AAP Advising Pediatricians to Talk to Kids About Sexuality

Why doctors may be an important source of sexuality information for kids

pediatrician and parents and child talking and smiling
New recommendations say doctors should talk to kids, parents about sexuality. Skynesher/Getty Images

Pediatricians can play an important role in educating kids about sexuality, says a July, 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). And as any parent of a school-age child knows, kids have questions about everything from where babies come from to how and why boys' and girls' bodies are different.

But the fact is, many parents are not exactly sure how to address these questions, and many teachers are not prepared, or simply do not have the time, to handle sexual education at school.

 This is where pediatricians can fill in the gaps, says the AAP report, "Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents," which encourages pediatricians to "introduce early parental discussion with children and adolescents at home about sexuality, contraception, the Internet and social media use that is consistent with the family’s attitudes, values, beliefs and circumstances."

Why Educate Kids About Sex

There is clearly a need to educate kids about sex. According to the report, as many as one of three adolescent patients did not receive any information on sexuality from their pediatrician during doctor visits, and when the subject was discussed, the conversation only lasted less than 40 seconds. Research has also shown that when kids get sexuality education, it is associated with preventing and reducing the risks of outcomes such as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

"Kids are misinformed about contraception and where babies come from," says Cora Collette Breuner, MD, chairperson of the AAP Committee on Adolescence and lead author on the report.

Many kids are uncomfortable talking to parents and teachers about sex, she notes; at the same time, parents are also uncomfortable and don't know what to say, and teachers are often too busy teaching math and other required subjects to spend time on sexuality education.

What Parents Can Do to Educate Their Child About Sexuality

  • Don't wait till your child is a teen. One of the recommendations for pediatricians in the report suggests that doctors encourage parents to have early talks with their children about sexuality, contraception, Internet, and social media use. If you wait until your child is 17 to have a talk about sexuality, chances are he or she has gotten information from peers or other sources. "Do we want them to get information from the Internet?" says Dr. Breuner.
  • Keep talking. One of the most important things parents can do when talking to kids about sexuality—or anything else for that matter—is to keep the lines of communication open, check in with kids regularly, and let them feel like they can confide in you. Dr. Breuner suggests that parents "always ask, always be there, listen, and encourage more questions."
  • Get educated and comfortable about the topic. Often, parents are reluctant to talk to kids about sex because they don't know what to say or they feel uncomfortable discussing the subject with their children. Talk to your child's pediatrician or teachers about resources that may provide useful guidelines on how to talk to your child about sex. Research shows that parents who received training on this topic had better communication about sexuality with their kids than parents who did not receive training, and that parent-child conversations about sexuality education was associated with a delay in sexual initiation and contraceptive use in kids. For instance, a parent may feel embarrassed answering a child's question about self-touching (which is a very normal part of child development); learning what to say and how to answer questions about it may help ease the conversation if a child asks questions about it.
  • Tailor the talk by age. For younger children, keep it factual but don't go into too much detail. There's no need to discuss specifics about condom use when a 7-year-old asks where babies come from, but a 12-year-old should know about things like sexually-transmitted infections and the enormous risks and negative consequences of engaging in sexual behavior at a young age.
  • Let your child ask questions. Some children are naturally more curious about sex and gender than others. Let your child guide the conversation and try to answer all of her questions and encourage her to ask more. Try not to gloss over or omit things or lie—if you do, it's likely that your child will find the info elsewhere, from a less reliable or trustworthy source.
  • It's not just about sex. Many parents mistakenly believe that sex education is all about sex. In fact, sexual education is about more than when to have sex or the importance of waiting till marriage or what contraception is. Parents should talk to kids about many related topics such as healthy sexual development, the importance of relationships and affection, what is and isn't consensual relations, respect for yourself and your partner, intimacy, and body image.
  • Give your child and yourself a quiet space to talk. These are important conversations and they shouldn't be rushed or glossed over. "Make sure you don't talk while you're tired or rushed," says Dr. Breuner.

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