How to Talk To Your Kids About Sex
with Kristin Hodson, LCSW
Listen and see full show notes at:
Rachel Nielson: Today is the first in a series of episodes that I’m calling, “You Are Your Child’s Most Important Teacher.” I purposely planned this series for September and back to school season because while I love and respect teachers, I was one for a number of years before my children were born. I want to remind all of us that with the most important topics, we need to be proactive about teaching our kids about it instead of waiting for professional educators to do it. We’re starting with the first topic that probably comes to mind for many of you. This is Episode 99: How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex.
Rachel Nielson: I vividly remember the week that my little boy discovered his penis. He had just turned 2 and every time he was in the bathtub that week, he would touch it, and ask me about it, and play with it. This was disturbing to me. Why was this body part so interesting for him, what in the heck should I say to him about it, should I tell him to stop touching it, or would that just shame him and create a bigger problem. And then the crazy paranoia started; who had he been with lately and had someone touched him and is that why he was touching himself? Fortunately, I have a very wise mother-in-law and a very wise pediatrician, who brought me back to reality. When I asked my mother-in-law about it, I remember her saying, “That is completely normal. Just tell him matter of factly, ’That is your penis. That is what you use to go to the bathroom with.’ Don’t make a big deal of it or worry about it.” My pediatrician confirmed this advice while also adding, “to him it’s just like any other body part. It’s like he discovered his elbow or his belly button. And hey wouldn’t you think it was cool if you discovered a body part that hung off your body and sometimes got harder?
Fortunately, a lot has changed in the 6 years since my first nervous attempts at talking to my son about his body. I found that the more I just answer his questions matter of factly, the easier it gets. And I’m now 100% comfortable talking to my kids about their bodies and about sex. I honestly think it’s one of the things I do best as a mom. And I really do want all of you out there to feel the same ease and confidence while discussing these topics with your families, which is why I asked Kristin Hodson, a certified sex therapist and mother of three, to come on the show today.
Kristin is a true expert in this field as she frequently teaches workshops to parents on this topic, writes for publications like Women’s Day Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Deseret News, and counsels individuals and couples about their sexuality in her private practice. I’m so excited for her to teach us how to become the sex experts of our homes. So Kristin welcome to 3 in 30 Podcast.
Kristin Hodson: Thank you. I am so excited. It’s fun to be a guest but I’ve also been a big fan. So I’m having a dual experience of being thrilled to be here.
Rachel Nielson: Well, thank you so much and I just so admire the work that you do and the way that you make it so comfortable, actionable, and normalized for parents. Like I said in the intro, it’s crazy to me how freaked out I was when I realized that I was going to have to start addressing these topics with my son. But because it does get so much easier with time, I’m hoping with this conversation parents will have some tools and scripts to use so that they can get more comfortable with these topics with their children.
Kristin Hodson: I think you are so relatable to so many parents out there because most of us didn’t grow up in homes where talking about sexuality was modeled and so we kind of navigated this element of our own lives and then after growing up and realizing that now we are parents and we have to teach our children this and we don’t really have this skill set both in our home and formally. Most of us didn’t get this information in school either. I think there could be a belief that we should know how to do this and there was this magical download that we missed out on. We didn’t. Everyone is normal for feeling uncomfortable and my goal is to empower parents to be the sex expert of their home and to see this as a development of skill. Just like other skills in their life. It’s not something you either have or you don’t. Kind of what you talked about in your intro. You felt uncomfortable and you continued and stuck with it. You got some skills. You got some support from the people around you. And you’ve grown in your comfort and I would bet your skill set has increased as well.
Rachel Nielson: Oh yeah! , I feel empowered as a mother when I talk to them about these things. It sounds weird to say that. It’s like one of my favorite things to talk to them about. It’s not just sex specifically, although we have talked about that. It’s about life, values, consent and being a good human! It feels so good to talk to them about this real stuff and to feel like I know how to do it. Why don’t we start with your first takeaway so other parents can feel empowered as well?
Kristin Hodson: So my very first takeaway, and you said it perfectly, is expanding our definition from sex to sexual health because far too often like when I talk to so many parents they remember having “the talk.” They were either taken out to an awkward lunch, maybe they got a post maturation program, like on the fly we slipped in talking about what sex was. Some people got their sex talk like right before they were getting married. But we think of having the talk with our kids like the big introduction to how babies are made so often times people are doing this around age 8, that’s the most common age I’m hearing which developmentally that is a common time to talk about intercourse. But we are missing out on 8 years of everyday conversations that we can be having with our kids from birth and a lot of parents are like “what can you possibly be talking to your kids about starting at birth?”
And it’s sexual health. So when we think about sexual health and not just sex which is intercourse, the way that most people think about it. We’re teaching our kids values, health and hygiene, we’re teaching them about healthy relationships, and consent, and anatomy, and boundaries, and communication, and puberty, and reproduction, and all of these things are sexual health. And we need to take the opportunity to have a thousand one minute conversations across their lifespan. Because this is an important piece and this statistic is always mind blowing. I’m not a mathematician, I’m a therapist; however, I can do some basic math and that kids starting in kindergarten up thru twelfth grade are getting on average around 1,000 hours a year and it’s a lot of time that they’re getting information for reading and math. They’re starting with letters and then they’re putting those letters together to form words, and they can develop in that skill set and get nuance. It’s embedded into their soul. When it comes to sexual health information kids between kindergarten and twelfth grade are getting 17.2 hours of education.
Rachel Nielson: Total?
Kristin Hodson: That’s about an hour a year. So probably not going to sink in. It’s going to be very hard for it to be embedded into their soul and their being and their makeup when they are getting such limited information. So when we think about sexual health, we can start to plant these amazing building blocks just like we do with reading and math. And build on concepts and as they grow and their circumstances become more challenging and their brains develop, we can add more nuance and complexity because we’ve given them this rich foundation of sexual health conversations and information from the moment they are born.
Rachel Nielson: I know as parents hear this, they’re thinking, yes, I want to do that. How do they come? How do you become aware of those moments that are teachable moments or that are an opportunity to take a simple questions and teach them something a little more about their body or about the world? How do you find those?
Kristin Hodson: So they’re two types of conversation that I have parents prepare for. One is going to be ‘the responsive’. I, too, have the penis story with my son. He was enthusiastic from the bathtub and he was like, “Mom, come and look at my penis, come and look at what it’s done. It’s grown!’ I went in there and said “That is amazing. And you know what’s cool about your penis, it will grow and it will shrink.” And that was it, and he was like “cool”, basically, because he was little. I mean they can get erections from birth. They get them in utero. That’s a responsive conversation where I am responding to a situation that has presented. It could be a situation. It could be a question; it could be something you’re hearing on the radio together. And you are responding.
99% of what our kids need in those moments is to know that we are there to answer their question and we are not shutting them down. We don’t have to know all the information, if we are just willing to answer their question even if we don’t know the answer or we are uncomfortable. In responsive conversations we can simply say, “You know what, that is a great question, give me a minute to gather some information and we’ll talk, “or “I’m so glad you talked to me about this.” Or “Yes, that’s your penis.”
There’s a lot of ways that we can respond positively that tells them we are safe and approachable when it comes to sexual health, their bodies, and anatomy. That’s what they need to know. The content or the accuracy is secondary to them being able to feel safe with you in their relationship about their development around sex.
Rachel Nielson: One thing that I love that you often teach is to make sure that they know you are happy that they asked. In that example with my son, I was so nervous about it and didn’t know how to respond that it was clear to me that he was picking up on my nervousness about it. Then I saw him kind of being secretive about wanting to touch it in the bathtub and the last thing I want is for there to be shame and secrets. That’s when I reached out to a few people to ask what I should do. I think just having a more open attitude of, “I’m grateful that you asked this question even though I don’t know this answer,” is super important.
Kristin Hodson: The next type of conversation are the proactive conversations where we are leading the conversation. We all are going to have that child that is super curious, comes to us for everything, asks all the questions. Then we’re going to have that child that isn’t going to ever come to you and doesn’t want to talk to you. It’s just their makeup, it’s not indicative of the lack of connection or safety they feel with you. That’s just them.
