How to Talk to Kids About Sex: New Study Provides Clues

Explaining sex to children is an encounter that can trigger anxiety in parents. Fortunately, the topic not only drives sitcom plots, but research as well. In a new study, researchers looked at the effectiveness of a number of methods used to teach parents to communicate with their children about sex.

The researchers found that parents who participated in certain classes designed to teach them to communicate more effectively with their children about sexual issues saw improved communication with their kids. These parents talked to their kids about sex more often, had better conversations and were more comfortable than parents who didn't participate.

"It appears the [classes] are effective at improving parent's ability to communicate, specifically things like frequency of communication and comfort for communicating," said study researcher Dr. Aletha Akers, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The study is published online today (Feb. 14) in the journal Pediatrics.

The second phase of the study, in which the researchers will see how these benefits for parents translate to their children , will bring more information, Akers said.

Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University Mansfield, who has done extensive research in the area, called this study, "a first attempt to make sense of a messy area of research."

"Training programs for parents on how to talk to their kids about sex are effective," Fisher said. However, such programs are fairly time- and labor-intensive, so it may be that participating parents are more motivated than others.

"More typical parents, maybe it needs to be made a bit easier for them," Fisher said.

While this line of research remains to be completed, experts gave some dos and don'ts for parents when telling their children about the facts of life. Here are their tips:

Do spread out conversations.

"A good rule is to start early and talk often," Akers said. "Parents may think of talking about sex as the big talk, but that's not really the way to approach it with kids."

Fisher said that young children may be taught that a baby requires a mother and a father and will grow inside its mother. Parents could perhaps discuss that a seed from the father is involved. Elaboration can come later, but it's important that a child perceives his parents as being approachable.

"If they have regular and open and nonjudgmental conversations at various ages, when kids are adolescents and have some serious questions, they're going to be much more likely to ask the parent," Fisher said.

Do use teachable moments. Both Fisher and Akers said that life situations can play a role in teaching children about sexuality, whether it be two characters who are dating on a TV show the family watches, or the pregnancy of a pet in the neighborhood.

Do learn. Parents should welcome disclosures from their children, the study showed. In addition to letting the child know that the parent is someone who can be trusted, this allows parents to know what the child knows about sex, and correct them or fill in any gaps.

Do use anatomically correct terms.

"Use proper vocabulary for body parts, rather than come up with euphemistic terms," Fisher said. "There's no other part of the body that people are embarrassed to talk about or use the proper term for."

Because slang terms are not universal, they may present a communication barrier. Also, Fisher said, "It gives a message that there is something about this part of the body that is shameful or bad or different from every other body part. Many little children think that 'penis' is a bad word."

Don't lie.

"Don't make up some fantastical tale about where babies come from," Fisher said, because the children will figure out the truth and wonder why parents didn't discuss it.

Don't lecture. Parents should engage the child in conversation, rather than lecture.

"Why do you think that happened?" and "If you were in that situation, what choices do you think you'd have?" Akers said, are questions parents might ask to engage their children.

"Parents doing less talking and adolescents doing more talking is actually effective," Fisher said. Children don't tend to get the message if they are not engaged by their parents.

That can work in the parents' favor, however, if they are worried about giving the child information at too young an age.

"Sometimes parents will give way too much information to kids, and the worst consequence of doing that is simply boring the child," Fisher said. "If they're not ready to hear it, they're probably not going to process it well."

Parents should, however, resist the urge to problem-solve.

"Your automatic inclination might be to say, 'What you should do is...,'" Akers said. Instead, a parent should help the child come to their own solution.

Don't assume.

When a child asks about sex, a parent's inclination may be to tell them not to do it without learning the child's intentions. However, this may simply annoy the child, and not have any benefit.

"Telling an adolescent not to have sex is not likely to be an effective approach," Fisher said. She added, "Parents tend not to be very good at knowing whether their own adolescent kids have engaged in any sexual activity or not."

Don't judge.

It's important for parents to communicate their values to their children . But at the same time, the children may not share them, and simply assuming they do can shut down discussion.

"They can share their own values without condemning people who don't share their values," Fisher said.

In any case, Fisher said, parents may want to temper their expectations about communicating with their children about sex.

"Parent-child communication about sex is important, but often its effects are overstated," she said. "Talking to one's teenagers about sex is not necessarily going to discourage those teenagers from having sex, but it does make it more likely that if those teenagers end up having sex, they will do so in a more responsible way."

Pass it on: Parents who frequently engage their kids in honest, open conversations about sex have an easier time communicating than those who don't.

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Joe Brownstein
Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.