We know it’s important, and we want to get it right. But most parents still feel uncomfortable about “the sex talk.” For any number of reasons, we might feel anxious about how to talk to kids about sex and intimacy in ways that will communicate the values we want to share, and with as little embarrassment as possible.
Sex may not be a popular topic for dinner table conversation, and we’re not suggesting that you bring it up over the lasagna next time you sit down to eat! But The Family Dinner Project is all about helping families connect through conversations that matter – and there’s no denying that this conversation matters. How you handle kids’ natural curiosity about sexual intimacy can help lay the groundwork for not only a more trusting parent-child relationship, but also healthier and happier adult relationships in your child’s future.
Unsure how to talk to your kids about sex? We asked several experts for their best advice.
Why Should You Talk to Your Kids About Sex?
Some parents may read this and think “Oh, my kids don’t need to know about that. That’s for adults!” Others might worry that talking honestly about sex will encourage teens to become sexually active. But the reality is that with the availability of the internet, sexual content and information is more available to kids than ever before – and not all of it will be positive, accurate, or healthy for them to view.
Research shows that teens who have access to factual sex education and open conversations on the topic at home are more likely to delay sexual activity than teens who don’t. They’re also less likely to make sexually risky decisions than their less-educated peers. So as uncomfortable as it might be for you as a parent, the decision to talk to kids about sex and intimacy in an open, honest way is a smart and loving one that allows you, not the internet, to become a trusted source of information.
Ditch “The Sex Talk” in Favor of Multiple Talks
I’ll never forget hearing a college acquaintance share how embarrassed his parents were when they decided it was time for “the talk.” His mother got so flustered that she couldn’t finish a sentence, and finally, his father blurted out “For God’s Sake! See that lamp? The plug goes in the socket! End of conversation!”
As a parent, I can commiserate a little bit with how his mom and dad must have been feeling. They’d clearly agonized over finding the “right moment” to share the “facts of life” with their son, and had blown the topic up in their minds until it was so overwhelming that they didn’t know where to begin. Public Health Educator Linette Liebling, MSPH, encourages parents to have continual smaller, less pressure-filled conversations with kids over time, rather than trying to set the stage for a single big talk. “Having these conversations helps them to develop healthy attitudes and to learn responsible sexual behavior. Research shows that children want to hear about these issues from their parents. Doing it over time instead of having ‘the talk’ takes pressure off of you and communicates that these issues are a part of life.”
Dr. Tai Katzenstein, of The Resilience Project at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, agrees. “Make sex talk-aboutable,” she advises. “Talking over time helps us meet kids where they are in their development, helps us know what their most important questions are at a given age, and shows them that we are open and willing to talk about sex.”
That doesn’t mean sex has to be a daily topic in your home – as with all important issues, timing is everything to ensure that you’re able to have a positive conversation about it. Kids will also have more, and different, questions at certain ages or stages in life than at other times. If finding ways to bring it up feels awkward to you, or you’re not sure how to handle the topic when your child brings it up, these tips may help:
- Answer the questions they ask. “If you need a moment–or aren’t sure about an answer–’I’m going to think about that and get back to you’–is the way to go,” Dr. Katzenstein says. But remember: You do have to get back to them.
- Acknowledge the awkwardness. “Since this will likely not be a conversation either of you will be looking forward to, you should acknowledge that,” says Dr. Khadijah Watkins, Associate Director of the MGH Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds. It’s okay to say “Wow, I’m feeling a little awkward talking about this! How about you?” But Dr. Watkins cautions parents not to allow their discomfort to derail the conversation. “It will be very important to be mindful of your nonverbal communication. Our kids take their cues from us and will be sensitive to feeling judged and criticized, which will quickly shut the conversation down.”
