Research shows children and teens that have regular conversations about sex and relationships about sex and relationships with their parents and caregivers are less likely to take risks with their sexual health and more likely to be healthy and safe.
Conversations around sexual health should begin at a young age and build over time. A good starting place begins as early as they learn how to talk. As they are developing their language, this allows you to teach them the names of their body parts. Additionally, as soon as they start interacting with other children, you can teach them about respecting other people, healthy boundaries, and talking about their feelings. Having these conversations from a young age helps to normalize the discussion of sex and relationships and lays the groundwork for developing healthy sexuality and relationships.
Parents and caregivers often seek guidance in conveying information about sex and relationships to their children. An easy way to help you maneuver through these conversations is to think about where the child is in their level of understanding and development. Looking from a developmental lens (i.e., what age and stage they are at) will help you gauge the details you want to include in your conversation. As a child ages, you will continue to build on the information you share about sex and relationships. For example, the age-old question “Where do babies come from?” invites parents and caregivers the opportunity to educate their child about sex and relationships; however, the answer a parent or caregiver might tell a 5-year-old (“They grow inside Mommy’s belly”) differs from the answer a parent/caregiver might provide more detail for a 10-year-old (“Babies grow inside a mother’s uterus and come out through her vagina.”).
Starting conversations about sex and relationships with your children
Conversations with your children about sex, relationships, and health are lifelong. Instead of having “one big talk” with your child about sex, health, and relationships, it is recommended for parents/caregivers to break down this into shorter conversations that occur more frequently. Shorter and more consistent conversations over time will help your child process your values and information over time. Also, this becomes part of the routine you set with your child for an “open door” for future conversations about sex and relationships. Opportunities for talking about sexuality and relationships come up in your everyday life.
Common teachable moments include:
- When you, another family member, friend, or neighbor announces they’re pregnant
- When puberty, dating, LGBTQ issues, love, or sex comes up on a TV show, in a movie, or in a song on the radio
- When gender stereotypes are pushed in ads, games, TV, books, movies, etc.
- When you see unrealistic portrayals of, or very sexualized, bodies (i.e., photoshopped celebrities or models)
- Ads for pads and tampons, birth control, or condoms
- News stories or ads that talk about sex
These everyday life moments open the door for inviting your child to have a conversation about sex and relationships. Start with open-ended questions inviting further discussion from your child. A few examples might include:
- “What do you know about pregnancy?”
- “What do you think about the fact that that celebrity is photoshopped on the cover to look different than they do in real life?”
- “How do you feel about this ad for dolls only having pink and girls in it?”
- “What would you do if someone you were dating started acting like that character on this TV show?”
A few additional ways to initiate a conversation about sex and relationships with your child are:
- Reading: Provide your children with access to books around sex, sexual health, and relationships and let them explore them on their own. Follow up with your child to see what they have learned and what was confusing, and answer any questions they may have.
- Regular Check-ins: Initiate regular check-ins with your child about what is going on with them and their peers at school. Check in with them frequently about what’s happening with them and their peers at school. You can ask them how they feel about their friendships and help guide them through any issues they are currently experiencing.
- Expanding Expectations: As they get older, their relationships will change, and you will allow your child to have more freedoms. You can check in with them about their relationships with their peers. This is also a great way to discuss your values and expectations around sex and relationships.
- Stay Open and Listen: The most crucial thing parents/caregivers can do when discussing sex and relationships is to be open and listen. You can fill in any gaps in their knowledge and correct any misinformation if you hear it. Your child might be embarrassed if you bring up any of these topics, but reassure them that it is normal. Letting them know that they can always come to you if they have any questions or need any support will further ensure the positive development of your child’s sexuality.
Answering Questions About Sex
A few tips for answering your child’s questions about sex and relationship include:
- Listen and get clarification about what they are asking. We want to make sure we are not jumping to any conclusions about why they are asking what or why they are asking.
- Provide answers that are short and simple. This is also an opportunity to explain any new words or concepts your child might not have known before.
- Ask open-ended questions to invite your child to further explore the topic and help you gauge where your child is at. You can simply ask your child, “What other questions do you have?”
- Ask follow-up questions to ensure they understand, such as “Does that answer your question?” or “What do you think about that?”
- There might be times that you don’t know that answer. This is an opportunity to tell your child that you don’t know, but you can look it up together.
More Tips on Helping Your Child Stay Safe and Healthy
Being involved in your child’s life and setting appropriate boundaries is crucial for parents/caregivers to keep their children safe and healthy.
Here are some ways you can stay involved:
- Check-in with your child. You can ask open-ended questions about their day at school, like “What was the most memorable part of your day?” or “How are you feeling about your new teacher/class/school?”
- Learn who their friends are and encourage them to spend more time with kids who you think are a good influence.
- Be aware of your child’s internet activity.
- Learn about your child’s hobbies and interests.
- Always be supportive and inviting when they have questions.
Setting boundaries for your child is important and will make them less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, having unprotected sex, or having sex before they’re ready:
- Create clear expectations around behaviors (like curfews, dating, rules about drugs/alcohol, etc.) and check in regularly to be sure those expectations are met.
- Help your child find activities to be involved in where an adult will be present, such as after-school clubs or sports.
- Empower yourself by knowing where your child is going and who they’ll be with. Don’t allow your child to spend much time alone without an adult present.
- Make sure adults are present when your preteen or teen is invited to a friend’s house, especially for a party. Having knowledge beforehand about who will be supervising and confirming that no alcohol or drugs will be present at the party.
- Going out is a privilege. Have clear expectations of when a child can go out and who they will be with.
- Make sure your child is hanging around age-appropriate peers; your child should not be hanging around other children/young adults that are significantly older than them.
- Become informed and get to know your child’s friends and their parents/caregivers.