Talking to tweens about sex: just do it

A couple of months ago, I was walking home from the elementary school with Natasha, 10, and Liam, 5. As she usually does, Natasha walked about 15 feet ahead of us (apparently Liam and I are embarrassing, or just too slow). Suddenly she turned around and yelled a question at me.

“Mom, do I need a bra?”

No, honey, you don’t, I told her when we got a bit closer. “I think I do,” she said. She was very insistent, and had me check her chest when she was getting into her pajamas that night. Soon, sweetie, I said. But not yet.

Natasha is impatient for bras, cell phones, high-heels and grown-up clothes. She wants the accessories and independence of her older siblings and cousins; she loves to be around them, to insert herself into their conversations and imitate them. If there were a fast forward button she could hit that would make her 16, she’d hit in in a heartbeat.

Which is why I was a little surprised at her response when I tried to talk with her about puberty and sex. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. And left the room. When I tried again another evening, she practically stuck her fingers in her ears. Natasha wants the trappings of adolescence. The realities, not so much.

Kids aren’t the only ones who get squeamish when it comes to talking about sex. Recently I saw a patient a little older than Natasha, on the cusp of getting her period. I asked the mother if she had talked with her about periods or sex. “Oh, no!” said the mother. “Do I have to?”

Yes. The earlier the better, but definitely by the time they are tweens.

All you have to do is turn on the TV to realize that kids are surrounded by messages about sex. Some are subtle; some are pretty explicit. From the sexy clothes marketed to little girls, to the sexy ads, to the suggestive dialogue in prime-time TV, kids are getting bombarded with messaging that sexy is the way to be. That can be very confusing for a child who doesn’t understand what sex is and has no concept of its physical, emotional, or moral ramifications. As puberty begins, and bodies start changing and hormones start raging, it all gets even more confusing.

Kids need facts (my two oldest came home from elementary school with some very interesting and thoroughly inaccurate information about where babies come from). They also need guidance as to how to think about those facts. And they need both from us. Here’s an incentive for you: kids whose parents talk with them about sexuality are less likely to have early or unprotected sex. So swallow the squeamishness and start talking.

“Start with the basics (body parts and body changes) and work from there; be very factual, limit the drama.”

The good news is that you don’t have to tell them everything at once. That would be too much for everyone involved. Start with the basics (body parts and body changes) and work from there; be very factual, limit the drama. Books can be really helpful; they give you a script and can be nice springboards for discussion. Go to the library or bookstore without your kid, and look for books that not only deliver the information you need delivered, but do it in a way that feels right and comfortable for you.

Because being comfortable is crucial. This is not a one-shot deal. There are lots of conversations you need to have (better they hear about oral sex from you than their friends, for example), and the sooner you get comfortable, the better. And remember, it’s not just about explaining anatomy and physiology. You need to talk about normal sexual feelings, about good and bad relationships, about risky situations and how to avoid or get out of them.

Do the talking in bits and pieces as opportunities arise. Discuss things you see or read in the media—there’s certainly plenty to talk about. Talk about the pregnancies of people you know, or the relationships your kids or their friends are having. I love the car for these talks: the kids are captive, and nobody has to look at anyone. Keep it brief if it feels weird. But do it often enough that it starts to be normal for you and your child to talk about sex and sexuality. That, after all, is the goal.

And here’s the other crucial part: you need to listen as much as you talk, if not more. It can be tempting to deliver your messages like a lecture, and we don’t always want to know about the sexual feelings of our children (like we didn’t want to know about our parents having sex). But your kids need to know that their feelings matter to you, and that you will support them.

For some great information about talking to tweens about sexuality, visit the great web site for Children’s Center for Young Women’s Health.

I finally did talk with Natasha about periods (how she didn’t know about them with two messy older sisters I have no clue) and where babies come from. Her eyes got a bit big and she looked a little pale, but I kept it very matter-of-fact and we both survived it fine.

And just yesterday I was thinking that maybe she is right about the bra. More to talk about—maybe in the car on the way to buy one.

9 thoughts on “Talking to tweens about sex: just do it

  1. My 6 year old is very interested in what is sexy and in using the word.  Ugh.  How do you explain “sexy” to a young child?  I can’t get past, “little girls are not sexy, that is a grown up word.”  Too lame, help!

    1. It’s not lame at all, it’s just that a 6yo can’t understand this stuff (thankfully).  You can say that sexy is about bodies…and then come up with a different word with her.  Like Scrumptious.  Or Dazzling. Or Wicked Amazing.

  2. What are your thoughts on birth control options, aside from just no sex? obviously times are different now where middle school, even elementary school kids become a little too provocative, I mean holding hands was a big deal when I was that age…anyway, when I was in hs and with my first boyfriend, my mother never gave me the “sex talk” but rather said she couldnt stop me, but wanted to make sure I was safe…what do you think about this approach rather than the details in the beginning?

    1. I know your asking the doctor but I can’t help myself here.  Your mother’s approach while better than nothing misses the mark a little here.  Aside from not specifically addressing STDs it lacks an emotional element or rather a connection.  Instead of an obligation this topic of conversation should be seen as an opportunity to foster not only your relationship with your daughter but also the kinds of relationships she has with others especially boys.  This is a chance to empower her with factual information while strengthening her self esteem.

    2. I think it’s important to include birth control in the topics you discuss, although maybe not at the very beginning.  Sometimes parents worry that by discussing birth control they are giving their kids permission to have sex, but again: better they get good, factual information from you than misinformation from their friends–or no information at all.  You can and should teach them your values about sex, but ultimately young people make their own decisions, and you want them to have the information they need to be safe and healthy.

  3. This post is great!  Completely on target.  My daughter will be 11 next week-she’s my oldest and we started opening the dialogue when she was about 9 and a half years old.  Sparked by a question about periods I headed straight for the book store.  My own mother was very open and so I thought no big deal, right?  Well at first, I can honestly say as we were perusing the book I felt like I’d rather break my leg than continue with this.  But determined to press forward, we focus on a topic-periods and then continued to read and discuss that specific subject.  I told her if she wanted to read anymore just let me know and we would.  That’s exactly how it went until we finished the book.  Each time getting a little easier and more nonchalant.  The book didn’t cover everything (oral sex for one) but all the basics of anatomy(girls and boys), puberty and basic sex.  So, there’s still more unchartered ground for me to cover but I feel more confident of my own ability to convey not only the information but also our values.  And, my daughter is very comfortable approaching me with questions.  Like your post outlines it’s not about one conversation its about a running dialogue.

  4. Hi I’m Emmy and I’m 9 thanks for all this advice I think talking to my 7 year old sister is easer now about sex and all.

    1. “Just do it” refers to parents talking to their kids about sex, not to kids having sex.  Sorry for any confusion.

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