How Do You Talk to Kids About Sex?

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By Brooks Michael on January 15, 2019

As parents, it’s a topic many of us dread. But talking to your kids about sex might be one of the most important things you do.

When I ask in classrooms how many families are talking about sex and relationships at home, I find that the majority are not.

Sex can be an uncomfortable topic, but once you get into the conversation, it’s probably not going to be as bad as you think it will be.

It’s also not a one-time conversation, it is something you need to talk about over and over. Building a foundation of communication early helps make kids comfortable with sharing and asking questions.

If you haven’t talked to your kids about sex yet, here are some tips:

  • Make sure what you talk about is age appropriate. With young kids, use correct terminology for body parts and don’t lie to avoid answering questions. Middle school is when many children get curious and will start learning more through sex education in school. At the high school level, conversation needs to include talk about consequences, pregnancy and STDs.
  • Don’t be naïve. The world today is different than it was when we were young. Kids are exposed to more, and earlier, thanks to things like social media and YouTube. 
  • Find out what your kids already know. It’s likely that they’ve been exposed to more than you realize, even if it was unintentional. Ask them what they’ve heard at school, what their friends have been talking about and what they’ve seen online. It’s also a good idea to limit what younger kids have access to when it comes to media and internet, and to monitor what they’re reading and watching.
  • Don’t turn the conversation into a lecture. Answer any questions your child asks, but you don’t have to keep going on about a topic; you don’t want to make them feel badly about questions they have or things they want to talk about. Listen to what they have to say.
  • Give them accurate information. Make sure you are educated on the topic, particularly if your child is in middle or high school. If they use a sex-related word, you need to make sure they know exactly what it means—so you need to know what it means.
  • Remember that sexual exploration is normal in adolescents. This makes it particularly important to make sure teens have all the information they need to be responsible. Decision-making in adolescence is done by emotions because their brains haven’t fully developed, so you need to help guide them.
  • Don't make it all about sex. Talking about body image, especially with girls, will help them see that what is in the media is mostly not real, and that being healthy and feeling good are more important than how they look.

Overall, talk about it honestly and directly. Like many conversations with your child, even if they pretend they’re not listening, they are.

This U.S. News & World Report article offers more do’s and don’ts of teaching your kids about sex. And you can always ask your family's pediatrician if you or your child have more questions or find talking about sensitive issues difficult.

Brooks Michael is an adolescent health educator for Carilion Clinic’s Adolescent and Student Health Services. Learn more about Brooks and her work with teens.