As children go through adolescence, they’re likely to have a lot of curiosity and questions about sex and sexuality. And, although your child may learn sex education basics in their health class, they might not hear — or understand — everything they need to know to make good choices about sex. That’s where you come in. As awkward as it may be, sex education is a parent’s responsibility. By openly and honestly addressing your child’s questions and thoughts about sex as early and honestly as possible, you can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy sexuality and relationships.

Have “The Talk” early and often

The sex talk should not be a one-time discussion that occurs all at once. Instead, you should use a layered approach, like making a lasagna. Talk about something, then come back and talk about a different topic. The earlier you can start talking about sex and sexuality, the more of an open and honest foundation you will create and the better off your teen will be. To help you get started, here are some developmentally appropriate topics to cover:

  • 2 to 4-year-olds: This is a great time to start talking about the correct words for private parts.
  • 4 to 5-year-olds: Children this age can learn about boundaries and what is and isn’t appropriate touch. They should learn that they have a say over what happens to their bodies and nobody should be touching them without their consent. You can also start talking about how a baby is born, but you don’t have to give all the details.
  • 5 to 6-year-olds: Now is the time to expand on your initial discussions and explain how mom and dad made them with sperm and egg. Again, you don’t have to give every detail. Make sure your conversation is developmentally appropriate.
  • 6 to 8-year-olds: This is a good time to explain that relationships and that families are different — some kids have two moms, others have two dads.
  • 9 to 11-year-olds: At this age, kids may start to get curious about pornography and should learn that pornography is not the most realistic portrayal of a healthy relationship. You should also cover puberty and changes in their bodies, sexual choices and gender and sexual orientation. It’s also good to go over consent again.
  • 14 to 16-year-olds: By this age, many kids are thinking about trying things out or experimenting sexually, so this is the time to review the basics of contraception, sexually transmitted infections and the relationship of alcohol and drugs to their ability to consent.
  • 16 to 18-year-olds: It’s time to empower your older teen to take on their own sexual healthcare and healthcare in general. If they are in sexual relationships, it’s also important for them to take on the responsibility of getting screened for infections and using protection.

Other tips for talking to your child about sex

  • Have conversations around everyday moments. Be on the lookout for everyday moments to start conversations about sex — movies, billboards, ads, etc.
  • If your teen is considering having sex, have them think about the following questions:
    • Are you fully protected against an infection or pregnancy?
    • Do you know your partner’s sexual history?
    • Is this a healthy and positive relationship that’s consensual?
    • Will you feel ashamed or guilty later?
  • Reassure your child that people mature at different rates and may also have different views on who they’re attracted to. Many kids are struggle with their sexual and gender identity or wonder if they’re developing normally. It’s important for you to reassure your child that they’re okay and that you love them and you’re going to be there for them.
  • Teach your children to respect choices when it comes to consent. Sometimes what starts as a yes can turn into a no, so it’s important to always continue to check in with your partner about how they feel about things.
  • Use your global village. Not everyone feels comfortable having these discussions so it’s okay to use your global village and get outside support — enlist your partner, another adult, books, videos, your healthcare provider, etc. to help navigate these issues.

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Anisha Abraham Anisha Abraham, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s National as well as Acting Chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine and Director of the Adolescent Medicine Fellowship Program.

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