Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major
Talking with your kids about sex is hardly any parent’s favorite task. However, it is an important task. We may want to avoid discussing the birds and bees, putting it off until “later,” or using cute words to make it feel more kid-friendly. The reality is, though, that teaching children about sex can not only set them up well for their future but also set you up well for potentially hard conversations later on. It might feel uncomfortable, but there are ways to alleviate parental anxiety and also provide accurate and age-appropriate information to kids. Here are 10 tips for “the talk”:
1. Educate yourself first
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us didn’t get the most amazing sex education when we were kids. I have talked with many adults of many ages about their sex ed experience and although everyone’s story was different, they all said they wished they had more. Before you embark on this journey for your kids, take some time to fill in the gaps for yourself. That may mean learning about different STDs, reading about the names of reproductive organs, or surveying your friends about their sex ed experiences. We don’t need to be experts, and if we wait to talk to our kids until we know everything, we never will. However, we can prepare ourselves in order to feel more comfortable and confident.
2. Create an ongoing dialogue
Often when we think about “the talk”, we think about sitting down with one of our parents while they tell us about puberty, procreation, and perhaps pleasure. Yet, the best sex education is not a one-time conversation, but an ongoing dialogue. Since sex, sexuality, and growing up are parts of our everyday life, they need to be everyday topics. Additionally, making “the talk” many many small discussions actually lowers the pressure for each conversation. Find ways to bring the information you want to teach your child into regular, daily conversation. Teaching body parts? Discuss while diapering or bathing. Focusing on puberty? Be honest with your child about your own experience in childhood/adolescence, or explain to them that you are on your own period and describe how that impacts your day-to-day. Explaining the process of pregnancy and birth? Point out how a pregnant character in the movie you are watching may be feeling. Not every conversation about sex ed has to be scary or intense.
3. Use medically correct terms
Although it might be more comfortable to refer to genitals by cute names like “flower” and sex in coded terms like “boom boom” or any of the many, many things kids say, ultimately it doesn’t serve us or our children well. Teaching kids accurate names not only allows us to have more honest conversations but can keep them safe. When children know the correct terms for genitals, sex, and other topics, it gives us and them language for inappropriate interactions. And in the absolute worst-case scenarios, which unfortunately do happen, there is no room for ambiguity when children report sexual assault or abuse.
4. Use tools, visual aids, and other resources to help
You don’t have to go through this process alone. Even if you decide to have sex ed conversations one-on-one with your child, utilize resources to back up what you are talking about. Some great resources include books specifically designed to support conversations about anatomy, puberty, or conception. But don’t stop there! TV shows, youtube clips, coloring pages, plush toys, and music are all great tools – there are no limits on the resources that can help you educate your child. Here is an unexhaustive list of some of my favorite resources if you want a place to start reviewing and brainstorming:
- Books like What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
- Clips from TV shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education
- Podcast episodes like Faith and Feminism Episode 136: Shameless (Sex) Parenting with Tina Schermer Sellers
- TED talks like those by Sue Jaye Johnson or Al Vernacchio
- Online resources like the National Sexuality Education Standards Core Content and Skills for K–12
- Websites like Sex Ed Rescue, Planned Parenthood’s Resources for Parents page, Mayo Clinic’s Sexual Health page, and the Guttmacher Institute
5. Become your child’s go-to
Even if your child gets sex education at school, church, etc. you are their primary sex educator and all the rest is additional. While that is daunting, it also means that you can create an environment where your child can receive accurate, caring, and compassionate information. We can learn anything online. This means our kids can also learn anything online. We can’t eliminate the inaccurate, inappropriate, and potentially harmful things that our kids may encounter on the internet as much as we try or would like to, but we can become our child’s go-to source so that they don’t need to google in order to learn. We do this by starting sex education early, answering the questions our kids have, and not shying away from conversations just because they are uncomfortable.
