Discussing sexuality with your children doesn’t have to be the stuff of nightmares. All it takes is you being open and honest with your kids from day one.
As a sexologist, I often work with parents to identify how they'd like to teach their kids about sexuality based on their family values. Many parents want to minimize the shame that's often associated with this topic.
And in order to raise kids to be sex-positive adults, it’s important to have some age-appropriate strategies in your back pocket. Here are the topics I recommend discussing at every age:
Infants Up To 2 Years Old
It’s no secret that babies and toddlers are big fans of body exploration, in all its various forms. This is perfectly normal and not a cause for concern. In fact, it's a great idea to use self-exploration as an opportunity to teach your little one about his or her body.
For example, diaper changes are an excellent time to begin naming body parts, since children often touch themselves during the process. Refer to the various body parts by their anatomical names, all while explaining how each works.
Using euphemisms signals your own discomfort. But putting real names to the body parts demonstrates that they aren’t taboo and that it's okay to talk about them. Teaching children anatomically correct terms promotes positive self-image, self-confidence, and parent-child communication.
The more frightening reason to teach children proper names for their genitals is the threat of sexual abuse. Teaching proper names for genitals is a key component of reducing a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Children From 3 to 5 Years Old
Self-exploration tends to increase during the years right after toddler-dom. This, too, is perfectly normal — so don’t be alarmed if you find your kiddo openly exploring his body for both pleasure and comfort.
It’s important to refrain from shaming your child, no matter how frequent or public their experimenting is.
Instead, seize the opportunity as another teaching moment when you can begin a healthy dialogue about when and where they discover themselves. Some common phrases to keep in your back pocket may include: “We don't play with our vulvas at the table” or “We don't touch our penises in the living room.”
It’s also common at this age for children to ask a variety of questions about the logistics of how babies are made, especially as they are increasingly influenced by the world around them.
These questions can understandably leave you at a loss for words. Finding age-appropriate explanations is possible, though. An honest explanation for “Where did I come from?” could be as simple as “Babies grow in a special place inside the mother, called the womb or uterus.”
Children 6 to 8 Years Old
Kids in this age group are likely to start asking questions about topics like reproduction, puberty, and sexual orientation.
It's helpful to know the maturity level of your child. Some kids this age will need more detailed information than others. With that being said, always be honest and stick to the facts. Helpful phrases to keep the dialogue going may include “That’s a good question” and “I’m really glad you told me about that” or “Let’s look that up online.”
It's also about this time that children become curious about sex beyond their own forays into masturbation. This curiosity may even result in a bit of exploration with their peers with innocent games of “house” or “doctor.” It can be alarming for a parent to walk in on games of this nature.
However, it’s extremely important to refrain from scolding, punishing, or shaming the children involved, especially since the sex play is rooted far more in curiosity than anything else. Instead, try to explain that curiosity is totally normal but that their privates are, well, private.
Overall, it's extremely important to engage in sex-positive conversations. That means embrace sexuality, while placing an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of consent.
Tweens 9 to 12 Years Old
This is a particularly challenging time for children, thanks in part to all of the changes to their bodies, intense emotions, and raging hormones. It’s important to reassure your child that everything he or she is experiencing is normal, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
If your child isn't approaching you directly with questions, don't shy away from using TV shows, music videos, and overheard conversations as a springboard for engaging in a healthy, ongoing dialogue.
“Tell me what you know about this …” and “What do you think?” are great conversation starters. Seize the opportunity to educate your tween about puberty, even if you’re uncomfortable talking about menstruation, erections, and training bras.
Just remember that your child is equally, if not more, uncomfortable than you are, so be sensitive to this as well. Encourage your child to come to you with any questions and keep the conversations casual by approaching the subject during normal activities.
It’s also a good idea to start frank conversations about how to make an informed decision about sex, sexually transmitted infections, and the various forms of birth control. This allows you to teach your child how important it is to be a sexually responsible person for life.
Teenagers 13 to 18 Years Old
There’s no avoiding it: Your sweet baby is now a teenager, who is, without a doubt, going to explore dating, relationships, and intimacy.
Do your best to arm them with as much information as you can. Make sure they know about consent, how to use contraceptives, and that they can always come to you without fear of punishment.
If it hasn’t already, the sexual orientation of your teen is going to emerge at about this time, too. It’s very important that you offer them to same amount of love, support, and assurance that you always have, regardless of whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or pansexual (to name a few).
The teenage years can be mentally and physically challenging. As a parent, do your best to serve as your child’s port in the storm and provide unconditional love.
And remember: It takes a village. If you're ever at a loss, talk to your friends, family members, family physician, teachers, community agencies, or your local certified sexologist for support.
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