Talking to your children about sexuality

Talking to your children
about sexuality
Remember when?
What if I feel embarrassed?
Many of us will recall occasional and clumsy talks with
It’s okay to feel embarrassed. Most parents feel
parents and teachers. Thinking back, we also realise
embarrassed when they start to talk about sexuality with
we actually learned much more from friends than we
their children. This is understandable when you consider
ever did from our parents and teachers – and much of
how little we talk about our sexuality with anyone!
what we learned was possibly not quite accurate and
Remember, your children might be feeling embarrassed
even a bit frightening.
or uncomfortable too, so why not talk about these
Family Planning Victoria considers parents and
feelings? The more you talk, the easier it will become.
caregivers should be the first and primary sexuality
educators of their children, but we know it can often
seem like a daunting task. We hope this reassuring and
practical advice will support and encourage you to start
your conversations – and keep them going!
What if I don’t know enough?
You’re not the only parent who feels like this! Many do,
and some will look for excuses not to start: ‘They’re too
young’, ‘They know it already,’ or ‘They’ll learn about it
in school anyway’.
Children learn all the time
You don’t need to be an expert. Nobody has all
Sexuality education is a life-long process that begins at
the answers. We are all learning all the time, and
birth. It’s not just a quick talk or a book to read. Children
it’s perfectly appropriate to look for information and
actually learn about sexuality all the time. They learn by
resources, as well as reassurance.
watching, listening, experimenting and mimicking.
It’s also okay to say: ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out’.
Children are naturally curious. They want to understand
There are lots of places you can check for information –
what they see and hear around them. Most will ask
and it’s great to do it together. This way the discussion
questions about sex, even when they are very young.
can be extended beyond a quick answer, and children
Some of these questions will be quite explicit and
can also learn about where to find information.
complicated. Responding with shock or silence can
reinforce their confusion, and it won’t satisfy their need
to know. By asking you questions, your children are
giving you a great place to start!
What if I make a mistake?
Everybody makes mistakes when dealing with tricky or
unfamiliar information, and that’s okay too. It is unlikely
to affect your relationship with your children and you
When should I start talking about sex with my
can always talk with them again to correct or add some
information. Openness and honesty will just strengthen
The earlier the better, but it doesn’t need to be a formal
your communication with your children.
talk or a lecture. It’s usually best to start by responding
to a question your child has asked out of curiosity or
in response to something they have seen. Most young
children will only absorb short and simple pieces of
information, so start with short answers!
How much should I tell my children?
Usually the shorter the answer the better – a good rule
of thumb is to provide just a little more information than
they already know. This will extend their knowledge and
understanding, without overwhelming them.
It is also helpful to check your answer has been
understood and see if there is anything more your child
wants to know. Children are usually content once they
have the piece of information they wanted. Let them
know they can come back if they want to know some
Talking to your children
about sexuality
What if the timing is wrong?
Children often talk or ask questions at awkward or
inconvenient times. You might be talking to someone
else, in the middle of doing something that you can’t
stop, or in an awkward space like a supermarket queue
or crowded elevator!
Handle it the same way you would any other
conversation. It’s okay to say: ‘I have my hands full’, or
‘I need a few minutes to think’, or ‘I would like to talk
about that a bit later on’. Just make it clear you want to
talk and will do so soon – and ask them to remind you.
It is important you remember to have this conversation
– don’t use this strategy to avoid the topic.
Can I do more harm than good?
Some people think talking to children about sexuality,
particularly as they approach puberty, encourages
sexual experimentation, unhealthy curiosity and even
However the research is very reassuring. It clearly
indicates young people who have been learning about
sexuality at home and at school are more likely to delay
sexual activity, feel more positive about themselves and
their bodies, and use protective behaviours when they
do become sexually active.
We also know sexuality education can:
• encourage broader and more open communication
between parents and children
• help us avoid shame, fear and misconceptions about
• promote sexual health and responsible decisionmaking.
Things to remember
• Most children and young people want to learn about
sexuality from their parents.
• Education about sexuality is more effective when the
responsibility is shared between families and schools.
• There is no right way – different cultures, families and
groups talk about sexuality in different ways.
What do children
need to know?
We sometimes refer to sexuality education as telling
3. Give a short and clear answer. Avoid technical
children ‘the facts of life’, but talking to children
language or jargon, but use the correct words for
about sexuality is not just a matter of providing
parts of the body because children quickly grow out
simple information about reproduction, menstruation,
of childhood language.
diseases and sexual behaviour.
4. Check to see if your child has understood your
It includes:
answer. Ask: ‘Did that make sense?’ ‘Did you
• learning positive messages about themselves and
understand that?’ or ‘Have I answered your
their bodies
• understanding your family values about sexuality
• thinking about friendships, responsibilities and
• practising making decisions, solving problems and
communicating confidently
• understanding and managing feelings
• being reassured about their own safety and welfare.
Most importantly, children need an atmosphere of
openness and trust so they know they can always
come to you for support, information and reassurance
as they grow and learn, even if things do go wrong.
Start with their questions
Be guided by the questions your child asks: they tell
you your child is ready and wiling to learn. How much
you tell them is a matter for your judgement, but take
into account their natural curiosity, their attentiveness
and their maturity. If you are concerned about how to
answer, try these suggestions.
Simple steps for answering questions
1. Listen carefully to the question, and let your child
see you are listening.
2. Make sure you understand the question and its
meaning. To clarify a question or to get a better
understanding of why it has been asked, you could
say: ‘Did you hear about that at kinder/school
today?’ or ‘What do you think?’ These clarifying
questions can also give you a moment or two to
gather your thoughts as well as help you work out
what your child already knows.
