Talking to your daughter about sex can feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Many experts agree that peppering smaller “talks” throughout her tween and teen years takes the pressure off and helps your child process your values and information over time.
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1. Start Early
Talking about sex early and often is more effective than waiting until adolescence hits. It’s also more manageable for parents, because it doesn’t have to be one big awkward conversation. Start by dosing her with small bits of information when she’s ready — for example, if she has a question about the part of her body that goes under her bathing suit, you can use that as an opportunity to explain that it’s private and no one should touch it without her permission.
You can also help her navigate the sexual content she encounters through music, movies, TV, and conversations with friends by setting a positive tone. Teach her to think critically about the messages she receives, and encourage her to ask questions and seek guidance from trusted adults.
If she doesn’t feel safe to do this, she’ll seek out her own sources of information — which might not be entirely accurate or helpful. Villainizing teen boys, for example, sends the message that men only want their bodies, and that’s bad news for girls who may be vulnerable to sexual assault or unwanted pregnancy.
2. Make It a Family Activity
While many parents have a “sex talk” with their daughters alone, it’s best to make it an ongoing conversation that involves the entire family. This way your daughter has multiple sources of information and will be more likely to come to you if she needs help or advice in the future.
This approach may be easier to implement when your children are younger, but it’s a great strategy throughout their teen years as well. For example, when a news story about sex-related crimes or a popular teen show discusses relationships and sex, use these as an opportunity to have more in-depth theoretical conversations.
Your kids need to understand that your views on sex are not judgmental, but rather an expression of what you value as a family. This will prevent them from feeling controlled and will help them trust that your guidance is designed to keep them safe. You can also share the whys of your guidance, so they know you’re looking out for them — not just trying to control their behavior.
3. Keep It Simple
When discussing sex, it is important to go beyond the biology. Girls need to know why they feel sexual feelings (love, curiosity, fear) and how these can impact relationships. They also need to understand the importance of respecting themselves and others, and how sex can lead to harmful consequences.
When talking with children about their bodies, use accurate language and avoid words like stork and baby. This will help your child better understand the information and reduce confusion.
As your daughter gets older and goes through puberty, she will likely hear more about sex from friends, peers or media. This is why it is helpful to create a safe space where she can turn when she has questions. This also allows you to correct misinformation and offer factual information.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Providing children with the knowledge and information that allows them to make healthy decisions about their sexuality can help them avoid sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and teen suicide.1 It can also allow them to take advantage of teachable moments in their lives.2 For example, if they see a sex scene on television, or even in their friend’s home, it is important that they know that their parents can discuss anything that comes up.
Having small conversations on an ongoing basis as your child reaches the suggested age ranges can help them feel comfortable to ask questions, and it will give you time to prepare your responses. For example, if they want to know what an erection is, you can explain that it happens when the semen in the penis breaks free, or that they might have wet dreams (when semen flows out of the penis).
It’s important that children understand that sex is a natural part of life and that it can lead to pregnancy. It is also important to let them know that abstinence is a choice and that it’s possible to be respectful without having sex.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Honest
When you’re honest, your daughter will know that she can trust you when she has questions about sex and bodies later in life. This early message sends a powerful message that sex and sexuality are normal, healthy parts of life.
In addition, being open and honest early allows you to correct misinformation that may have accumulated over the years. For example, if your child believes that penises are always soft or that an erection is when the penis stands up straight, you can gently and calmly explain how the body works.
If you’re hesitant to discuss this topic, consider finding a surrogate, someone who can help you when your daughter asks. Some examples include your spouse, a trusted friend or a mentor. In families with multiple parents, it’s also helpful to talk about sex at the same time so your children hear the same message from both parents. Also, find a trusted resource for your daughter in the event she does need information or advice, such as clinics, hotlines, sexual health professionals and support groups.