Talking about Sex With Kids: Take the Fright Out of ‘the Talk’
If the thought of talking about sex with your kids makes you sweat, you’re not alone. More than half of parents haven’t discussed sex with their preteen, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But experts say it’s not something you should skip.
The “birds and bees” talk builds the foundation for a healthy attitude toward sexuality and an open dialogue with your child that continues through adolescence, says Laurie Watson, licensed marriage family therapist and clinical director of Awakenings Center for Intimacy and Sexuality in Raleigh. Here are suggestions for how to approach the topic with your children, from preschool through the teen years.
Although toddlers and preschoolers are too young for clinical descriptions or copious details, it’s never too early to begin preparing for a healthy understanding of sex.
“Young children have a natural curiosity about their own bodies and the bodies around them,” Watson says. “Talking about bodily functions, gender differences and sex should simply be a woven, continual conversation.”
Beginning in toddlerhood, all children should learn the names of their body parts, including their genitals.
Children may begin to ask questions about where babies come from around age 5 or 6. This doesn’t need to be an anxiety-filled discussion; keep answers simple and straightforward, without going into too many specifics. There’s plenty of time for that later.
“Once children understand the basic anatomical differences between men and women, you might explain that babies are made by two bodies fitting together like a puzzle,” Watson says.
The best way to talk about sex depends on your child’s personality. Some kids are full of questions, while others specialize in squirming and eye-rolling when parents go anywhere near the topic. Whatever your child’s personality type, keep talking, Watson says.
“Curious children will easily expand your conversations,” she says. “Avoidant children certainly still need the information. Anxious kids also should be assured that their lack of interest or even disgust is normal, but that eventually they will enjoy this wonderful aspect of special relationships.”
If a child hasn’t brought up the subject by age 8, parents need to assume responsibility for covering most general topics, Watson says. By age 12, a child should know and understand facts about conception, pregnancy and birth; that sex is part of loving adult relationships and feels good; puberty-related body changes; how to handle increasing feelings for love objects; the meaning of slang words and jokes; and their family’s social and moral values regarding sexual expressions.
Sex is very much on the minds of most teens, says Susan Kuczmarski, author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. Unfortunately, few adults initiate conversations about sex with their teens, but they should, Kuczmarski says.
“The most important thing you can do is talk,” she says. “This establishes openness between you and your teen on sex-related issues. You want your teen to feel comfortable coming to you to talk later, and the best way to ensure this future dialogue is to initiate it early yourself.”
Can’t muster enough cool to bring it up? That’s OK, Kuczmarski says.
“If you’re not comfortable talking about sex, fake it. Comfort will grow with frequency.”
Many small conversations are better than one or two “big” ones, she notes; conversations about sex, dating, love, desire and even passion should be discussed casually and often.
“Ideally, if you started talking when they were younger, you’ll be more comfortable talking as your child enters the teen years,” Kuczmarski says. “If you didn’t, there is no time like right now. So just start.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom.