All children have sexual feelings. They're a normal part of growth and development. Talking about sex with your child can be awkward, but it's important. And the earlier you start the discussion, the better. It can help prepare your child to make safer decisions and deal with peer pressure and media influences as your child gets older.
If you are unsure of how to begin such a talk, try using everyday situations, such as examples on TV or a teen's pregnancy. You could practice talking about sex with your partner, a friend, or another parent. Ask a school counselor or your child's doctor to recommend books, videos, or classes to help you talk to your child about sex and family life issues. And check out the website healthychildren.org for more helpful content.
Things such as movies, music lyrics, websites, and social media can affect how your child thinks and behaves. Children have easy access to many sites with sexual or pornographic content. Talk to your child about the impact that media can have. It's a good idea to set limits on where and when your child has access to a computer and other devices. Find out about parental controls you can use for devices with internet access.
Before middle school
The best time to begin the discussion is when your child is in elementary school. Talking about sex does not encourage sexual activity in children. In fact, it does the opposite. Talking about sex early helps kids make healthy, responsible choices.
Discussing sex and sexuality with your child is not a one-time conversation. As your child grows and matures, they will naturally have questions about sexuality. Having open, honest talks with your child from a young age helps build trust and communication. This makes it more likely that your child will come to you with their questions.
In middle school and high school
As children enter their teen years, they begin to have more interest in dating, and many become sexually intimate with a partner. A little over half of high school students report having sexual intercourse by the time they're in 12th grade.1 Teens face a lot of peer pressure to have sex. If your teen doesn't want to have sex, giving them the facts about sex can help them feel more confident in their choice to wait.
Keep talking to your child about healthy relationships and safer sex. Help your child understand the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other possible effects from engaging in sexual activity. For example, some teens may not realize how having sex could affect them emotionally. Help your child think about what makes a relationship strong. Talk about what it means to truly care for another person.
It's important not to make assumptions about what your child already knows. Your child may know something or nothing about sex. For example:
- Your child may or may not know what the terms sexual activity and sexual intercourse mean. Start by explaining these terms. Make it clear that sex does not just mean vaginal sexual intercourse.
- Children may not think of oral sex as "sex." They may think it's a less risky way to enjoy some of the pleasures of sex. They may not understand that it is possible to get an STI from having oral sex. Likewise, a child may not understand the risk of STIs from anal sex.
- Remind your child that masturbation is a normal and healthy part of human sexuality. Be open to having discussions about it and answering their questions.
Talking about STIs and pregnancy
STIs can affect anyone who is sexually active. And any time sex involves a penis and a vagina, there can be a pregnancy. Talking about condoms and birth control is often based on family values and beliefs. But it's important to make sure your child understands how to avoid STIs, how pregnancy occurs, and how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
STIs are especially common in teens and young adults. Consider talking with your child about why teens have a high risk of getting an STI and how to reduce the risk. Using condoms can reduce the risk of STIs.
The risk of pregnancy can be reduced by using condoms or other birth control methods. Consider talking with your child about how the types of birth control are used.
Both STIs and pregnancy can be prevented by not having sexual contact. (This is called abstinence.)
Talking about sexual abuse and date rape
Sexual abuse is any type of sexual activity that is done against a person's will. It can be nonviolent abuse (such as being forced to look at sexual pictures), unwanted or forced sexual touching, or violent sexual assault (such as attempted rape or rape.) The attacker may be a stranger or someone you do not know well, or it may be a close friend or a family member.
Giving your child information about date rape and abuse is important. Many teens have been physically hurt by a dating partner. It's also very important to help your child understand that date rape or abuse is never the victim's fault.
Share the following advice, which may help your child stay safer.
- Go on a group or double date.
Especially at first, dating in groups may be more comfortable and less risky. When children are with friends who are trustworthy, they tend to be safer, even when they break rules.
- Avoid places that are secluded.
Go where there are other people, where you feel comfortable and safe. Don't go to a date's home or invite them to yours. These are the places where most acquaintance rapes (date rapes) occur.
- Trust your instincts.
If you feel vulnerable, you might be. For example, avoid parties with alcohol or lots of people you don't know or aren't comfortable with.
- Have an exit plan.
Be prepared for what you'll do if a situation feels wrong. For example, you might call a parent or friend to pick you up. Arrange this ahead of time, and text them the address when you arrive.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
They can reduce your ability—and that of your date—to make good decisions.
- Don't keep secrets.
No peer, parent, or adult has the right to tell you to keep secrets from a parent, especially when someone touches your body in a way you don't want them to.
- Zoe, L et al. (2020) Assessing State Level Variations in High School Students Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior: The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The Guttmacher Institute. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/youth-risk-behavior-surveys-2019. Accessed May 10, 2023.
Current as of: February 28, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff (https://www.healthwise.org/specialpages/legal/abouthw/en)
Clinical Review Board (https://www.healthwise.org/mdreviewboard.aspx?lang=en)
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.