All children have sexual feelings. These feelings are a normal part of growth and development.
Talking about sex can be awkward, but the earlier you start the discussion, the better prepared your child will be to make safer decisions about it. And your child may be better able to deal with peer pressure and media influences as he or she gets older.
If you are unsure of how to begin such a conversation, use everyday situations as an icebreaker. Use examples on TV or a teen's pregnancy to start a discussion. You can practice talking about sex with your partner, a friend, or another parent. If you feel that you can't talk to your child about sex, ask your doctor, a trusted aunt or uncle, or a religious leader to do it. If you wait for others—friends, school staff, or another adult—to address sex, you do your child a disservice.
Movies, TV, music lyrics, music videos, websites, and more can affect how your child thinks and behaves. Talk to your child about how the media can have an impact on him or her. Be aware that children have easy access to many websites with sexual or pornographic content. Keep the computer in a shared area where you can see what your child is doing online.
Before middle school
Whether they are sexually active or not, children need help to make responsible choices about sex. Talking about sex does not encourage sexual activity in children. Talking openly and honestly about sex may prevent teenage pregnancy. Having an open, honest relationship with your child will largely depend on the quality of the relationship you have built to this point.
The best time to begin the discussion about sex is when your child is in elementary school. A good way to start is to admit that talking about sex may be awkward, but that your child should not ever be afraid to ask you questions. Discussing sex and sexuality with your child is not a one-time conversation, though. As he or she grows and matures, your child naturally has questions about sexuality. The more you can give guidance, the better prepared your child will be to make responsible decisions.
Your local library, church or synagogue, or organizations such as Planned Parenthood will have information to help you talk to your kids about sex and family life issues.
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. Almost half of adolescents will have had sexual intercourse by 10th grade. And by 12th grade, a little more than half have had sexual intercourse.1 Teens face a lot of peer pressure to have sex. So if your teen is not ready to have sex, he or she may feel left out. Help your teen understand that many teens decide to wait to have sex.
Keep talking to your child about healthy relationships and safer sex. When parents talk openly about sex, their teens may be more responsible in their sexual behaviors.
Planned Parenthood and other groups offer counseling and classes you can take with your child to discuss sex, dating, and other important issues.
It's important not to make assumptions about what your child knows or doesn't know about sex. Your child may know something or nothing about sex. He or she 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.
Oral sex is becoming more accepted among children. In general, children do not think of oral sex as "sex." They think of oral sex as a safe way to enjoy some of the benefits of vaginal sex with less risk of feeling guilty, getting a bad reputation, or going against their own values and beliefs. Also, some children don't understand that it is possible to get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from having oral sex. Anal sex is another sexual activity that may take place without the child fully understanding the risks of STIs, such as HIV.
Help your child understand the risk of STIs and other possible effects from engaging in sexual behaviors. For example, some children may not realize the emotional aftermath that sometimes results from having sex. Help your child think about what makes a relationship strong. Talk about what it means to truly care for another person.
Masturbation is a topic few people feel comfortable talking about. But it is a normal and healthy part of human sexuality. Talk about it in terms of your values.
Noticing unusual behaviors
A child's interest in sex and sexuality can range from none to a lot. It's natural and healthy for a child to explore his or her sexuality as long as his or her behaviors are balanced with other aspects of life. A child's sexual behaviors vary, based on his or her age and environment (both in and out of the home). In some cases, it's clear that sexual behavior is no longer natural and healthy and that a child needs help from a doctor or counselor.
Talk to your child's doctor if you are concerned that your child:
- Is intimate with an older or younger peer. In general, the wider the age difference, the greater the concern.
- Is preoccupied with sex or pornography.
- Talks like an adult would talk about sexual behaviors or interacts with an adult in a manner more like adult-adult contact.
- Behaves in sexual ways even though he or she has been asked to stop.
- Harms animals or behaves in sexual ways with animals.
- Sees everyday objects and interactions as sexual.
- Violates others' body space or uses angry sexual language, gestures, or touching to hurt others.
Talking about STIs and pregnancy
Two-thirds of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur in people who are younger than age 25. STIs affect both males and females. Consider talking about why teens have a high risk of getting an STI. Talking about condoms and other forms of contraception is often based on family values and attitudes. Even so, it's important to make sure your child understands how to avoid STIs, how pregnancy occurs, and how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, be it by abstinence or the use of condoms and other birth control methods.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends several strategies to help prevent unplanned pregnancy. The AAP supports having programs in place that help children delay becoming sexually active. The AAP also recommends that children learn about contraceptive methods and be able to get them easily. This includes emergency contraception methods.2
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, someone you do not know well, a close friend, or a family member.
Giving your child information about date rape and abuse is important. About 10 out of 100 adolescents have been physically hurt by a dating partner.3
Talk to your child about the following advice.
- 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 him or her 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 where boys greatly outnumber girls.
- Don't be afraid to be rude.
If a situation feels wrong or you start to get nervous, confront your date immediately or leave as quickly as possible.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
They compromise your ability—and that of your date—to make responsible decisions.
- 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.
- Don't keep secrets.
No peer, parent, or adult has the right to tell you to keep secrets from either parent, especially when someone touches your body in an offensive way.
- Sass A, et al. (2014). Adolescence. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 117–157. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Committee on Adolescence (2012). Policy statement: Emergency contraception. Pediatrics, 130(6): 1174–1182. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-2962. Accessed date November 23, 2015.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Understanding teen dating violence fact sheet. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/TeenDatingViolence2012-a.pdf.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine