If the thought of talking about sex with your kids makes you sweat bullets, you’re not alone. Over half of parents have not discussed sex with their preteen, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But it’s not something you should skip, according to experts. The “birds and bees” talk builds the foundation for a healthy attitude toward sexuality and an open dialogue with your child that continues through adolescence, says Laurie Watson, licensed marriage family therapist and clinical director of Awakenings – Center for Intimacy and Sexuality.
Here’s how to approach the topic with your children, from preschool through the teen years.
Early childhood years: 0 to six
While toddlers and preschoolers are too young for clinical descriptions or copious details, it’s never too early to begin preparing for a healthy understanding of sex. “Young children have a natural curiosity about their own bodies and the bodies around them,” says Watson. “Talking about bodily functions, gender differences and sex should simply be a woven continual conversation.” And, beginning in toddlerhood, all children should learn the names of all their body parts, including their genitals.
Children may begin to ask questions about where babies come from around age five or six. This doesn’t need to be an anxiety-filled discussion; keep answers simple and straightforward, without going into too many specifics. There’s plenty of time for that later on. “Once children understand the basic anatomical differences between men and women, you might explain that babies are made by two bodies fitting together like a puzzle,” says Watson.
Elementary years: Seven to 12
The best way to talk about sex depends on your child’s personality: some kids are full of questions, while others specialize in squirming and eye-rolling when parents go anywhere near the topic. Whatever your child’s personality type, keep talking, says Watson. “Curious children will easily expand your conversations. Avoidant children certainly still need the information. Anxious kids also should be reassured that their lack of interest or even disgust is normal but that eventually, they will enjoy this wonderful aspect of special relationships.”
If the child hasn’t brought up the subject by age eight, the parent needs to assume responsibility for covering most general topics, says Watson. By age 12, a child should know facts about conception, pregnancy and birth; that sex is part of loving adult relationships and feels good; puberty-related body changes; how to handle increasing feelings for love objects; the meaning of slang words and jokes; and their family’s social and moral values regarding sexual expressions.
Teen years: 13 to 18
Sex is very much on the minds of most teens, says Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. Unfortunately, few adults initiate conversations about sex with their teens. But they should, says Kuczmarski. “The most important thing you can do is talk. This establishes openness between you and your teen on sex-related issues. You want your teen to feel comfortable coming to you to talk later, and the best way to ensure this future dialogue is to initiate it early yourself.”
Can’t muster enough cool to bring it up? That’s okay, says Kuczmarski. “If you’re not comfortable talking about sex, fake it. Comfort will grow with frequency.” Many small conversations are better than one or two “big” ones, she notes; conversations about sex, dating, love, desire and even passion should be discussed casually and often. “Ideally, if you started talking when they were younger, you’ll be more comfortable talking as your child enters the teen years. If you didn’t, there is no time like right now. So just start.”
Malia is a nationally-published health journalist and mom. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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