Gender and sexual identity: Five assumptions to avoid when talking to your child about sex

A young couple looking at each other behind a open book.
Image: AdobeStock.

Talking about sex with your children is inevitably going to be awkward. It can be even more challenging if you’re a cisgender parent with a transgender child, or a heterosexual parent with a child who is questioning their sexual identity. In these situations, you may wonder if everything you know about sex goes out the window.

Fortunately, it doesn’t.

The most vital conversations about sex and sexuality shouldn’t center on whether your child is gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, questioning, or certain. Instead, it’s essential — in addition to addressing the fundamental biology of sex, pregnancy, and STDs — to empower your child with an understanding of consent, bodily autonomy, and boundaries. That said, there are specific challenges that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning young people face when learning about sex and relationships. Because of this, it’s important to be mindful of making assumptions when talking to your child about sex. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Don’t assume sex ed is taught in school

It can be easy to rest on the assumption that comprehensive sexual education is taught in school and that teachers are equipped with a scientifically sound and inclusive curriculum. The reality, however, is that sex ed is not always available in schools, and what is offered often focuses on heterosexual, cisgender youth, despite the benefits to all students of medically accurate information that recognizes the range of sexual and gender identities.

2) Don’t assume it’s too early to talk about sex

Whenever I talk to parents about having “the talk” with their teenagers, I emphasize that there isn’t just one talk and that it’s important to start talking earlier than later; this means well before kids are teenagers.

The most effective way to address sex and relationships with your child is to do so at age-appropriate levels throughout their life.

What does age-appropriate mean? It means having conversations as early as they come up: as your child shows curiosity about their body or other people’s bodies. This includes letting them know they don’t owe anyone a hug or a kiss even if they’re asked for one, and, as they get older, it can mean talking about peer pressure and broken hearts. It may not feel like talking about sex, but it’s setting you up to talk about sex. The more you have these basic conversations, the easier it is to have more in-depth discussions about pregnancy, STDs, and unhealthy relationships.

3) Don’t ignore your own assumptions about sexuality and sex

Even unintended assumptions about gender identity and sexuality affect how you communicate and could alienate a young person who identifies as gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The more you avoid assumptions about who your teen may be interested in having sex with, the more you can enable them to make smart, healthy choices. Using non-gender-specific language allows you to effectively communicate that sex and physical intimacy can be enjoyable ways to connect to people but also come with responsibility.

4) Don’t assume you have to know everything

Parents of kids who identify as LGBTQ+ may be particularly worried that they’ll be asked a detailed, technical question about sex that they won’t be able to answer. In reality though, those aren’t the questions kids are most likely to ask. (Would YOU have asked your parents a technical question about sex when you were young?)

That said, if your child does ask you a specific question about sex, it’s okay if you admit you don’t know the answer. It’s empowering for kids to see that their parents don’t know everything. Together or on your own, you can reach out to your child’s pediatrician or adolescent medicine provider for an age-appropriate answer and resources.

5) Don’t assume your messaging has to change with your child’s identity

Empowering young people to make healthy choices about sex isn’t about how they identify or who they love; it’s about teaching them self-respect and honoring their own needs and experiences. It’s also about demonstrating boundaries and a positive self-image and making intentional, respectful decisions. Conversations about these skills transcend sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s completely normal for a child’s sexuality to evolve or change over time. Part of a young person’s job in developing physically and emotionally is figuring out what they like, what their partner likes, and learning to navigate intimacy with other people. Our job as adults is to make them feel safe and loved during this process.

Helpful Resources

Scarleteen
Inclusive and comprehensive sexuality and relationship education for teens and young adults.

Go Ask Alice
Sexual and relationship health information education from Columbia University.

siecus.org
Sex education policy organization that provides resources about state and federal laws and regulations.

Center for Sex Education
Training and educational resources for sex educators and professionals.

Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings and YOU
For ages 3-7.

Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up
For preteens, younger teens and those with cognitive or learning disabilities.

S.E.X.: The All-you-need-to-know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through your Teens and Twenties
For older teens and young adults.

Learn more about the programs and services Boston Children’s Hospital offers young adults and caregivers to help navigate sexual health and gender identity, including Gender Services, the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine, and the Division of Gynecology.

About the author: Liz Boskey, PhD, is a social worker with the Center for Gender Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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