Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Tips for Talking with Your Child about Sexuality

(For Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities)

Want to make your conversations about sexuality more productive? Then we suggest you take the following tips to heart:

1. It's never too late to start. Although it may be easier to talk with younger children, research has shown that older children listen to their parents. It is always beneficial, no matter what their age, to talk with your child about sexuality.

2. Choose the right time and place. Discussions go better in private and when everyone involved is in a relaxed, attentive mood. If your child asks a question at a bad time, tell them that you'll answer it later. And make sure you do – this is not a way to avoid answering questions. If your child figures out that you’re not going to answer their questions about sexuality, then they’ll get the answers from someone else.

3. You may have to initiate the conversation. Don’t consider yourself lucky if your child has no questions. Many children will never bring the subject up, but that doesn't mean that they don't have questions or concerns. Young people need information, and they often get a lot of wrong information. If you want your child to get accurate information and to hear your values, then speak up.

4. Be sure to listen more than you talk. We often talk “at” kids rather than talk with them. Listening provides the opportunity to have a conversation together. Listening also helps us hear what our children’s concerns and questions are and decreases the assumptions that we often make about our kids.

5. Forget the "big talk." Sexuality is a huge subject and you can't cover it all in one sitting. And besides, perceptions change as children get older, and the explanation that worked when your child was five will no longer work when your child is sixteen.

6. Look for everyday opportunities. The best way to start a discussion is to take advantage of "teachable moments," those everyday events that provide a perfect opening. If you know someone who is pregnant, talk with your child about it. If you're watching a television show or listening to music together, figure out if the contents might spark a conversation about sexuality. Avoid the direct, head-on approach – if you ask your child if they want to talk about sexuality, they'll probably say, "NO!"

Here’s an example of a teachable moment that way too many parents let slip away: You’re watching a TV show with your young child when a couple begins to kiss. Without saying a word, you either turn off the TV or you switch to another channel.

We’re not saying that you should let your child watch the kissing – that decision’s up to you. What we are saying is that you should tell your child why you didn’t want them to see the kissing. Otherwise, you may be creating all sorts of confusion in your child’s mind. They may think that kissing is bad, but then they may wonder why mommy and daddy like to kiss. By giving your reasons and asking your child for their opinion, you’re creating the potential for a great conversation. That’s the beauty of a teachable moment.

We do think that your older child should be allowed to watch such programs, but only if you’re willing to use them as teachable moments. Otherwise, your child will be receiving all sorts of messages about love and relationships that may or may not coincide with the messages you want them to receive.

By the way, your child is going to see people kissing – no matter how hard you try to prevent it. They may also see other expressions of romantic intimacy, such as hugging or hand-holding. If your child talks about seeing such a thing, or if you both witness one of these behaviors, then seize the teachable moment to make sure they get the message that such behaviors are okay, but only if they are between two consenting people. If you also think some or all of these behaviors should only be done in private, make that clear to your child.

7. Let your children "overhear" adult conversations. Your child may be too embarrassed to discuss sexuality, but they may not mind hearing two adults discussing it. Choose a topic based on the day's news or a television show and discuss it at the dinner table with your partner or another adult.

8. There's nothing wrong with being embarrassed, and there's nothing wrong with telling your child that you're embarrassed. Acknowledging your embarrassment and then proceeding with the conversation is much better than letting your embarrassment silence you. Make it clear that the embarrassment belongs to you and not to your child or the subject matter.

9. Be concrete. Use anatomically correct dolls, three-dimensional models, drawings, photographs, and videos.

10. Provide for practice in a safe setting. Some skills may be easy to break down into smaller steps, while others will present a greater challenge. For example, it may be fairly easy to teach your teen how to use a condom correctly, but it may be much harder teaching your teen how to ask a partner to use a condom and what to do if the partner refuses.

11. A book can be a great resource. Your child may not want to discuss every aspect of sexuality with you (and vice versa), so providing a good book or other resource can ensure they’re getting information. You can also look at the book together so you and your child are a team, confronting and reacting to what is being said in the book.

12. You don't need to know the answer to every question. If you don't know an answer, you and your child can hunt for it together. Make use of resources such as websites, libraries, doctors, nurses, etc.

13. If you're thrown by a question, you have the right to answer it later. Sometimes children pose questions that we'd like to answer, but we may be so taken aback that we don't know quite how to respond. It's perfectly okay to say, "I'd like to answer that question, but first I need to think about what I want to say." Just make sure you answer the question later.

14. You have the right to pass on personal questions. Children need to know your privacy standards so that they can develop standards of their own.

15. Simplify your responses. When answering children's questions, less is better than more. Begin with the simplest explanation and move to a more complicated one if your child continues to be interested or ask questions. You can't tell your child "too much" – what they don't understand will just go over their heads.

16. Practice pays off. Each time you respond in a way that helps your child learn concretely and positively, it will get easier. Try imagining the hardest question your child could throw your way and practice answering it.

17. Be aware of your body language. Children notice when our words and body language are not giving consistent messages.

18. Be patient. Expect your child to ask the same questions again and again. That's the way they learn.

19. Respect the importance of teenage relationships. Friendships and romantic relationships are a vital part of a teenager’s life – judgment and criticism can shut down a conversation.

Here’s an example: You may recognize that your teen is experiencing a “puppy love” kind of romance that won’t last long, but your teen may think it’s the real thing. Don’t say, “Oh, don’t worry about it – it’s just “puppy love.” It tells your teen that they know nothing about their own feelings, and it instantly ends what could have been a great conversation.

20. Don't forget your sense of humor. In fact, use it to your advantage. Tell your child about the misconceptions you had about sex when you were their age. They'll feel much better about themselves!

21. Ask your child for their opinion. Their self-respect begins with the consideration they receive from others.

22. Share your values. Your child needs to know what your values are about body image, friendships, bullying, dating, relationships, respect for others, and respect for oneself. Your values will be the foundation they rely on and, as they get older, the barometer for assessing the values they want to hold.

23. Teach your child that there is more to sexuality than having sex. Tell them about affection, trust, respect, responsibility, and intimacy, and practice the behaviors you would like them to adopt. Remember, giving information is not giving permission – it is ignorance that leads to bad decisions.


Compiled and adapted by Sexuality Resource Center for Parents.

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