Every parent questions when and how to talk with their children about sex and it is an important question as parents play a significant role in their children’s sexual beliefs and activities. Your child or teen might not seem like they are listening but the reality is that they are. It’s been shown that teenagers who have had good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to: delay sexual activity; use some form of contraception and; have fewer sexual partners. So you know you need to do it but how do you do it.

First and foremost, manage your own anxiety. If you feel uncomfortable talking with your child or teen about sex, so will they. This anxiety will shut down communication and they will be less likely to bring questions to you. So talk with friends, role play, whatever it takes to get comfortable but get comfortable. And by being comfortable, you are being a positive role model for your child or teen that sex is an okay topic of conversation.

Second, reframe how you view this discussion. It’s not a one-time talk but rather a life-long conversation. There is way too much to cover including male and female bodies, human development, puberty, reproduction, types of sexual behaviors, values related to sex, healthy versus unhealthy relationships, peer pressure, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. There is no way to cover it all in one talk.

Third, recognizing this is a life-long conversation, start early. Talking about sex begins with labeling body parts. What other body part do we consistently use a nickname for besides our sexual parts. For a young child, we help them identify and label their nose their nose, their ears their ears, their bellybutton their bellybutton. But what about their penis or vagina. I have a colleague whose daughter, when she was five, used to run around the house naked, as all young children love to do, yelling “mom, look at my vagina.” Yep, her mother was a mental health professional and it gave us a good laugh. But, when we don’t label anatomical parts correctly, we begin the process of creating shame and embarrassment from a young age regarding those parts.

Fourth, make talking about sex natural. Again, it’s not a one-time talk where you sit your teen down and say we need to talk. Take a look at your child or teen’s life for conversation starters. Are they in health class, ask them what they are learning. Have a family member or family friend who is pregnant, ask them what they know about pregnancy. Has a celebrity that your teen adores been caught cheating or been in a physical altercation, that’s a perfect conversation starter to discuss values, beliefs and healthy relationships.

Finally, ask open-ended questions and don’t make assumptions, particularly regarding sexuality. Asking questions provides you with valuable insight regarding your child, allows you to correct misperceptions and prevents you from lecturing. I once read a story about a child who asked their mother where babies come from and their mother went into a long and technically appropriate talk about male and female body parts, sperm and egg, etc. And when she was done, her child stated, no, do babies come from the blue or the gray hospital. Quite funny, yes. But the point is, you have no idea what your child is asking or what they know unless you ask more questions.

You can talk with your children and teens about sex, in all it’s various aspects, you only need to manage your own anxiety, recognize the real-life opportunities and start the discussion.