Talking to our kids about sex can be a very tricky topic. While it is not always easy or comfortable to discuss sexuality with young people, research tells us that kids and teens who have regular conversations with their parents and caregivers about sex and relationships are less likely to take risks with their sexual health. So it is never too early, or too late, to start these conversations with your child about sexuality.
Is it too early?
If your child is in middle school and you have not started these conversations yet, now is the perfect time! Along those lines, there is also no need to try to “catch up” all in one conversation. That can be really overwhelming for both you and your child. Take your time and tackle individual topics over time as they come up. The key to open communication is to show your support. Be very clear that your child can ask questions or come to you for help without fear of shame or getting in trouble.
It is perfectly normal if you’re uncertain whether various topics related to sexuality are “age-appropriate” to discuss with your child. Keep in mind: if a young person is asking, they deserve an answer. Whether they heard about it on social media or from a friend, something has sparked their curiosity. As parents and caregivers, we have the opportunity to provide our children with accurate information in a safe setting before they search somewhere else and potentially get incorrect information or information that doesn’t align with your family values.
Remember: it can be just as hard for a middle schooler to come to you to ask a difficult question as it is for you to come up with an answer! If a young person is asking you a difficult question, it’s because they trust your answer.
Avoiding their questions or not answering fully can break their trust and could send a message that you are not someone they can turn to for support. But on the flip side, this is your chance to help build a foundation for healthy relationships and decision making.
Around middle school, young people will start hearing about sex and relationships from various places, including their peers or social media. This is also the age where teens may start having more serious relationships with peers. Having open conversations about sex and sexuality shows them how important these topics are to you.
Learning to use “conversation starters” rather than “conversation enders” with middle school kids can be a very helpful skill. When communicating with your tween, use conversation starter responses, which are open-ended responses that do not convey judgment. Here are some examples of how to keep the door open rather than slam it shut on your conversations about sexual health.
Instead of → Try this
“You don’t need to know that.” → “That’s a good question. What do you think?”
“You’re too young to understand.” → “Do you know what that means?”
“That’s none of your business.” → “I’m not ready to share that personal information, but what I can tell you is …”
“I don’t care what your friends are doing.” → “This sounds important to you. Can you tell me more?”
“We’ll talk about that when you need to know.” → “That’s a good question. I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”
Let’s Talk About…
When addressing consent with middle school aged children, it’s important to be very direct about sexual interactions. This is the age where various “touch games” may begin (bottom-slapping, hitting one another in the genitals, pinching nipples to cause pain, snapping undergarments, etc.).
It’s important to get our young people talking about the ways in which these games could embarrass or even hurt another person. Encourage them to talk it through and ask them how they would feel if someone hit them in that way or did something that made them feel uncomfortable. Also ensure your tween knows what to do if they are ever the victim of sexual harassment or abuse.
Age-appropriate conversation tips regarding consent:
- Begin discussing what constitutes sexual harassment.
- Talk about what constitutes affirmative sexual consent.
- Discuss what constitutes healthy romantic relationships.
Anatomy & Puberty
Even if you have already discussed some (or all) of the topics around puberty, this is the time when these concepts start becoming less abstract and more real for tweens. They may start asking more direct questions as their experiences and relationships change. Now is the perfect time to have “puberty talks” with your tween.
- Age-appropriate conversation tips regarding puberty:
- Use actual body part language for all genitals. This cuts down on confusion and will empower kids to have clear conversations in the future.
- Keep conversations short and direct.
- Use a resource like Amaze.org to help you learn about and explain topics you may be uncomfortable with.
- Remind them that all people experience these changes. Puberty is a normal part of growing up. There is nothing “wrong” with the changes their body is going through.
- Be honest if you don’t know an answer to something. Look it up together or tell them you will find out and get back to them.
While a conversation about contraceptives may seem very early for middle school age children, this is a topic that there are a lot of misconceptions about. As your child gets older, you want them to feel informed and empowered to make healthy decisions when they do decide to have sex, including if they choose to wait until adulthood. If teens don’t understand how contraception works, they can easily find themselves believing one of the many myths about how to prevent a pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
While it’s important to communicate your family values, also keep in mind that when having a conversation about birth control, experts say it’s important to appear relaxed and to avoid overreacting. You want your child to feel comfortable coming to you with any
- Age-appropriate conversation tips regarding contraceptives:
- Don’t assume that if a tween or teen asks a question that they are already engaging (or even thinking about engaging) in sexual activity. There are a lot of myths floating around middle schools that spark natural curiosity about these topics.
- Establish rules and expectations for your tween, while also being honest and realistic about using contraception methods.
- Don’t forget to discuss condoms. Statistically, if a young person is sexually active, this would be first option they would choose.
- Don’t force the conversation if your tween is overly uncomfortable.
- Be supportive and open with your teen. Always opt for honesty.
This column is the second in a series of four by the experts at local nonprofit Thrive OKC to empower families and caregivers to talk to their kids, in developmentally-appropriate ways, about sexual health. Each column focuses on a different age range of child and provides ideas of topics to cover, conversation starters and resources. Find the full series of Talking to Kids About Sex articles, plus a podcast with expert advice on how to handle topics like consent, puberty and pornography, at metrofamilymagazine.com/talking-to-kids-about-sex. Find additional resources for parents and caregivers at thriveokc.org.