How to talk to kids about sex: An age-by-age guide to sex education for parents

How to talk to kids about sex: An age-by-age guide to sex education for parents
It's important to discuss sex with your children throughout their lives.Gravity Images/ Getty Images
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
  • It's never too early to discuss gender identity or consent.
  • Non-judgmental, inclusive, body-positive language is key.
  • Teens say their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex.

Talking about sex with your kids may feel overwhelming, but it's important to keep an open line of communication at an early age.

Children who are well-educated about their own sexuality will likely have higher self-esteem and make choices about their sexuality that they are happier with.

It can also ensure they feel safe coming to you with questions and concerns instead of uninformed peers or the dice roll of the internet.
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Clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, PhD, recommends researching the physical changes your child is experiencing at every age and listening to them while encouraging an open dialogue rather than lecturing them.

We spoke to Kapow, as well as board-certified child psychologist Lea Lis and certified sex educator Laura McGuire, for guidelines on how to talk to kids about sex at every age.

Kids under the age of 5

You may assume it's too soon to start talking to your preschooler or toddler about sex, but it's only natural for them to have some questions about their bodies as they begin to walk and talk, according to Mayo Clinic.
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For example, if your toddler asks where babies come from, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends giving them a truthful but simple response. For example, you can say "each person starts as a combination of seeds from two people. That seed grows inside of a place called a uterus, which is inside of a belly.

Topics to address at this age

  • Anatomical names for private body parts: If your child asks about their gender as it pertains to their genitalia, parents should avoid euphemisms or "pet" names. Klapow recommends telling them the anatomically correct term for it, and what it's used for - like how pee comes from a penis or a vulva. Using standard anatomical terminology for private body parts promotes self-confidence, open communication, and positive body image, as well as gives them the proper language to seek help in the event of sexual abuse or a medical issue.
  • Gender: They haven't developed a concept of nakedness or modesty yet, but according to the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement, toddlers begin to understand the concept of gender identity as early as 18-24 months. Parents can encourage their children to feel comfortable exploring and defining their gender by teaching them that they are not limited to toys or clothes that are traditionally assigned to their sex.
  • Consent: Experts agree that the earlier you can bring up the concept of consent, the better. At this age, board-certified child psychologist Lea Lis suggests talking about what feels good and what doesn't feel good. For instance, if your preschooler's friend is being rough with them on the playground, you can use those situations to ask them what types of physical touch they don't like, and how they can say "no" to a friend. Adults should aim to respect their children's "no" or as much as possible, too.

    "Around 18 months, a child can observe modeled behaviors such as asking permission and observing signs that someone is uncomfortable to respect that boundary," says Laura McGuire, a certified sex educator. So how you interact with your child, other kids, and other adults also demonstrates consent for your child. You don't have to use the word "consent" with a preschooler - using clear but simple terms like space, body, and touch are more likely to be understood at this age.

Elementary school-aged kids

Whereas toddlers and preschoolers may only require vague answers to questions about sex and their bodies, experts say school-aged children tend to want to dive deeper with more specific questions about the link between sexuality and how babies are made. Rather than make any assumptions, Mayo Clinic advises asking what they already know when they come to you with a question. Then, you can clear up any misconceptions, and provide any details they may be missing. You might ask, "well, can you tell me what you think it means?" and go from there.
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For example, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends explaining their birth story by saying something along these lines: Dad's seed (or sperm) comes through his penis and combines with mom's seed (or egg) in her uterus, and then the baby grows there for nine months until it's strong enough to be born.

Another common topic is erections, which can happen as early as a baby's first few months of life. Once they're old enough to ask you about it, you might just explain that a penis is typically soft, but sometimes "gets hard and stands up straight". Emphasize that this is healthy and normal and may feel good. As they explore their bodies, allow all children to to enjoy pleasure without shaming them or batting their hands away, especially if they are in the privacy of their own home, bathroom, or bedroom.

Topics to address at this age

  • Setting boundaries: It's important that children in elementary school learn outright what a boundary is and how to set one, Klapow says. Learning to say no and communicate when they feel uncomfortable is essential for preparing them for future sexual encounters at an older age.
  • Gender: Regarding gender, Klapow says children between the ages of 5-10 start to form ideas around their gender and sexual identity. If your child comes to you with confusion about their identity, you can let them know that having a particular sex assigned at birth doesn't mean a person has to relate to a specific gender or sexual orientation.

    "You can talk about the fact that some people identify as boys, some as girls, some as neither, and that these identities can change," says McGuire. It might be helpful to draw similarities to TV or book characters for younger kids and pop culture references for older kids.

Middle school-age kids

Between ages 11-13, your child will begin experiencing a surge in hormones that can cause the physical changes of puberty as well as more intense sexual feelings.
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Lis recommends letting your adolescent know what types of bodily changes are normal during puberty, including the growth of pubic hair and other body hair, the development of breasts, acne, and the start of menstruation.

