The Most Important Things to Tell Your Child About Sex

Father talking to teenaged son in restaurant
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It's important to start talking about sexuality long before your child hits puberty. The content of your sexual discussions should change through the preteen and teen years. Don't wait until you think your child is sexually active before you bring up the subject of sex. Here are six things you should address when talking to your preteen or teen about sex.

1. Discuss the Basics

Age-appropriate terms and descriptions can ensure your child knows how pregnancy occurs and the mechanics of sex. Even if you insulate your child from exposure to sexual content online or in entertainment media, she will hear about from her peers. You don't want her knowledge to be based only on rumor or pornography. Be open and frank about reproduction. After giving her the basics, ask what she might have heard from others and any questions she may have about the topic.

You should also address different forms of sex, including oral sex, anal sex, and same-gender sex. While these topics may not have been prominent in times past, they will definitely be a part of the schoolyard conversation today. Your child needs to know about them.

2. Address Body Image Issues

During adolescence, both boys and girls are concerned with the way their bodies are starting to change. Many of them have concerns about whether the changes they experience are normal. Tell your teen what to expect throughout puberty. Validate feelings of uncertainty, embarrassment, or confusion.

Apart from the changes of puberty, many young women feel pressure to be thin and many young men experience pressure to have big muscles. Talk about body image issues and how insecurities can lead to problems.

3. Discuss the Potential Consequences of Sexual Activity

Make sure your teen is well aware of the potential consequences of being sexually active. Unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and regret are just a few potential issues. Additionally, make sure your teen understands how becoming sexually active is likely to affect his emotions. Discuss how having sex before he's ready can be problematic.

Once your child or his peers have access to a mobile phone, you need to discuss the emotional and legal consequences of sexting and sending or receiving sexual images. This includes images of themselves and possessing and forwarding images of other minors. Laws vary in different jurisdictions, so you will need to do your homework.

4. Discuss Consent

Just as your child's body belongs to her, so do the bodies of others. It's likely that you've been teaching her about "bad touch" since she was small. But school-age children and teens need to understand how this extends to romantic relationships and interactions. Kissing, touching, and sexual contact all require both participants to give full consent and be able to stop the activity at any point. Your child is likely to be on both sides of that equation, the person who needs to ensure full consent, and the person who has the choice of giving consent or not.

Give your child a script, "Stop, I don't want to do that," and "No means no." Also, discuss what he should do if his partner tells him no, including the understanding that consent in the past doesn't mean consent for future activity.

Enable your child to report sexual assault they see or hear about happening to others. Discuss scenarios and what they should do if someone is being victimized. You should also discuss that it is inappropriate to use sexual orientation or sexual activity in insults or bullying (slut-shaming, using homosexual terms as an insult, etc.) and how to react when peers do so.

5. Give Your Child More Than One Perspective

It's helpful for teens to hear messages about sex and sexuality from more than one person. If your partner, an aunt or uncle, or another trusted adult feel comfortable discussing relationships with your teen, it can be a good idea.

Your teen may also be open to hearing more information from a doctor. Allow your teen to meet with his doctor privately at times so he can ask questions or get answers about his body that he might not feel comfortable asking you. Give your teen a reminder that it's OK to ask a doctor any questions that he might have.

5. Make Conversations Ongoing

Tell your child that he can ask questions or address concerns with you at any time. Bring up topics related to sex often. When there's a movie that involves sexual activity or a news story with an allegation of sexual assault, discuss sexual issues with your teen.

Don't be afraid to state your opinion. If you value abstinence, tell your teen that you don't approve of being sexually active at a young age. Making your opinion known can help her establish her own values and reinforce her choices.

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