Why Parents and Caregivers Are Afraid To Talk About Puberty and Sex With Their Kids and Teens

by | Aug 1, 2023

Over the past 17 years of educating parents and their sons about sex and puberty, I’ve noticed something interesting yet unsurprising. When I ask caregivers to make a mental list of all of the topics they know they should discuss with their children and then rank them from most to least stressful, the one that almost always tops the list is…sex and reproduction.

When I ask these parents why talking about sex creates anxiety, they give reasons that you might expect: they are afraid of saying the wrong thing or explaining sex in a way that is confusing. They are scared of embarrassing their child (and themselves), which can lead to avoidance of future talks. They are anxious about the impact these talks will have on their child’s curiosities and, in turn, their behaviors (i.e., talking about sex will lead to sex). Caregivers might be uncomfortable about the topic of sex in general given their personal histories, family upbringing, and/or cultural taboos. In addition, parents may be unfamiliar with how to talk about sex given most parents’ reports that they themselves had little if any conversations with their own parents about the topic. In other words, talking about sex wasn’t modeled for them by their own caregivers growing up, so they lack the experience and knowhow.

Contrary to popular belief (and perhaps due to some parental anxious avoidance), explaining sex to a child or tween should happen earlier than you might think. In fact, experts agree that the earlier, the better. However, we also know that sex may be one of the most important and least discussed topics between parents and children. So, by first addressing parental worries about when to talk to kids about sex, we can pave the way for open and honest communication about fundamentally crucial, loving, and intimate aspects of healthy relationships.

So why are we afraid to talk about sex? This blog post will delve into four worries most parents and guardians express when it’s time to have the “BIG talk” with their children.

Worry #1: “I Don’t Know When To Start Talking About This.”

One common fear parents report is that they don’t know when it’s the right time to bring up the topic. Experts recommend introducing discussions and providing information about body parts, body autonomy, sex and reproduction, and healthy body boundaries earlier than you might think. And while there’s no set age at which to start, remember this: It’s never too early to start with providing age-appropriate information (again, sex talks should start earlier than most parents believe), it’s never too late to begin. Kids can start learning about their bodies, differences between biological males and females, and the very basics of how babies get made as early as 4-5 years old.

So, the first piece of advice for caregivers is to start sooner rather than later. Side note: don’t wait for your child to come to you to ask questions about sex. Why? Because when children have questions nowadays (regardless of the topic), the first place they tend to go is the Internet, which is the last place we want them venturing when it comes to learning about sex.

In addition, kids tend to gravitate toward their friends and ask them questions about sex before they go to their parents. Ask yourself this question: do you want your child going to you as the trusted person in their lives, their friends, or the Internet when it comes to talking and learning about sex? By starting the body/sex conversations early, you are then setting up a healthy dynamic between you and your child for future questions and conversations.

Worry #2: “Won’t Talking About Puberty And Sex Lead To More Curiosity And Then To Experimentation?”

In short, the research is clear on this: talking about puberty and sex does not lead to an increase in or hastening of sexual behavior. In fact, as long as caregivers are talking to their children over time about puberty and sex in ways that are medically-accurate, non-shaming, and, at worst, matter-of-fact (the more positive tone, the better), the results are encouraging and often reassuring the parents. Children and teens who have ongoing conversations with one or both caregivers about puberty and sex tend to delay the onset of sexual behavior, end up having fewer sexual partners during adolescence and young adulthood, and are much more likely to engage in safer and healthier sexual and relational behaviors with partners if and when they choose to become sexually active (e.g., using protection and birth control, asking for and receiving consent, etc.). Thus, these ongoing conversations have a protective rather than harmful effect on children and teens.

By first initiating age-appropriate conversations about the basics like reproductive anatomy, sex and reproduction, body boundaries and safety, and puberty and changing bodies, you can later move on to more mature and equally-important subjects like contraception, pregnancy and STI prevention, consent, and healthy relationships. And all the while, you can infuse these talks with your own personal values as a parent, equipping your children with the knowledge and tools necessary to make informed and healthy decisions down the road.

