If television is right, nothing strikes fear into the heart of a parent quite like their children asking a question about sex. The way these scenes play out on TV shows are a bit of an exaggeration, since there are clearly worse things to worry about, but it's true that it's not always easy to know how to talk to our children about "the birds and the bees." Parents have to find a way to answer their kid's questions while sticking to an age-appropriate discussion, but easier said than done, huh?
"First, don't panic!," advises Dr. Rebecca Bergen, a clinical psychologist based in Chicago. "It is normal and natural for your child to ask questions about sex. Remember sex is how we all got here and what keeps life going on Earth." As a therapist who has extensive experience working with children, she spoke to POPSUGAR about how parents should respond when their kids start asking about sex. Here are her tips.
1. Assess your child's reasons for asking.
Just because it is a natural discussion, it doesn't mean that a blanket answer will work for this conversation. "Parents should consider the child's age and unique developmental level — emotional, physical, and language comprehension. They should also consider what information their child has already been exposed to either from peers, media, or questions they've asked you before," Dr. Bergen explains.
"It is important to inquire about what has prompted the child's questions, not in a way that would cause the child to question if it is OK to ask but rather to explore and understand what has caused their curiosity so that the parents can take into account the reason for the question in preparing their answer," Dr. Bergen told POPSUGAR. Since a child might just be asking because of something they saw on TV or because they're curious, it's possible that their question doesn't necessitate a long and drawn-out discussion.
2. Be prepared to be honest.
Once parents have taken into consideration the child's emotional and physical readiness for a discussion about sex, as well as the reason behind the kid's questions, they need to be prepared to be honest. "Sex is built into our very biology," Dr. Bergen says. "We also have a responsibility, as parents, to play a role in the messages and values our children develop around sex and to help them learn how to set boundaries around their own sexuality to keep themselves safe and make choices that incorporate factual information."
By being open with children from a young age, you're setting them up to make more educated decisions in the future. "This framework will allow parents to talk about some of the reasons kids may want to wait to be sexually active and also some of the aspects to consider when making those choices, such as unwanted pregnancy."
3. Validate their concerns and questions.
"If your children say they feel embarrassed to ask or answer questions, validate how they are feeling," our expert says. Parents want to consider their words carefully, so as to not make a child feel uncomfortable or give more information than necessary. "It is also important to end the conversation with an invitation to talk about these topics whenever the child needs to or wants to talk. One of the best ways to impact the messages children receive about sex and sexuality is to make them feel like they can go to their parents and ask questions without judgment."
In any discussion about sex, parents should honor and respect their children's thoughts. "The important thing to remember is the child's thoughts and feelings are important and valid. They are little human beings trying to make sense of the world and the people they interact with. Parents have an important role in validating their children's internal world, helping them navigate and understand it to make the healthiest choices for their lives," Dr. Bergen told us.
4. Tailor your conversation to be age-appropriate.
When talking to young children, your discussion about sex doesn't need to be overly descriptive. "Describe that they were made from half of mommy's DNA and half of daddy's DNA and the way that the DNA is mixed together through a process called sex. You may also chose to tell your kids that sex is another word for 'making love,' and discuss sex as a way for two people to show their love to one another and in the context of a relationship," she advises.
5. Remember this discussion will have many benefits.
"Another aspect of discussing sex with children is to teach them about protecting themselves from sexual abuse. Creating a trusting, supportive, nonjudgmental relationship with your child and the topic of sex will increase the chances of them coming to you as the parent if they have been in a dangerous or abusive situation," Dr. Bergen explains.
While the topic of sex can seem overwhelming to discuss, especially with young children, Dr. Bergen warns against avoiding the topic. "If you are not the one talking to them about their experiences and helping to guide what they are learning and exposed to, then you will have less impact in what messages they receive, values they develop, and behaviors they practice as they get older," she began. "Teaching only abstinence has also not been shown to be effective. Parents should consider and explore a more open-minded approach to educating children on sex, their bodies, and sexual behaviors, teaching them about all the aspects to consider when making these decisions for themselves."