If having the sex talk with your kid feels overwhelming, chances are that the idea of having multiple sex talks will induce a full-on panic. But one of the biggest mistakes parents can make when it comes to talking to kids about sex is thinking that after one conversation, they’re prepared to face the world. Kids are constantly becoming more aware of sex and sexuality, so the type of guidance they need will change accordingly. And because parents have been down that road already, they have a lot of wisdom to offer their kids from their own experiences.
But how can parents take what they’ve learned, enjoyed, and regretted about sex and share that wisdom in a way that their kids will eventually find helpful — without it being totally awkward? “I think there are three kinds of parents. There are the parents who totally have ostrich syndrome, which means they bury their heads in the sand. Then there are the oversharing parents, the parents who think that their kids are their best friends,” says Lea Lis, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships. Don’t be either of those parents.
“Then there’s the best kind of parent which is the authoritative parent, who is able to be open and honest and explain things clearly, and is also not afraid to set appropriate boundaries.” That’s the sweet spot you want to hit. Here’s how to do it.
Think About Your Own Sex Life
Before parents share sexual wisdom with their kids, they must first process their sexual history. That can be a scary prospect for many people who have regretted some of their sexual decisions in the past. But past experiences — even past experiences we try to ignore — can inform how parents approach talking about sex with their kids.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve made mistakes,” Lis says. “It’s about how you manage your mistakes and how you deal with them. Because it’s great for your kids to see you make mistakes and then learn to overcome them.” Did you have sex before you were ready and regret it? Have unprotected sex and pick up an STI? Teenagers can learn from your regrets, but only if you share them.
Although parents need to process their sexual stories, it’s not necessary to recount that story in its entirety to their kids. There will be details they aren’t mature enough to take in or that would violate the confidence of your past sexual partners.
In fact, sometimes parents can leave out sex altogether and still get the message across to young kids. Lis gives the example of a parent whose children know about a divorce or previous extramarital affair. “You have to learn how to speak to the pearls of what you learned from past experiences,” she says. “For example, you might say, ‘monogamy is hard because marriage is hard at times.’ But you can also share that if the focus in relationships is on integrity, honesty, and owning your mistakes, then it’s still possible to have a happy and intimate relationship even if things don’t go well.”
Pass Down Wisdom Instead of Trauma
Negative sexual experiences aren’t always the result of bad decision-making. The anti-sexual violence organization RAAIN estimates that an average of more than 450,000 people each year are victims of sexual violence. And people who have been victimized shouldn’t be made to feel as though they were at fault for someone else’s behavior. But it is essential to acknowledge that sexual violence can have long-term effects on victims, which may affect how they talk about sex with their kids.
Of course, sexual trauma isn’t limited to assault. People can be traumatized by the words and attitudes of loved ones who reject specific sexual orientations, who pass down unhealthy sexual paradigms, or who are still struggling with their own unresolved sexual trauma.
Lis encourages parents to reflect on what they know about their family’s sexual history, as well as how they communicated about sexuality and sexual experiences. That process may raise awareness of generational sexual trauma passed down or that parents are at risk of passing to their own children.
“Look at how your family expresses affection and sexuality,” she says. “What did they tell you about sex, and what do you wish they had told you? What are your early memories of awakening sexuality? What about your experience with puberty? Was it a positive sexual experience, and what wasn’t positive? Hopefully, this deepens self-understanding and helps you start to understand what you might want to reframe as you pass wisdom down to your kids.”
For example, you may have been teased by family members as your body changed and developed, which was likely to make you feel self-conscious and as though family members weren’t safe people to talk to when it comes to sex. Reflecting on that experience may help you better understand any shame triggers you might have when you think about talking to your own kids about sex. Consider how you wish your family would have handled those situations so that you can facilitate more open lines of communication with your kids.
Have More Than One Sex Talk
There will be times when talking about sex as a family feels awkward, but it doesn’t have to be weird. Starting the conversation young with age-appropriate books sets the expectation that conversations about sex are welcome. Parents with kids in grade school will want to check out Sex Is a Funny Word by Corey Silverberg, and Heather Corrina’s S.E.X. is a book that is perfect for providing teenagers reliable answers so that they don’t have to make the Google gamble when questions arise that they don’t feel comfortable asking.
Lis also recommends parents use everyday occurrences as opportunities to listen to kids about what they’re thinking and processing to make conversations about sex more dialogue than lecture.
“When your kids start watching different kinds and movies that address issues surrounding sex and relationships, then talk about them. Start asking, ‘What did you think of that?’ You can even use social media by scrolling through accounts your kids are following and asking their opinions on what posts are saying about sexuality and relationships,” she says.
As kids grow older, those conversations will help them own their sexual history and experiences. They’ll still have to navigate messy breakups, hurt feelings, and overall confusion. But if they start building healthy sexual paradigms early, hopefully they will have a framework to ask the right questions of safe and knowledgeable people as they grow up — even if those people aren’t always their parents.