How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex: Complete Guide for Parents

Published August 22, 2022
Mother talking with teenage daughters on sofa

There comes a time in every parent's life when they realize they need to talk to their kids about sex. Maybe your four year-old asks where babies come from, or you watch a movie with your pre-teen and discover it has an intimate scene. Or maybe your teenager is dating for the first time and you just know that they are bound to end up doing more than just holding hands.

Do any of these situations sound a bit too familiar? If so, it might be time to have that often dreaded but incredibly important discussion about sex with your child.

How to Talk to Kids About Sex

It's never too early to start talking to your kids about sex. You can start the conversation as soon as they are born. It will just look a little different in order to help lay the groundwork for larger conversations when they get older.

This might be your child's first conversation about sex. However, children are observant creatures. Odds are that they may have already picked up on people holding hands, being in relationships, and maybe have even had a crush or two of their own.

It can be hard to accept that they're ready to learn about some aspects of intimacy. But the good news is that they are gaining important information and that it's coming from you. Use clear language and keep your responses simple and easy for your child to understand.

Label Body Parts

Many people use flowery euphemisms to talk about reproductive organs. Penises and vaginas become whoo-has and no no squares. However, these vague sayings can create more confusion for your child, especially when different people use different names.

Teach your child the labels for the different reproductive body parts. Don't be afraid to use the words penis or vagina or to describe the difference between them. This language will give your child new words and information about themselves and others around them. These clear labels will help your child advocate for themselves and reduce the stigma surrounding certain body parts.

Emphasize Respect

Once your child knows the differences between the reproductive organs, you can talk about how to respect people's bodies and privacy. Let your child know why respect is important and how it's a way of being kind to others and showing that you care.

Explain to them how it's not appropriate to touch or make fun of others' body parts. Especially in their reproductive areas. Inform them that every body is different and that no two body parts look exactly the same from person to person.

Talk about how your child has a right to their own body. Let them know that if someone touches their private parts or an area of their body that they aren't comfortable with, to tell you or another adult immediately. Encourage them to stand up for others if they notice that their bodies aren't being respected.

Explain What Sex Is

Your child might ask you where babies come from or be confused when they see a pregnant woman in the park. These moments might make you feel like you need to hit the panic button. And, oftentimes, people resort to telling tales about storks dropping off babies in baskets, and the like. However, it doesn't have to be this way.

You can tell your child the truth about where babies come from. Well, at least a modified version of the truth. Your child doesn't need to know lots of specific details just yet. Keep your responses clear, simple, and, most importantly, honest.

Some ways to talk about sex with a child are:

  • Babies come from inside people's bodies where they grow and become strong. That's why pregnant people often look like they have a large belly. It's because there's a baby inside.
  • Babies come from having sex. Sex is something adults decide to do together, especially if they want to have a baby.
  • Sex is something parents and other adults might do when they want to feel close to each other. Sometimes after sex, a person can get pregnant and start to grow a baby inside their stomach.

If you don't feel comfortable explaining sex to your child and want to wait until they are older, that's okay, too. At the end of the day, you know your family better than anyone and have your child's best interests at heart.

How to Talk to Pre-Teens About Sex

Most pre-teens already have a good idea about what sex and intimacy are. They may have seen it in movies, TV shows, or even seen people sharing kisses around school. In fact, they might be anxiously awaiting their first kiss at this very moment.

Talking to a pre-teen about sex might seem even more daunting than talking to a child. You might be worried that giving your child more information will encourage them to engage in intimacy. However, that's not necessarily true.

The bottom line is that your pre-teen is learning about sex in one way or another. You have the opportunity to be a part of their education to make sure that they are learning the things that you need them to know. If you don't start the conversation, your child might not have all the information to keep them safe.

Talk About the Challenges and Changes of Puberty

The pre-teen years can be challenging for many reasons, but one of the main ones is puberty. Your child's body is changing, and you can offer insight that might help them face these challenges. Brace yourself, because your child is most likely not going to want to talk about their body with you.

However, you can let them know what to expect as they go through puberty. Regardless of your child's gender, they should know that both boys and girls go through puberty and are affected by it in different ways.

This can reassure them that they aren't alone in their struggles to cope with the changes. And, when they know that it's okay to talk about these things with you, they may be more likely to share things with you about them in the future. Some things you might want to talk about are:

  • Attraction and crushes
  • Body hair, shaving, etc.
  • Changes in height and voice
  • Developing breasts and wearing bras
  • Hormones
  • Periods

Address Dating Expectations

Mother talking to daughter in bedroom

Depending on the rules of your household, your child might start dating as a pre-teen. And, even if your child isn't allowed to have a significant other, they most likely have a special someone at school they hold hands with at lunchtime. For these reasons, you might want to talk about dating and expectations.

Does your child know what dating is? Do they want to start dating? Why or why not? This is important information for you to know as a parent, and it can create an open conversation on the subject.