- Look for the “teachable moments.” Liebling stresses that there are plenty of natural cues in our environments that can provide a relatively comfortable opportunity to talk about sex and intimacy. Some of her suggestions for conversation openings include:
- When someone in your circle announces they’re pregnant;
- Ads for menstrual products, birth control, or condoms;
- When puberty, dating, LGBTQ issues, love or sex comes up on a TV show, in a movie, or in a song on the radio.
- Follow up and be available to listen (or talk more). This is a tip from my own experience as a parent. After my tween son asked some questions about female anatomy and shared some wrong information he’d heard from a friend, I recognized that he might have other questions he was too nervous to bring up. I waited a few days until we were hanging out together comfortably (and he was playing a video game, so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact if he didn’t want to). Casually, I mentioned that I’d been thinking about how proud I was that he had brought up his intelligent questions about sex, and that if he had other questions – even if they were embarrassing ones – I was happy to listen. I promised to honestly answer anything he asked, and told him that if I provided too much information or he got embarrassed, he could tell me he was done with the conversation. To my surprise, he relaxed and started asking tons of detailed questions that I know he never would have brought up without encouragement. After I answered them all, he thanked me for making it safe for him to ask without fear of my judgment.
Always be Factual
Honesty, transparency, and good information are excellent guidelines to keep in mind when you’re talking to kids about sex. That doesn’t mean you have to over-explain or share more information than your child is ready to hear; it also doesn’t mean you have to know the answer to every question they might ask. But you do have to provide them with correct information about their bodies, others’ bodies, what to expect, and how to keep themselves and others safe and healthy.
“Basic body knowledge is a key educational goal, so start early. It is important for eventually making good health decisions,” says Dr. Paula Rauch, Founder of the Marjorie E. Korff Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She recommends parents:
- Use anatomically correct language, even with very young children. “I encourage parents to help their children learn the names of all their body parts and this includes genitals or ‘private parts,’” she says. “It helps to underscore that the human body and sex or sexualized content are not the same thing.” Sexual abuse prevention experts also agree that knowing the anatomically correct terms for body parts can help young children better recognize and report abuse if it does happen.
- Teach proper care and ownership of body parts from the start. “For young children, I suggest talking about the sensitive parts of your body that need to be handled with care. A child shouldn’t, nor should someone else, stick anything into these sensitive parts that include eyes, ears, nose, anus and vagina without guidance from a parent or health care provider.”
As kids get older, make sure to continue sharing basic body knowledge and health management with them. Factual information about puberty, including topics like menstruation, bodily development and expected sexual development (like unexpected erections for adolescents with a penis) should be a priority. And while covering these subjects, it’s okay to be inclusive. Understanding the basic anatomy of others’ bodies as well as their own gives older kids and teens more clear language with which to ask the questions they may have, will help them to eventually communicate more openly with a committed partner when they’re older, and sends the message that knowing and caring about the physical and sexual health of their partners is a natural, expected part of intimacy.
And remember: In the age of Google, what you don’t or won’t answer, they may investigate for themselves. If a child asks you a sex question that you either don’t have a factual answer for, or aren’t fully comfortable answering, it’s a good idea to help them get the answers they seek so you know where their information is coming from. We’ve told our kids, “I promise to answer anything you ask me, and I promise to be totally honest. But if I can’t answer you for some reason, I will help you find the answer, and I will always be ready to provide you with good sources for this kind of information so you can learn and stay safe online.”
Different families have different values regarding sexual behavior and intimacy, but one area where we can all agree is the importance of consent. In fact, as a former sexual assault crisis counselor, I now personally rank consent as the #1 message to communicate to my sons in all of our conversations around sex, relationships and intimacy – as well as plenty of everyday interactions that involve touching someone else.
Teaching consent can begin naturally when kids are rough-housing or wrestling, when family members are engaging in hugging or tickling, and whenever you hear that time-honored sibling classic: “She’s TOUCHING ME! Stop TOUCHING ME!”
