When should I start talking to my child about sex? Honestly, now. It’s never too early to start. In today’s world, children will hear and see sex everywhere from advertisements, songs, movies, video games, etc. There is no way to shield them completely, so being a part of the conversation gives you control over what they accept as truth.
Children being able to talk openly and honestly with their parents about sex, sexuality, and sexual development builds trust, reduces shame, and ultimately keeps them safe.
BIRTH – 2 YEARS
Talking to kids about their bodies and sex can start at birth. Teaching them the correct words for their body parts (penis, vulva, vagina, clitoris, bum and nipples) gives them the ability to effectively communicate. Often parents teach children nicknames for their private parts, but this makes it harder for children to communicate sexual abuse or unsafe touch to other adults in their life. Using nicknames can also increase shame about their body as they mature and develop.
Around the age of 2, children will start exploring and playing with their bodies more. This is a good time to teach children appropriate touch. If a child is touching or massaging their genitals in public, help them understand privacy. Try saying, “That feels good, touching your private parts is something to do in private” or “That is helping you calm down, and that’s not for doing in here. That’s something you can do in your room.”
Parents need to be gentle when setting limits around children touching their own genitals. All children explore their bodies in this way. Parents want to avoid making children feel bad or shameful while still teaching them appropriate boundaries.
2 YEARS – 5 YEARS
The early years are also important for teaching children about safe touch and consent. Parents can create a safety plan with their child outlining who to tell if someone touches them or makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Creating open communication early on with your child is essential. Parents want to be someone their child comes to when they have questions and concerns about sex, their sexuality, and safe touch.
Around the age of 5, children may start asking how babies are made. An easy answer can be, “There are many ways.” Every child is different, so parents can give as much detail as they think their child can comprehend. Sharing the child’s own conception story can be a good example to use when answering this question, for example:
“Daddy has sperm inside of him, and mommy has eggs inside of her. We used one of daddy’s sperm and one of mommy’s eggs to make you. You were inside mommy’s belly for a long time before you were ready to come out.”
Explaining the actual act of sex can wait until later if the child isn’t asking further questions or doesn’t seem ready for the information. But most importantly, don’t lie. They’ll learn the truth eventually, and you want them to remember that you were someone who was always honest and open with them.
6 YEARS – 8 YEARS
Once kids are old enough to start using tablets and the internet, talk to them about staying safe online. Set limits around talking to strangers and sharing information or photos. Be prepared for your child to stumble upon pornography. Avoid shaming your child for finding it, and instead use it as an opportunity to set limits. You can say something like, “That showed adults doing adult things. Those websites are only for adults to look at.” Talking with your child about what they saw and creating limits around it will help keep kids safe and informed.
This is also a time where children begin exploring their bodies for pleasure. Revisiting masturbation with your children is helpful so they understand appropriate and safe touch as well as personal hygiene. Parents can also explain more about unsafe touch and sexual abuse at this age. Let kids know they can always talk to you if something happens to them. Also offer the space for them to bring up past incidences they may not have shared before.
This is also an appropriate age for parents to share the actual mechanics of sex if they haven’t already. Children at this age can understand the physical act of sex and the many ways babies can be made (invitro, surrogates, etc.).
9 YEARS – 12 YEARS
Most children will start puberty during this time. If parents haven’t had a sex talk with their children, now it is imperative. By this age, children have learned most things from their peers or media. Touching base with what they already know and what questions they have is a great place to start. It is never too late to talk to your child about sex and create an open relationship with them.
Preparing preteens for puberty is important for healthy sexual and physical development. Helping them know what to expect from their own bodies and their peers’ bodies will make the process less scary and overwhelming for them. This is also a good time to start talking about healthy romantic relationships and safe sex.
13 YEARS +
Most parents wish their children would wait until they were fully developed and grown to start engaging in sexual and romantic relationships. Parents also know this is not reality. Helping your child understand safe sex can reduce their chances of rape, sexual abuse, STDs, and teenage pregnancy.
Parents can also revisit pornography during this time. There are many different types of pornography, some that is violent and offensive. Help your children understand consent and what consensual sex looks and feels like. Teach your children about the opposite gender’s body and what to expect from it. Help your children understand that no means no.
Regardless of age…
…let your child know you are always open if they need someone to talk to or answer their questions. Sex, sexuality, and sexual development are just as important as all other pieces and aspects of your child. It may feel awkward at first but talking to your children about sex helps them understand their own bodies. It also helps keep them safe!
Most importantly it creates a more open and meaningful relationship, which is ultimately what every child and parent wants.