As your child approaches puberty, you are going to have to shift gears from talking about sex in general to more specific briefings on his or her own sexuality. Whether you make this a specific discussion or include it as part of a more extensive explanation of what lies ahead during the adolescent years, you will want your child to be ready for the physical changes that are about to take place.

Girls need to know about breast development, new hair growth and the reproductive cycle. The first menstrual period should be viewed in a positive light, as a passage into adulthood rather than a burden or a "curse of women." Some parents honour the occasion by taking their daughter to dinner at a nice restaurant or presenting her with a special gift. This event is usually the final stage of pubertal development. If you and your daughter stay in communication about the changes she is experiencing, you can usually anticipate and discuss what she can do if her first period begins when she’s away from home.

Similarly, boys should be aware that changes are on the horizon, such as deepening of the voice, enlargement of the genitals and new hair growth. They should also know about the likelihood that they will have an unexpected emission of seminal fluid during the night (the "wet dream"), and that this is not a sign of disease or moral failure.

Parents will need to discuss with their child the increasing interest in the opposite sex. The boy or girl will also need to be prepared to deal with attention from the opposite sex if and when it occurs. This is an important time to review specific guidelines, and perhaps a little street wisdom, about relationships and physical contact. While reinforcing the importance of saving sex for marriage, what will you say about other kinds of affectionate touching?

Your preadolescent child will most likely wonder if you’re going overboard in broaching this subject. "Dad, I’m not going to jump into bed with people, okay? What’s the big deal?" But he or she must understand that we are all designed in such a way that physical contact, once started, naturally progresses to increasing intimacy. Indeed, sex is like a car that begins rolling down a hill. At first the hill is nearly fl at, but then it becomes progressively steeper. The farther you go, the harder it is to stop. That in itself isn’t bad or wrong but simply the way we’re made. Since the right time to have sex will be some years away, it will be important to make sure that the car doesn’t roll very far before the wedding night. This means that your child will want to have a clear idea what his or her boundaries are, and how to maintain them effectively, well before the first socialising with the opposite sex begins.

Discussing masturbation

At some point (probably more than once) during these years, you will need to deal with the subject of masturbation . As children approach adolescence, you will have to make a judgment call on what to say about the significance of self-stimulation after puberty arrives. It is extremely likely that masturbation leading to sexual climax will occur at some point, especially for a male. If he is racked with guilt about it and repeatedly vows never to let it happen again, he will probably expend a lot of energy feeling like a moral failure and worrying unnecessarily about his spiritual welfare.

But when masturbation becomes a routine and frequent habit, especially when accompanied by vivid sexual fantasies or, worse, the viewing of pornography, it can be damaging to sexual and emotional health. In essence, a young man may have hundreds of sexual experiences associated with unrealistic or overtly distorted imagery, reinforced with the extreme pleasure of sexual release. At the very least, when he marries, his real-life sexual partner may seem disappointing by comparison, and his physical and emotional bonding with her may be impaired. This problem will be more significant if there have been many actual sexual partners before the wedding night. At worst, he may come in contact with violent or degrading images and associate his own sexual release with them.

Your approach to this issue will need to be both tactful and realistic. A bottom line worth stressing is that masturbation should not play a major role in your child’s life, either as a source of relentless guilt or as a frequent and persistent habit that displaces healthy sexual relations in the future. If it happens once in a while, it happens. But it should not be pursued as a form of recreation, especially while viewing sexually provocative material, and it should never be allowed to occur with other people.

Which parent should talk to your child?

Who should deliver these messages to your growing child? In many families, everyone will feel more comfortable if mothers talk with daughters and fathers with sons. It may be more fruitful in the long run, however, if both parents participate in many of the discussions of sexuality, where mother and father can each offer specific perspectives, and one can pick up the thread if the other draws a blank in a particular area. This also solidifies the notion that sex is a matter for couples who are committed to one another and provides your child with two sources of appropriate information rather than one. In single-parent families in which the child is of the opposite sex from the parent, a trusted friend, relative or youth pastor may need to fill in some gaps in sensitive areas.

While it may be useful to have both parents involved in discussions of sexuality, it will usually not be wise to talk to more than one child at once. This is especially important when you are dealing with your child’s own sexuality rather than with less personal topics. A ten-year-old girl who is learning about very personal changes that will be taking place in her body should not have a wisecracking eight-year-old brother in the room. If necessary, take her to a place where you can ensure privacy before you bring up these subjects.

© 1999 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at

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