How to Talk to Your Child About Sex

Imagine bringing your child home, swaddled up tightly with a little hat on their head, giving them a kiss on their forehead, and then vowing to never speak in front of them. After all, what if you said the wrong thing? Better to never say anything than to say the wrong thing.

Would that benefit your child? Of course not!

Most pediatricians suggest talking to your child early and often. Even though they can’t respond, just hearing your voice and listening to the cadence of your words is teaching them how to form sentences and learn language.

Just like your voice lays the groundwork for them to speak, talking to them from a young age about sex in age-appropriate ways lays the developmental groundwork for them to have a healthy relationship with sex.

Healthy sexuality is a broad topic that encompasses more than just intercourse. It includes things like understanding consent, knowing the appropriate terms for body parts, knowing how to take care of private body parts, and showing respect toward oneself and others. Different conversations are appropriate at different ages.

Talking appropriately about sex and sexuality when your child is young creates more trust and understanding between the two of you, not to mention better overall communication.1,2,3 Many parents overestimate when they should start talking to their child about different aspects of sexual health.2,4 Resist the impulse to put off talking about healthy sexuality until your child is older. Start early and lay a foundation that you can build on as your child matures.

Things to Consider Before Talking to Your Child About Sex

Here at Defend Innocence, we don’t want to tell any parent exactly what to say to their child about healthy sexuality. Of course you know your child best. We simply provide you with tools to make the process a little easier. Below are 10 things for you, your partner, and any other adults in your circle of trust to think through before talking to your child about sex and sexual health. This list will allow you to gather your thoughts before questions from your child take you by surprise.

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    Male and female anatomy.

    What do you want your child to know about the differences between male and female anatomy? How will you teach your child about these differences?

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    Abstinence, safer sex, condoms, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

    What will you say to your child and when? How will you address these issues in a healthy way?

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    Sexual arousal and masturbation.

    How will you address these topics with your child without using shame? What will you say if your child comes to you with questions?

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    Dating, romance, kissing, and hugging.

    How would you like your child to act with their peers in this way? What things would you NOT want them to do?

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    Menstruation and puberty.

    When and how do you want to address these topics? How will you handle the confusion they may have around their bodily changes?

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    Sexually explicit images and sexting.

    How will you talk to your child about them? How can you address them in a loving, non-shaming way? What will you do if you discover your child viewing, sending, or receiving them?

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    Rape and consent.

    How does consent play a role in their current life in a non-sexual way? How do you hope they’ll use the principle of consent in their relationships? What will you do if you find out your child has been raped? This can be especially uncomfortable to think about, but letting your child know that they can come to you in those circumstances can make a huge difference.

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    Respect.

    How will you teach your child to respect the differences of others while staying true to their own values? How can you address harmful aspects of gender roles and encourage positive ones? What role does self-respect play in that conversation?

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    Sexual abuse.

    What have you learned that your child needs to know about sexual abuse? How will you respond if you spot potential signs?

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    Social media and privacy.

    What do you want your child to know to keep them safe and protected while they are online? How does physical and non-physical privacy impact them?

If you think through the above topics it can help you be more aware of what you believe, what you want to talk to your child about, and when you want them to know it.

Talking Is Important, No Matter Their Age

The best time to talk to your child about healthy sexuality is now. It doesn’t matter if your child is 5 or 15. Having age-appropriate, continuous conversations about healthy sexuality is one of the best ways to lower their risk for being sexually abused.

But knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to have those conversations. Below are a few tips to help you “embrace the awkward” and talk to your toddler, adolescent, or teen.

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    Have frequent talks about it.

    An all-too-familiar scenario is having “the talk.” Remember when you sat down with your mom or dad? Do you remember how you felt? Did you want them to stop talking as soon as possible? How much of it did you already know? How much of it did you try to block out directly after? Having frequent smaller talks about sexuality that come up naturally in conversations over the years is a MUCH less awkward way to make sure your kid understands what they need to know. It can be as simple as answering a question or having a twenty-minute conversation. These ongoing conversations will take away the awkwardness of teaching about sex, and your child will feel more confident to talk to you about it.

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    Mature conversations as they mature.

    Age isn’t the only factor to determine what you should teach and when; your child’s maturity also plays a big part. Teach to their level of understanding. For example, you can teach a very basic understanding of private body parts when children are very young. As they grow you can provide information on how babies are made. Then move into more in-depth conversations about intercourse and healthy relationships as they enter their pre-teen and teen years. You want to be the one to educate them. Don’t leave it up to the playground, school, or media.

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    Stay open.

    Be a listener. Always strive to have an open dialogue with your child, no matter their age or the topic. Take time to get to know your child and appreciate them for who they are. Ask questions and really listen to their answers. Let them know you’re interested in what they have to say. These continuous conversations about healthy sexuality work best when they are two-way conversations.

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    Take an active role in social media.

    Children are becoming involved in social media at earlier and earlier ages. It’s important for you to know the social platforms your child uses. Sexual abuse grooming can begin online through means that many parents don’t even realize exist. Taking an active role in social media will keep you in the loop. It will also help you stay in touch with relevant subjects and events that you may want to bring up with your child.

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    Respond, don't react.

    Avoid dramatic reactions. Whether you discover your child has engaged in something you feel is inappropriate or they’ve experienced something terrible, intense reactions can create a sense of shame in your child, even if they were not at fault. Try to respond as calmly as possible. Remember that your conversations should be two-way.

Your Best IS Good Enough

While all of this can seem overwhelming, the thing to remember is to be yourself, even when you feel awkward. No one on this earth knows your child or loves them more than you do. You are the best resource, and you are the first person who can help them when things go wrong.

Just like you wouldn’t remain silent in front of your newborn, remaining silent about sexual health won’t help your child. Saying something is better than saying nothing, whether your child is 10 months old or 10 years old. Take time today to think of what you want to teach your child, and then talk to them about it.

  1. Wurtele, S. K., & Kenny, M. C. (2011). Normative sexuality development in childhood: Implications for developmental guidance and prevention of childhood sexual abuse. Counseling and Human Development, 43(9), 1-24.
  2. Diiorio, C., Pluhar, E., & Belcher, L. (2003). Parent-child communication about sexuality: A review of the literature from 1980–2002. Journal of HIV/AIDS Prevention & Education for Adolescents & Children, 5(3-4), 7-32.
  3. Martino, S. C., Elliott, M. N., Corona, R., Kanouse, D. E., & Schuster, M. A. (2008). Beyond the “big talk”: The roles of breadth and repetition in parent-adolescent communication about sexual topics. Pediatrics, 121(3), e612-e618.
  4. Jaccard, J., Dittus, P. J., & Gordon, V. V. (1998). Parent‐adolescent congruency in reports of adolescent sexual behavior and in communications about sexual behavior. Child development, 69(1), 247-261.