Some parents will want to rely on their child to lead those conversations or to be expressive about the questions they have or what’s going on with their body. But we really need to be proactive in leading conversations by understanding what’s developmentally normal and knowing what’s happening at 0-3 years old, 3-7 years old, 8-12 years old. I just did a series on what you need to be talking about to your kids before they start junior high because there is a different level of exposure they have in a junior high setting. Those are the proactive conversations.
You reached out to a pediatrician to understand if this is normal and to have that pediatrician mirror back that it is normal and age appropriate for that age group. If we know what’s developmentally normal we can start to prepare. You might think ‘we are having a lot of conversations about anatomy but I really need to bolster up and have some conversations about consent because that’s not coming up naturally, so I need to take the lead.’ We need to be prepared with these two types of conversations--the responsive, which are taking advantage of the natural opportunities that present, and the proactive, which puts us in the front seat of being the teacher in our children’s lives around sexual health. I cannot emphasize that enough.
Rachel Nielson: I appreciate pointing out the difference here because I do think my son has made it really easy on me. I’m glad that he is my oldest for this reason. Okay I need to rephrase that, he has not made life easy on me! He has an intense personality; but in this topic he has made it easy on me because he has always asked so many questions.
So it broke me into talking about this because he would just ask and I would just answer and I noticed he wasn't weird about it when I just answered him. It didn't have all of this emotionally charged baggage that we have with it as adults so then I realize he was fine with that then the next question he asked I could answer and it got easier and easier; whereas some children may never ask those questions. If the only advice that parents are given is, “just answer the questions when they come up; answer them honestly.” What if the questions never come up? So then what are those parents supposed to do?
Kristin Hodson: That’s really important because I have many friends who say about their oldest child, “You know what? They've never brought it up. I just don't even think it’s on their radar. I don't think they are thinking about it.” I will always say, “If they are interacting with any kids in a variety of situations whether it is daycare, church, school, they are being exposed to a variety of words and values and phones. It’s everywhere.” It really is about if we want our kids to learn from us or from their peers? They are learning about it. It is on their mind despite them not talking to us about that.
It really leads to my second takeaway and that is how our own sexual history influences how we are approaching our children because we all grew up and developed our own experience, feelings, and ideas around sexuality. A lot of us have shame that we haven't identified or we have embarrassment or awkwardness and our children, like you talked about with your kids, they feel totally normal about it but then they pick up on our awkwardness and they learn to feel weird about it because we feel weird about it.
A place I spend with a lot of parents is you can learn the skills all day long, but if you aren't even taking a moment to recognize your places of awkwardness or maybe you are comfortable with certain aspects of sexual health but others you’re avoiding. Understanding your own sexual development is really critical because our kids ping on our stuff that is unresolved. They hit areas that we are like, “eww, I don't want to go there,” and so we might try to manage them because we don’t want to have to deal with ourselves. So we might suppress a behavior, we might try to redirect or do something because we don’t like what it brings up in us. So we get them to stop it so it makes us more comfortable.
So that is really important and I’ve been doing a lot of work with people to understand their root of shame and to see how that presents in their everyday lives with how they are guiding and teaching their children or in their relationship. So do some work around your own history such as the kind of conversations you had, what was it like in your home, the messages you got at church; all these different things influence how we are interacting with our kids.
Rachel Nielson: When you say to do some work around that, what does it mean? If someone wants to do work how do they do that?
Kristin Hodson: You can do some things like journaling or even formal therapy. With you, you pushed through some awkwardness. Bysimply being willing to acknowledge that you felt awkward, uncomfortable and that you didn’t want to have shame is a type of work. That’s one piece--just being aware and choosing a different narrative.
With clients, I have a whole series of questions that I guide them through to start to become aware of their history and the messages they were given. What did their parents do well? The conversations they wish they had? People often find that they hadn’t thought of that part of their history. Some people say, “I don’t have a history. This was never talked about in my home.” That right there is their history.
