Talking With Children About Sex & Sexuality

Few questions from children make parents more anxious than those about sex. Somehow we never seem to think they’re “ready” for that topic! But the truth is, children’s sexuality, and their knowledge and understanding of sex, develop over time, just like everything else they do and learn. And just like everything else they ask, the ways that we as parents respond to those early questions lay important groundwork for later conversations and deeper understanding.

Toddler and pre-school children are naturally curious about their bodies, and about how they are the same as, and different from, other people’s bodies. The arrival of a new sibling or a friend’s baby, for example, often brings questions about where babies come from. Answer young children’s questions directly, in words they can understand. Use correct terms for body parts, which will give them tools for better understanding later on. Don’t worry about saying too much — just answer the questions they asked, and they’ll let you know when their curiosity has been satisfied.

School-aged children will start to ask more detailed questions, and generally get to the nitty-gritty-detail questions about conception and sexual intercourse between 7-10 years of age. The questions generally come out over the course of several conversations, but this is a great age to have those conversations, when your child is asking. This is also a great time to talk about all of the expected body changes of puberty, about menstruation and wet dreams (both boys & girls need to understand both topics), and about different sexual orientations. You can also talk about your family’s values on all of the subjects, long before your child becomes a teenager and immediately dismisses everything you say!

“Tweens,” those not-quite-little-kids, not-quite-teenagers, are looking to understand more, and to know that they themselves are “normal.” They may be reluctant to ask questions, though, so look for teachable moments and opportunities to talk. Reviewing all of the basic details of puberty, and where their own bodies are in the process, can be helpful. For girls, attending our wonderful Kids Plus “Puberty, Seriously?” class can help here — and we’re working on a class for boys as well!

Kids at this age also need to know that sexual feelings are normal, and that exploring their own bodies, and thinking about their own sexual orientation, is normal as well. Most importantly, let your child know that these are “OK” topics of conversation in your family. Studies have shown that the most important factor cited by teens who avoid unhealthy behaviors is talking with their parents.

Dr Susan Stevens has already written an excellent note about Talking with Teens and Tweens about Sex, but I will reiterate a few points that can’t be overstated. Keep the conversations going with your teen, and listen even more than you talk. Helping your child to understand healthy relationships will help him to make good choices, in a way that “just say no” never will. It has been shown over and over again that talking about preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections does not encourage promiscuity, and does truly help to prevent those hardships.

Many teens also question their sexual orientation. Let your teen know that it’s normal to think about, and that you love her unconditionally, regardless of the orientation she eventually settles on. Acceptance by parents and family members is key to preventing tragic outcomes.

For kids of all ages, remember to use teachable moments as they present themselves. When questions come at inopportune moments, don’t be afraid to reply with something like, “That’s a really good question. Let’s remember to talk more about it when we get home.” Be sure to bring it up later, though, even if your child doesn’t, so that your message is still, “We can talk about these topics.” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you don’t know ananswer, either. There are lots of great resources to help you and your child find the answers together; here are a few to get you started:

Talking to Your Young Child About Sex

Talking to Your Child About Sex

Dating, Sex, & Sexuality: What Teens Need to Know

Teen Sexual Health

Talking to Kids About Sex & Sexuality

In my next Doctor’s Note, I’ll explore how to talk about sex & sexuality with children who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Dr. Sarah Springer, a shareholder in the practice, serves as the Medical Director of Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania.