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.