How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex

How to talk to kids about sex

Verywell / Catherine Song

Being a parent is perhaps the toughest and most rewarding job you’ll ever have. As parents, we must make decisions every day that either work out in our favor or backfire big time. So when it comes to something as complex as talking to our kids about sex and sexual health, it’s no wonder we seek guidance from those who have come before us.

Most experts agree that talking to your kids about sex early and often seems to be the best strategy. After all, you don’t want to wait and have “the talk” all at once—especially since conversations about sex should be age-appropriate, timely, and hopefully, take place before your teen is sexually active. 

While you may already know the importance of sex education, you may not know how to approach the topic with your kids. We're here to help. We asked two experts—a pediatrician and an adult/child psychiatrist—to share their top tips for talking to your kids and teens about sex.

Talking to Very Young Kids

When it comes to preschool and early elementary-age children, you might think the sex talk is off the table. And while it will certainly look, feel, and sound different from the interactions with older kids, Dr. Lea Lis (aka the "Shameless Psychiatrist"), a double-board certified adult and child psychiatrist and clinical professor at NYU, says you can still introduce them to some simple themes. For parents with kids between the ages of four and seven, you can explain:

  • The basics of boundaries such as don’t touch others and don’t let anybody touch you in the privates.
  • How babies are made, which includes talking about non-traditional ways such as adoption, IVF, and surrogacy.

To help with this conversation, Lis suggests using books as a jumping-off platform. One of her favorites is “It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends." Additionally, she always recommends parental controls on all electronics to avoid children from seeing pornography

Ask for Clarification With Elementary-Aged Kids

Kids say the darndest things, right? When your child asks a question about sex, make sure you understand what information they are seeking before you try to provide an answer.

“Frequently, younger kids are not asking what their parents think they are asking,” says pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson. If you get prompted with a question that feels big, Natterson says to ask your child: “That’s so interesting, what made you think of that question?” 

“In general, by the time a child finishes fifth or sixth grade and heads into middle school, they should have a basic understanding of what intimacy means, sexual intercourse, male and female reproductive anatomy, consent, and mutual respect,” says Natterson. 

For the elementary-age children, and more specifically, eight to 10-year old kids, Lis says one of the first things to talk about with this group is love, including childhood crushes.

Having a solid foundation about love can lead to more in-depth conversations about loss and rejection. Lis also recommends covering puberty and what’s to come as well as explaining the different types of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Books are a fabulous tool for talking with kids of all ages, but especially younger children. Three of her favorites for this age group include:

In addition to using books, Lis also tells parents to monitor media and use pop culture for talking points. Our kids are watching and consuming far more information than we can keep track of. That's why it's essential to be aware of what they are viewing, and when appropriate, consider weaving in factual information that comes from their world.

Knowledge Is Power for Middle School-Age Kids

Middle schoolers are seeing a wide variety of hypersexualized content thanks to the internet, social media, and personal cell phones. Especially for this group, Natterson says knowledge is power.

“They should be taught about the mechanics of sex in terms of reproduction but also about the wide range of intimate activities that fall under the general umbrella of the term sex,” she says.

Natterson points out that this age group needs to have clarity about issues that will come up in the content they are viewing around matters of consent and assault, and they deserve to be taught about loving, mutually respectful relationships.

“Parents who outsource sex education entirely to the school are missing an opportunity to have deep conversations with their kids about topics that will carry over into their adult lives—so if you have been nervous about these conversations, take a breath and start talking,” she adds.

Lis says this group should have more information about the risks of sex as well as a general knowledge base of birth control. Recommended tips include:

  • Avoid making it a negative conversation.
  • Don't use scare tactics or shame your teen.
  • Just be honest and factual about the risks associated with having sex.

High Schoolers Need More Intimate Conversations

“High school conversations are extensions of those started in middle school,” says Natterson. The mechanics and anatomy lessons can be repeated, but really at the high school level, she says the conversation should focus on why one might want to have sex—or why not—and how to exercise that free will.

“Consent is an extremely important piece of this, so is respect for others’ decisions about whom they do and don’t want to be intimate with,” explains Natterson. 

Explaining the emotional, physical, and sociological aspects of sex is also important for older kids. Whether it pertains to teens or what they are exposed to on social media, this age group is surrounded by the hookup culture (aka having sex with no relationship).

Lis recommends talking to your older teens about this, especially before they head off to college. And, of course, addressing questions and concerns about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and how to stay safe. 

“This is also an excellent time for parents to have open discussions with their teens about sex and manners, including meeting the parents and no next day ghosting,” says Lis. But before you approach these conversations with teens, Lis says it’s critical that you, as a parent, own your sexual story.

“Owning your sexual story or history allows you to pass on intergenerational wisdom, not trauma,” she explains. If this is not something you are capable of, you may want to consider taking to a mental health expert.

Conversations about drinking and drug use often fold in here, because those substances impact decision-making. Because of this, you can use this as an opportunity to explore matters around consent as it relates to drinking as well as tips to stay safe when your child is of drinking age.

How to Help Your Teen Manage Pressure to Have Sex

Natterson says peer pressure around sex often falls into two categories:

  • One person pressuring another to have sex with them
  • A group of friends pressuring an individual to go have sex with someone

Both scenarios can be very confusing to the teen, says Natterson, especially if there are romantic feelings in the mix. “The goal here is for your child to feel comfortable talking to you about this stuff, which will not happen unless you have opened up the conversation several times,” she says.

With that in mind, Natterson says the best approach is to start talking to your kids about healthy relationships, your hopes for them, the emotional intensity of sex (something that can surprise some kids), and the physical ramifications.

“If you are judgmental, your child will not come to talk to you about this stuff. The same is true if you have fixed ideas about who they should have sex, when or where it should happen,” she adds.

"Every parent I have ever met wants their child to be happy, and as an adult, this happiness will include a healthy sex life. So avoid the pitfall of demonizing sex when your kids are young because you may inadvertently impact their feelings about it when they are older," adds Natterson.

For Lis, the talk about pressure to have sex comes down to two things: Rehearse and role play.

“Do not leave it to your middle or high-school-aged kid to figure out how to handle the pressure on their own,” she says. For example, if they want to say “no” to sex, Lis says it is pivotal to discuss how to do that, common situations they might find themselves in, and how to deal with each.

A Word From Verywell

Children take their cue from their parents. If your comfortable talking about sex with your kids and you provide an environment that encourages questions, discussion, and a judgment-free zone, there’s a good chance your child will want to come to you for information and advice well into their teen years.

Use this time to build stronger bonds with your younger kids and teens. Allow them to see that you can meet them where they are and respect the world they live in. Remember, the relationship you create now will be there for years to come. 

By Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on health, fitness, nutrition, parenting, and mental health.