When should you talk to your kids about sex age-wise?

As a doctor, the answer to this question is easy: Now and younger than you think.  But as a parent, it scares me a little.  What information is too much?  What are they going to ask next?  Why can’t their dad do this?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts a survey every other year that collects data regarding sexual activity in high school students.  The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has tracked adolescent behavior since 1991.  In 2019, 3% of students reported having sexual intercourse before the age of 13.  So the real answer, based on data, is before age 13. 

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So how do you do “The Talk”?  It really should be called “The Conversation.”  Be open with your kids even if you are cringing on the inside.  Let them know that you are a safe place to come when they are confused or unsure.  You want to be the gatekeeper of this knowledge.

When they are toddlers and notice that their genitalia is different than others, explain that everyone’s body is different and beautiful.  When they are in elementary school, answer their questions about how children grow and change. Explain how to respect their own genitalia and practice good hygiene.

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By middle school, kids are starting to have an idea about what sexual intercourse is. Talk to them about why people have intercourse: to have a baby and because it is pleasurable. Talk about abstinence. Explain that they might have new feelings like crushes or urges that are very strong. Pre-teens and young teens need to understand these feelings are natural. Risk is important to discuss now too, but not to scare them — to educate them. Risks like sexually transmitted infections (STI) and pregnancy are real. Leave the door open if they have other questions. Additionally, talk to your kids about consent. Keep talking about it. Both partners have to be willing for sexual contact to be consensual. 

According to the survey referenced above, approximately 38% of high school students have ever had sex and 27% have had sex in the last month. As expected, fewer ninth graders than 12th graders are sexually active. Continued check-ins with your kids about safety are important. Condoms are a must if a teen is not abstinent. They can be obtained at the drug store, your doctor’s office, and even the health department. Hormonal birth control is safe and effective at preventing unplanned pregnancy, so if your family is comfortable with this option, discuss it.

And if the idea of these conversations makes you nervous, that’s OK, too. Your pediatrician, adolescent medicine trained specialist, or family doctor can help, too. 

— Dr. Jessica Castonguay, physician, Adolescent Medicine, Akron Children’s Hospital

Photo: Dr. Jessica Castonguay, credit Akron Children’s Hospital

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