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How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex

Tips on talking with children about sex and sexuality

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Updated April 19, 2010

Talking with your kids about sex is never easy. It takes courage, a little bit of homework, and lots practice. But giving your child honest, straightforward information about sexual health is the best way to support them in having a healthy sexual life, including protecting them from unwanted pregnancies and STDs. Below are some tips that might help you navigate the murky waters of talking with your kids about sex.

If you’re looking for age-specific tips, you might want to also read:

Make talking with your kids about sex a lifelong conversation

When parents imagine talking with their kids about sex they often work themselves up about the "big sex talk." But talking with your kids about sex isn’t about a single moment -- it’s about the thousands of small moments of learning and teaching about sex that can happen throughout your child’s development. This means you get more than one chance to do it right, and if you screw up a talk, you’ll get another chance next week. The important thing is to keep the conversation open. Read more about making sex education a lifelong conversation with your kids.

Know your comfort level when it comes to talking about sex

Getting a sense of your own comfort is crucial. The well-meaning parent who is so uncomfortable talking with their kids about sex might inadvertently communicate a lot of negative messages about sexuality. Take some time to imagine conversations at different ages and stages in your child’s life. If you imagine these scenarios and shudder, don't put yourself down for it. There are lots of things you can do to increase your comfort talking with your kids about sex.

Clarify your own sexual values

Knowing how to talk to your kids about sex is often complicated by the fact that few of us spend time considering our own sexual values. Sexual values are the beliefs, priorities, prejudices, thoughts and feelings we have about sex, sexuality, and gender. Our sexual values will change over time and experience. But knowing how we feel about key issues of sexuality can go a long way to communicating clear and helpful information to our children. Read more about clarifying your own sexual values .

Make it okay for your kids to ask about sex

All children have questions about sex. When we don't give our children permission to ask questions or create appropriate time and space for them to ask their questions, the questions come anyway, and they can come at embarrassing or inconvenient times. If you are genuinely interested in raising sexually healthy children you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable asking you questions. This might mean having age-appropriate sex education books in the house, or it might mean telling your kids straight up that you’re open to questions about sex.

Use age-appropriate sex information

We all take in information differently at different times in our life, and too much good information is still too much. Present your child with information that is appropriate for their age, in a way that they can understand, and don't give them more information than they're ready to hear. If you’re not sure how to gauge this, you may want to look for resources on sex education in your local library or contact an organization like SIECUS, which supports comprehensive sex education and offers great bibliographies on their site.

Practice talking about sex

The only way to get comfortable talking about sex is to talk about sex. The more you talk about sex, the better you'll be at it. And this experience is transferable. If you get comfortable talking about sex with a friend, or your partner, often that comfort level and self-confidence can help you when talking to your kids. If you’re comfortable, it can go a long way to putting your kids at ease, too, and you are modeling a behavior you want to support them in.

Take the time you need to talk about sex

When we feel rushed to answer questions, our answers are often not as good as they could be. A way to convey that sexuality is important to your children is to make sure that "sex talks" happen at a time when they don't have to be rushed. This is also important as these talks can open up into unexpected other subjects. Because sexuality is part of who we are, sex talks can lead to amazing sharing on other topics that seem unrelated to sex. If you get a sex question at a time when you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, let your child know that you’re happy to talk about it later, and then follow up.

Don’t feel pressured to answer sex questions on the spot

If you are shocked by a question, or get a question you don't know how to answer, it’s okay to admit that, and let your child know you want to talk about it, but you want to do that later. Don't use this as a way to avoid answering the question altogether, but if you've had a long day at work and are rushing around trying to get the grocery shopping done, it's okay to tell you child that they need to wait until the end of the day, or when you're at home and will feel more comfortable talking about it.

Don’t try (or pretend) to have all the answers

Sexuality involves our bodies, minds, spirits, society, and more. There is no way you will ever have answers to all your children's questions. Admitting this to your kids can teach them that no one has all the answers (and that you are human like the rest of us) may well turn into a chance to help them learn where to find their own answers (a trip to the library, or a previously checked-out, credible sexual health website might be in order).

Know your boundaries and model them for your kids

You are not your child’s best friend, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to answer every personal question your child might ask you. Establishing boundaries (the things we will and won’t talk about with strangers, family, friends, and eventually romantic partners) is an important developmental stage, and you can model for your child by having clear boundaries about what you will and will not discuss with them.
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