5. Talk some more if your child seems interested. Ask:
‘Is there anything else you’d like to know?’ or ‘Do
you want to talk some more?’.
6. Remind your child you are always available to talk
some more or answer further questions.
Getting started if there’s no questions
It is important to show our children we are always
willing to talk about sexuality. This means more than
just waiting to answer questions. Sometimes there
are no questions. Here are some tips for getting a
discussion started:
• Leave some books around the house. Perhaps
you can choose some together from a library or a
bookshop. Try reading them together.
• Newspaper and television stories can be a good
place to start. You can use questions like: ‘Did
you see this picture in this morning’s paper?’ or
‘I wonder if you have any questions about that
• Use everyday events, e.g. a visit from a pregnant
friend or relative. Even passing a pregnant woman
in the street can provide an excellent opportunity to
start to talk about reproduction and birth. These are
what we call teachable moments.
• Talk about pets and other animals in the street. You
could even visit a zoo or sanctuary.
• Visit the museum or community centre together
when there are interesting displays and exhibitions.
What do children
need to know?
• Give your young child some anatomically correct
• Ask your child a question. Asking open questions
can help turn a question into a discussion: e.g.
‘What do you think about…? Or ‘How do you feel
Things to remember
• You don’t need to know all the answers. Don’t be
afraid to say: ‘I don’t know. You can always say you
will come back with an answer later or look for the
answer together. Whatever you decide, make sure
you find the answer and get back to your child as
soon as you can.
• Less is usually best with young children. Long
answers are complicated and often confusing,
especially for pre-school children. If children want to
know more, they will ask as long as you have shown
you are willing to answer.
• You have the right to keep personal information
private if you want to. For example, your child may
ask when you have sexual intercourse and with
whom. You have the right to say this is personal
and private if you want to. How far you go in your
answers is your choice, but remember you will need
to respect your child’s privacy in the same way.
• It’s okay to feel embarrassed. If you feel
uncomfortable, say so – and be assured it gets
easier with practice.
sexual development
As a parent, you probably know quite a bit about your
Other interests:
children’s physical and cognitive development, but you
• Friends have a strong influence.
might be less familiar with their sexual development
even though this is just as important.
Becoming more aware of your child’s sexual
development will give you an insight into their needs
and feelings. It will help you with their care and
education as you will be able to anticipate the issues
in their lives and the questions they might want
What to expect and when
Between 3 and 5 years
• Children are curious and keen to learn.
• They are likely to ask lots of questions about
sexuality as their verbal skills develop, like: ‘Where
do babies come from?’
• Children are keen to explore their bodies. This can
include role play with other children, e.g. playing
doctors and nurses.
• Occasional masturbation and touching their own
body parts is particularly common.
• Children become aware of the differences
between boys and girls, such as different roles and
behaviours and physical differences.
• Children begin to develop attitudes to the opposite
• Children will mimic the adult behaviour and language
they see at home or in TV shows and films.
Between 5 and 8 years
By the time they get to school, most children have
• Children have best friends, usually of the same sex.
• Reinforcement of gender identify continues.
Between 8 and 10 years
• Children continue to be very curious and will talk to
each other about sex, often picking up myths and
• Children develop an interest in what is right and
• Their friends have increasing influence on their
attitudes and opinions.
• Most children will have developed a basic sexual
• Children will continue with exploratory play, e.g.
imitating kissing and flirting, ‘You show me yours and
I’ll show you mine,’ etc.
• Children have a growing awareness of gender roles
and stereotypes, for example, ‘Only girls do that’, or
‘Boys don’t cry’.
• For some, the physical and emotional changes of
puberty will begin.
Between 10 and 12 years
The changes of puberty usually begin during this
period. They usually begin in girls first but all children
are different – some may begin early and some may
begin late.
Physical changes
For girls, the following physical changes occur:
learned that nudity, looking at other people’s bodies
• Menstruation begins.
and masturbation should be done in private. However,
• The vagina, vulva and clitoris grow slightly.
they are still very curious about:
• The hips broaden and the waist narrows.
• pregnancy and birth
• Breasts grow and develop.
• ‘looking’ at other people, especially around girls’ and
• Hair grows around the vulva (pubic hair) and under
boys’ toilets
• sexual intercourse – they will talk about it and use
words they have heard from friends or media and
play games that include kissing and marriage.
the arms.
sexual development
For boys, the following physical changes occur:
• The penis, testes and scrotum enlarge.
• The testes begin to produce sperm and wet dreams
• Height increases and shoulders broaden.
• The voice deepens.
• Pubic hair grows at the base of the penis.
• Body hair increases (e.g. under the arms, on the
Social and emotional changes
Not all the changes of puberty are physical. Some are
social and emotional. These include:
• A sense of modesty and self-consciousness
• More obvious mood swings occur.
• Romantic and sexual fantasies and crushes are
often apparent.
• The peer group has a strong influence on the
individual’s identity.
• Children develop a greater sense of independence
from parents as authority figures.
Puberty is a time of intense change and adjustment
for young people. Perhaps their most common
question as this time is: ‘Am I normal?’ When children
approaching puberty are given information about
their bodies as well as the opportunity to explore their
social and emotional experiences, they are more likely
to understand and cope with such changes and feel
more reassured and less isolated.
As puberty concludes, adolescents are physically and
sexually mature (some will even begin to experiment
with sex). However, their emotional maturity and life
experiences have not caught up. This is when positive
communication with a caring adult becomes especially
important. You will benefit from your earlier foundation