Brush up your parenting skills for when it’s time to have “the chat”.
Talking to your child or teenager about the birds and the bees is no easy task – even for the most relaxed and open-minded parent. Although we live in a culture where sex and sexuality are openly displayed (you only need to walk through an MTR station to see scantily clad bodies advertising products suggestively), most parents feel unsure about how to talk to their children about sex. But the conversation doesn’t need to be challenging. Liz Fletcher, Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, has got five expert tips (plus a wealth of other useful information) to point you in the right direction.
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Talking To Kids, Teens And Tweens About Sex In 2021
Perhaps the difficulty is in knowing how to balance sharing information that is appropriate and helpful whilst also protecting children from inappropriate sexual content. The problem is that our own feelings of embarrassment might lead us to avoid talking about sexual matters altogether including that all-important question of “Where do babies come from?”. It is tempting to put it off until they are old enough to understand, but by which time they will have already created their own patchwork of fact and myth about sex.
Additionally, if you shy away from the topic, children will pick up a sense that talking with mum or dad about sex is taboo. That leaves them alone trying to make sense of something shrouded in mystery. What’s important in their development is not so much the facts and knowledge about sex itself but rather how they can make sense of sex and sexuality as it relates to their identity. While there is a wealth of information online, having a conversation with your child about sex will speak volumes. Your own experience of how you were brought up to understand sex (and the positive or negative connotations it had) may have made a lasting impression on you as a young person and on the choices (and mistakes) you made.
The family culture and attitude towards sex and relationships can have a significant influence on the child’s/teen’s perception of the world.
The point about talking to children and teens about sex is to help them make informed and healthy choices when the time comes, not just with regards to sexual health but also in the way they view relationships. Studies have found that teenagers who speak openly with their parents about sex wait longer and use appropriate protection when they do eventually become sexually active.
Read more: 10 Going On 15? Why Kids Grow Up Faster Now
How Do You Talk To Your Child About Sex?
While each family is different there are common threads that you can weave in order to talk to children about sex in a way that works for everyone involved. Here are five top tips to help you on your way:
Hedging all your bets on one long and excruciating “facts of life” talk is probably not the best way forward. The anxiety and embarrassment of such a setup is unlikely to help your child or teen understand the information you are trying to convey. Rather than putting all that pressure on yourself and your child, try to be open to talking about issues as and when they arise, for example when your child raises a question out of curiosity. If it’s not an appropriate time and place, come back to it later in the day when you have a moment alone with your child or teen.
Try to resist baulking at the question and answer in a relaxed and comfortable way instead. It’s ok to react with surprise but take a moment to consider it from their (innocent) perspective and think about what they need to know and why they are asking. If you are very anxious, buy yourself some time to talk to friends or your partner and think about or rehearse what you are going to say. It may be difficult to be completely relaxed at first but it will get easier with practice. Remember your child picks up on the way you say things as well as what you say, so your anxiety might convey that talking about sex, or even sex itself, is something to feel frightened of or embarrassed about.
It may be that your child asks a relatively simple question that can be answered in a straightforward way, but in your anxiety about responding, or eagerness to give a thorough answer, you might give them more information than they asked for. They might experience this as overwhelming or confusing. Too much technical information too soon might also cause them anxiety, so try to keep things simple. You can check out with them what they mean by the question as well as ask how much they already know and tailor your answer according to their needs.
Read more: Parenting Teenagers: How To Talk To And Understand Your Teens
Talk About What’s Relevant At The Child’s Age
This is a biggie so let break it down into three age groups to understand what children are going through at each stage:
- Babies And Toddlers
Toddlers will start to develop an interest in playing with baby dolls or teddies from as early as 18 months. They imitate the care they received as infants by playing at being mummy or daddy, assuming the role of the caregiver rather than the helpless infant that they once were – a clear sign that they are growing up!
Many children might already have siblings or experience mummy’s pregnancy and the subsequent arrival of a younger sibling. Faced with a pregnant belly, young children will be interested in where babies come from and how they came into this world. Try not to resort to the “stork” story as when children are asking where they came from they are really trying to make sense of how they belong in their family.
Young children will become increasingly aware of their bodies and the differences between boys and girls, mama and papa, and will probably want to be like mummy and daddy in various ways. Sometimes toddlers can have a hard time accepting their physical littleness compared to mummy or daddy as they like to believe they are more grown-up than they are. Young children are also aware that mummy and daddy share a bed and will have seen them share some physical affection. Given that young children are noticing all of these things, it would be appropriate to meet their curiosity and need for information by talking to them about bodies and where babies come from in an age-appropriate way.
