Maybe your mother subtly left a pamphlet by your bed. Or your dad awkwardly coughed through an explanation of hormones. The information seemed too horrifying and embarrassing to ever discuss with your, ugh, parents.
As much as we like to think that we are far more enlightened and progressive today, the reality is that it’s still uncomfortable to talk to your kids about puberty and body changes, much less sex.
But children today are exposed to more graphic sexual images and innuendos at a much younger age, making it more important than ever that they learn the facts correctly. Research overwhelming shows that, despite their vehement eye-rolling, kids want and need that information to come from their parents.
The right time
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But what is the best way to broach the topic? And what age?
Kathleen Burke, who formerly held the title of CEO for the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Chicago, says that there is no one ideal age to start talking; it varies from child to child and even neighborhood to neighborhood.
“Ideally, parents should be having an ongoing conversation with their kids and getting comfortable using the correct anatomical names while their children are still infants,” she said. “This makes those words less taboo.”
Since some girls reach puberty as early as 8 and some boys at 9, it’s generally a good idea to teach kids sooner rather than later what changes are going to occur in their bodies.
Start by looking for teachable moments throughout childhood.
“It doesn’t have to start in a big dramatic way,” says Andy Wentling, a former health educator at Robert Crown, who also taught at middle and high school. “Look for opportunities. During a football game on TV, if you see a deodorant commercial, that’s a teachable moment about body odor and how hormones are changing.”
After you’ve started the conversation, keep it going when the opportunity arises. Follow up with any provocative situations in TV shows, movies or songs and ask questions about their friends’ behaviors. These talks don’t have to have a formal, face-to-face structure. It’s often easier to share when you’re doing another activity, such as driving, walking the dog, shopping or raking leaves.
That said, sometimes having a formal conversation can really help. It’s OK to be embarrassed and acknowledge that it’s an awkward topic. Admitting that you feel uncomfortable can even lighten the tension.
Delivery of information
Give kids the information in a straightforward manner with correct terminology. Use a matter-of-fact tone and just convey the facts that they need, a little bit at a time. That is, don’t lay it all on them at once. Separate the puberty talk from the sex talk.
“Sometimes parents start rambling,” says Wentling. “It’s very natural. But kids need a little time to process information.”
Wentling says it’s also important to ask your children questions such as “What do you want to know?” or “What have you heard?” This will help give you an idea of what your child knows, or thinks he knows.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers or your child comes to you with a complex moral question. It’s OK to tell them that you’ll find out more and report back. This commonly happens when opposite sex parents are having the discussion with their child.
It’s also helpful to clear up misconceptions that may arise. Wentling reminds parents that just because kids are asking, it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything. Kids today are exposed to terms – from French kissing to oral sex – and often just don’t know what something means. Likewise, don’t assume that by answering the question, they’re going to engage in the activity. This is the perfect opportunity to insert your family’s moral values.
Once you’re comfortable and the original uneasiness has subsided, continue to spend time talking about the emotional implications of a sexual relationship as well as the responsibilities and consequences of sex.
Hands down, the most important step is to just communicate and be available. “Recognize that the challenging part is just starting the conversation,” says Burke. “There are points in life as they develop when you want them to be able to come to you.”
By starting gradually and touching base frequently, most parents find that while they may not ever be entirely comfortable talking about the topic, they can at least speak clearly and rationally.
Want even more tips to talk to your kids about sex? We’ve got you covered.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2017.