Talking to your kids about sex (gasp!)
Does the idea of talking to your children about sex fill you with dread? Or are you keen to open up a conversation (or a few conversations!) but don’t know how? Are you worried about what children are exposed to online and/or about pornography? Recall how you learnt about sex – was it helpful or not? What would you like to do differently with your children? What would you like them to know that you didn’t? So. Many. Questions!
Parents/caregivers have a very important role to play in educating children and young people about sexuality and relationships, not just schools or the Internet. Children are naturally curious about bodies and sex (and sometimes ask lots of awkward questions), and often it is their own discomfort that stops parents from having open and honest conversations about sex with their kids. Children and young people learn messages about sex whether we want them to or not, both in and out of the home. As parents there are many teachable moments and opportunities in the home to talk to your kids about sex. It doesn’t have to be a one-off (in fact, it shouldn’t be just a one-off) ‘birds and bees’ sit-down-and-be-serious conversation. The more you incorporate casual, natural and informal chats about sex and bodies from infancy, the easier it will be. And the more approachable your children or teenagers will find you in talking about sex the more likely they will be to come to you when they really need you.
It’s never too late to start talking to your kids about sex, however the later you leave it the much more likely it is that they would’ve already learnt a lot through the media, online and through friends. Not all of that is bad or unhelpful, but some certainly is. Many parents are worried about online exposure to sexual content and what this is teaching children about sex. Hence it is even more important that parents are able to talk to their kids about what they may have seen (or will see) online. It’s almost inevitable that children and young people will come across sexual content online, no matter how hard we try and stop it. The most important thing is to not panic and to give your kids skills to critically think about porn and other online sexual content.
So where do you start and what do you say to your children? Research has found that talking to your kids about sex can actually delay the first time they have sex. And remember that all people are sexual beings, children included. You might have specific values that are important to you and that you want to pass onto your children; this is no different when teaching them about sex, their body and relationships. Sexuality is a broad term that extends beyond the physical act of sexual (which many people assume is only about heterosexual penis-in-vagina penetrative sex). It includes identity, puberty, how you feel about your body, gender, sexual expression and feelings, masturbation, relationships, love and values. The World Health Organization (WHO) expands further on a definition of sexuality to include sexual health, sexual rights, sexual orientation, reproduction, contraception, beliefs, attitudes and practice.
Always keep in mind the aim of sexual education and ultimately how you’d like your children to be as adults in experiencing their sexuality: healthy, respectful and pleasurable. It’s never too early to start talking to your children about sex and their bodies. Obviously, the content and complexity of sex talks changes as children grow, and conversations must be age appropriate. Going by ages, here are some general tips regarding what to cover and how. Often and short is best for these conversations.
Babies – toddlers:
This age is about very simple chats about body parts mainly;
Talk about body parts and what they’re for (use correct terminology, e.g. anus/bottom, penis, testicles, breasts, vulva, vagina (many people just use vagina to describe the visible part of a females’ genitals but actually this is the vulva. The vagina is for sex and for birth. It’s important to name both of them);
Talk about basic differences between girls and boys;
That it’s ok to touch themselves (in private);
Use moments like bath time, getting dressed etc to talk;
Very simple talks about when to be naked – not at the park, for example (if they love doing a nudie run around the place!).
Two – five year old’s:
Expect greater curiosity about body parts and what they do (theirs and others);
Talk about boundaries ie. Certain body parts are private and there are rules about who can touch them;
Talk to them about being able to say ‘no’ to being touched/kissed if they don’t want to be touched (early learnings about consent);
If they ask about where babies come from, ask them what they think then go from there. Often a simple explanation of ‘A baby grows inside a grown up girl’ or ‘A baby grows inside a mummy’s tummy/uterus’. Older children can have more detailed explanations ie. ‘A man and a woman are needed to make a baby’;
Model privacy for when you go to the toilet;
Start conversations about good vs bad secrets (protective behaviours) & that no one should ask them to keep a ‘bad secret’ (ie. That they were touched).
It’s ok if boys want to wear a dress or a girl wants to play with trucks. If it bothers you, talk to someone about it.
Five to nine year olds:
It’s very important that you talk to your children about puberty before it starts;
Give simple explanations about sexual intercourse (penis goes into the vagina) including that a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman meet inside the woman’s tummy and create a baby. This may be a bit different if they are an IVF baby, but still it’s about an egg and sperm;
Start talking to your kids about puberty and basic body changes because puberty can start early for some girls (age 8 or 9), and puberty usually starts earlier for girls;
Sometimes children engage in ‘Show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ or Doctor play, this is quite normal. Don’t panic if your child does this but remind them (or show them picture books) about privacy and rules about touching;
They may be hearing messages about sex from the playground or older siblings. Answer their questions as best you can if you discover this. Use books if you want;
If your child masturbates or likes to touch themselves in public, remind them about privacy and doing that at home when they’re alone (ie. In bed). It’s normal for children to touch themselves, especially once they realise that it feels good;
Respect their privacy if they start to feel modest;
If your child or another child displays persistence sexualised behaviours this is a matter of concern. Talk to a professional if this is evident.