After letting your child know what to expect in terms of menstrual bleeding, you should also explain hygiene product options and clarify that a period usually indicates the body can become pregnant. Mayo Clinic says this might also be a good time to explain what wet dreams are. It may also be a good time to begin conversations about family values, including around the topics of dating and masturbation.

If you feel comfortable, you can share stories from your own experience of adolescence.
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As your adolescent approaches the age of 13, Lis advises educating them about the forms of contraception that are available while also reiterating the idea of consent. She recommends clarifying that condoms can reduce your risk of STIs as well as unwanted pregnancy, while a birth control pill cannot prevent STIs and is only intended to prevent pregnancy.

"Keep the message clear: This is normal, and you want them to come to you if they have questions. You will not pass judgment and you will support them no matter what." Klapow says.

Topics to address at this age

  • Pornography: A 2017 survey by the American Psychology Association found that the average age a child is first exposed to online porn is 13.37 years of age, and for the majority of men (43.5%), that first exposure is accidental. Lis strongly advises keeping adolescents away from porn by monitoring their technology use. However, if you discover that they've seen explicit images or videos, she suggests reminding them that the people are actors, not all bodies look that way, and that not all the acts are common in real-life partnered sex.
  • Sexting: A 2019 study found that sexting is associated with increased sexual risks, such as having a higher number of partners, using drugs and alcohol, and not using contraception. That's why it's important to talk to your adolescent about the potential consequences of sharing provocative images and messages - like the fact that the image could spread to other classmates, or that they could be charged with distributing child pornography and face legal repercussions, whether they send, download, or forward the image. Let them know they should never feel pressured to send a photo that makes them feel uncomfortable.
  • Sexism: Give adolescents examples of female athletes and coders, or stay-at-home dads and male dancers, or gender-diverse folks to help counter traditional notions of gender roles. That way, they feel free to pursue whatever interests and extra-curricular activities they desire. Be sure to discourage your child from participating in "locker room talk," and explain why objectifying people is disrespectful, while also coaching your kids about double standards and how they can respond to sexist comments.

High school and college-age teenagers

While many sex ed topics may be covered in your teen's health class, you still play an important role in their attitude and behavior around sex from the age of 14 onward.
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What the research says: A 2012 national survey revealed that teens say their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex - more than friends, siblings, or the media. Most teens also admitted that making decisions about delaying sex would be easier if they could talk openly and honestly with their parents. A 2010 study revealed that teens who talk with their parents about sex are more likely to delay intercourse and to use condoms when they do.

After making sure your teen knows where to get contraception and how to use it, Mayo Clinic says you might want to explain other ways they can reduce their risk of contracting STIs, like keeping their relationship exclusive to one partner or asking sexual partners if they've been tested, as well as getting tested themselves regularly. Klapow also suggests bringing up conversations about safer sex with their doctor at routine checkups, as doctors can serve as a confidential source of support and education for your teen. Consider leaving the room so your teen can ask questions more freely.
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According to Mayo Clinic, it's important to remind your teen that there are many ways to express affection - like holding hands, dancing, kissing, and touching - without having penetrative sex and that it's OK to wait until they feel ready. You may also want to let them know that they should never have sex because they feel pressured by a partner, and make sure they know the definition of rape.

Lis advises directly asking your teen about their level of sexual activity, starting with: "Have you ever been kissed? How did you feel about it?" and then using this conversation as a way to re-coach them about what consent looks like, how to say "no," and how to handle rejection in a healthy way. She also says it's critical to explain how the effects of alcohol and drugs connect to getting and giving consent. Consent always should be enthusiastic, freely given, and not under the influence of substances.

"Explain that sex will be less fulfilling when you're drunk and it's better to wait so you can experience the joy in sex," says Lis.
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Teens need to know that intoxication affects their decision-making. Lis suggests telling your teen to establish a buddy system or "no friend left behind" policy so that they never abandon friends who are drunk or high, and so they can rely on their friends to look out for them as well. Making sure they have a safe way to get home is also very important.

Important: When talking about love and relationships, be sure to use inclusive language like "partner," rather than assuming your child is heterosexual.

Hookup culture has created a lot of confusion for teens around what's expected of them sexually. Lis recommends telling your high-schooler that a sexual partner or experience may be temporary, but should still be pleasurable, kind and considerate - which means no ghosting or bragging to your friends. "Basic sexual etiquette should be demanded and expected," she says. "This includes sending a text or calling the day after to tell the person you enjoyed the experience."
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You may also want to share how love and emotional connection can play a role in sex being more meaningful or pleasurable. "Encourage teens to be honest about what feels good and what does not with a partner as this helps in establishing boundaries," says Lis.

Insider's takeaway

The older your child gets, the more in-depth your explanations will need to be - but it's never too early to touch on topics like gender identity and consent when they come up.

Using non-judgmental, inclusive, and body-positive language is key, no matter what you're discussing.
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"Don't pretend that you know it all and they don't," says Klapow. "Engage with them about what they are seeing on the internet. Be a partner in their exploration."

When in doubt, McGuire says to remember that you can always reach out to certified sex educators to help you find resources and fill in any gaps you may experience along the way.
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