Talking To Your Child About Sex

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Many parents would rather not talk with their child about sex, but talking with your child about sex can help keep them safe. Research has shown that when parents talk with their child about sex their child is: more likely to use contraceptives, more likely to delay intercourse, and less likely to have a teenage pregnancy. Children listen to their parents when they talk about sex. It might surprise some parents to find out that both adolescents and teens, when asked say they listen to what their parents have to say about sex. A study in 1995 found that adolescents rated parents higher in credibility than school and friends when it comes to getting information about sex, but they rated them low in “accessibility.” A more recent study done in 2006 by the Canadian Association for Adolescent Health found that sixty three percent of teens considered their parents a major source of information, and forty three percent thought parents were the most useful and valuable source of information.

Talking about sex with your child can further develop your relationship. Any relationship that’s based on communication is going to have its challenges, and often it is during those challenges that the relationship grows. Your relationship with your child is no different, particularly as they get older and become more independent. Talking with your child about sex won’t always be easy, but it is well worth the effort and the payoff can be more than a healthy child, it can be a healthier relationship with open communication.


It would be nice if there was a simple way you could talk with your child about sex, a way that would cover everything you need to know and every question your child might ask, but there is no simple way. While it is important to prepare before talking to your child about sex in the end it’s going to take many conversations for you to find your footing. The most important thing is to listen to what your child is asking and let them know that there is nothing wrong with asking questions about sex.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents some general guidelines about what kinds of questions to expect and what information is important for your child to know at different ages and stages. Below is an overview.

Eighteen months to three years old:

At an early age your child will start exploring their body by touching it. Genitals have nerve endings and touching them feels good and is a way children soothe and occupy themselves. This is not sexual in the same way we might think of teens or adults touching themselves, and it is a healthy thing to do.

It is important to teach your children the proper names for all their body parts, including their genitals. By making up names or ignoring these body parts altogether you send the message that there is something wrong with them and/or that they should ignore this part of their body. Sexual health is an important part of overall health, and to keep your child healthy they need to know about their body.

You can begin to teach your child about the difference between private and public. One way to do this is to teach them about the parts of their body that are private and should only be touched by themselves. For example the parts of their body covered by their bathing suit. By making this distinction you are letting them know that there is nothing wrong with their bodies and that curiosity about their body is healthy. You are also teaching them that there is a time and place for exploration, and they have the right to be free from unwanted sexual touching.

Four to five years old:

At this age your child may begin to show a more active interest in how their body works and how other children’s bodies work. They also may want to know why girls and boys bodies are different, and they may not understand why they can’t touch other children’s bodies.

You should still continue to tell your child accurate information. For example: where babies
come from, about the names not only for their own body parts, but the body parts they don’t have but are seeing on other children. Help your child find and maintain healthy boundaries around exploration. For example your family might be okay with walking around without clothes, but your child needs to understand that taking off their clothes at daycare or at a party isn’t okay.

Another example is that it’s perfectly healthy for your child to want to touch their own genitals, but they need to learn that doing it in public is not okay. At a minimum the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that before reaching school age, your child should know: proper names of their body parts, functions of the different body parts, and physical differences between boys and girls.

Talking to your school aged child about sex:

What types of questions your five to nine year old child asks will depend on a various things, including how they are developing intellectually and emotionally, and how you as their parent handled talking about sex in their earlier years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents an overview of what they suggest for
children ages five to nine:

During this time questions about sex, like questions about the rest of the world, will probably become more specific and detailed.

Your child will likely be curious about:

  • How and when girls get pregnant.
  • Puberty questions regarding erections, ejaculation, and menstruation.
  • Different sexual behaviors, for example: intercourse, or explanations for terms they may have heard such as “blow job.”
  • Questions about sexual orientation.

Five to Seven Years Old:

This is an important learning stage when lessons your child learns will stay with them and
become generalized. What they learn at this age stage can have a significant impact on their adult sexual lives. This is the age when many parents shut down children’s natural curiosity and teach them that sex and their own bodies are something to fear. It is important to help your child understand that sexual curiosity is normal and healthy, regardless of how you expect your children to behave in public.

Eight to Nine Years Old:

At this age stage your child may begin to go through changes in preparation for puberty. Your child will have developed a sense of right and wrong and be curious about how this applies to love and sex. They may also begin to ask direct questions about same sex and opposite sex experiences and relationships. As your child is exposed to sexualized media images and content at a younger age it is important to talk with your child about these messages and begin to teach your child about sexual responsibility and the importance of waiting to engage in sexual behaviors until they are ready.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that by the time your child approaches puberty they should know about the following:

  • Body parts related to sex and those body parts functions.
  • How babies are conceived and born.
  • Puberty and how their body will change.
  • Menstruation.
  • Sexual intercourse.
  • Birth control.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and how they are spread, including HIV and AIDS.
  • Masturbation.
  • Homosexuality.
  • Family and personal values regarding sexuality.

