Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Saurabh Sethi, MD, MPH
Reader Submitted Question:
I’m a 37-year-old nurse, and yesterday, I was diagnosed with herpes. I thought I had a pimple that just wouldn’t go away, but my practitioner started me on treatment yesterday. Long story short, I led a very active sex life when I was a teen. I don’t want my 12-year-old daughter to ever have to experience the feelings I’ve experienced in the last 24 hours. When is the right time to start talking to her, specifically about STDs and respecting herself? She’s such a good kid. I want her to know, but I want to do it when she can understand and wrap her head around it, and I can’t even do that myself yet.
At The STI Project, we believe it’s never too soon or too late to start talking to your children about their bodies, sexuality, sex, sexual health, safer sex, and STDs. In fact, I’m delighted to read you want to begin having productive conversations with your daughter in hopes of helping her should she ever find herself in a similar situation, or even better, that she might never have to deal with an infection at all.
Although your daughter is 12 now, our thoughts on ‘the birds and the bees’ conversation apply to anyone interested in starting a dialogue with their children about their bodies, sexuality, sex, sexual health, safer sex, and STDs, but we’ll frame our answer for your situation specifically as well.
When to Talk about STDs and Safer Sex
It’s never too soon (or too late) to open the lines of communication with your child about her body. Children are curious about their bodies from an early age, and that curiosity creates a natural opportunity to begin having conversations that establish an open, trusting relationship.
The conversations you have with your daughter will evolve as she does, and you may have already begun having these kinds of conversations with her without even knowing.
When she was 5 and asked, ‘What is birth?’ you responded, ‘It’s when a baby comes out of a mother’s body.’ When she was 8 asking the same question or for additional detail, your answer included, ‘A baby grows inside a mother’s uterus for nine months, and then it comes out through her vagina.’
If those weren’t questions she asked or if you didn’t know how to answer them when she did, don’t worry. The important part is that you begin talking about her sexual health now.
And part of being able to talk to your daughter about her sexual health and STDs, in particular, will require you to be as prepared as possible by being ready to answer her questions. That way, when she does come to you asking about the risks of oral sex, for example, you will be able to clearly explain to her transmission potential and ways she can mitigate those risks. We can help you with that preparation, and we’ll also recommend some additional resources to set you on the path to becoming a phenomenal sexual health resource for your daughter. Yey you!
Where to Talk about STDs and Safer Sex
Traditionally, we used to think having ‘the talk’ with children was something that happened all at once, but really, it’s a series of conversations that happen over time.
The conversations you have with her don’t have to be as formal as you might have initially assumed.
Start by talking about ‘the birds and the bees’ whenever it comes up – when you see sex talked about or acted out in the media, television, and movies. Ask your daughter what she thinks about what she just saw, if she has any questions, and if you have a strong opinion about it yourself, that’s an opportune time to share it with her matter-of-factly.
Places like the bathroom or the car also provide ample opportunities for casual conversation. When you’re getting ready in the morning or as you’re driving her to school, you’re in a more relaxed environment where you don’t necessarily have to stare at one another awkwardly across the kitchen table forcing a formal dialogue. In these routine locations, casual comments can be made, questions can be brought up, and then the conversation can be dropped, as if it were a relatively comfortable and typical part of everyday thoughts or concerns between the two of you – thoughts or concerns that she will begin to understand can be broached whenever a need arises.
How to Talk about STDs and Safer Sex
Talking about sexual health, safer sex, and STDs in this kind of casual way sets a precedent that it’s ok to talk to you about sex, in general, and that you will be a non-judgmental, supportive resource.
It’s also ok, whenever these brief or even extended conversations arise, to acknowledge how these things are hard to talk about or make you feel a little uneasy or uncomfortable too – maybe your mother didn’t talk about sex with you, so you don’t have practice, or maybe you’ve never really talked about this stuff out loud with anyone.
Laugh a little. Humor alleviates even the most pensive moments.
Admit to some things just sounding or feeling funny as they come out of your mouth; that’s totally ok – it will help establish that you aren’t perfect (no one is), you bring a unique perspective, and the conversations you have about these things don’t have to be ultra-serious all of the time.
You were once a cool person too (you still are, of course, but your secret’s safe with me), and now your daughter will think so as well!
What to Tell My Kids about STDs and Safer Sex
The trick to a successful dialogue that both empowers your daughter and imparts education is repetition – this holds especially true when trying to convey some of the more complex issues, like consent and risk.
In a 2008 study conducted by the medical journal, Pediatrics, they found the secret to teaching kids about sex is the same thing that good comedians use: repetition. Scientists discovered that children with parents who talked with them about sex were less likely to have unplanned pregnancies and fewer contracted STDs.
That said, you certainly don’t have to talk about this stuff every day, but if you keep bringing it up, the concepts start to stick. How often and how many times you bring a topic up will depend upon your daughter and the relationship you have with her; there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Gauge where you’re at and where you’d like to be, and that will help you determine how much more you should be bringing up these topics.
Helpful Resources for Talking about STDs and Safer Sex with Your Kids
- One resource we just love, love, love for teens and young 20s is the entire Scarleteen website.
- About That ‘Talk’ with Your Parents – an article from Scarleteen for teens about having the talk with their parents
- Our Bodies Ourselves – every woman should own a copy (we own 2!)
- Ruth Bell’s Changing Bodies, Changing Lives – a book for teens on sex and relationships
- For younger kids – Joanna Cole’s Asking about Sex and Growing Up
- A book by Logan Levkoff about How to Have the Talk
- Another one we really like by Deborah M. Roffman about How to Have the Talk
- Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster’s Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (but were afraid they’d ask)
- Michael J. Bassos’ The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality
What’s nice about a book or a website is that your daughter can do some of her own researching while also knowing you support her and are available for questions.
And, for you and your recent diagnosis, remember, you’re always welcome here. Be patient with yourself – it takes some time to wrap your head around a new diagnosis, and you’re bound to volley through a myriad of emotions.
The feelings you’re having and the process you’ll go through are all very ‘normal’ (I’m not a huge fan of that word, because it’s highly subjective), but while you’re working through it, we’re here to help!
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Did this help you talk to your child about safer sex and STDs? Do you have an additional suggestion about a resource we should include? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!