It can be hard to talk about sexuality with kids. It’s even harder if you think you need to have all the answers. Good news! You don’t need to know everything in order to be a valuable resource to your kids.
Rather than worrying much about information, pay attention to the emotional tone of how you answer and ask questions. Not that accurate info doesn’t matter; it does. But you already know most of what kids need to know about sex, or you can easily look it up.
Where you can make the biggest difference in kids’ sexual health is how you respond—the attitudes you convey nonverbally and the way you get kids thinking about healthy relationships.
When Kids Are Little, Just Answer the Questions
With younger kids, the most important sex-ed thing you can do is answer the questions they ask. On the level of facts, this is simple. You know how males differ from females, what tampons are for, and how the baby got in there. The harder part is the emotional level…the part where you might freak out or avoid the question.
Although it’s tempting to shut down questions when kids are “too young,” that’s actually the opposite of what you want to be doing. You want to convey that it’s okay to talk about bodies and reproduction. Otherwise, you create confusion and shame. Kids wonder why you answer other questions but won’t answer about bodies and babies. They worry there’s something wrong with them for even asking. They learn never to ask you about sexuality—which may feel like a relief now, but creates a wall between you as they get older.
Remind yourself that you can do this. You can answer the question, whatever it is, simply and honestly. If your child asks a lot of follow-up questions, get an age-appropriate book and read it to them. Remember that for kids, this is just factual information about the world, so be as matter-of-fact as possible about it.
Keep in mind three goals: Giving accurate information, showing that sex is a natural thing we can talk about, and being a resource to your child.
With Teens and Preteens, Get ‘Em Thinking
By the time kids are teens, they know the basic biology of sex. They may still come to you with questions, in which case you either answer (as calmly as you can) or look up the answer together. If they still ask you things, count your blessings. Awkward as it may be, it’s better than being shut out, which happens far more often.
At some time in middle school or high school, most kids stop asking parents sex-related questions. Instead of turning to you, they ask their friends or search the internet. They also stop telling you all about what’s going on in their lives—right as you get really, really concerned about knowing.
The temptation, of course, is to ask them what’s going on…and the answer is often “nothing” or “it’s fine.” Or an eye-roll or slammed door. The more you ask about, say, who they have a crush on or whether they’re sexually active, the more they shut down.
Instead, ask questions that don’t demand answers, but that invite thought. Teens are very interested in romantic and sexual relationships. Their own feelings may be very strong; they’re immersed in a social world where sex and dating are prominent. They’re thinking a lot about it.
They’re also developmentally ready to think abstractly, like about fairness, meaning, what they want in life, what makes a good person and a good partner, etc. You can guide this process by asking thoughtful questions. For instance:
- “Do guys and girls get treated the same if they have sex? Do guys get away with things girls don’t? Do you think that’s right?”
- “What do you think about this article?” (Show them something you found in the news on the #MeToo movement, a sex scandal, LGBTQ rights, or any other sex-related topic)
- “In couples you know at school, do you see big differences in how people treat each other? What’s good and bad about their relationships? What would you like to have in your own relationships?”
- “Does is matter how many sexual partners someone has? How would someone know what’s the ‘right’ number?”
- “Have you heard about people pressuring other people or being pressured to do sexual things they don’t want to? What do you think about that?”
When you ask not-too-personal questions like these, your teen may be receptive to a discussion. That gives you valuable information about their social world and their thought process. Once they’ve weighed in with their views, you might have room to state yours. (Be sure to say “in my opinion” and not imply that your answer is the only correct one.)
Or they might not answer; they might cringe, groan, or run to their room. And that’s okay too. Maybe in time they’ll return to the subject with you; maybe not. You’ve still demonstrated your willingness to talk about sexuality. You’ve planted a seed and gotten them thinking…in a way that will, hopefully, help them develop their own answers about sex and relationships.