Parents Guide To The Talk

Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to Your Children About Their Bodies and Sex

We all know “the talk.” The sweaty-palmed, stumbling tongues, and darting eyes talk that parents dread having with their teenagers, and teenagers pray they never have to endure. But, what if “the talk” could transform from a talk to just talking? Talking that would begin in infancy about bodies, safety, consent, and baby making (one that doesn’t involve storks). Research shows that teaching your child about their physical body and body autonomy increases the likelihood that they will report child abuse, as well as increases their understanding of consent, both for themselves and others. Early communication also aids later conversation. If you establish early on that you are a safe person to talk to about relationships and their bodies, they are more likely to come to you when struggling later in life. However, understandably, for some of us these conversations are not easy. Here are some “Dos and Don’ts” for starting the conversation in your household:

Do Use the correct anatomical names for your child’s genitals. This allows the child to communicate accurately with you and reduce inadvertently signaling that their genitals are places of shame and embarrassment.
Do Discuss with you child the difference between safe touch and unsafe touch. For example, bath time versus on the playground. Be sure to also provide context: Giving hugs are good, but not to someone you don’t know, or don’t like.
Don’t Only focus on conversations of stranger-danger. Most instances of uncomfortable touch happen with individuals known to a person.
Do Explore with your child (and adolescent) safe people in their life, particularly trusted adults, that they can talk to. Make a list.
Don’t Force your child to hug or kiss relatives or friends. We often say, “Give grandpa a kiss,” without first asking if they want to. Doing this may teach a child that they are not in control over their own bodies or to determine what affection they can give and receive. Asking them whether they want to hug or kiss someone signals that they can refuse (reframing that refusing affection is not rude) and that adults are not the only ones in charge of determining safe or unsafe touch.
Do Encourage your child (and adolescent) to name their emotions and to name the emotions that others might be experiencing.
Do Model respect for the word “No.” Respecting when other people say “no” lets your child know that the word matters and that people are allowed to say no when they are uncomfortable or don’t want to do something.
Do Explain the difference between secrets and surprises. Surprises can benefit others, secrets can harm others.
Do Check in with your child as they age. What questions do they have? What have their friends been telling them about sex, relationships, and puberty? For questions you can’t answer seek out books or literature you can provide (especially if you are still unsure how to approach these topics).

Often parents are worried that this information can be too much, too soon, and that children are not ready to hear these topics, or that we are not ready to tell them. However, it is important to remember that they are still getting this information—from movies, television, peers—and it is crucial that they also hear from you. Keep in mind you don’t have to tell them everything at once, and remember where they are in age and development. Establish yourself as a safe and trusting person that won’t judge their curiosity or punish their mistakes. Have these conversations early and often, and when in doubt…stick it out.

Books to read to help you get the conversation started or to give to your child to read on their own:

  • It’s Not the Stork!: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Families and Friends (Ages 4+)
  • It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Ages 10+)
  • S.e.x.: The all-you-need-to-know sexuality guide to get you through your teens and twenties
  • Our Bodies, Ourselves