The absence of talking about sexuality in the home is a history and that could be influencing, which then really shapes the values in which we’re leading our children. Where do we want to take our kids? When we envision them as sexually healthy, happy adults or good human beings, what do we want for them? Our history often influences that. So the idea is to take the unconscious and make it conscious through questions and conversations with friends that we feel safe with, to start exploring how we grew up. There’s a lot of podcasts, so you can do the work both informally and formally. I spend the whole front end of my course on this--having parents recognize that it begins with you. You have to do the work that was left undone while you were being raised. You have to tend to yourself.
Rachel Nielson: Do you have a blog post with those questions for people to go through or is it somewhere where they can access it?
Kristin Hodson: It’s in the back of my book “Real Intimacy.” However, I would love to just get you those questions. So that they have that as a download as they’re listening to this podcast and for those who do want to do that. They have a tangible takeaway right there.
Rachel Nielson: That would be awesome. If you would send those to me I’ll link that in the show notes and then people can have those questions to go through. Thank you so much for that. What is your third takeaway?
Kristin Hodson: So the third takeaway is to view talking to our kids about sex as a skill. I talked about this with my first takeaway. You can learn to be an expert in your own home. You can develop a skill set of how to have proactive conversations by having prompts and scripts of talking to your kids about pornography. This as a skill set, much like learning any other skill or hobby. If you are going to run a 5k, you are running often and regularly. You’re probably not going to go for one jog and imagine that you’re going to run that 5k. You build up to it. You get coaches; you read things on it. You are growing in your ability. This is no different. It’s not something you have or you don’t. So I like parents to get empowered with skills! Developing that skill set is a takeaway, but I’m not going to give you all the skills in 10 minutes on this podcast. But I can plant the seed to see talking about sex as a skill and give them one skill that I believe is very relatable to every single person. I’d actually like to do it with you.
Rachel Nielson: Oh, perfect. Okay. Let’s do it.
Kristin Hodson: I call it the Grocery Store Challenge. Think about the most common items you get from the grocery store, seven to ten items such as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, rice. Now write them down. Do you have a list?
Rachel Nielson: I have my list right now in front of me. It’s milk, cheese, eggs, bread, chicken, tortillas, apples.
Kristin Hodson: When you read that list, did that feel comfortable?
Rachel Nielson: Yes. Totally.
Kristin Hodson: Did you hesitate?
Rachel Nielson: No.
Kristin Hodson: Could you call up your mom and read this list as grocery items to her? Without hesitation, or would you hesitate and think ‘I don’t say “chicken” in front of my mom?’
Rachel Nielson: Now I see where you are going with this. No, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Kristin Hodson: You wouldn’t hesitate. Okay so I’ve got another list of words. The words are: penis, vagina, scrotum, nipples, orgasm, vulva, clitoris, and testicles. I want you to read these out loud.
Rachel Nielson: Okay. Penis, vagina, scrotum, nipples, orgasm, vulva, clitoris, testicles.
Kristin Hodson: How did that feel to you?
Rachel Nielson: It felt okay to me because I did a little bit of mental prep before the interview. What’s funny is when I wrote out my introduction, I said, “I remember the week that Noah discovered his private parts.”
And then I was like, “Am I going to say that? Why don’t I just say penis? … I can’t say penis on the air!” But why not? It’s like the doctor said--it’s a body part like an elbow or a belly button. So then I changed my intro and I put penis in there. So I mentally prepped myself for it, because it’s true! These words are charged and it feels awkward to say them. There are still some on that list, like “vulva” is a hard one for me for some reason. I don’t know why certain words make me more uncomfortable than others. But it’s good to have awareness around that.
Kristin Hodson: Absolutely. This does a few things. This brings you awareness. Your goal should be to have that list of sexual health words be as comfortable as your grocery store list. I brought up your mother because you could say chicken, eggs, rice to you mom, but could you say, “Mom I want to read a bunch of sexual health words to you?” That might feel different. It might feel different to your dad. It might feel different in these different situations.This is a skill where now you have your sexual health words list and I give a much longer list in my course. But your goal is to say these out loud; to where they’re rolling off your tongue just like your grocery store list.
I do have some people who are like, “You know that there are some words on that list that I actually don’t know what they are.” And I’m like, “Awesome you now have also identified a place where you can go get the education that you never gotten and grow in your understanding of sexual health.”
