When to Have "the Talk" with Your Kids

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on November 12, 2015Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso on November 12, 2015
Talk with kids

Sometimes called the “birds and the bees,” the dreaded “sex talk” with your kids is bound to happen at some point.

But when is the best time to have it? While you may be tempted to delay it as long as possible, talking to your kids early and often is the best way to make sure they make good choices about puberty and sex while growing up.

It’s important that you are ready to answer your kids’ questions as they come up, but there’s no need to fit everything into a single conversation. The conversation will evolve as your child gets older.

The Truth About the Timing

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finds that it is never too early to begin having these types of conversations with your children.

When your child is a toddler, you may notice that they often will touch their private parts. Such behavior is normal curiosity and not sexual. Even still, you might want to address this issue to make sure your child doesn’t do it in public. You might want to redirect their attention elsewhere, or simply acknowledge that this is private and should not be done in public. Don’t scold or punish your toddler for these actions. That might make them develop an increased focus on their genitals or feel shameful towards talking about sex. Be sure to teach your toddler the appropriate name for their private parts, so that they’re able to tell you accurately if something hurts or is bothering them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, if your child is frequently masturbating or touching themselves, it can indicate a problem. They might not be receiving enough attention. It can even be a sign of sexual abuse. Be sure to teach your child that no one is allowed to touch their private parts without permission.

If your child doesn’t ask you questions about sex or their body parts, don’t wait for them. Be sure to initiate the conversation once they reach their preteen years. The period between childhood and adulthood is called adolescence. Your child is going through puberty at this time and their body is changing dramatically. It is different for girls and boys.

  • Girls: Puberty starts between ages 9 and 13. While most girls get their period between ages 12 and 13, it can start as early as age 9. It’s crucial that parents talk to their daughters about menstruation before they get their period. The sight of blood can be very frightening for a young girl.
  • Boys: Puberty begins between ages 10 and 13. Talk to boys about their first ejaculation around this age, even if they don’t look like they are going through puberty.

Don’t wait to just have one big talk. Having lots of little conversations about sex makes the experience easier to handle and gives a kid time to reflect on each point. Your child may be scared to talk to you about puberty. It’s often a confusing and overwhelming time in their lives. This is totally normal.

It helps to start the conversation by reminding them often that what they are experiencing is normal and part of growing up. Tell them you went through it too. Once your child gets used to sharing this type of information and opinions with you, it will become much easier for you both to keep talking as your kid goes through their adolescent phase and beyond.

What Questions Can I Expect?

It’s impossible to know everything your child may be wondering about sex and relationships. However, you can prepare yourself for some of the more commonly asked questions.

  • Where do babies come from?
  • Why do I have breasts? When will they get bigger?
  • Why do you have hair down there?
  • Why haven’t I gotten my period yet? Why do I have a period? Why don’t boys have a period?
  • What does it mean to be gay or lesbian?
  • Is oral sex considered sex, too?
  • How can I tell if I have an STD?
  • Can I get pregnant just by fooling around?
  • A friend of mine is pregnant, what should she do?

Some of these questions may seem hard or awkward to answer. Just try to answer the question in a straightforward way. Your child will probably be satisfied with just a little information at a time.

How to Prepare for These Conversations

You should prepare and be ready to answer questions that come up. The type of questions your child asks can give you a good idea about what they already know. The following tips can help you get started.

  • Know the anatomy. Learn the proper names for each body part. This applies to both the male and the female reproductive systems.
  • Be honest. Don’t be afraid to admit to your child that you feel embarrassed talking about it too. This type of empathy might help your child feel more comfortable and ask more questions.
  • Relate. Tell stories about your own experiences growing up.
  • Address appearances. Bring up acne, mood changes, growth spurts, and hormonal changes and how these things can happen at different times for different kids and how that is totally normal.
  • Open your ears. Listen actively and keep eye contact. Don’t ask too many questions and keep it general if you do.
  • Be nice. Never tease, blame, or belittle your child’s ideas and feelings.
  • Be respectful. Choose a quiet, private area to talk. Respect their desires to only talk to Mom or Dad about certain subjects.
  • Offer resources. Create a list of websites and books that offer information about sexuality that you think are accurate.

Where to Look for Help

There are a number of credible and reliable websites that offer accurate information on sexual health and development. After talking to your child and letting them know that you’re here to answer any questions they may have, you can provide them with these resources.

The Key Talking Points

Kids will have different questions and concerns about sex, puberty, and their changing bodies as they get older. Tailor your answers to the specific questions they ask, but be sure to cover the following if it’s appropriate to do so at that point in the conversation.

  • When your child is young and begins to understand that they have “private parts,” make sure to reiterate that no one, not even a friend or family member, has the right to touch these areas.
  • Information about pregnancy and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), such as gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, and herpes, even if you think your kid isn’t having sex yet.
  • Information on how to protect themselves from STDs and how to avoid getting pregnant.
  • How to use protection (like condoms) during sex and where to buy them.
  • What to expect in terms of body changes, like pubic and underarm hair, voice changes (boys), and breast changes (girls).
  • When and how to use deodorant.
  • What to expect in a relationship and what to look for in a romantic partner. You can set rules about when it is okay to start dating. Be sure that your kid sets realistic expectations for their first relationship.
  • What to do if they are feeling pressured to have sex before they are ready.
  • For girls, what to do the first time they get a period, including how to use a pad and a tampon and what to expect in terms of pain.
  • For boys, what to do if they ejaculate or have a “wet dream.”
  • Above all, be clear that nothing matters more to you than their safety and well-being.

What If I Can’t Answer a Question?

If you and your child are having trouble communicating, ask your pediatrician for guidance. They may be able to talk to your kid directly, or may refer you to a family counselor who specializes in these types of problems. Your child may be insecure about their acne and other changes to their appearances. Take them to see a dermatologist, a hairdresser, or an orthodontist if they begin worrying too much about what they look like.

There are also many good books available that approach sexuality on a level appropriate for your kid’s age. Ask your kid’s school about their curriculum on sex education so you can assess it yourself and also be prepared to talk about it at home.

The Takeaway

Remember that it’s never too early or too late to start these conversations. Just because your child doesn’t ask or bring it up directly with you doesn’t mean they already know the answers. They usually don’t. Or they might be getting inaccurate information from their friends. Simply letting them know that you are available to talk any time might be enough to get the conversation going.

Finally, try not to give them too much information at once. Once the subject is on their mind and they begin to feel more comfortable talking to you about it, they may come back later with more questions.

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