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5 tips for talking to your kids about sex

When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, it’s natural to feel a little awkward and hesitant.

Traditionally, most men tend to flee the room when it's time for "the talk," leaving moms to handle the brunt of the questions. However, a new study from New York University suggests that this might not be the best move for dads to make.

The study, which surveyed more than 200 women from the ages of 19 to 21, found that many young women wish that their fathers had played a more instructive and helpful role when it comes to big questions about sexuality. Most women reported that their fathers played no role in these discussions, and they lamented the lack of a male point of view in these formative conversations.

However awkward this conversation might be, it's crucial not to ignore these important issues. The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate of all developed nations, and one in four teenage girls has an STD.

Thankfully, there is one easy way to help protect your children from the dangers of risky sex, and that is to talk to them openly and honestly about these matters. Parents can't rely solely on the school system to educate their children, and, as this study shows, fathers cannot rely solely on mothers to provide their kids with information on these issues.

Here are some things to keep in mind when talking to your kids about sex:

Always use the correct terms when talking about their bodies. It’s tempting to use cutesy euphemisms when referring to your child’s genitals. However, when we teach kids the incorrect terms for their body parts, they learn to feel ashamed of their anatomy and they get the message that these areas are dirty or bad. Not to mention, if anyone ever tries to victimize them, their lack of vocabulary might hamper them from being able to tell a trusted adult. Use words like “penis” or “vagina” from day one. After all, you call an ‘elbow’ an ‘elbow,’ don’t you?  At the end of the day, our genitalia isn’t something we need to excuse or be ashamed of, and that’s certainly not a message we want to give to young children.

Have sex-positive conversations with your children. Again, it’s tempting to paint sexuality as negative when talking to your kids. After all, you don’t want your kids exploring their sexual side before they are emotionally and physically mature enough. However, these early messages will stay in their minds forever and even color the way they view sexuality as adults decades later. So, make your conversations about sex positive and empowering, while still cautionary and honest. For example, “Sex is wonderful and pleasurable, but it is best shared between people who love one another. It comes with many potential risks, so you want to be sure and wait until you can trust your partner 100 percent.”

Be aware of the double-standard. Dads often feel an onus to protect or safeguard their daughter’s sexuality. Society encourages them and even expects them to feel this way. From the moment the words “It’s a girl!” are announced, people start ribbing dad about how he better get his shotgun ready and how he’s probably dreading the day she starts dating. However, this type of messaging is harmful to both dads and daughters. Instead of teaching your daughter that she has to hide her crushes from you or that she should be ashamed of her sexuality, have frank, honest conversations with her about dating and how boys and girls can think differently when it comes to sex. Empower her with information and support, rather than scaring her into thinking that her boyfriends shouldn’t come to the house or that her desire to fall in love and have sex is wrong. All of these urges are okay (and perfectly natural), but it’s also important that you and your partner set guidelines around her behavior and encourage her to wait until she is truly ready before she embarks on adult behavior.

Encourage safer sex. It’s crucial that you make sure your kids have all the information they need before they have sex, as well as all the protection and resources possible. Talk to them about STDs and about how no sex is ever without risk. Even oral sex comes with the risk of STDs and using a condom is never foolproof when it comes to preventing disease and unwanted pregnancy. By the same token, condoms can greatly reduce the risk of these occurrences, so it might be a good idea to give your teen or even college-bound child some condoms and make sure they know how to use them. Condoms have undergone some amazing improvements in the last few years, and they are very user-friendly now and no longer detract from the pleasurable sensations of sex. They also come in a great variety, whether you want extra protection (such as Durex Extra Safe) or extra stimulation or even longer lasting power. It might sound odd, but if you help your teens to understand that condoms can actually be fun, they will be more likely to use one and to insist that their partner use one.

Last but not least, remember that the sex talk isn’t a one-time conversation. It should be a discussion that you have throughout your child’s life. At each age, they will absorb information differently and have different questions, so it’s important to keep the doors open and continually renew this topic. They might act embarrassed or distant, but trust me, they are listening.

Laura Berman, PhD, is a world renowned sex and relationship educator and therapist; popular TV, radio and Internet host; New York Times best-selling author; and assistant clinical professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Dr. Berman is a New York Times best-selling author of many books on sexual health and pleasure, a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, and host of the radio program “Uncovered with Dr. Laura Berman.”