If we’re being honest, parents are usually the last people teens want to talk to about sex. And if we’re being really honest, parents probably don’t enjoy talking to teens about sex all that much either. It can be hard, uncomfortable and a little nerve-wracking for both sides.

But during a time when information—good, bad and not always true—is literally at the fingertips of anyone with a phone, initiating the conversation about sex and consent with your child is even more invaluable.

When to talk to your kids about sex

Age-appropriate sex education for children is knowing when information is relevant to them, not assuming they’re “too young” to be told anything at all.

It can start in toddlerhood when you begin referring to body parts. Using proper terminology—penis, vulva, vagina—provides a baseline education while permitting them to talk about their bodies in an open, unashamed way. It also sets you up to have a relationship with your child where you can talk about these things as they grow older.

As they reach puberty, you’ll approach conversations about physical changes with the goal of normalizing bodies and genitals and how they work to squash any shame before it creeps up.

Consent should always be a part of these conversations as well. For example, by asking our children if they want to hug someone rather than demanding they do, we teach them that they have a right to decide who touches them and when. This should start young so they carry that body autonomy into adolescence and adulthood.

If you already have a teen on your hands, and you haven’t yet broached the topic of bodies or sex, it’s never too late to initiate teenage sexuality education. You will just likely need to be the one to bring it up, to show them you’re willing to have an honest, non-judgemental conversation. Opening that door is all the opening you need.

The best way to approach talking with your child about sex

The most important thing to remember when speaking with your child or teen about sex is to remember they are listening, even if they pretend they aren’t. You may feel like you’re talking into thin air. But they are curious about what you have to say. You may feel like it’s a one-way conversation. But they hear you.

How to discuss sex with teens

  • Never make assumptions. However a teen identifies, much of the conversation about sex will be the same, but it should be more in-depth. This is especially true if teens feel any discomfort in the body or the genitals they were born with. It’s ok to admit you don’t have the answers yet, as long as you assure them you want to find them together. And remember, if they are sexually active with someone who has the same genitals as their own, it may limit the risk of pregnancy, but it does not rule out STIs.
  • Be the safe space. Parents worry that having a conversation about sex is a parental endorsement to have it, so they avoid it or gloss over the important parts. Just because teens have questions about sex does not mean they are going to start having sex earlier. Actually, if teens understand the bigger picture of sex, they may decide to hold off—though convincing them to should not be the goal of the conversation.
  • Answer questions honestly. Teens are great lie detectors and can tell when parents are purposely withholding information. Because the topic of sex is built on trust, don’t break it by evading questions or fudging the truth. Respond to your child’s curiosity or questions about sex and reproduction. If you’re asked something you don’t know—do some research. If you’re asked something you’re embarrassed to answer—vulnerably say so, and then answer it anyway. This is your chance to demonstrate that hard conversations are worth having.

Topics parents should discuss with their teens

Talking about sex is not a one-and-done conversation. The goal is to create a relationship with your child over their lifetime to continue talking about it. Breaking up the conversation based on their age helps to not overwhelm your child (or yourself).

  • How their bodies work. Starting during puberty, every child should be taught about the normal changes bodies go through, and what those changes mean. Regardless of gender or body parts, every child should know what a period is and why the body has one, and what erections are and why they happen.
  • Spectrum of sex. As kids become teenagers, it’s important they understand everything that can happen between kissing and penetrative sex. From touch to oral to masturbation, they will likely explore it all. It’s good they know what each is, along with STI risks so they can be safe.
  • Consent. Teaching teens about consent, verbal and nonverbal, is essential—as is helping them understand their right to withdraw consent at any time. Too often, there is a gray area where people recount sexual experiences they never consented to, but didn’t not consent to either. Teaching them how to do this, and what constitutes a healthy relationship, benefits them long-term.
  • Contraception. Talking to teenagers about contraception is a baseline education that should happen early. With many effective options, from hormonal birth control to the teen-recommended IUD, birth control is vital to teenage pregnancy prevention and STI prevention. In the state of Oregon, a child of ANY age can be seen for contraception or STD testing without their parent’s permission; teens over the age of 15 can consent to their own medical care without parental permission.
  • Pleasure. Pleasure is also a super important topic for all genders and sexualities to understand because it goes hand-in-hand with good, healthy relationships. Pain and discomfort during sexual activity are too often normalized, especially for those with vaginas. So, it’s important to teach teens that sexual activity should be enjoyable for all consenting participants.
  • Social Media and misinformation. Every answer, right or wrong, to teens’ sex questions is at their fingertips. Helping them learn to be judicious about what’s correct can protect them from potentially harmful advice. For example, social media may be telling them their genitals should taste like dessert when in reality, genitals are supposed to taste and smell like bodies (say nope to soap!).
  • HPV. We hope this one is easy. Get your child the HPV vaccine! Everyone, regardless of sex, is eligible for the vaccine from age nine to 26. The HPV vaccine helps to protect all people from contracting and spreading the HPV virus, and it’s 93 to 100% effective at preventing serious cervical infections or cancers in those who are vaccinated before becoming sexually active.

When is it time to start seeing a gynecologist?

If you’re not sure how to answer a question, or you need clinical services for your teen (like getting them access to birth control, the HPV vaccine or STI testing) make them an appointment to see a gynecologist or sexual health provider, or teach them how to make their own. This is especially important if you have any inkling that your teen is, or is thinking about becoming, sexually active.

Regardless of their sexual activity, they won’t need a Pap smear until age 21, and prioritizing teenage sexual health establishes a lifelong relationship for this and other important reproductive health care.

Another marker to know if it’s time to see a provider is if your child is experiencing any challenges with menstrual cycles, abnormal bleeding or other painful bodily changes. My priority, like all WHA providers, is to make sure patients feel safe and supported through whatever they experience—and this is especially true with teens.

While talking to your kids about sex is among the hardest parenting work to do, it’s also so important. If they refuse to engage in the conversation even with these tips, you can still support them by leaving evidence-based resources lying around the house for them to find. Or, set up an inconspicuous area in the house where they can grab materials—even condoms—without feeling watched or judged.

Healthy sex education for teenagers meets their curiosity, even if they don’t outwardly express it. When you do, you help them make healthy decisions about sex for the rest of their lives.

Helpful resources, from younger to older kids:

  • What Makes a Baby, Sex is a Funny Word, and You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things, by Cory Silverberg
  • S.E.X., second edition: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties by Heather Corinna
  • Let’s Talk About Down There by Jennifer Lincoln, MD (specific to kids with vaginas and probably most appropriate for older teens)
  • The Vagina Bible by Jen Gunter, MD (same)
  • Consent: The New Rules of Sex Education: Every Teen’s Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships by Jennifer Lang, MD