When — and How — to Have “The Talk”
“The talk.” “The birds and the bees.” Ditch the air quotes and euphemisms and initiate an open and honest dialogue with your children about sex. It may be difficult, but it’s vital for their development and safety.
“The ‘sex talk’ is a personal topic for a lot of families, and many parents hesitate because they don’t want to think their child is growing up,” says Northwestern Medicine Pediatrician Anita Chandra-Puri, MD. “Your child needs a great role model to speak to them about these things.”
Dr. Chandra-Puri adds, “It’s not one talk. It’s a continuous conversation.”
Start with proper terminology.
Healthy dialogue about sex begins with the way you refer to your child’s body parts. “Many families will use nicknames for these body parts,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri. “You should refer to genitalia by their formal names with your children.”
As your child becomes aware of their genitalia, help them establish boundaries.
“When your child can use the bathroom by themselves, remind them that no stranger — besides their guardian — should touch their private areas,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri. “On the other side of the coin, reassure them that it is safe, OK and necessary for their physician to examine these areas to ensure overall health.”
Dr. Chandra-Puri adds, “Just like I check the eyes, ears, nose, heart and lungs, I check genitalia for proper development.”
When your child is around 10 to 12 years old, it’s time to have a more formal conversation about sex and puberty. You know your child best and will know when they are mature enough to have this conversation. But don’t catch them off guard: Give your child a heads-up before having this conversation.
You can break the conversation into three parts: what changes to expect, why these changes will happen and how to take a responsible approach to sex.
Part One: Your Changing Body
Discussing the changes your child will be experiencing as a part of puberty is a great way to open the door to this dialogue. You can start by referencing friends or family members who have experienced these visible outward changes, like facial hair and breasts, or even reference something simple and personal, like how your child has gotten taller.
Part Two: Why
This is when you get into the mechanics of sex to explain why your child’s body will be changing. If you feel uncomfortable with this, there are many books you can read with your child to facilitate this conversation. Try not to elicit shame.
Part Three: Responsibility of Sexual Activity
This portion of the conversation should involve:
- Safe sex
- Sexually transmitted infections and their disease progression, including the HPV vaccine
- Social pressures involved with sex
- Your family’s morals
- Emotions surrounding sex
- Comfort with their own body
- Comfort with their sexuality
“If you don’t think your child is ready or mature enough for this portion of the conversation, you can always bring it up again when they’re older,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri. “You should talk to your child like they are an adult, to emphasize the gravity of this conversation.”
Be ready — and honest.
Your child may start to notice their older siblings’ or friends’ bodies changing and get curious. You may be caught off guard by your child’s questions, but it’s important to remain calm.
“You don’t want to squelch your child’s curiosity,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri. “Answer honestly. If you think your child is not old enough to understand the topic, assure them you will explain it to them when they are older.”
Don’t ignore, dismiss, or close yourself off to these questions. If your child asks about slang you don’t understand, first ask where they heard it, and then tell them you’ll look up the meaning and get back to them. You want your child to get the right answers so that they don’t feel ignorant or unequipped among their peers. Use these opportunities to keep the dialogue going.
“If your child feels heard then they are more likely to hear you,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri.