversation based on your child’s age and maturity level
- Explain sexual abuse and encourage them to talk to you about anything that makes them uncomfortable
- Share your own experiences with going through puberty
- Talk about safe sex practices
- Offer resources to your child on puberty and sex, such as books, websites, and pamphlets
- Encourage them to ask you questions and process their reactions to this information
When having a conversation about sex with your child, don’t:
- Use slang terms for reproductive body parts
- Shame children for masturbating or being curious about their bodies
- Discourage children from asking questions
- Make up answers. If you are unsure about a child’s question, you could look up the answer together or let them know you don’t know and you’ll follow up with them when you have an answer
- Be afraid to seek out information or guidance from a healthcare provider, educator, or other reliable sources
Will Talking With My Kids Make Any Difference?
Children of parents who talk about sex are more likely to put off having intercourse and use protection when they do have sex.4 Studies of adolescents found that having outlets to talk to about sexuality was associated with a lower likelihood of engaging in sexual activity and a higher likelihood of delaying intercourse.6,7
The way you present sex education is important. Some parents take an abstinence-only approach. While it is OK to encourage your children to abstain until they are ready, focusing only on abstinence and not talking about other topics, like the importance of using protection, is not necessarily positive. Teens who are given abstinence-only education are no more likely to abstain from intercourse than other teens.5
Final Thoughts on How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex
Talking to your child about sex and sexuality can be difficult or feel awkward; however, it is an important topic. As a parent, there are specific ways to approach this ongoing conversation at each age. Remember, it is important to arm your child with knowledge of themselves and the world around them, including the topic of sex.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex Infographics