Oftentimes, parents are interested in talking to their children and teens about sex, but do not know how to approach the conversation. Parents and their children may feel uncomfortable or awkward addressing this sensitive topic. Sex and intimacy play a role in the lives of all people; everyone will likely be exposed to or experience sex in some capacity. Thus, it is understandable that many parents want to educate their children and teach them accurate and helpful information about sex. These parents want their children to make safe, healthy, and informed personal decisions about sex as they grow up.
Before parents talk to their children about sex, it is important that they consider the age and level of maturity of their child. We encourage parents to use their best judgement and to always foster positive and healthy behaviors. Parents should also be aware that today, children and adolescents are exposed to information about sex from a wide range of sources. There is no guarantee that the information they hear will be accurate. The following are a few of these sources from which sexual knowledge may be acquired.
Sources of Sexual Knowledge
In today’s society, where people are constantly exposed to the media, children and teens are being bombarded with sexual images and sexual content from magazines, television, movies, online sources, and many more. Messages from TV are oftentimes a child’s first introduction to sex.1 Instead of learning the importance of values and responsibilities surrounding sex, many teenagers receive mixed messages from highly sexualized and romanticized characters portrayed in the media.
A quick fix many parents resort to is censoring the media content that their children are exposed to. However, we encourage parents to talk their children and teens about what they are seeing. After all, even with the most advanced censoring technologies, media is nearly impossible to block out completely. One way to facilitate discourse between parent and child is for the parent to join their child while they are watching television and discuss with them some of the sexual stereotypes that are being presented. Similarly, parents can point out specific advertisements and ask their child what messages they think the ads are conveying.
Media is not limited to television. The internet is increasingly becoming a significant source of entertainment and information we consume every day. Sexualized internet ads, articles, photos, videos, and pornographic websites all expose viewers to sex. In addition, video games often have sexual themes. Parents can use the internet to help them discuss sex with their child. There are numerous online resources that can help teach children about their sexuality. Parents can decide to direct their children to websites that promote what they deem to be a positive and appropriate message. Parents can even sit down at the computer with their child and browse sex education websites together to offer their advice and opinion.
One type of online media that many teenagers—and even children if they can obtain access—may consume is pornography. During puberty, kids become curious about sex and may begin researching online. Because it is so easy to access, it is likely that they will be exposed to pornography. Laws for viewing online pornographic material vary by state and country, so parents should familiarize themselves with local laws. Even if the child is not of legal age, it is important to discuss these topics, as it is often very easy for people of any age to bypass age-checks to access adult content online.While we do not condone underage children seeking out and watching pornography, adolescents should understand that viewing pornography is not uncommon,2 and that it can be used as a healthy outlet for some people who are exploring their sexuality. However, we strongly encourage parents to explain to their child that pornography can be harmful by creating unrealistic expectations about sex and intimacy, especially when it comes to the appearance, desires, and behavior of women. Emotional intimacy, although severely lacking in most X-rated productions, is an important part of sex that builds trust and love. Finally, parents should remind their child that, although sexuality may be a new part of their life worth exploring, they should resist the urge to rely on pornography or other platforms that misrepresent normal sexual behavior. Teenagers should avoid habits like excessive masturbation that can interfere with daily activities and emotional growth, and they should continue to cultivate productive activities that instead focus on healthy sexual intimacy and education.
A significant source of information regarding sex and relationships is talking with friends and peers. However, these young peers often give incorrect information regarding sexuality. Sexual conversations among adolescents are more likely to be centered around sexual conquests and how-to tips. These conversations may also involve teasing or passing judgments about perceived sexual behaviors or attitudes, and can lead to name-calling or more serious negative behaviors. While these conversations can be healthy parts of a child’s sexual and social development, the information spread among adolescents is often inaccurate, so we encourage parents to educate their children with accurate information that is age-appropriate. Discussions surrounding consent, intimacy, abuse, and safe sex are all encouraged.
Not all schools have a sexual education curriculum, and if they do they often do not provide a comprehensive course. School sex educators tend to only present the health and clinical information regarding sex, and generally do not talk about the emotional aspects of sex and relationships. Students have reported that the information they learn in school is not realistic or helpful.3 Few schools provide guidance about relationship issues and communicating sexual desires.
Having “The Talk”
For various reasons, many parents are hesitant to talk with their children about sex, puberty, and relationships with their children. Some parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their children, while others think that talking to their children about sex is unnecessary. However, parents should understand that their children will almost certainly be exposed to information and often to misinformation about sex from other sources. Thus, parents should prepare their children to understand what sex is, the potential consequences of having sex, and how to make safe decisions about sex.
Rather than having one uncomfortable conversation about sex, a more effective way to communicate is for parents to take advantage of multiple opportunities and to leave the conversation open ended for future discussions. Additionally, all conversations should be conducted in an open and honest manner. Learning about sex from their parents is a wonderful way for teens and children to receive guidance and emotional support. You can help your children learn facts as well as personal and social responsibility. Children whose parents talked to them about sexuality were most likely to postpone sexual activity and not engage in risky behavior.4 It is OK to feel uneasy about the subject – your child probably does too! The important issue is to provide children of all ages with the skills to make wise decisions about their own sexuality and to have healthy, loving and responsible relationships.