Talk about dating expectations, and try to be flexible. Explore questions with your child and create personalized expectations that work for you both. Some questions you might want to ask are:

  • Will there be a curfew?
  • When do parents get to meet the partner?
  • Are solo dates allowed or are group dates preferred?
  • Does homework need to be completed before your child and their partner hang out?
  • How many nights a week is appropriate for partners to be over?

Explain Consent

Your pre-teen might know what sex is, but consent might be a new vocabulary word for them. Explore the topic of consent with your child. Let them know that permission is important and that it is a requirement for a safe and healthy relationship.

Let your teen know that if anything happens to them or someone around them that is not consensual, that they can talk to you or another adult. This can be anything from bullying, hand holding, or comments being made about your child that are unwanted.

Take this time to check your child's understanding of consent. Have them give you examples, and ask them if they want to share anything personal. Odds are that they might not be ready to open up just yet. However, it's important that they know they can come to you later on.

Discuss Pornography

Take a deep breath. You might be appalled at the thought of your child watching porn. However, the average age that children are exposed to pornography is 11 years-old. And, even if you really, really don't think your child is watching porn, they might have seen someone else watching it or heard them talking about it. This is why it's important for you to talk about it.

The majority of kids start to experience attraction in their pre-teen years. They're curious about their own bodies, as well as the bodies of people they are attracted to. For many, this interest can lead them to watch porn to uncover the secrets of life no one talks to them about.

You can be a part of that conversation and help give them a realistic idea of intimacy. You don't have to ask your child if they've ever watched porn or looked at naked photos online. And, honestly, they might not ever tell you. However, you can talk about these things and explain the pros and cons. Some things you might want to discuss are:

  • How porn often promotes unrealistic expectations of sex
  • That violence in porn, which is often directed at women, is not safe or indicative of a healthy relationship
  • Masturbation and exploring your own body, as well as the stigma surrounding it
  • Body image and harmful body comparisons

Talk About Sex

Finally, talk to your pre-teen about sex. Ask them questions to find out more about their understanding. What do they know about sex? Where did they learn that from? Do they have any questions about it?

Your pre-teen will most likely not be thrilled with this part of the conversation. And, they might not tell you the whole truth (or maybe even any truth). But, when you ask these questions, you encourage your child to reflect on them, even if they don't share their thoughts.

Some additional topics you might want to include in your conversation are:

  • Difficulties and risks surrounding teen pregnancy
  • What it means to have safe sex
  • Debunking as many myths about sex as possible, such as birth control isn't needed, etc.
  • Risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Your own personal beliefs about sex, such as when you know you're ready, waiting until later in life, etc.

How to Talk to Teens About Sex

On average, most people in the U.S. experience sex for the first time at age 17, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have a teen, that can be a scary thing to think about, especially when you're concerned about their overall health and well-being.

Even if you believe that your child isn't having sex, or you are one hundred percent sure that they would tell you beforehand, don't allow this to stop you from having the conversation. You should give your teen information to prepare them for the situation should it arise.

Even if they don't use the information themselves, they can share it with someone else that may need it. And, it can let your teen know that they can talk to you about sex if and when they need your support.

Emphasize That Consent Is a Requirement for Sex

It's never too late to talk to your teen about the importance of consent. They may have heard it before and may even be well-versed in its meaning, however, maybe they aren't. Or, maybe they don't fully understand the importance of consent.

You can use this time to talk about relationships and respect. Let your child know that consent doesn't only come before sex. And that their consent is needed whenever their mind or their body is involved. Kissing, holding, touching, and everything in between should be consensual.

Educate Them About Safe Sex

Smiling mother showing digital tablet to daughter on sofa at home

Even if you just know that your child isn't having sex, you should still teach them about safe sex practices. Many teens believe sex myths, such as condoms ruin the experience or that certain types of sex don't require any forms of protection. However, these are not true and can cause teens to engage in poor sex practices.

Information on safe sex is imperative for teens to have in order to ensure their health and safety. And, as a parent, you can take an active role in that. Some topics you can discuss are:

  • Different forms of contraceptives, such as denture dams, condoms, etc.
  • Where your child can find these resources (sometimes for free) when and if they need them
  • Birth control, the different options that are available, and emergency contraceptives
  • Potential risks surrounding STIs and how they can find help
  • Discouraging them from having sex when and if they are ever under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Talk About Sexual Assault

When you talk about sex with your teen, it's also important to talk about sexual assault. This can be a very heavy part of the conversation, so take all the time you need to get through it with your teen.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 82 percent of all sexual assault victims under the age of 18 are female. In addition, females ages 16-19 are four times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than the general population. Share these statistics with your child and make sure they know this issue is prevalent.

Encourage them to come to you if they ever see or experience any form of sexual assault. Share resources with them in case they don't feel comfortable talking to someone they know. They can dial 988 to reach the Crisis and Suicide Lifeline, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Some additional topics you might want to discuss:

  • How anyone can be a victim of sexual assault
  • How anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual assault
  • Mental health resources, such as counselors, therapy, etc. that are available
  • The stigma surrounding sexual assault and how you're always there to help

Tips for Talking to Your Child About Sex

Whether you're talking to a young child, pre-teen, or full-on teenager, you might be looking for some ideas to help you start the conversation. Pause. Take a deep breath. And lead with your heart.

