You can’t avoid the sex talk with your kids. Well, you can — but if you do, you’re not doing anyone any favors. Yes, it might be embarrassing, but an awkward half-hour is a small price to pay to ensure your child is well-informed and respectful of their own boundaries and those of others well before they embark on a sexual relationship. We tapped the experts — aka credentialed therapists — for their tips on how to talk to your kids about sex (without making everyone involved cringe the entire time).
Because according to licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney, the conversation should start long before your kid is even close to their own first relationship or sexual experimentation. “If you don’t talk to your kids, they’ll learn about sexuality from popular media, peers and pornography, none of which teaches them about healthy sex,” Whitney tells SheKnows. “Kids often run across porn by age 11 or even earlier, so you don’t want to wait to get the conversation started.”
If you’re trying to figure out the right time to talk to your child about sex, it’s best to be guided by them. “Any time is the right time because it should be a series of conversations, which ideally happen more or less naturally,” reveals Whitney. “So when kids are toddlers, teach them correct names for body parts. When sex comes up in a movie or TV show, look for an opportunity to explain or clarify. Use real-life examples to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships.”
This involves answering questions about sex truthfully, even if your child is very young. “When a preschooler asks how babies get made, respond with simple but honest language,” says Whitney. If you’re explaining sex in the context of heterosexual or different-sex relationships / biology, you can explain that when a person with a penis and a person with a vagina care about each other in a sexual way, they “may get naked and hug each other. The man’s penis goes into the woman’s vagina. The man’s semen joins with an ovum inside the woman, and a baby grows in a special place inside the mother called the uterus.’ For adults, this sounds like an awful lot to say, but for kids, it’s just another fact about nature.”
Most kids are pretty inquisitive, so you might get some follow-up questions. Whitney advises answering them as simply as you can. She also suggests buying a book about procreation if the questions keep coming; just be sure to read it first to make sure it uses accurate terms and doesn’t make anything about sex or bodies seem shameful.
If your child hasn’t asked you about sex by age 8 or 9, Whitney suggests initiating the conversation. It’s essential that they get accurate information from you before they get misinformation from friends,” she explains. “You want to show that they can come to you whenever they have questions. Establish yourself as a trusted resource before their hormones kick in during the middle school years.”
Many parents find the thought of talking to their kids about sex overwhelming because there’s just so much to cover: periods, pregnancy, STIs, consent, sexual orientation and gender identity (for starters). But you don’t have to worry about covering all bases during one chat. “Sex is far too complex to cover in a single conversation,” says Whitney. “A long talk is so overwhelming that kids shut down and don’t take in the information. As with everything else we teach kids, from math to sports, it’s better to convey small chunks of info with time in between to let them absorb and process.”
The basic concepts of consent can start when your child is a toddler. “Just as you teach them to take turns and not to hit, teach them that they can’t hug, kiss or tickle someone who doesn’t want that, and no-one can hug, kiss or tickle them if they say no,” says Whitney.
In the era of the #MeToo movement, sexual assault and the topic of consent has been propelled to the forefront of the nation’s discourse. “Consent is an essential topic to be addressed with girls and boys,” board-certified counselor Dr. Chinwé Uwah Williams, tells SheKnows. “Parents can play a vital role in helping their child distinguish between consent (a clear yes) and non-consent (being flirty or texting a sexy pic).” According to Uwah Williams, the primary lesson parents should emphasize to their children is that they have agency over their own bodies. “Kids should be told that it is never OK to pressure someone or to be pressured to engage in sexual activity,” she says. “Even for teenagers who are in healthy relationships, it is important for them to do an internal check prior to and during any kind of sexual encounter. The following are questions they can ask themselves: ‘Am I OK with this type of touching? Do I feel comfortable? Do things feel like they are moving too quickly? Do I feel safe?'”
And consent doesn’t just apply to sexual activity directly involving the private parts of the body. Kids need to know that any type of touch that invades their personal space, including hand-holding, requires consent. “Teach your kids the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching and stress that they can tell you if they witness or experience inappropriate touching,” says Uwah Williams.
Never shame your child by suggesting that masturbation is wrong. “It’s common for kids to self-explore — this does not mean they have been exposed to sexual content,” says Uwah Williams. “But while you reassure your child that it’s natural for them to explore their body, make a point of telling them it’s something that should be done in private.”
One part of teaching kids about sex some parents might find daunting is LGBTQ issues. But it’s only as complicated as you make it.
“Kids generally don’t have a position about same-sex relationships until they are told to have one by society and culture,” licensed clinical social worker Ann Russo tells SheKnows. Russo recommends simply sharing about romantic love and attraction rather than focusing on sexual orientation. For example, tell your child that some people in our world tend to be innately attracted to people of the opposite gender, others the same gender and some various genders. “It never helps to use words like ‘normal’ or ‘most people’,” she adds. “Teaching your children that people love people in various forms is a positive thing for society as a whole. Starting from the premise of love and attraction makes it less confusing, and when conversations turn to the actual act of sex, it won’t be as complicated.”
In a nutshell, teach your child that for some people, sex is an expression of love; for others, it is an expression of sexual desire — and it can occur between people of any gender. The only difference you need to highlight between the various types of sexual relationships is that heterosexual sex can create a baby, and babies come from heterosexual sex or other means.
Yes, there’s a lot of ground to cover here, but try not to feel intimidated. Follow the experts’ advice and take it one step at a time. Above all, try not to be shy or ashamed when addressing the issue of sex with your child. “If you are, your child will think there is something wrong,” says Whitney. “Don’t worry that you have to get things exactly right. Just try to do an OK job teaching about sexuality. Don’t avoid questions, but feel free to take a deep breath or use a book to help. What matters is that your kids get the basic information they need and know that they can talk to you about such an important subject.”