We all know about “the talk”. Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, most people find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about sex. Most adults struggle to find the words to give to their kids and want to rush through the process as quickly as possible. The conversation usually ends up being a combination of the birds and the bees and human biology to encompass this natural act that brought said child to this earth in the first place.
So, first things first, why expand “the talk” to your child beyond giving them a book, showing them a video, or describing anatomy without further explanation? As a sex therapist, the majority of my clients come in feeling embarrassed to talk about sex or have a lot of misconceptions about it as adults because no one ever talked to them about it. Many people were raised with the underlying message that sex is awkward, taboo, or shameful to talk about – some were fortunate enough to have parents that were a bit more open to talking about it, but may still have only learned about anatomy, and not much else otherwise.
By closing off our kids from talking about sex, we’re modeling the notion that there’s something inherently wrong with sex – that it needs to be hidden and can only be discussed with our partner. The problem with this is that as adults, most people have no one to turn to when they’re experiencing sexual difficulties. Forget about talking to a friend, co-worker, spiritual leader, etc. – most people just avoid the topic. And if the doctor doesn’t bring it up (which they probably won’t since they too feel awkward talking about sex), who can one turn to for guidance and advice? Porn? The industry that takes sex and scripts and edits it to look more like a movie than real life? I don’t think so. While porn might teach a technique or two, it doesn’t address issues such as pain, dysfunction, lack of desire, etc. Therefore, by setting a new trend and talking to your child about sex, you’re setting them and society up for better sex education and therefore better sexual health.
So, when is the best time to start talking to your child about sex? The reality is, as early as possible, so that it never becomes a taboo topic in your home. Teach your child from an early age to label their anatomy properly. Teach girls the difference between vulva and vagina and let boys know about their penis and how sometimes it might grow, and that’s normal! Also, teach your children from an early age about consent. Rather than forcing hugs, kisses, or tickles, ask them if it’s okay to give them a hug, or ask them if they’d like to give Grandma a kiss. Teaching them from an early age that it’s okay to say “no” will help give them a voice early on to advocate for their own rights when it comes to their bodies. This is important not only for lessening any potential shame around sex and our bodies, but it’s also very important in the court of law. There have been cases where a perpetrator did not receive a full conviction because the child didn’t know how to describe the assault that happened to them, since they didn’t know how to properly label their body parts. And while this is an extreme example, it highlights the importance of teaching children proper anatomy and consent.
As children get older, continue to have the conversation about sex. Answer questions honestly and make yourself available as someone to talk to. If you catch your child self-pleasuring, rather than yelling, smacking hands, shaming, etc., provide a gentle tone and have a discussion with them in private and set the standard that you and your household value. If your values indicate that self-pleasure is not okay, calmly explain to your child why without including shame messages. If your values align more with self-pleasure being acceptable, try explaining to your child that it’s fine for them to do it, but in the privacy of their own room, etc. It’s natural for children to explore their bodies, including their genitals as they age. It’s very likely that at a young age, they will discover masturbation and experiment with it. However, by addressing it in a way that reduces shame through a gentle tone and explanation (rather than just telling them “no” or “don’t do that in public!” ), they are much more likely to be open to coming to you when sexual issues arise. In addition, shame around their body and their natural desires will be much lower.
Into adolescent and teen years, continue having the conversation. Explain to them about puberty changes so it doesn’t come as a shock when their bodies begin to change. You can give them a “welcome to puberty” package (razor, shaving cream, deodorant, tampons, pads, etc.) and let them know they can come to you with any questions they have about these changes. Make sure you explain to your kids not only the physical repercussions of sex (some potential side effects such as pregnancy, STIs, potential physical enjoyment, etc.) but also the emotional side effects (potential feelings of joy, connectedness, sadness, shame, etc. depending on the outcome of their experience) and again, that they can come to you to process any of these feelings/outcomes. Check and see if your child has a mentor with whom they’re comfortable talking about sex in case they still feel awkward talking about it with you.
While there is plenty of other information to be considered regarding the sex talk, the biggest highlights are these:
- Get comfortable with it yourself. If your kids see that you’re feeling shameful/embarrassed about sex, they’re likely going to feel that way too. That might mean that you practice giving “the talk” to yourself first in the mirror, or practice saying the proper anatomical parts out loud by yourself or with your partner.
- Be open and reduce shame-based messages as much as possible. By showing your kids that sex isn’t something they need to keep hidden and that you’re a safe person to talk to about it, they will hopefully come away with less shame around sex and be more open to discussing any difficulties they’re having in the future.
- Explain the reasons behind any values that your family has about sex. Kids are less likely to push the boundaries if they understand why they’re in place. If you simply tell them “because I said so,” they’re probably going to try and figure out the why on their own, versus if they had a clear understanding of why something is on- or off-limits.
By being open with your kids about sex and their bodies, the hope is that in the future they will experience less shame and be more empowered with making their own decisions regarding their choices. No matter what phase of life they are in right now, it’s never too late to have the talk. You’ve got this!