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Talking with children

Talking to your child/tamaiti about sex, sexuality and relationships may be challenging however it is important that we show by our actions that it is okay to talk about sex and sexuality.

What is the difference between sex and sexuality?

Sex is about the physical act of having sex.

Sexuality is about the whole person and involves relationships with other people, feelings, communication, intimacy, attitudes about your own body, and ideas about how men and women should behave.

Teaching your children/tamariki about sex is just a small part of sexuality.

Children learn by watching their parents/mātua, seeing how they relate to others, how they express loving and caring feelings and how they respect other people’s differences – including different values.

Why should I talk with my child about sex and sexuality?

Children learn from their friends and from the media, whether you want them to or not.

Talking to your child often is the best advice.

If you don’t talk to your child, they will get their information from other places and you won’t know the kind of messages or information they’re getting.

Silence is also a message as it implies there is something wrong with bodies and sexuality.

We can all feel embarrassed by personal questions but it is important that we show by our actions that it’s okay to talk about sex and sexuality.

When should I start talking about sex and sexuality with my child?

If you want your child to come to you for support when they’re a teenager you need to start talking to them and developing good communication when they’re little.

When families/whānau are confident talking about sex and relationships, young people/rangatahi will find it easier to:

  • resist peer pressure
  • express their beliefs and values
  • challenge bullying
  • understand negative messages about sex and relationships.

When do I start talking to them about sex and sexuality?

Start early and talk often is the best advice.

Start talking early before they experience any changes in the own bodies. This can help them feel less worried when they do have pubertal changes.

Children learn by stages – not ages.

What can I do to get ready to talk with my child?

Prepare yourself and talk with your partner, friends, family and whānau to build up your confidence.

Use everyday situations to talk about sex and relationships. It might be easier to have a conversation with them while you’re doing the dishes or driving the car.

Go to the library or ask at your children’s school or kindergarten for information that might be helpful.

Our online shop has free resources to help you navigate these conversations.

How do I know what to talk about at what age?

These Talk Tips can provide a guide for you as you start talking to them about sex and sexuality.

Birth to two years old

Young children are sensual and learn about themselves and the world through touch.

Boys have erections from birth and girls lubricate from birth.

By the time they’re one, most babies/pēpe will get pleasure from touching their genitals. If they’re told off for this they can start to feel that there’s something wrong with this part of their body.

This is a good time to start naming body parts, such as nose, elbow, penis, vulva. Using the technical names helps make children understand their body parts are normal, and it gives them a common language to use.

Three to four years old

Children will be aware of gender difference and may look under each other’s clothing – this is normal behaviour.

They may repeat swear words and enjoy “toilet” humour. They are not embarrassed to use words like penis or vulva unless their parents are.

Children will still find it pleasurable to touch their genitals. This may be a good time to start talking about public and private behaviour and public and private body parts. Simple messages about wanted and unwanted touching can be part of these conversations.

Use opportunities that occur to have conversations. For instance, if you see a pregnant woman you can bring up the issue of pregnancy and how a baby grows inside her.

Five to eight years old

Children start having strong friendships with people of the same sex. This is a good time to talk with them about friendship, how friendships work and being a good friend.  

They can also be intensely interested in talking about pregnancy and childbirth. This gives you an opportunity to build on things you’ve talked with them about previously.

For instance, if you’re unpacking the shopping and you’ve bought a box of tampons, you can talk about what they’re for.

A good strategy is to ask your children what they know and where they got their ideas from. This will help you build on what they know and correct any misinformation.

Answer their questions. Have a phrase for awkward moments, for instance, the queue at the supermarket. “That’s a good question. Let’s talk about it when we get home” and make sure you do.

Eight to fourteen years old

Puberty/pūhuruhurutanga is starting at increasingly younger ages; for some girls it can be as early as eight.

Boys need to be told about periods, changes to girls’ bodies and how their own bodies will develop. Girls need to be told about changes to boys’ bodies.

Older children may not want to admit they don’t know things. Ask them what they know and fill in the gaps.

This is also the age to be introducing or reinforcing your religious or moral views about sexual responsibility. Don’t be afraid to tell your child what you think and why. Try to avoid making harsh judgement. Just because they are asking questions does not mean they are having sex.

If you only tell them about the scary stuff such as pregnancy, infections and abuse, they may feel you’re out of touch and will be reluctant to raise the subject again.

If you talk openly with your young person about issues such as teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, virginity, abortion, and respect each other’s views, you are modelling good relationship skills.

This helps young people to develop their own attitudes and values which may be different from your own. 

Family Planning has clinics located throughout New Zealand. Use the clinic finder to find your nearest clinic.

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