6. Know what is developmentally appropriate for each age and stage of life
Sex ed isn’t only about sex. It encompasses topics like anatomy, puberty, relationships, and many other things that aren’t sexual per se. Having developmentally appropriate talks with your kids at all stages of life allows them to learn what is important for them at the moment and prepares them for what might arise soon. Every child is different, so having a good grasp on what your child knows already, is wondering about, and is experiencing is the first step. Next, you can use this basic breakdown to start brainstorming what to cover, and when. Obviously, this list is just some suggested jumping-off points, but it might help you get going.
- Toddler years (up to 2):
- Names of body parts, including genitals
- Consent with emphasis on the ability to decline touch
- The concept of privacy and what parts of their body are private
- Preschool (2-4):
- Reproduction basics (more focused on pregnancy and birth rather than sex itself)
- Consent continued with an emphasis on asking others before touching them and respecting personal space
- Privacy continued with emphasis on changing, being naked, etc. since potty training is likely either underway or complete
- School-age (5-8):
- The range of gender identity and expression
- The range of romantic relationships including LGBTQ relationships, dating vs. marriage relationships, etc.
- It’s normal to explore your own body in private
- Internet safety
- Puberty basics including changes that their sex experiences as well as other sexes as well
- Reproduction continued with emphasis on sexual intercourse as one of many ways that families are formed and reproductive anatomy
- Pre-teens (9-12):
- Sexual intercourse continued with an emphasis on mechanics
- Information about STIs
- Internet safety continued with an emphasis on porn and online relationships
- Body image
- Puberty continued with emphasis on what they are experiencing
- Teenage (13-18):
- Sexual safety including contraceptives and STI prevention/treatment
- The emotional and psychological aspects of sexual relationships
- How to have healthy dating relationships
- Masturbation is normal and private
7. Center (and model) consent
One of the most important topics for sex ed discussions at any age is consent. Teaching our kids to advocate for themselves, how to notice an inappropriate interaction or touch, and ways to respect themselves and others are cornerstones of all other conversations about sex ed. You can begin to teach consent before your child can speak full sentences by modeling some basic tenets. Asking your child if they would like a hug/kiss/high five/etc. before you touch them models seeking for consent before making contact with another person. It also gives your child the opportunity to decline. You can then model respecting their right to say no to unwanted touch. This teaches young kids that they are allowed to say no if they don’t feel comfortable with touch and that if they decline a touch, the other person should back down. Simple practices like this from an early age set important standards for later on in life. If when your child gets older and someone they don’t feel comfortable around tries to embrace them without consent or tries to touch them inappropriately, they will know that they are able to say no and if the other person doesn’t respect that boundary they can speak up and advocate for their own safety.
8. Be real
Kids know when we aren’t honest with them, so let’s be honest. It’s okay to talk about your own feelings and experiences within reason- kids know you aren’t a robot. It’s also okay to be open about how these conversations can feel uncomfortable; puberty is uncomfortable, relationships are uncomfortable sometimes, discussing sex is uncomfortable.
9. You might feel embarrassed
Actually, you will feel embarrassed. And so will your child. But that’s okay! We would rather have embarrassing conversations that accomplish our goal of education than avoid them and therefore forgo the education. Sometimes, pointing to the elephant in the room is our best option. Telling your child, “I know this might feel awkward to talk about, but it’s important and will get less awkward as time goes on,” allows you both to acknowledge your feelings and move forward.
10. Master the phrase “I don’t know”
We can’t know it all. There will be questions your kids have that you can’t answer right away. And that’s okay. Become comfortable saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out and let you know.” Use this as an opportunity to educate yourself more and teach your kids that it’s okay to recognize your limits. When (not if, because it will happen) your kid asks a question that you don’t know how to answer, tell them that, then follow through. Learn, read, look up and come back to the conversation when you know the answer.
Educating your children about sex, sexuality, and their bodies can be a scary task, but it doesn’t have to feel impossible. It’s an opportunity to teach them, as well as learn more for yourself while facilitating bonding moments. And you are not alone!
Along with the resources provided here and the entire internet at your fingertips, Optimum Joy’s counselors are here to support you. Discussing any anxiety about talking with your kids, past issues that come up, and thinking about how to avoid an outlook on sex filled with shame or judgment are great topics to bring up in therapy sessions. Give us a call today!