Most people believe we first become sexual when we are teenagers, but this is not the case. Sexual feelings start in infancy, from the first time we feel physical sensations in our genitals. As children get older, it is not uncommon for them to absentmindedly rub their penises or vulvas. They also commonly play sex games like “doctor” with same or opposite sex friends. It’s important that you address sexuality throughout your child’s lifetime, rather than waiting for a one-time talk about “the birds and the bees.”

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you convey your own attitudes about sex to children in thousands of ways. Examples include your sense of modesty, the way you answer questions about sex, the words you use for sexual organs, and nonverbal cues. Not talking about sex sends a message in itself. As a parent, your willingness to discuss sexual feelings teaches children to have self-respect, and to feel good about their bodies and the pleasure they can provide. Your willingness to speak frankly can help them make good decisions about their sexual behaviors.

Masturbation is quite common among children between the ages of 2 and 11. Some parents assume that toddlers who fondle their genitals have the same intent and experiences as an adult. In reality, children are not thinking about a particular object of desire. They rub their genitals simply because it feels good. This is a perfectly normal behavior.

The typical response is to ignore the behavior, or to ask the child to stop. Instead, a parent should reinforce the idea that it is safe to talk about sexual matters. In addition, teach your kids the difference between public and private spaces, and how such play is reserved for private places.

Labeling the activity “dirty” or shameful can be harmful. It suggests to the child that certain parts of their bodies are dirty or shameful. It may also lead to a child hiding their feelings from a parent.

Children are filled with curiosity about how the body works. They should learn about sex, contraception, and birth using real words. Parents should view a child’s curiosity as healthy. They should encourage questions and supply accurate, age-appropriate answers, using correct terminology for body parts. In general, research shows that open communication between parents and children about sex is healthy and helpful.

When children ask questions about sex, some parents overwhelm them with biological facts. Give a simple answer that explains what they are asking. For example, a sufficient answer to a toddler’s question about where babies come from would be to say, “It grows in mommy’s uterus,” while pointing to your abdomen. Keep the age of the child in mind. A discussion about intercourse will obviously be quite different with a 5-year-old than with a 15-year-old.

Children often have an answer in mind when they ask a question about sex. So you might want to ask the child what they think the answer is. This can provide you with clues about what the child needs to know. As with almost everything else, if you don’t know the answer, be honest with your child. Tell him or her that you don’t know, but will do your best to find the answer. Then research the answer, and get back to your child. Children will feel as though you take their questions seriously, and that they can ask your opinion in the future.

Although you may have been open about talking to your children about sex from an early age, as teenagers they will face these questions firsthand. Teenagers who experiment with sex are forced to deal with the related problems of contraception, sexually transmitted infections, privacy, and the general ups and downs of a sexual relationship. Teenage years are a crucial time to offer the information they need and be emotionally supportive. Research suggests that it may be helpful to talk repeatedly about these issues as opposed to having the “big talk” and then walking away from the subject.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics showed that more than 40 percent of teenagers in the study had sex before discussing all the essentials with adults. This included topics such as:

  • safe sex
  • use of condoms
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • birth control

The authors of the study reiterated the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents educate teenagers about sex early in the teenagers’ lives. If you need support about how to talk to your teen, your local Planned Parenthood office is a good resource for pamphlets on some of these topics.

There are strong gender roles that some teenagers feel they must adhere to. Failure to conform to these roles is not, in many instances, socially acceptable. For example, some girls think they must appear amenable to sex, but not too amenable. Some boys feel they must behave in ways that show they are sexually experienced. You may wish to discuss these roles with your teenagers, and explain why they are not mandatory.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults be willing to address “tough topics” with teenagers, such as:

  • abstinence
  • homosexuality
  • drugs or alcohol and sex
  • date rape
  • abusive relationships

The better teens understand the challenges that come with being sexually active, the Mayo Clinic says, the more apt they are to grow into sexually mature adults.

You may also want to discuss issues that sometimes lie beneath the surface. For example, you may steer girls toward understanding that sexual desire is normal, and that fantasizing is a way of exploring that desire. You could help them learn that desire does not necessarily translate into sexual satisfaction, and that love doesn’t always translate to sexual satisfaction. Boys, on the other hand, can benefit from help with connecting their feelings with their sexual activity. It can also help boys to understand that sex makes them vulnerable, which is one reason sex is so powerful.

Although these conversations may seem awkward at first, talking about sex with your kids will become more natural over time. It shows you care about and respect them and their bodies, which hopefully will bring you closer together.