Start the Conversation - American Sexual Health Association

Start the Conversation

What’s the best age to start teaching my child about sex?

You’ve already started! Very young children learn by observing their parents. They watch how you dress and how you carry yourself. They see how you interact with the opposite sex; and they notice how you react to intimacy and affection. Now all you have to do is build on their observations.

How can I open the topic for discussion?

The first step is to understand how much your child already knows about sex. And the easiest way to do that is to be a good listener. Pay attention to what your child says to friends and siblings. Then look for opportunities in everyday life to start a conversation. Remember, while we sometimes hear about having “the talk” with children about sex and sexual health, it is really a series of conversations that happen over time. Talking about sexual health is an ongoing discussion, and you can take many opportunities to continue the conversation.

Here are just a few:

  • Go for a walk with your child… away from the house, the phone, the television and other family members.
  • Turn off the radio in the car. Take advantage of the privacy to just talk.
  • Find out if and when the topic will be addressed at school. Time your discussions to coincide with the information offered in the classroom.
  • Television shows, books, movies, fashion, etc., provide plenty of situations you and your child can discuss. You might ask your child how he feels or what he thinks about what he just saw or read.

How much should I tell my child?

Simply put, as much as he wants to know. A preschooler might want to know where babies come from and would be satisfied with a response such as, “a warm, safe place in Mommy’s belly.” An older child’s questions would be more complex and require more detailed answers. A teenager needs answers to numerous sexual topics. Consider discussing:

  • Anatomy and reproduction in both males and females
  • The physical and emotional differences between men and women
  • Sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual behavior (oral sex, masturbation and petting)
  • Fertility, pregnancy and birth control
  • Sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs/STIs)
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Self-respect, self-image and peer pressure
  • Responsible behavior based on informed decisions
  • Risky behaviors that can lead to pregnancy, rape or abuse

What if I don’t know all the answers?

Then you’re like everyone else! It might be helpful to prepare by doing a little homework before you talk to your child. Reach out to experts for the information you need. Other parents, teachers, members of the clergy, health care providers and the Internet are excellent sources of information and support. In fact, we offer information and advice to parents on our teen website.

It’s equally important to prepare your emotional responses. It may be difficult to think of your child as a sexual being or to present yourself as one. Still, you know your child best and that puts you in the best position to answer his questions, resolve any confusion and share your feelings. Open communication and accurate information from you can help your child understand the impact of sexual activity, the benefit of waiting to have sex and the reasons why practicing safe sex is vital when he decides to become sexually active.

When you talk to your child about sex, use the same open, honest communication skills you’d use when talking about any delicate topic.

  • Be open, honest and available.
  • Use words that are understandable and comfortable. Leave the technical jargon to the experts.
  • Encourage your child to talk and ask questions. Listen to the answers.
  • If your child asks a question, answer immediately, even if the timing isn’t perfect. You can always expand on the topic at a more opportune time.
  • Try to determine what your child is really asking. Is he/she worried about being “normal”? Is there a moral, religious or cultural conflict? Does your child want to check his knowledge against yours? Listening – really listening – is the key to good communication.
  • Maintain a calm, non-judgmental attitude. A sense of humor can relieve tension and facilitate discussion. It’s okay to talk about your own discomfort and make light of it.
  • Don’t laugh. No matter what, don’t laugh.
  • If you don’t have a ready answer, admit it. Offer to find the answer with your child or on your own.
  • Above all, remind your child that you love and respect him and will always be there for him.

What if my child is gay?

Your child may indeed be gay or conflicted about sexual orientation or gender identity. You can help resolve conflict by:

  • Loving and accepting your child exactly as he or she is
  • Acknowledging that as difficult as it might be for you to hear this news, it was much more difficult for your child to tell you.
  • Remembering that some gay teens are at risk for anxiety, depression, attempted suicide and other problems.
  • Seeking guidance from outside counselors, health care providers and websites like this one.

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