Sassy Mama tip:
- Try using language that toddlers and younger kids will understand whilst avoiding misunderstandings that this might cause. For example, if your young child’s word for penis is “pi-pi”, though it might also be the word for going to the toilet, it might sound confusing if daddy puts his “pi-pi” into mummy to make a baby! So keep their vocabulary and understanding in mind while explaining anything and if necessary, change some words up. This leads us to the second tip.
- While children do need to learn the correct term for parts of the anatomy, parents naturally use words that feel more comfortable when their children are small. So for example, semen might be described as a “seed”. Children’s books (see below for a list of resources) that explain the facts of life to children at this age might be a helpful source of information for you and your child to look at together.
It’s Not the Stork by Robie Harris
What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg
Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies by Robie H. Harris
- 4 Plus To Tweens
When children are of primary school age, their level of interest in sexual matters can vary. Their ability to vocalise their curiosity may depend on the family’s attitude towards sex. At this age, they may continue to be interested in differences between the sexes (for example, wanting to know about puberty and periods), but they might also have a greater awareness of romantic relationships. At this age, they will be learning that these can take place between same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Remain open and honest with your child and try not to shy away from any questions they might have.
Although boys and girls segregate into gender defined groups at playtime, underlying their apparent abhorrence of the opposite sex is also an inherent interest. Those who risk wanting to become better acquainted with the opposite sex may find themselves the subject of teasing by peers. This coupled with games such as “kiss chase” indicate that whilst older primary school-aged children haven’t really figured out what it means to be boyfriend or girlfriend yet, they know what it feels like to like another person in a non-platonic way.
Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts by Gail Saltz
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
Making A Baby: An Inclusive Guide to How Every Family Begins by Rachel Greener
Let’s Talk About the Birds and the Bees: Starting conversations about the facts of life (From how babies are made to puberty and healthy relationships) by Molly Potter
- Teens And Adolescents
Most young adolescents learn about puberty and reproduction at school or in the media (the internet, films, books or TV) and friends are also sources of (mis)information. When puberty hits, hormones rage and an interest in all things sex develops. Adolescents may start masturbating. As adolescents become more adept at romantic relationships, they become increasingly sexually active. In adolescence, the individual’s gender and sexual identity continue to develop particularly in the context of their peer group. Teens start to feel more sure of their sexual orientation and can be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues when their sexual orientation isn’t accepted within their family and social circles. It may be the hardest time to begin talking to your teen about sex if you haven’t started earlier.
Apart from the embarrassment factor, adolescents become more independent and rely less and less on parents for information and emotional support, turning to their peers for both. So learning from an early age that it is ok to talk about sex with your parents is very important. Perhaps the biggest role a parent can take at this stage is in helping to dispel myths about sex such as how to avoid getting pregnant and STDs.
As with all aspects of a teenager’s life, part of the growing up process is to learn about taking responsibility for yourself. Whilst adolescents may be able to take the necessary physical precautions, they need to learn from you that sex is only one part of real relationships and that emotional responsibility in relationships is of equal, if not greater, importance. Despite their eagerness to move away from you, teenagers need to have a sense that you will still be there for them no matter what in their chaotic and ever-changing lives.
S.E.X., second edition: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties by Heather Corinna
Doing it! By Hannah Witton
Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge
Read more: How To Coach Your Teens Through Tough Times And Problem Behaviour
Always leave the door open
When talking to children about sex, let it be known that you value them asking you questions and that they can always ask you about these things at any time. If you start being approachable and encouraging towards your child’s questions from a young age, your child will grow up to feel like they can trust what you tell them and confide in you if ever they have a problem. Talking about sex is so much more than just covering a topic, it’s about having the best relationship you can with your child.
Sex Education Books And Resources For Parents
Let’s Talk About S-E-X: A Guide for Kids 9 to 12 and Their Parents by Sam Mitchell
Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person about Sex by Deborah Roffman
Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality by Bonnie. J Rough
There are also numerous podcasts out there, such as This Glorious Mess Big Kids: How To Have The Birds And Bees Talk In 2021, to steer you in the right direction.
Read more: Let’s Talk About Sex: How To Tune In When You Want To Tune Out
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated by Alex Purcell Garcia in May 2021.