Discussions about sex shouldn’t be reserved for a formal talk. This will just make the situation more awkward for both of you. Instead, do it while carrying out normal tasks such as washing up, or an activity you often do together, rather than making it into an event itself. This makes the subject less intimidating for both of you and shows how sex is a normal part of life. Look out for everyday situations in which you can introduce issues: for example a trip to the swimming pool could start a discussion about gender differences and private parts; unpacking a box of tampons after shopping could initiate an explanation of periods.
Many parents fear that talking about sex will make their child more likely to do it but research shows that in fact kids who feel they can talk openly with their parents wait longer before having sex and are more likely to use contraception when they do. The easiest way to make both of you feel more comfortable about the subject is to incorporate it into everyday conversations. This way you don’t have to gear up for an embarrassing ‘big talk’. Start these small conversations early - teenagers often find it difficult to talk about sex with their parents so get talking now before it gets awkward.
If you or they know someone who is pregnant then you could use this as a way to open up the topic. Try asking them if they know how mummies get pregnant, see how much they know and respond if they want to know more. Watching TV may also initiate discussion, for example you could use a soap storyline about teenage pregnancy to find out what they think, express your views and answer any questions they might have. Accept, however, that sometimes children may not want to talk, especially as they get older, don’t push the subject but perhaps try to broach it differently another time.
What to say and when
It can be difficult to know what discussions are necessary or appropriate at what age and difficult to consider talking about sex with a child you still see as young and innocent. Try our guide to what sort of things are helpful to talk about at what ages and ideas of how to make talking easier:
- At this age you should start talking about puberty. Girls can start periods as early as 8 so need to be prepared and understand what happens and why. Boys also need to know about periods and about the changes that will happen to their bodies. Give them accurate information about these changes
- Discuss the mechanics of sex simply but honestly – for example you could talk about a special seed that it is inside daddies which combines with an egg inside mummies. Books can be helpful in explaining this (see our list for some useful examples)
- Older children may not want to admit that there are things they don’t understand, so try asking them to tell you what they know and fill in the gaps or discuss issues together
- Emphasise relationships, not just sex. Discuss, for example, the importance of respecting your partner and waiting until both partners are ready. You also need to make sure they understand the importance of contraception and the risks of pregnancy and STDs. This should help them make informed decisions as they get older, particularly when facing pressure from peers or partners
What if I don’t know the answer?
Sometimes even very young children may ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. Don’t be embarrassed or worried about this, and certainly don’t let it put you off having a full discussion. Simply answer that you don’t know but that you can find out together. As children get older they often feel like they have to pretend to know everything about sex or risk looking stupid. By seeing that even adults don’t know everything, your child may be less ashamed to ask questions in the future.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.