Thinking about sex is a natural part of puberty. Talking with your kids helps them navigate these new feelings in a healthy way, and lets them know that they can come to you with questions.

What should I keep in mind?

It’s important for you to share your personal values and beliefs about sex. As kids go through puberty, it’s normal for them to start having more sexual feelings and thoughts. By acknowledging this and talking to them about these feelings, you’re helping them feel more comfortable and able to make good decisions about waiting to have sex until they’re ready.

Talking with your kids really can make a difference in the choices they make as they get older. If you spend some time thinking about your personal values and what you’d want for your preteen when they’re older, it will be easier to send a clear message. If you’re clear about your hopes for your preteen, they’ll be more likely to adopt those hopes and feelings too.

It’s best to have many small conversations that come up naturally, instead of one big talk. You don’t have to carefully plan to say everything important all at once. Actually, it’s better if talking about sexuality is a lifelong conversation. Doing a little bit at a time helps keep your preteen from feeling overwhelmed or getting bored.

Everyday life has lots of natural opportunities for talking about sexuality — these are often called “teachable moments.” You can use movies, TV, advertisements, and social media as jumping off points to have conversations about sex, sexuality, body image, healthy relationships, and more. You can also talk about experiences you had when you were their age (like a crush or first kiss), to start conversations and learn about what’s going on with them.

It’s normal for these conversations to feel a little awkward at first, but your kids are listening, and they want to know what you value and expect from them. And the more you talk now, the easier it will be to discuss the more complicated stuff as your preteen gets older.

It’s not just about talking. Having a good relationship with your preteen and setting boundaries is important, too. Talking about your values and expectations is important. But so is having a close relationship with your preteen that’s based on respect for each other.

Research shows that young people are less likely to take risks when they feel they have a close relationship with a parent. Staying involved in their life, listening to them, and sharing your life and interests with them can help you build a closer relationship with your preteen.

Setting boundaries for your preteen can also help them avoid risky situations. Here are some things you can do:

  • Make sure your preteen isn’t spending a lot of time with other preteens without adult supervision.

  • Discourage your preteen from having friends who are much older than them.

  • Get to know your preteen’s friends and (if possible) their parents.

  • Ask your teen about where they’re going and where they’ve been.

How do I talk about sex with my preteen?

Before you talk, think about your values and what you want for your kids: when do you believe it’s okay for them to do sexual things, like kissing and touching? How much further into the future will you think it’s ok for them to think about having sex? What milestones will you want them to reach before having sex (be in a loving relationship, be prepared with birth control and condoms, be in a certain grade or out of school, etc.)? Knowing exactly where you stand helps you send clear messages during these conversations.

One of the ways you can encourage preteens to put off sex until they’re ready is by talking with them about their future goals and dreams, and what steps they plan on taking to achieve them. Then discuss how dealing with an unplanned pregnancy or STD might make those goals and dreams harder to achieve. You can even show them this quiz (or do it with them!) to help them think these things through.

The average age that teens have sex for the first time is 18. So while your preteen probably isn’t going to start having sex for many years, it’s important to talk with pre-teens about how to prevent pregnancy and STDs so they can make responsible choices when they do become sexually active in the future. Around this age, you can start giving them honest, more detailed information about STDs and safer sex, pregnancy and birth control, masturbation, and most other aspects of sexuality — and they should know of at least 1 adult that they trust who they can come to with questions. Talking about this stuff will also help them see why they’re not ready to think about having sex just yet.

How do I talk about masturbation with my preteen?

Masturbation is very normal and common among preteens. Most young children learn early on that touching their genitals feels good. As people go through puberty, masturbation becomes more intentional and attached to sexual feelings. This is all normal.

Thinking that masturbation is wrong or dirty can cause guilt, shame, and fear that can be emotionally unhealthy for people of all ages. So it’s important for your kids to know that masturbating is normal and harmless — as long as they do it in private. And you can let them know that it’s also perfectly fine to not masturbate if they don’t want to. It’s a personal choice, and either is normal.

This is a good age to start knocking before you go in your preteen’s room. If you do walk in on them masturbating, try to stay calm — you don’t want them to think they’ve done anything wrong. You can say “Sorry, I should have knocked,” and tell them later that you’ll be more careful about privacy in the future.

How do I talk about pornography with my preteen?

We all know that porn isn’t appropriate for preteens. It can be confusing or even upsetting to their still developing minds. Some pornography is violent and degrading, and can promote unhealthy ideas about sex, relationships, and gender. For all these reasons and more, it’s a good idea to use parental controls on TV, computers, tablets and phones. As much as possible, be aware of what your kid is seeing online and what sites they visit, and consider keeping your computer in a family area. These things can lower the chances that your preteen will come across porn where it’s easiest to find — online.

But the reality is most people see pornographic images or videos for the first time anywhere from age 8-11. Often it’s an accident (like if they’re Googling something harmless and stumble on adult sites or ads). Other times, older preteens might seek out porn because they hear about it from their friends or they’re curious about sex.

If you find out your preteen has seen porn, try not to freak out or get mad. Ask them how they came across it — was it an accident? On purpose? Did someone send it to them? Ask them what they think about what they saw, and be clear about your expectations and values here.

If your kid has questions about porn, you can answer in simple terms. You can talk about how porn is for adults only and isn’t meant for kids. As they get older, you can talk about how sex in porn doesn’t usually reflect real life — the people onscreen are acting, and it’s not generally an accurate depiction of how sex really happens. For example, porn shows lots of sexual activity, but none of the consequences of sex (like STDs and pregnancy) that people have to deal with in real life. They also often leave out consent, which is an essential part of real life sex. And most people’s bodies don’t look like the bodies you see in porn.

How do I talk about STDs and protection with my preteen?

Even though the vast majority of preteens aren’t sexually active, they’re old enough to learn how to protect themselves in the future. Teaching them about STDs and safer sex sets the expectation that they’ll make responsible choices when the time comes. It also shows that you care about them, and that they can come to you with any questions.

You can help your preteen stay healthy and even save their lives by giving them the real, honest facts about STDs and how to protect themselves. They should know that:

  • When people have vaginal, anal, or oral sex without a condom or dental dam, they’re at risk for STDs. Preteens don’t always think oral sex counts as “sex,” and they don’t know that they can catch an STD that way.

  • STDs don’t always have symptoms. Most people don’t notice any symptoms when they have an STD, so they don’t even know they have it. But they can still cause health problems, and can still be passed to other people.

  • Getting tested for STDs is a normal part of being sexually active. You can let them know that someday when they are sexually active, they should talk to their doctor or nurse about STD testing, on top of using condoms/dental dams.

Another step you can take to help your child avoid a very common (and possibly dangerous) STD later in life is to make sure they get the HPV vaccine — both girls and boys should get it at age 11-12. It’s safe and can help prevent cervical and other kinds of cancer in the future.