It was easy when your kids were little. “The stork brings babies,” you’d say, and they would blink their wondering eyes, nod solemnly and go on playing.
But as your kids grew up, the questions became more pointed. Until—gulp!—you realize: It’s time for The Talk.
“You can keep telling the stork story for as long as you want to, but at some point, you’re going to have to have the sex talk,” said pediatrician Dr. Kathryn McLeod with a laugh. As a mom to two girls and two boys, she’s had the conversation with all of her children: “More than anything, I needed them to hear the story from me first versus school friends or other sources.”
While there’s no exact age when it’s the right time, puberty—and its associated body changes—is a good starting point. “And here’s the thing: It’s not the talk—it’s the initial talk,” said McLeod. “It’s an ongoing conversation as you assess what your child is ready to hear and what he or she needs to hear.” Here’s how to get talking:
- Discuss puberty first, then get into the big stuff. “The talk can start with the changes that your body goes through with puberty. That’s when you can mention the uterus and how it will someday carry a baby. Then the next step is how that baby gets in there,” said McLeod.
- Stick to the facts. Use real words to explain body parts and how things work, and be honest and factual. If you need help with the biology, your pediatrician is a great resource. Also available are numerous books that you and your child can read together.
- But don’t forget about the emotion. The sexual act is more than just mechanics; it’s important that you also talk to your child about the emotions involved and how sex should be part of a healthy relationship. “You want to talk about how sex is part of a relationship when you truly love and honor someone—and how it’s one more way you show love,” said McLeod. “You also want to talk about healthy boundaries, respect and choice and to empower your daughter to say no and your son to use self-control and be a gentleman.”
- Avoid don’ts. Saying things like, “Don’t have sex” or “Don’t get pregnant,” isn’t the best way to approach it. “Sex is a gift, and we need to communicate to our children that it is to be used appropriately,” said McLeod.
- Be prepared for a little shock (and maybe horror). Children have often reacted with disgust upon hearing what happens during sex. McLeod recalls being asked by one of her four children, “So this means you and daddy have done that four times?” Don’t be afraid to use a little humor. “You can laugh—it is a little weird when you think about it. It’s always good to find humor; it makes things easier,” said McLeod.
- Find teachable moments. After that first conversation, don’t push it, but look for other opportunities to talk. “Your child may come back with questions, or the topic may come up when you’re watching a movie or seeing a commercial. There are lots of moments that can help steer future conversations,” said McLeod. “Don’t feel like everything has to be done in that first conversation; it may be too much for your child to handle.”
- Let your child practice relationships. Adolescence is the perfect time to practice relationships—while parents still have some supervision. “You can help your child learn from mistakes,” said McLeod. Also, get to know this boy or girl that your child is spending so much time with—and his or her parents. It’s a good opportunity to let that other family know what your values are.
- Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations, like “Mom, what if I got pregnant?” “You need to have those hard conversations,” said McLeod. “You want to keep communication open and never want your child to feel like you’re not available to discuss hard topics.”
- Finally, listen, and don’t lecture; ask, and don’t judge. “As your child grows up and starts making his or her own decisions, they may make decisions you wouldn’t have made,” said McLeod. “It’s important not to judge, but you do need to discuss safe sex, not only to protect them from becoming pregnant but also to protect from disease.” Remember too that acknowledging sexuality is not the same as condoning or giving permission to have sex, but you always want to make sure your child knows he or she can come to you for help. “I tell my kids, ‘I may get upset, but I want to know and to discuss.’”
From newborns to adolescents, Children’s Hospital of Georgia is here for all of your child’s health needs. Learn more at augustahealth.org/chog.