And, remember, curiosity is a healthy thing. It encourages the asking of questions and the seeking of knowledge, and if your child sees you as the best and most trustworthy source of their knowledge about puberty and sex and comes to you with questions, then that’s half the battle. Plus, your children and teens are going to develop curiosities about puberty and sex whether you bring it up or not, so you might as well be the one to broach the topic and create an environment of openness and learning. And once the ice is broken, encourage them to continue to be curious about puberty, bodies and changing bodies, sex and reproduction, and normalize these curiosities when they come to you. And be grateful they’re coming to you in the first place. It means they trust you.

Worry #3: “My Parents Rarely, If Ever, Talked To Me About This Stuff. I Don’t Know What To Say Or How To Say It.”

As mentioned, a large majority of parents report that they did not have ongoing talks with their parents about puberty and sex when they were growing up. Take a moment and think about your own upbringing. Did you talk with your parent(s) about sex? How often? How did those talks feel?

Given the general lack of experience/modeling that took place for current parents of school-aged children, it makes sense that they feel anxious about talking to their kids about sex. They lack the framework or structure for how to even start and continue the conversations. In my conversations on this topic with groups of parents of boys, they will quickly generate a list of concerns about how to talk to their son about puberty and sex. For instance, parents are afraid they might say the wrong thing to their child or say something in the “wrong” way. They worry that their child might sense their discomfort with the topic. They are also fearful that they might not know the answer to a question their child or teen asks and, therefore, be seen as a poor source of information.

The good news here is that there are plenty of helpful resources for parents to guide them through the “How’s” and the “What’s”. One of the goals of The BIG Talk Program for Boys is to make sure that parents are equipped with all of these resources (The BIG Talk for Boys in-person and remote seminars, vetted and recommended articles, books, websites, podcasts, Instagram feeds, etc.). This will help parents feel less alone in their experiences in educating their children and teens about puberty and sex. Stay tuned for lots of future posts about these great resources and about the “How’s” and “What’s” of talking to your children about puberty and sex.

Worry #4: “Doesn’t The School Teach My Child This Information? Shouldn’t I Just Leave It To Them?”

While it is true that some states require comprehensive sexual health education in various forms, only 20 states currently mandate sex education. So depending on where you live, schools may not have any involvement in your child’s or teen’s sexual health education. If that’s the case, then you become an even more important source of healthy and accurate information.

But even if you do reside in a state that mandates compressive sexual health education, these programs vary widely in scope (especially during COVID-19) and tend to focus on the facts without being able to instill the particular values of each individual or family. You are in the unique position of doing just that by taking what the school teaches and framing it in a way that promotes your own perspectives and values. Also, while schools and educators know the facts well and are able to teach them to your child, you know your child and are best suited to build upon what they learn in school and supplement in any ways that you see fit. Leaving sexual health education solely to the schools is a tempting way for parents to avoid their anxiety about talking about sex. Instead, parents can use the school’s curriculum as a timely springboard to ongoing conversations about what they are learning.

The Bottom Line: Despite Your Worries, You’re Not Alone.

Remember that if you are feeling anxious about starting or continuing conversations about puberty and sex, join the club. Nearly all caregivers feel this way. A good starting point for addressing these fears is to ask yourself why you might be feeling this way and then locate the source of that worry. By doing this, you can start to come up with a plan to manage the anxiety so you can be present for your child in the most productive ways possible.

Stay tuned for future blogs about concrete strategies for starting and continuing these conversations about how to talk to your son or daughter about puberty. The hope is that as you engage with your child on these topics, you and your child will find that it gets easier and easier and much more comfortable. You’ll get answers to questions about how to introduce the topic of puberty and sex to your son or daughter, and when you do, how to then go about talking about puberty and sex.

And don’t forget about The Remote BIG Talk for Boys event to be held on Saturday, October 14th, 2023 @ 9:00 am (PST). There’s also a free pre-event (Getting Ready For The Remote BIG Talk for Boys) to be held two weeks earlier on Saturday, September 30th, 2023 @ 9:00 am (PST). You can find information on content and registration for both events here: https://boysinstitute.com/the-big-talk-live-online-group/