Start the Conversation When It Feels Right

It's never too early to start talking to your child about sex. In fact, you can start the conversation as soon as they're born by simply referring to their reproductive organs by their real names. Sex education is an ongoing process, and your child will start to learn more over time.

If you didn't start talking to your child about sex from infancy, don't worry. You haven't missed your opportunity, and you can start the conversation when it feels right to you. Your pre-teens and teenagers might squirm at the idea no matter what.

Just because your child is now in middle school or high school, it doesn't mean you've missed your chance to talk to them about sex. You can still be a valuable resource in their lives when you share what you know and offer support.

Respect Your Child's Feelings

The last thing on earth a child wants to do is talk to their parents about sex. It can be embarrassing, make them feel uncomfortable, or even like their parents are prying into their personal lives.

Would you have wanted to talk to your parents about sex when you were growing up? Probably not. That's why it's important to approach the conversation with respect for your child's private life and personal feelings.

Encourage your child to ask questions and share their experiences with you. However, allow them to decline the offer. It's okay if they don't feel open to sharing right now. Remind them that you're always there whenever they are ready.

Plan a Time to Talk

Sex is not an easy topic of conversation for parents or kids. It can take a lot of time and uncomfortable silence to get through all the things you want to say. It's not a conversation you can simply bring up at the dinner table or talk about in the car on the way to school.

That's why it's important to plan a time to talk. Ask your kid what days and times they are free during the week. Then, choose a time that works for you both.

Make sure neither you nor your child have an event right before or after you plan to have your conversation. You might need time to prepare yourself for the talk beforehand, and both of you might want time after to decompress.

Make 'The Talk' an Ongoing Conversation

For many years, people have had one conversation about sex with their kids and then never returned to the conversation. It's called "The Talk" for this very reason. However, why not have many talks?

If you are talking to your child or pre-teen about sex, odds are that you will have to have the conversation more than once as they get older. The idea of needing to have the sex talk repeatedly may seem daunting. However, it's actually a good opportunity to encourage you to continue to have open and honest conversations with your child as they continue to grow.

Keep the conversation going. It can help your kids feel more comfortable sharing their personal lives with you going forward. If an opportunity to talk about sex, relationships, or intimacy arises, seize the chance. The more you talk, the easier the conversations will become.

Go Easy on Yourself

Sex is still a pretty taboo subject for many people, and it can make people feel vulnerable. Simply do the best you can to help your child feel supported and informed. You're already showing that you care by starting the conversation, and that says a lot.

You might not have all the answers to their questions, and that's okay. You're an important resource for your child's health and well-being. Whenever you get stuck or stumble, remind yourself of that.

Resources for Sex Education

There are a lot of elements involved in talking about sex, and you might want to give your child more information to make sure that they fully understand. Regardless of your child's age, there are resources you can use to supplement your child's education and support your own.

Resources for Parents

Looking for more information on ways to talk to your child about sex? There are several great online resources you can use to understand more about different approaches. Some resources you can check out are:

Resources for Kids

Father and daughter reading book in living room at home

A great way to introduce the topic of sex to your kiddo is through literature. Many of the books answer any questions about babies, sex, and life that kids end up asking adults. Some books are:

  • It's Not The Stork by Robie H. Harris - A book about where babies come from. Recommended for ages four and older.
  • What Makes a Baby by Cory H. Silverberg - This book explains how babies are made in a way that is inclusive. Recommended for ages three-seven.
  • Wait, what? by Heather Corinna and Isabella Rotman - A graphic novel about relationships, body changes, and growing up. Recommended for ages nine and older.

Resources for Pre-Teens

There are also many educational resources for pre-teens to help them learn more about sex and life changes. You can explore these books or videos along with your child, or encourage them to explore on their own time. Some resources you might find helpful are:

Resources for Teenagers

Some teenagers might feel like they know a lot about sex. However, that is not always the case. They might not be open to having a conversation with you at this very moment, and that's okay. You can point them in the direction of some helpful resources and they can explore the topic on their own. Some resources to share with your teen are:

  • Go Ask Alice! - A column from Columbia University geared towards answering the sex and life questions of young adults.
  • Young Women's Health - An organization that provides women's sex and health information to young adults.
  • Coalition for Positive Sexuality - An organization that provides tools and educational resources for teens to learn more about sex, themselves, and reproductive health.

Be Part of the Conversation Throughout Your Child's Sex Education

Not every child has access to quality sex education. Many programs overlook issues surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as sexual assault. The only way to ensure that your child has all the information is to talk about it with them yourself.

It may be awkward, embarrassing, and maybe even brutal for you both, but you can have the conversation knowing that you are doing everything you can to educate and support them. Starting the conversation will open the door for more opportunities to develop trust and share information with your child.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex: Complete Guide for Parents