Dr. Rauch says it’s important for kids of all ages to get the message that “You should not allow someone to touch you in a way that feels uncomfortable or unwelcome. If you are not sure, let the person know that you need more time to think about it. People deserving of sharing your body will respect your timeline for being ready. If someone doesn’t listen to you, leave if you can and get help from an adult you trust.”
Dr. Juliana Chen of The Resilience Project at Newton-Wellesley Hospital adds that helping teens to truly understand what consent means, what it looks like during physical intimacy, and how to check in with a partner to get clear consent is crucial. “We want our teens to be clear that they need to hear a ‘Yes!’ before moving forward. Here are some questions we want our teens asking:
- “Is this feeling good to you?”
- “Are you feeling good about what we’re doing?”
- “Is this still feeling good to you?”
Variations on these questions could also include things like “Are you okay/is this okay with you?” “Do you want me to keep doing this?” or “Do you want me to stop?”
She also stresses that teens need to internalize the concept that if it’s not a “yes,” it’s a “no.” In other words, “Seeming fine with it or ‘not saying no’ are flags to stop,” Dr. Chen says. Teens should also understand that consent isn’t a one-time green light; they (and their potential partners) have the right to change their minds at any time, stop an interaction that isn’t comfortable, or say no to something they previously consented to. “We want our teens to know they don’t have to explain or justify saying no to anybody, under any circumstances.”
Don’t Forget the Emotional Side
Sex isn’t just about bodies. Emotional intimacy is a crucial part of sexual relationships, but it’s hard for kids and teens to truly grasp what that means. It can even be difficult for parents to articulate the role emotions and trust play in a healthy sexual relationship. But for teens who are thinking about whether or not they’re “ready” to become sexually active, it’s vitally important to understand the deep emotional commitment of sex.
Dr. Anne Fishel, Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, advises that parents speak from the heart. “When parents can talk about what sex means to them, that can be a very powerful message to teens, and one that they may hold on to,” she says. While that may feel uncomfortable to some parents, it’s possible to share some of this information without giving up any intimate secrets. For example, my husband has shared with our children that an influential adult in his life told him “When you do decide to have sex with someone, the most important thing is to be sure that the person you choose is the best – the best friend to you, the best at caring for you, the person you want to take the best care of.” He tells our boys that for him, sex has always included those elements of friendship and taking care of each other, and he hopes they’ll look for those things in their own relationships when they’re ready.
Speaking of being “ready,” how can parents communicate with teens effectively about emotional readiness for intimacy? “I suggest that teens think of their bodies as they think about their most personal and private secrets,” says Dr. Rauch. “I recommend that teens not share their body with anyone they don’t trust enough to share a precious secret with…and it takes time to know if someone is trustworthy.”
Dr. Fishel also emphasizes that growing up and developing into a sexually active adult is a process that involves getting to know yourself and learning who you are with a dating partner, and what you value in a romantic relationship. “During the teen years, it’s important to experience lots of different relationships so you learn who you want to be in an intimate relationship. It’s important to be able to get in and out of relationships easily, and when you have sex, it’s much harder.”
The perceived pressure to have sex, or the idea that they “should” be having sex, may still weigh on teens. Dr. Chen says, “We want to communicate that sex doesn’t have a deadline; it’s not about doing something by a certain age or because other people are.” And Dr. Rauch reminds teens, “The opportunity for sex isn’t going anywhere. I have never met an adult who said ‘I wish I had sex at 14 or 15 because I never had another chance.’ The opportunities to be sexually active will be there forever, so wait until you feel ready, trusting, and able to enjoy this wonderful part of life.”
Talking to kids about sex and intimacy can feel awkward, but it’s an important part of raising healthy, confident adults. Remember that it’s natural for children of all ages to have questions about their bodies, other people’s bodies, and intimate relationships. The more you can approach their questions with warmth, patience and factual information, the more you’ll build trust in your parent-child relationship – and the more likely kids will be to continue to turn to you and heed your advice when they need to make smart decisions about sex and intimacy.