Nine to twelve year olds:
Talk about all the changes that can occur in puberty, not just physical (social and emotional changes). This includes topics such as hormones affecting changes and growth in the genitals, body hair, periods and how to manage them, wet dreams, erections, voice changes, attraction to the other gender, weight gain, body odour, wanting more independence etc;
For girls, talk about periods, sanitary products, show them sanitary products and talk about special bins for these products in public toilets. Talk about having a ‘period pack’ on hand in case your daughter gets her period when not at home. Include clean underwear and sanitary products. By all means talk to boys about this too;
Start talking about sex in terms of adults having sex because it feels good and they’re attracted to each other, and also to sometimes make a baby. You can say that: sex is a private activity, some people call it other things (making love etc), people can have sex without having a baby by using special medications to stop pregnancy (hopefully you would have explained that a woman carrying a baby is called pregnant!);
For children near age 12, you can start talking about sexual practices such as oral sex or anal sex, and that sex isn’t just penis-in-vagina but also hugging, kissing and touching.
Often children who are same-sex attracted have realised this early on. Parents who are open and positive about this in general are more likely to make their child able to recognise this and able to talk to their parent about it;
If you’re’ comfortable, share some of your puberty experiences;
Try to be positive about puberty and open; this helps your child want to talk to you about changes and to feel more at ease with them;
Support them if their friendship groups start changing around this age;
Have conversations about respectful relationships. Talk about anything you see on TV or online that has sex, gender issues, relationships etc in it;
Talk to them about websites/apps regarding any content they have seen that concerns them. Discuss with them what apps and sites they are accessing. Start conversations about pornography online (“Sometimes you might see pictures or videos of naked people or people have sex, it’s important to talk to me about this as that is for adults and is also not actually how people look/have sex (etc)”. The goal here is to alert children to content they shouldn’t be seeing and for older children near 12, to question the realism of porn, perfect bodies, gender roles, sexual violence etc;
Don’t panic if you catch your child looking at porn. Children are curious and it can be exciting to do. Use this opportunity as a teachable moment;
Ask your child’s school what they have started teaching in sex education. Talk to your children about what they are learning in school (both in sex ed and from their friends if relevant).
Twelve to fourteen year olds:
Respect their self-consciousness if they are experiencing this;
Don’t stop offering hugs and your usual affection but respect it if they resist it or change things;
Talk about social media and what apps and websites they’re accessing. Remind them of what may be realistic or unrealistic (like in the movies);
Continue conversations about respectful relationships including online conversations;
Continue to talk about sex, including that a girl can get pregnant even the first time she has sex even if he doesn't ejaculate/pulls out or she has her period;
Start conversations about contraception;
Talk about other adults or places they can go to talk, if they’re not comfortable talking to you their parent, anymore. Try not to take this personally, this is normal and they still love you! Options: https://www.theline.org.au/ http://lovegoodbadugly.com/ https://www.getthefacts.health.wa.gov.au/ https://shq.org.au/
If you’re able to, talk to your teenager about how they would like their first experience with sex to be like (ie. In a relationship, not intoxicated, safe, consensual etc);
Talk about sexting and that sharing of naked pictures is illegal under the age of 18. Encourage them to talk to you if they receive one or are asked to send one.
Fourteen to seventeen:
Continue to be open about conversations about sex and contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs);
Talk about consent – very important!. watch this funny but good clip on consent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ ;
Talk about where to access contraception (the contraceptive pill, condoms etc). Talking to your teen about contraception does not encourage them to have sex;
Continue to talk about respectful relationships. Talk about having a crush or strong romantic or sexual feelings, and that all of these are normal things.
Talk to them about peer pressure to have sex and/or try drugs, and how to manage these situations;
Friendships are extremely important at this age. Respectful friendships are part of respectful relationships;
Think about yourself at age 16 and what you would’ve liked to have known about sex and relationships.
Don’t lecture your teen (or child) as this can be a source of disconnection.
There are heaps on resources and tips available online for parents/caregivers about talking to their kids about sex. The WA Department of Health has very recently updated their Talk soon talk often resource, which is a fantastic resource for parents and teachers and most of the tips in this post come from this resource. It is available free online as a PDF here: https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/~/media/Files/HealthyWA/Original/Sexual-health/TSTO_V2.pdf They also have some great tip sheets available here: https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/~/media/Files/HealthyWA/Original/HP11643TalkSoonTalkOftenTipsheet.pdf
Useful books and websites:
Talk soon talk often: https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/S_T/Talk-soon-talk-often
Protective Behaviours (sexual abuse prevention): https://safe4kids.com.au/training/parents-information-sessions/
Sex Ed Rescue by Cath Hakanson (www.sexedrescue.com ). Cath has a comprehensive list of suggested books on her website.
In 2020, WHWS will be running talks facilitated by Melanie Robson for parents on talking to their kids about sex. These will run in terms 2 and 3. Please see our calendar of events for 2020 which is due out soon, or otherwise contact us by phone or email to register your interest. Be brave and come along! 😊