How to talk to your child about sex
The rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK has dropped dramatically since 1998 when it had one of the highest rates in western Europe. This is often attributed to improvements in sex education and changes in social norms. Many professionals emphasise the importance of accurate information and non-judgemental guidance for children, but some parents are unsure of how to talk about sex either due to embarrassment or personal beliefs.
With Sex and relationships education (SRE) becoming compulsory in local authority maintained state schools, it's a good opportunity to consider the language we use and how we should answer our children's questions about sex and relationships at home, too.
How to start talking to children about sex and the body
Author of Talking to your Kids about Sex, Dr Laura Berman, advocates talking to your kids about the body and basic sex-related facts from a young age, while keeping it age-appropriate and reflective of your own values.
For children under four:
- drop the names in naturally as you talk to your child when changing their nappy or at bath times. For example, Dr Berman suggests saying, “Let’s name the parts of your body. This is your nose. This is your elbow. This is your ankle. This is your vulva. Do you know what to call all these parts?”
For children aged four to six:
- Use pictures and diagrams to talk about body parts, for both male and female bodies.
- Ask your child to name the body parts they know.
- Start by talking about non-sexual parts and their functions to help you feel more comfortable. Then talk about the genitals, giving very basic facts such as, “this is the vaginal opening where the baby comes out”.
- Reiterate that these parts are special, private and are to be kept private.
Use age-appropriate books to help you talk to your children about sex
Mandy Lancaster, a relationships and sex education trainer and a consultant for books such as the Fred and Woody's Fantastic World series, believes it's important to build up the confidence of the adult when tackling these topics. "Some ‘experts’ may say adults simply need to ‘step up’ or ‘get over’ their inhibitions but there are very real barriers for parents/carers and educators alike. We need to recognise that most of us did not have very good (if any) Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) ourselves and find that we have muddled through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood not really knowing what to call our genitals at all!"
"A sensitively written story can ‘hold’ the embarrassing topic, allowing adult and child to explore new concepts together," she adds.
When to start talking about sex
Dr Berman explains that between the ages of five and nine, your child will begin to ask questions about what sex means and how babies are made, and you can give honest information about the basic mechanics of sex. “Remember that until children hit puberty, they don’t conceptualise sex as an erotic act," Dr Berman adds.
Mandy agrees that it is good to answer children’s questions, in a simple and age-appropriate way, as they come up.
“But (and it’s a BIG but), not if that is just a way to avoid talking about anything ‘tricky’ at all! We can be very skilled at avoiding difficult conversations and children pick up, very easily, from our body language that a topic is a ‘no-go’ area. They will soon link embarrassment and shame to talking about their private parts, body changes and sex. So, it’s important to grab opportunities for conversations wherever they emerge," Mandy explains.
How to answer sex questions
When it comes to having first discussions about growing and changing or where babies come from, Mandy and Dr Berman have some helpful suggestions.
Mandy’s talking-about-sex tips:
- Take little steps
- Get your language agreed upon first and practise saying the scientific words to your partner or friends first – it can actually be quite liberating! Get used to using the correct terminology in everyday life with the child and you'll find that your confidence will grow as they grow.
- Use the weekly shop as an opportunity for mentioning sanitary products.
Mandy says: "Just as it is fine to talk about changing a child’s nappy or wiping bottoms after having a poo, it is ok to say that older girls and women have a period each month when some blood-coloured fluid comes out of their vagina for a few days a month and they use sanitary towels or tampons to soak it up and stay dry – just like a nappy. Why wait for the moment at the checkout when your child says in a big clear voice, “What are these for?” as they wave a packet of tampons in the air?!"
Dr Berman’s talking-about-sex tips:
“It is a good idea to teach your child about the body from a young age,” says Dr Berman. “Using accurate language and being relaxed about the body’s functions will help encourage a healthy body image.” If you're nervous about how much detail to give when, try to simply answer each specific question as it comes along.
- If your child asks “What is sex?” explain that sex is how mums and dads are able to make babies.
- If your child asks “Where do babies come from?”, keep it simple and say something like “from inside the mum’s tummy.”
- And if your child asks about how babies are made, keep it simple but use correct terminology, for example: "Mums have eggs in their uterus, and dads have sperm. When a mum and dad want to have a child, their egg and sperm meet and turn into a baby.”