Talking about sex and sexuality with young children

It’s never too early to talk with your child about sex. Talking about sex, sexuality and bodies from when your child is young can help your child understand that sex and sexuality are healthy parts of life.

Open and honest conversations when your child is young can make later conversations easier. And these early conversations also lay the groundwork for children to make healthier choices about sex when they’re older.

The key early message for your child is that he can come to you for open, honest and reliable information, and that he shouldn’t feel scared or embarrassed to ask you about sex and sexuality.

And the good news is that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t a one-off conversation that you have to get exactly right. It’s a conversation that continues and evolves as your child grows up.

Sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s also the way your child feels about her developing body. And it’s how your child understands and expresses feelings of intimacy, attraction and affection for others, and how she develops and maintains respectful relationships.

Three steps for talking about sex

Three basic steps can help you talk with your child about sex.

First, find out what your child already knows. For example, ‘Where do you think babies come from?’ or ‘What have you heard about where babies come from?’

Second, correct any misinformation and give the facts. For example, ‘No babies don’t grow in their mummy’s tummy. They grow in a special place inside their mummy, called the uterus’.

Third, use the conversation as an opportunity to talk about your own thoughts or feelings. For example, ‘Some people really want to have a baby when they’re ready and other people aren’t too sure about having a baby at all’.

How to talk about sex, sexuality and bodies: tips for all ages

These tips can make it easier to talk with children of any age about sex.

Explain things at your child’s level
Explain things at a level your child can understand. For example, a six-year old won’t want a long explanation of ovulation, although he might be fascinated to know that women have very small eggs (or ova) that can make a baby. It’s best to keep your explanation brief, factual and positive if you can. Your child can come back to you if he wants more information.

Use correct names for body parts
It’s a good idea to use the correct names when you’re talking about body parts – for example, penis, scrotum, testicles, vulva, vagina. It’s OK to use pet names too. But using the correct names helps to send the message that talking about these parts of our bodies is healthy and OK. And if your child knows the correct names for body parts, she’ll be able to communicate clearly about her body with you or people like doctors if she needs to.

Say ‘I don’t know’ if you need to
Your child doesn’t need you to be an expert – he just needs to know that he can ask you anything he needs to.

If you don’t know what to say, tell your child you’re glad she asked, that you don’t know the answer, and that you’ll look for some information and get back to her. And then make sure you do get back to her, or you could suggest looking for more information together.

Get all parents involved
In families with two or more parents, it’s good for all parents to get involved in discussions about sex. When all parents get involved, children learn that it’s OK to talk about sex and sexuality. This can help children to feel more comfortable talking about their bodies, take responsibility for sexual feelings, and communicate in intimate relationships when they’re older.

Start a conversation
Some children don’t ask many questions, so you might need to start a conversation. It’s a good idea to think about what to say beforehand, then pick a good time to bring the subject up. For example, if someone is talking about pregnancy on TV you could say, ‘They were talking about pregnancy on the TV earlier. It got me wondering if you know what that is?’

Some children find it easier to talk without eye , so you could plan to talk while you and your child are travelling in the car.

Prepare yourself
You might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about sexuality, or using words like ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ when talking about bodies. That’s OK. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself by thinking about what you’re comfortable with and building on that. For example, if you’re OK with talking about bottoms but not breasts, try using the word ‘bottom’ in conversation to start with.

It’s important for children to know the difference between touching that’s OK and touching that’s not OK. Make sure your child knows that he can say ‘No!’ to any touching that he doesn’t want and that it’s always OK to tell a trusted adult about touch that’s not OK. Personal safety skills will help keep your child safe.

0-2 years: what to say about sex, sexuality and bodies

You can use everyday moments to help your child learn about her body – for example, bath time or while you’re helping your child get dressed are good times to introduce the names of body parts.

2-3 years: what to say about sex, sexuality and bodies

Most children aged 2-3 years are very curious about their own and other children’s bodies. They’ll also notice that boys’ and girls’ bodies are different. Your child might ask you why or say, ‘What’s that?’ You can teach your child that every body part has a name and its own ‘job’ to do. For example, boys have a penis, and girls have a vulva.

You might find that looking at a book with your child is helpful. You can use the pictures to help your child learn the names for body parts and understand the differences between boys and girls.

4-5 years: what to say about sex, sexuality and bodies

Children aged 4-5 years often ask where babies come from. They can understand that a baby grows in a mother’s uterus, and that to make a baby you need a sperm (like a tiny seed) from a man and an ovum (like a tiny egg) from a woman.

If your child asks ‘Where do I come from?’ you could ask, ‘What do you think?’ This helps you work out what your child is really asking and how much he understands. You could give a simple explanation like ‘Babies grow in a place inside their mother called the uterus’.

If you’re pregnant your child might ask, ‘Where does the baby come out?’ Give a simple but accurate answer like ‘Your little sister is growing in my uterus. When she’s finished growing, she’ll squeeze through the birth canal, which is called the vagina’.

6-8 years: what to say about sex, sexuality and bodies

By six years old, many children are interested in how babies are made and might ask questions.

If your child asks, ‘How did the baby get into your uterus?’ ask him what he thinks. This helps you understand what your child already knows. Then you can explain simply, giving as much information as you’re comfortable with. For example, ‘To make a baby, a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman join together.’

You could explain that this happens when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, which is when the man puts his penis inside the woman’s vagina.

You might also like to say that sometimes babies enter families in different ways like IVF, adoption, foster care or grandparent care.

You don’t have to wait for your child to ask you a question. You could start a conversation by asking, ‘Have you ever wondered how you were born and where you came from?’ Or you might see a pregnant woman and say to your child, ‘That woman has a baby growing inside her. Do you know how the baby got there?’

You could also read a book together about where babies come from.

It’s a good idea to start talking to your child about puberty and how bodies change in puberty well before she starts puberty. This could be when your child is around 6-8 years old.

If your child comes across sexting or pornography, stay calm. This can be an opportunity to talk with your child about what is and isn’t OK for him to see. And talking about these issues is one of the best ways to keep your child safe and promote respectful online behaviour.

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