Talking to your pre-teen (age ten to approximately twelve) or teen about sex:

Since we live in a culture that is heavily exposed to sexual messages, talking with your pre-teen or teenager about sex is a vital part of supporting them though their teen years. So let’s say you’ve decided you’re open to talking with your pre-teen/teen about sex. What do you do next? Here are a few ideas to help you talk to your pre-teen or teen:

Be there to answer your pre-teens questions.

Ages 9-12 is also a time when pre-teens are open to asking questions of their parents and
listening to answers. This openness is fleeting once your pre-teen enters the teen years, so parents should take the opportunity to respond to questions when they are asked.

Talk About Responsible Sex:

As your pre-teen/teen starts feeling hormones or cultural pressures about sex, it is a good time to talk about responsibility. Help your teenager learn that sex is natural and healthy, but that it is meant as a part of a mature, committed relationship. Teach your teenager about the need to wait for sexual activity until it is in that context. Help them know that sexual feelings are normal, but need to be managed according to their values. For example: explain that just like we don’t always strike out physically when we are angry, we don’t always act out when we feel sexually aroused. Explain to your teenager that their actions need to always be governed by their values. Also, help them understand the risks and consequences of teenage pregnancy.

Pre-teens/teens deserve respect:

Teenagers usually are thought of as lazy, badly dressed, having poor taste in music, not responsible, and of course, sexually out of control. But if you take the time to remember what it was like when you were a teenager, you will find a very different reality. Being a teenager is arguably the hardest time in life; teens have little autonomy, with their days filled with school and their nights and weekends filled with an intense social pressure to conform to other people’s expectations. Pre-teen/teens may have easy access to drugs, alcohol, random sexual experiences, but all too often they do not get good information about any of them. Surviving being a teenager is hard work and you should treat your teenager with respect not only because they deserve it but because they will be more likely to listen to what you have to say!

Pre-teens/teens are individuals not statistics:

Often teenagers are talked about as if there is no difference between a 12 year old and a 16 or 18 year old. There is a big difference in terms of maturity, knowledge, life experience, and social skills. You need to treat your pre-teen/teen as an individual, not a statistic that you read about in the paper. Try to get a sense of where you think your teenager is in terms of their experience and maturity about sex.

Listen carefully for sexual questions:

Your teenager may be comfortable talking about sex, asking questions, and telling you what is going on in their life or your teenager may not. Your teenager may not ask you clear questions so you have to pay attention to what is not being talked about and what they say about sex indirectly. For example, they may talk about stories that happened at school or a reaction to a particular class where sex may have been discussed. This may be their way of broaching the subject of sex with you. Do not expect a confession or a clearly laid out question and answer conversation. Pay attention to indirect questions and try to pick up on these indirect questions to see if your teenager has more specific questions.

Be available:

Avoid being the parent who tries to force the issue of sex. Part of respecting your pre-teen/teen is giving them space to ask questions when they are ready. At the same time you want to make sure they know you are open to their questions. It is a balancing act – being available and accessible, but not being in their face. You won’t always keep your balance but when your teenager notices you trying they will appreciate your effort.

Cover sexual basics in different ways:

While you should respect your teenager’s privacy there is a lot of important health information your teenager should have.

If you think your teenager might be sexually active, and aren’t sure if they know about safe sex, you should ask your teen. It is your responsibility to make sure your teenager knows how to keep safe in sexual relationships. If they are horrified by your pushiness, make sure you have a few books that can cover the basics of sex. Have other resources available, for example, Planned Parenthood, other family members, or family friends, so that your teenager can have another person to talk with instead of you. The most important thing you can do is help them get the information they need in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Timing of sex talks:

Try to keep in mind that your teenager is likely juggling many things you are not aware of. Do not expect your teenager to be ready to talk about sex whenever you are. If you want to bring up sex do it at a time and place where you both will feel comfortable and free to speak your mind. Talking to your teenager just before they are about to go out on a Friday night, or right in the middle of their favorite show is not the best time. Find the right moment. Instead of saying, “it’s time to talk about you know…,” let the topic arise naturally, for example, during a love scene in a video or while passing a couple on a park bench. It helps to think about opening lines in advance.

Educate yourself about sexually transmitted diseases:

Times are very different for teens today than it was during your adolescent years. Educate
yourself about the various sexually transmitted diseases. If you are knowledgeable about the signs, symptoms and long term effects, it will be easier for you to share this with your teenager. You can find transmitted disease information at

Know your boundaries with your pre-teen/teen and keep them

Do not try to be your teenager’s “buddy” or best friend and do not feel like you have to answer every personal question they might ask you about your own life or history. Disclosing your personal stories and lessons learned can be a powerful way to help your teenager think about their own choices, but setting your own boundaries about what you will and will not talk about is just as important. This may help your teenager to begin to develop their own boundaries, which is an important step in developing sexual health.