National Eating Disorders Association

Boosting Children’s Body Image and Emotional Wellbeing By Taking the Taboo Out of Sex-Talk

August McLaughlin

I was five when a relative explained to me how babies were made. If a couple prayed about it, she said, presto! The proverbial bun in the oven. Throughout the rest of kindergarten, I feared that God would confuse any infant related thought I had with prayer and insert a wee one in me. For years, my “privates” were areas “down there” no one spoke of, and sexuality was an enigmatic, hush-hush topic reserved for moms and dads. Not until taking a college sexuality course in my early twenties did I truly grasp the details of my sexual anatomy and just how valuable such understanding is. I also learned that I was far from alone in my delayed awareness.

By their nineteenth birthday, seven of 10 teens in the U. S. have had intercourse, according to a 2010 Vital and Health Statistics report, and our teen pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the world. Most kids learn about sex anywhere but school and few have full understanding of what their sexual parts are, much less their functions, before they engage.

Understanding and embracing sexuality helps ensure positive relationships with one’s body, emotional self and others throughout life. While discussing sex with your kids can seem awkward or inappropriate, particularly if the topic seemed taboo during your upbringing, doing so is vital, according to Laura Berman PhD, an American sex educator and relationship therapist. When should you start? As early as possible, she says.

“Even a toddler can understand—and needs to understand—information about her bodily function and genitals,” she writes in the Talking to Kids About Sex Handbook. “Why? Because if she learns to be ashamed of her body or is confused about her body, this can present later in life as body image issues surrounding her sexuality.”

It’s also never too late to begin addressing sexuality with your wee ones. If you’re not sure how to broach the topic, consider the following tips.

8 Positive Ways to Discuss Sexuality With Your Kids

  1. Use proper terminology. Nicknaming genitals isn’t an ideal way to increase healthy sexual awareness for children.  “This teaches her that her body is something to be hidden or masked,” said Berman. Using correct terminology, such as ‘vulva’ and ‘penis’ instead of ‘privates,’ helps kids understand and embrace their bodies body without shame.
  2. Celebrate bodily functions. No, you don’t need to applaud every time your child passes gas or urinates. Staying positive, however, teaches kids that all natural functions of the body are embraceable—a lesson they can carry into adulthood. Instead of saying "P-U! That stinks!", for example, Berman suggests saying, "What a healthy bowel movement!" (Don’t worry. It’ll feel natural over time!)
  3. Talk about sex more than once. Many parents wonder about the “right time” for “the talk.” This approach can increase your child’s anxiety, particularly if you’re anxious yourself. Research shows that kids who feel comfortable discussing sex with their parents are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex, than teens who feel uncomfortable doing so. Talking about sex somewhat routinely can help put you and your child at ease.
  4. Don’t discourage self-stimulation. It’s perfectly normal and healthy for children to touch their genitals early on. Discouraging such curiosity by saying “No!” or slapping their hands away wrongly suggests that self-exploration is unnatural and shame-worthy. If your child does so in public, explain that their sexual parts are only to be touched in private, and that they are theirs alone; no one else, other than caregivers and parents washing or wiping them, should ever touch them.
  5. Answer large questions in stages, using facts. Children typically begin asking questions about intercourse and reproduction during early grade school. Rather than give a complete “birds and bees” talk, which can overwhelm, take it question by question and respond with facts. If your daughter asks where babies come from, for example, say, “From a special area in her uterus.” If she asks how the baby arrives there, explain that when a when a man and woman love each other (Berman suggets inserting your own values here—when they’re married, of a certain age, etc.), the man’s sperm fertilizes the woman’s egg and the baby starts growing.
  6. Don’t shy away from discussing masturbation and orgasm. During puberty, girls and boys sometimes orgasm in their sleep. Both genders also often wonder about genital exploration and sexual activity overall. Berman suggests letting them know that enjoying these sensations is natural, and that masturbation is a safe way to release sexual thoughts and feelings. If your child doesn’t express such desires, let them know that they may in the future to prevent feelings of unease and embarrassment.
  7. Recognize that if you don’t teach your kids, someone will. When children don’t feel comfortable discussing sexuality with parents, they seek the information elsewhere. A seemingly private place they’re likely to turn is the internet, which isn’t “private” at all. In addition to discussing sex openly, explain responsible internet use and the very real risks of online sexual predators. If you can, supervise their use, keeping home computers in centralized locations.
  8. Educate yourself! We can’t teach what we don’t comprehend ourselves. If you aren’t knowledgeable of your own sexual anatomy or could simply use a refresher, seek out quality books or coursework. If you weren’t well informed in your youth, team up with your youngster. Learning together can provide a bonding experience that enriches both of your lives, transforming what at first seemed awkward into something truly awesome.