Talking with children about sex

As children enter their teen years, they begin to have more interest in dating, and many become sexually intimate with a partner. Almost half of adolescents will have had sexual intercourse by 10th grade. And by 12th grade, 61 children out of 100 have had sexual intercourse.1 Talking about sex can be awkward, but the earlier you start the discussion, the better prepared your child will be to make safer decisions about it.

Talking to your son or daughter about sex

Whether they are sexually active or not, children need help to make responsible choices about sex. Talking about sex does not encourage sexual activity in children. Some studies show that talking openly and honestly about sex can prevent teenage pregnancy.2 Having an open, honest relationship with your child will largely depend on the quality of the relationship you have built to this point.

The best time to begin the discussion about sex is when your child is in elementary school. A good way to start is to admit that talking about sex may be awkward, but that your child should not ever be afraid to ask you questions. Discussing sex and sexuality with your child is not a one-time conversation, though. As he or she grows and matures, your child naturally has questions about sexuality. The more you can give guidance, the better prepared your child will be to make responsible decisions.

If you are unsure of how to begin such a conversation, use everyday situations as an icebreaker. Use examples on TV or another teen's pregnancy to start a discussion about sex and dating. If you wait for others—friends, school staff, or another adult—to address sex, you do your child a disservice.

Your local library, church or synagogue, or organizations such as Planned Parenthood will have information to help you talk to your kids about sex and family life issues. Planned Parenthood and other groups offer counseling and classes you can take with your child to discuss sex, dating, and other important issues.

Be aware that children have easy access to many Web sites with sexual or pornographic content. Keep the computer in a shared area where you can see what your child is doing online.

Discussing contraception

Talking about condoms and other forms of contraception is often based on family values and attitudes. Even so, it's important to make sure your child understands how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), how pregnancy occurs, and how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, whether by abstinence or the use of condoms and other birth control methods.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends several strategies to help prevent unplanned pregnancy. The AAP supports having programs in place that help children delay becoming sexually active. The AAP also recommends that children learn about contraceptive methods and be able to get them easily. This includes emergency contraception methods.3

Defining sex

It's important not to make assumptions about what your child knows or doesn't know about sex. Your child may know something or nothing about sex. He or she may or may not know what the terms sexual activity and sexual intercourse mean. Start by explaining these terms. Make it clear that sex does not just mean vaginal sexual intercourse. Oral sex is becoming more accepted among children. Generally, children do not think of oral sex as "sex." They think of oral sex as a safe way to enjoy some of the benefits of vaginal sex with less risk of feeling guilty, getting a bad reputation, or going against their own values and beliefs.4 Also, some children don't understand that it is possible to get a sexually transmitted disease or HIV from having oral sex.4 Anal sex is another sexual activity that may take place without the child fully understanding the risks of STDs and HIV.

Help your child understand these risks and other possible effects from engaging in these and other sexual behaviors. For example, some children may not realize the emotional aftermath that sometimes results from having sex. Help your child think about what makes a relationship strong. Talk about what it means to truly care for another person.

Discussing sexual abuse and date rape

Giving your child information about date rape is important. About 9 out of 100 adolescents have been physical abused by a dating partner. And 20 out of 100 high school girls have been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner.5

Talk to your child about the following:

  • Avoid places that are secluded. Go where there are other people, where you feel comfortable and safe. Don't go to a date's home or invite him or her to yours. These are the places where most acquaintance rapes (date rapes) occur.
  • Trust your instincts. If you feel vulnerable, you might be. For example, avoid parties where boys greatly outnumber girls.
  • Don't be afraid to be rude. If a situation feels wrong or you start to get nervous, confront your date immediately or leave as quickly as possible.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They compromise your ability—and the ability of your date—to make responsible decisions.
  • Go on a group date or a double date. Especially at first, dating in groups may be more comfortable and less risky. When children are with friends who are trustworthy, they tend to be safer, even when they break rules.

Noticing unusual behaviors

A child's interest in sex and sexuality can range from none to a lot. It's natural and healthy for a child to explore his or her sexuality as long as his or her behaviors are balanced with other aspects of life. Children's sexual behaviors vary, based on their age and environment (both in and out of the home). In some cases, it's clear that sexual behavior is no longer natural and healthy, and a child needs help from a doctor or counselor.

Talk to your child's doctor if you are concerned that your child:6

  • Is intimate with an older or younger peer. In general, the wider the age difference, the greater the concern.
  • Is preoccupied with sex or interested in pornography.
  • Talks like an adult would talk about sexual behaviors or interacts with an adult in a manner more like adult-adult contact.
  • Behaves in sexual ways even though he or she has been asked to stop.
  • Harms animals or behaves in sexual ways with animals.
  • Sees everyday objects and interactions as sexual.
  • Violates others' body space or uses angry sexual language, gestures, or touching to hurt others.

Citations

  1. Kaplan DW, Love-Osborne K (2007). Adolescence. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Pediatric Diagnosis and Treatment, 18th ed., chap. 3, pp. 102–143. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Ahern NR, Kiehl EM (2006). Adolescent sexual health and practice: A review of the literature. Implications for healthcare providers, educators, and policy makers. Family and Community Health, 29(4): 299–313.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). Policy statement: Emergency contraception. Pediatrics, 116(4): 1026–1035.
  4. Halpern-Felsher BL, et al. (2005). Oral versus vaginal sex among adolescents: Perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Pediatrics, 115(4): 845–851.
  5. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Dating abuse fact sheet. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/datingviolence.htm.
  6. Cavanagh Johnson T (2007). Understanding Children's Sexual Behaviors: What's Natural and Healthy. San Diego: Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma.

Last Updated: April 22, 2008

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