There are a lot of tips out there for talking to young kids about sex. Today, I'm sharing some advice about talking to older kids.
"The Talk" is a misnomer because you should be talking about sex with your kids throughout their lives. If you've set a good foundation, you'll find transitioning into the teenage phase a bit easier. But even if you've never talked to your child about sex before, the preteen and teenage years are a necessary time to start.
Take the Lead
When kids are younger, they will naturally ask questions out of curiosity. Once they hit the preteen and teenage years, they're much more likely to be embarrassed about sex. They won't want to talk about it as readily, especially not with their parents. It's on you to initiate these conversations on a regular basis because if you wait for your teen to bring it up, it just won't happen. They may also inadvertently get the message that sex is an off-limits topic.
Last time, I shared my story about my mum's attempt to have The Talk with me. She simply told me I could ask questions if I had them. I did have some questions, but I was also too immature to know what kind of questions I should be asking. I didn't know to ask about how to have sex safely, or what to do if a partner pressured me to be intimate before I was ready. Answering questions isn't enough; you also need to actively provide your child with information. Here's a great piece about the range of questions that high schoolers have dropped into an anonymous Question Box in sex ed class.
Prepare Them for Puberty
When your child is around nine or 10 years old, start talking to them about puberty. Let your child know that their body is going to go through some changes, and that these changes are perfectly normal. Tell them to expect growth spurts, changes to the shape of their body, more body hair, hair in new places (like armpits and genitals), acne, changes in mood, and a general feeling of awkwardness. Boys should be given a heads-up about facial hair, voice changes and wet dreams. Girls should be told about breasts, hips and menstruation (we'll get to that). Tell them that their friends will experience the same changes, but on different timelines. Let them know that everyone feels like they're on the "wrong" timeline.
It's particularly important to make sure young girls have a heads-up about menstruation, so they don't wake up in the middle of a night at a sleepover party with their very first period and think they're dying (ahem… thanks Mum and Dad). Explain what menstruation is to your daughter, get her some pads, and show her how to use them.
Give Them Information about Safety
Around age 12, start having conversations about sexual safety. Your child needs accurate information about pregnancy prevention and STIs. If you're a little rusty on the details yourself, Planned Parenthood is a great resource for a refresher.
Many parents are afraid to talk to their kids about the specifics of safe sex because they worry that it will make their child more likely to become sexually active. That's just not true, and it misses the point entirely. Like it or not, your child is going to make their own decision about when they want to have sex. You want them to be safe when the time comes.
Consent also needs to be a part of the safety conversation. You can talk about consent with children of all ages. Tell them that consent means giving permission to another person to touch your body, and asking for that permission in return. Make sure your kid understands that they should only do the things that they genuinely want to do, and they should take care to make sure that their partners are also on board. I like the idea of "enthusiastic consent". It means that you're not just OK with something happening; you're actively excited about it. It's an easy concept for kids to understand, and an extremely important one.
Practise Healthy Decision-Making
Preteens are old enough to start focusing on their decision-making skills. If you can help your kid learn how to make healthy decisions about their sex life — stuff like when to have sex, why to have sex, and how to talk about those decisions with their partners — you'll give them a truly priceless gift.
There are plenty of ways to naturally invite your child to think about decision-making. For example, if there's a sex scene in a movie or TV show that you're watching with your child, press pause and say something like, "Why do you think that character made that decision? Do you think it's a healthy decision? What would you do in that situation?" If you see a news story about a teacher who had sex with a student, ask your child, "What do you think it would be like for you if your teacher made a sexual advance? How would you respond?" If you disagree with their answer, try to ask a few gentle follow-ups like, "What do you think your other options would be?" Your child may brush off some of these questions with a retort like, "Ugh, stop! That's so embarrassing!" but say something like, "I'm curious to know what you think." Asking for your child's opinion makes it a conversation rather than a lecture, and shows your child you trust them to start making decisions for themselves.
Talk About the Media
Your kid is being exposed to sex way more than you realise. Sex is everywhere — TV, movies, ads, the internet and of course porn. Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that 42 per cent of kids between the ages of 10 and 17 had been exposed to porn in the previous 12 months. Fortunately, the media will also provide you with plenty of natural conversation-starters about topics such as body image, gender stereotypes, Photoshopping, healthy relationships and myths about sex. If you see an overly sexualised billboard ad while you're driving your kid to soccer practice, say something along the lines of, "Do you see that ad over there? What do you think about the way that woman looks?" Or simply share the UNH statistic with your child and say, "You're going to wind up seeing porn, if you haven't already. I want to make sure you understand that porn is meant to be entertainment for adults, and that sex in the real world doesn't look anything like sex in porn."
It's also important to talk to your child about diversity. Help your child understand that not everyone is cis and straight. If you see a gay couple walking down the street, start a conversation about sexual orientation. You can say something like, "You know that it's perfectly normal and healthy to be gay, right?" If you stumble across a news article about transgender bathroom laws, ask your child if they know what transgender means. Tell them that not every person identifies with the gender with which they were born.
Direct Them to Other Resources
Kids don't always want to talk to their parents, especially when it comes to tricky topics such as sex. It's important for you to keep making that effort, but you may also want to make sure your child knows they have other resources to turn to. Buy them plenty of books. Tell them they can talk to a trusted family friend or relative, or set them up with the family doctor. The Harvard Graduate School Of Education put this great list of sexual education resources for parents and children. I particularly like Scarleteen, a queer-friendly, inclusive website that covers everything from body image to sexual politics.
Own Up to Your Mistakes
Your sex talks aren't always going to go well. We all have our hang-ups when it comes to sex, and having a kid doesn't automatically make those hang-ups go away. If you get flustered and say something you didn't mean to say, come back later and tell your child, "I'm sorry I got so embarrassed when you asked me that question earlier. I'm working on getting better at talking about sex. I want to make sure you know that asking that question was perfectly OK." You can also say something like, "I grew up being really embarrassed about sex. I've been working on having a healthier relationship with sex, and I want you to feel more comfortable than I was."
Owning up to your conversational mistakes and sexual struggles can be a huge learning experience for your child. It's also an opportunity for you to learn and grow, too.