Expert advice on how to talk to your kids about sex

Dr. Katrina Pariera, George Washington University professor and co-author of a ‘Talk More About It’ study, shares her findings.

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Talking to kids about sex can be an uncomfortable, nightmare-provoking topic for many parents, and although there is a multitude of research stressing the importance of “the talk,” there’s not much out there advising the best way to go about it.

katrina pariera
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In the hopes of empowering parents and helping them navigate these often difficult conversations, Northern Virginia resident and George Washington University professor Dr. Katrina Pariera—who recently co-authored a “Talk More About It:” Emerging Adults’ Attitudes About How and When Parents Should Talk About Sex study—offers some insight.

Why did you decide to research the way parents should talk to their children about sex?

My specialty is in sexual communication—how people talk about sex—and I published this study with my co-author Evan Brody. We wanted to hear from young people themselves about what they thought worked and didn’t work when their parents talked to them about sex.

Do you really think young people want to hear about sex from their parents?

The research my co-author and I did showed that young people want their parents to talk more often about sex and on more topics. It’s not about having “the talk,” it’s about having many talks throughout your child’s development. While kids might not always seem like they’re listening, they are.

If parents talk about sex freely, will that make their child think it’s okay to have sex?

No, studies, including ours, show that is not the case. It’s actually important to talk to kids about sex before they’re sexually active. The younger you talk to your kid, the easier it will be to talk later, when conversations get more complex.

What are some major topics that children should know about sex according to different ages?

Around ages 3-5 it is important that your child know the correct names of body parts. It’s also important to teach young children that they have the right to say no to hugs and kisses.

Around 6-8 children group themselves by gender more, and might start teasing people who don’t fit stereotypical gender expectations. They also start reaching out to their peers for information about sex. This is a time when children are very curious, even if they don’t ask questions. It’s a good time to start asking what they know about sex so that you can start these conversations.

Around ages 9-11 kids start experiencing or worrying about puberty. This is a good time to make sure kids know what to expect with puberty, and that it can be different for everyone. This is also a time when young people start to worry about being normal.

Most of the young people in our study thought 12-13 was the best age to talk about dating and relationships, sexual orientation, sexual assault, birth control, STDs, and when it’s okay to have sex. While it might seem early, there is a good chance they are hearing about these things elsewhere.

How should parents talk to teenagers?

Share your values about when it’s okay to have sex. Talk about options for preventing pregnancy and STDs. Talk about how to talk to boyfriends/girlfriends about when to have sex, protection, consent, etc. Try to use inclusive language that doesn’t assume your child will only have opposite-sex encounters.

What do you think is the biggest mistake most parents make when discussing sex?

The biggest mistake is assuming your kid does not want to hear what you have to say. They are learning about sex from friends and media very early in life. If they don’t hear from you, they’re going to rely more on those other sources. So it is okay to make mistakes and to not know what to say, but the best thing is just to talk.

How do you think schools are doing at tackling the subject of sexual communication? Do you feel that anything should be improved? 

In Virginia, schools are required to teach sex education, including contraception, emphasizing abstinence and marriage, and the effects of STDs. They are not required to teach students about sexual communication. Communication skills are crucial to many aspects of life, especially sexuality. For example, knowing how to be assertive, or how to understand consent are crucial communication skills that many students will not learn in school-based sex education. It’s important for parents to help kids develop these communication skills.

Do you have any favorite tools or resources for parents to use to teach their children about sex?

SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) has some fantastic resources (in Spanish and English) on how to talk to kids about specific topics like sexual orientation, body image, abstinence, etc.  Advocates for Youth is another website with excellent resources for parents.