Sex. It’s not a dirty four-letter word, but we certainly shy away from saying it aloud—especially with our children.
Discussing sex and sexual health with your children can feel uncomfortable, overwhelming and confusing, but it is essential to their upbringing and becoming healthy adults. It’s never too early to get conversations going with your child.
“Open and honest conversations about sex and sexual health can help your child navigate their sexuality, establish healthy relationships and make informed decisions as they grow older,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and doctor of behavioral health with Banner Health. “It’s not a one-and-done conversation or a box to be checked. It’s continuous discussion as your child grows up.”
With that in mind, we provide a breakdown of the differences between sex, sexuality and sexual health and a practical age-by-age conversation guide. We’ll also address important aspects such as LGBTQ+ inclusion, social media usage and healthy relationships.
Sex, sexuality and sexual health
These three words are closely related, but they mean different things. Knowing the difference will help you during conversations with your child.
Sex: This term is often used interchangeably with sexual intercourse with another person, but it can also refer to the sex they were assigned at birth (for example, male or female). This assignment is based on physical traits that can be seen (genitals).
Sexuality: This term refers to how we understand our bodies, relationships and sexual experiences. We can express our sexuality in many ways, such as through thoughts, attitudes, behaviors and relationships.
Sexual health: Sexual health is more than avoiding sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unplanned pregnancy. This term is an integral part of our physical and emotional health.
Sexual health includes healthy relationships, reproductive health, sexuality, consent, puberty and hygiene.
An age-by-age guide: Conversations about sex
“The hardest part is getting ‘the talk’ started,” Dr. Fox said. “But it’s also about knowing your child and if they are developmentally ready for this information.”
What topics and specific age you discuss with your child can vary, but here is a general guideline on the different things about sex that kids eventually need to know about.
Ages 0 to 6: Laying the foundation
During the early years, focus on building a foundation of body positivity, consent and appropriate boundaries. Use proper names for body parts and teach your child that their body belongs to them.
“Explain that certain body parts are private and should not be touched by others unless for things like bathing or at the doctor’s office,” Dr. Fox said. “Teach them the importance of consent by encouraging them to say ‘no’ if they feel uncomfortable.”
Ages 7 to 12: Exploring physical changes
As your child enters the pre-adolescent stage and “tween years,” they may experience physical and emotional changes.
It’s crucial to address these changes and provide age-appropriate information about puberty, periods and the reproductive system. Emphasize that these changes are normal and natural.
“If you aren’t as comfortable having only one-on-one conversations, consider using books, videos or visual aids,” Dr. Fox said. “There are also age-appropriate programs and courses led by medical professionals that can guide conversations for parents and children.”
Around this time, you’ll also introduce the concept of healthy relationships, emphasizing respect, communication and consent. Discuss the importance of setting boundaries and recognizing when they are being crossed.
Be open to answering questions and encourage an open dialogue.
Ages 13 to 18: Navigating relationships and sexual health
During adolescence, your child’s curiosity about sex, sexuality and relationships will likely intensify.
“Continue discussing healthy relationships, emphasizing mutual respect, trust and consent,” Dr. Fox said. “Address the emotional and physical aspects of relationships, the importance of communication, the difference between consent and coercion and that sexual assault (dating violence) isn’t just sex, it’s unwanted touch.”
Introduce the concept of contraception, STIs and sexual health. Discuss the different methods of contraception and their effectiveness. Provide information about common STIs, their symptoms and prevention strategies. Encourage them to make responsible choices.
Discuss proper online, social media and texting etiquette and serious issues surrounding their usage, such as digital bullying and harassment, pornography, sexting and inappropriate photos.
Here are a few other tips for parents
Create an inclusive environment
Inclusive conversations about sex and sexual health should include discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Explain that people may have different attractions and gender identities, and all deserve respect and acceptance.
Provide resources like books, websites or LGBTQ+ organizations to educate you and your child further.
Also, read “How to Empower Your LGBTQ+ Teen.”
Come back to questions
You don’t have to have all the answers. Sex talk isn’t easy, and you may be unable to answer some questions. This is OK.
Talk to your partner or a friend, get a book or Google the question your child had so you can come back to your child and answer it at their developmental level.
Provide access to information
If your child feels uncomfortable discussing sex or sexual health, get them the information they need through access to books, a health care provider, a support group or another resource.
If your child doesn’t hear these crucial conversations from you, they will hear it from their friends, from surfing the internet or watching TV.
By getting in first on the ground floor of their learning, you can ensure they receive the correct information and, more importantly, know you are there for them to discuss at any time.
“Talking to your children about sex, sexuality and sexual health is an ongoing process that evolves as they grow,” Dr. Fox said. “Embrace this opportunity to create a safe and non-judgmental space where they can freely discuss their concerns and questions.”
By providing age-appropriate information, fostering open communication and promoting acceptance, you can equip them with the knowledge and skills to make informed choices and develop healthy relationships.