How to talk to children about sexuality and reproductive health?

Raising a child is one of the most important tasks of a parent – and certainly one of the most difficult. Parents face a number of issues every day that are complex for them but also for their children. 

Sexuality is certainly one of the more difficult topics and a large number of parents feel uncomfortable even at the very thought of starting a conversation about it with their children. It often happens that children surprise us with questions about sex sooner than we expected, and this is especially pronounced today given the development of technology due to which children are exposed to various information much earlier. Namely, there is no specific rule regarding the age suitable for talking to children about sexuality because sexual education is a continuous process that starts from the child’s earliest age.

MYTH 1: Let the children remain children! Children are too small to talk about sexuality.

Often parents feel that children are too young to talk to them about sexuality, which is not entirely wrong, but certain developmentally adjusted information should be given to children from an early age. As very little is said about the sexual development of children, it is often thought that sexuality begins to develop only in adolescence. However, sexual development takes place from an early age and as information is easily accessible to children, children will get it whether we like it or not, but the question is what kind of information it will be. Of course, when it is said that we will talk to children from an early age about sexuality, it does not mean giving them information that they are too young for, but it means gradually introducing children to the topic of sexuality in a way appropriate to their age.

MYTH 2: Talking about sex will encourage children to have sexual relations early!

Research shows that adolescents who are more informed actually enter into sexual relationships later. Namely, greater information can increase the sense of responsibility of sexual intercourse and indicate the possible consequences that children are often unaware of and satisfy curiosity and reduce the need for experimentation. Since avoiding the topic or insisting that children do not enter into sexual intercourse early cannot prevent them from doing exactly that, by informing we can reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases etc.

MYTH 3: I am going to have a big conversation about sex with my teenager.

Often parents wait for their children to become teenagers and think that then they should have one big conversation. But by talking to children about sexuality from an early age, you are letting children know that you are open to issues related to sexuality, which is why they develop trust and will turn to you sooner in old age. Talking about sexuality should not be one big conversation but a continuous series of smaller conversations throughout child’s growing up. Try not only to wait for your children to ask you questions on their own, rather use everyday situations as an opportunity for small conversations and the transmission of information about sexuality.

How to start a conversation?

  • Relax and do not worry if you do not know all the answers to your child’s questions. More important than what you know is how you react. Try to be calm, without attacking and condemning and imposing your own views. If you can maintain an atmosphere in which no topic is forbidden, you encourage open communication and you are a successful parent.
  • Develop a relationship of trust and adapt the conversation about emotions to the child’s age, but make it a continuous conversation, not “one big conversation”. Try to connect the topic with everyday things or activities to make the atmosphere as relaxed as possible.
  • Try to re-examine your feelings about sexuality and intimate relationships first. If you are uncomfortable talking to your child about this topic, read a book or talk about it with close friends, relatives, or a doctor. Even if you cannot completely overcome the feeling of discomfort, do not be afraid to admit it to your children. You can tell them: “You know, I’m embarrassed to talk about sex because my parents never talked to me about it. However, I want us to talk freely about everything, so please ask me anything that interests you. And even if I do not know the answer, I will try to find out more about it.”
  • Teenagers need information about biological development, but they also need to understand that sexuality involves mutual trust, respect, and responsibility of partners. The more we emphasize the importance of feelings to them, the more likely it is that they will, when the time comes, make decisions about their own sexuality and be more resistant to peer pressure. Furthermore, prepare them for changes that are happening or will happen in their body during puberty to prevent the onset of anxiety in teenagers.
  • Many parents are uncomfortable talking to a child of the opposite sex. While this is understandable, it is important not to give up completely. For example, if you are a single mother with a son, you can find help in literature that is already available in our country, ask for the help of a family doctor or a close male relative you trust. In addition, you can always contact the experts who are the members of our Counselling Centre who will be happy to help you with their advice.

 AUTHOR: Silvija Stanić, dipl.psih.univ.spec.iur.