Sexuality is part of life. Whether it's toddlers sticking their hands in their diapers, teens kissing in the backseat of cars or long-time married couples who still enjoy seducing each other, we are all hard-wired to have sexual feelings.
Yet it's not easy for parents to accept this fact. It's hard to talk about sex. It's so emotionally complicated. And our feelings about it are so tied to our values and our experiences.
When kids are young, we worry that talking about sex gives them too much information and will make them "grow up too soon." When they are older, we worry that talking about it encourages them to have sex. So, too often, we just don't talk about it at all.
But parents have the opportunity and power to give their children the information and support they need to have safe and healthy sexual relationships throughout their lives. That's not something we should waste.
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Once Is Not Enough
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that talking to kids about sex isn't a matter of sitting them down once and discussing where babies come from. It's an ongoing conversation. The point is that we help our kids most by opening lines of communication. Giving them facts and information is good and important, but it's even more critical to give them opportunities and support to ask questions and talk about their feelings.
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- From the time children are small, create an environment where it's okay to talk about bodies. Teach your child the proper names of body parts. Be very open and matter-of-fact about bodies and bodily functions. Modesty is fine, but too much modesty can make a child reluctant to ask questions or otherwise talk about her own body.
- Teach your child to feel good about her body. You'll need to set an example here — no talking about how you wish you were thinner or had six-pack abs. Help your child know that his or her body is beautiful and wonderful (this will help protect against eating disorders, too) and that all bodies are beautiful and wonderful in their own ways.
- Talk about — and demonstrate — healthy relationships. Teach your children to be kind and expect kindness in return. This can have a lifelong impact.
- Answer questions about sex openly and matter-of-factly. Simple answers are often best. Sometimes when a child asks, "Where do babies come from?" it's enough to say, "Mommy's belly."
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As Puberty Arrives
- Anticipate the changes your child's body will go through and talk about them. Don't wait for the school health talk. Be positive about the changes; stress that they are normal and good.
- Give your child actual information about periods and erections and the other things they are going to experience, not just fuzzy stuff like, "Your friend will visit you every month." If you feel uncomfortable (or aren't sure of all facts), find some books that you think are a good fit for your child.
- Talk about the feelings around puberty. Acknowledge that it can be a very tumultuous time.
- Talk about peers and your child's feelings about them. Helping your child navigate the scary waters of peer pressure can make a big difference.
- Talk about the messages your child sees in the media; talk about whether they are good ones and how they make your child feel.
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As Your Child Becomes a Teen
- Keep lines of communication open. This is not easy during these years, but keep trying. Take any opportunity you can to have a conversation. Listen as much as you talk. Do your best to know what is going on in your kids' lives and how they feel about it.
- Give your kids good medical information — especially about contraception and preventing sexually transmitted infections. We all hope our teens will be abstinent. It's something we want to encourage, but life can take unexpected turns. Ask yourself this: Did your parents know when you first had sex? Give your child books if you can't stomach the conversation yourself — and make sure they have access to confidential medical care.
- Make sure that your child knows that he can turn to you — and that you love him and will help him, no matter what. This can be difficult, especially if you feel strongly about abstinence — but it can make all the difference to your child.
As awkward as all this may feel, it's important if we want our children to have safe, healthy sexual relationships. So take a deep breath and get started.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.