Talking to Your Child About the Media and Pornography
Censoring internet access and television programs is a common strategy used by parents to limit the exposure their children have to sex in the media. However, it is nearly impossible that a parent restricts all access to sex-related material because it is so common. Thus, parents should instead open up a conversation with their children and join them while they watch television to discuss the sexual stereotypes encountered in the show.
When discussing sex with children, parents should keep the following in mind:
Parents may feel uncomfortable using anatomically correct terminology such as “vagina,” “vulva,” and “penis.” However, we encourage parents to use the correct terms for all body parts, including genitalia. Doing so can help your child realize that no part of their body is shameful or embarrassing, and allows for more precision when discussing more complex aspects of sexuality. A good way to overcome the discomfort is to say these terms in private several times.
Plan on Having an Ongoing, Open Discussion with Your Child
Talking to a young child about sex is much different than talking to an adolescent. With children, adults tend to provide vague answers to questions about sexuality, but with adolescents it is important to recognize that they are more aware of the world and have the ability to research on their own. Keeping the conversation open and honest deters teens from seeking information from unreliable and inaccurate sources. Although all topics can be discussed to a degree at all stages of life, for younger children, it is most effective and common to focus primarily on the child’s own body (topics like bodily autonomy, anatomy, consent, etc.) while as the child progresses into adolescence, more emphasis can be placed on puberty and relationships with others (safe sex, relationships, etc.). Thus, it is impossible to cover all useful information in one conversation. For this reason, parents should try to serve as an approachable resource. Children should not feel ashamed to ask questions about sex or about their changing bodies, but instead should feel comfortable instigating discussions. Once open communication is established, parents can continue educating their children about sex. Parents can use “teachable moments” to engage in conversation with their children. A teachable moment can take place, for example, when you see a pregnant woman on the street, or when children hear about sexual incidents on the news. Such moments provide easy transitions into conversations about sex and relationships.
Give accurate information
When parents decide to have a talk with their children, it is essential that they know the facts. Accurate information about sex can be easily found. Certain sites on the Internet (such as this one), textbooks, and books geared toward children and adolescents in libraries and bookstores are good examples. If a parent is ever asked a question that they do not know the answer to, they should do the proper research. This research can even be done with the child present, so that they can learn to conduct their own research to find accurate answers to their questions. Parents can also opt to give their child an educational book. One helpful book that is appropriate for ages 8-11 is Asking about Sex and Growing Up: A Question and Answer Book for Boys and Girls by Joanna Cole. Another set of books that are appropriate for preteens are Lynda and Area Maderas’s book series called What’s Happening to My Body?, which come in separate versions for boys and girls.
Anticipate the Next Stage of Development
Educating young girls about menstruation or young boys about nocturnal emissions after she or he has experienced it is not the most helpful. Instead, parents should talk to their child about the stages of puberty and other sexual experiences before they reach that stage. Children will feel less anxious about what is happening to their body when they know what to expect.
Do Not Lecture
It is well known that teenagers are often resistant and combative when being told what to do, especially when it comes to personal topics such as sex. To remedy this problem, parents should try to avoid lecturing their children, but instead try to present information and have an open discussion about sex. Teenagers will make their own decisions regarding sex and it is up to the parent to give them the information and resources they need to make informed decisions. Discussions and conversations benefit children more than lectures, because they are more likely to listen and learn.
Teach the Joys of Sex as Well as the Dangers
Sex can be a fulfilling and meaningful part of life. When children learn about the consequences of having sex, they should also be exposed to the joys of sex. While it is sometimes treated as dangerous or scary, in reality, sex is also beautiful and natural. All children should be equipped with comprehensive knowledge of sex, relationships, and sexuality so they can make informed decisions on what role these factors will play in their lives. Talking about intimacy and relationships with children can help them grow up to have positive, healthy, and fulfilling relationships in their lives.4
There is no one way to teach children about sex. For parents, the idea of bringing up this topic can be uncomfortable or awkward. However, it is essential for adolescents to learn from their parents about sex. Sex is a core part of human nature and is something most, if not all, people will explore in their lifetime. With the vast amounts of information available on sex, children and teenagers are likely to be exposed to misinformation. Thus, parents should reach out to their children early, before the rest of the world does. An early and comprehensive education gives children the best chance at safe, fulfilling, and healthy relationships with their body and with future partners.
Feel free to check out this informative video about talking to your child about sex
- Levine, J. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. (2002). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- DeAngelis, Tori. “Web pornography’s effect on children.” Monitor on Psychology, vol. 38, no. 10, Nov 2007, pp 50.
- Measor, L., Tiffin, C., & Miller, K. Young People’s Views on Sex Education: Education, Attitudes and Behaviour. (2000). New York:Routledge Falmer.
- Miracle, T. M., Miracle, A. W., & Baumeister R. F. Human Sexuality: Meeting Your Basic Needs. (2003). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Last Updated: 13 June 2018.