This Grocery Store Challenge does a lot of things and gives a really tangible skill for people to increase their comfort. There’s a reason behind teaching our kids actual terminology. If they’re having some irritation, infection, or if there is abuse going on, if they can’t accurately describe what is going on, it’s hard to know what’s going on with their body. The research shows that if someone is grooming or attempting to abuse a child and if that child is using accurate terminology, the abuser knows there is an adult in that child’s life that they are in communication with--and that they are not an ideal candidate to hold a secret like abuse. Does that make sense?
Rachel Nielson: Interesting. I have heard that kids are much less likely to be sexually abused if they have had thorough sexual health conversations with parents. That that alone makes them a less likely candidate to be targeted for sexual abuse. That is crazy, but so empowering as a parent to think. Of course there’s no guarantee and stuff can still happen, but we can at least teach our kids and give them as much knowledge about their own bodies and what’s okay for other people so there at least somewhat protected from that.
Kristin Hodson: Absolutely. It really does move people from a position of being scared and afraid to being empowered and proactive and feeling like, “I’m going to lead my child through this. I’m going to help them navigate this. While I can’t prevent everything or things that are outside of my control, I can do everything in my power for the things that are in my control. Having these sexual health conversations with my kids is in my control.
Rachel Nielson: Yes. Another thought that I had while we’re in this takeaway are using scripts. I think scripts are extremely helpful. For me, I had to figure out how I was going to describe sex to my young children. It took a little bit of thought. While I was pregnant with his sister, my son asked me, “How does a baby get in there? It took a little bit of thought for me and I said, “Mommies and daddies put their private parts together.” Which seemed like a good answer for a three year old.
That became a little script and now I have that script that I can use when I’m talking to him and my daughter and it made me more comfortable. I know that script needs to be more detailed as they get older, but what are some examples of good scripts to even explain what sex is to children, as parents are just getting started with these conversations.
Kristin Hodson: I love that because you introduced it and now have what I call the s’more concept. Now you can have some more (s’more) conversations when he’s five, like “remember how we talked about this…your private parts are now these” and you can build on this. The recommendation that I make for parents who are just starting these conversations is to start with books. Sit down with a book with a three year old where it’s got pictures. My favorite book is to teach about anatomy is Who Has What. It’s this little family that’s going to the beach, and they’ve got swimsuits, and they got the dog, and they normalize everything, and it’s so great. It’s just an everyday situation that they turn into an opportunity to talk about whose body parts have what. It allows parents to get comfortable leading a conversation, saying the words, but there is a guide. They aren’t having to freeform these conversations.
It lets them get some practice with some really good support. Scripts are important, but starting with books can be some of the best places to start. If you go to my Instagram, I call it my ‘Mary Poppins bag’ and I pull out all my favorite books on sexual health and I tell people they should have more books on sexual health than they do cookbooks. Now cookbooks have gone the way of Pinterest, but it gives them an idea.
You’re going to have some listeners that have a 12 year old and they haven’t had that conversation, or older. They are like, “is it too late?” and it’s never too late. One of the script prompts I have that I give parents with older kids is, “You know what, I realize that I have never really had this conversation with you about sexuality or sexual health. It might be a little awkward for both of us. It’s new for me too but there’s a few things that I want to start and I want to get through this together.” Now that’s a big script but having that ‘breaking the silence script’ is really important. A really helpful way to do that is, “Hey, I realize I never talked to you about this.” There’s an ownership of that adult, and you aren’t just throwing it on them if you had not had that relationship. It owns the newness of it and the comfortableness of it, and it models something really important which is vulnerability and the safety and just because it’s awkward doesn’t mean we avoid it. We get through it together.
So I think scripts are incredibly important. In my fundamentals course I’ve got a whole list of responses that can be your responsive scripts. I have people take three or four that they can see themselves saying so that if they are caught off guard or are in a new situation, they’ve got something they’ve practiced. So if they need to lead a conversation, here’s a whole list of ways you can start the conversation based on your child and your comfort. What’s key with these scripts is getting words or scripts that you yourself feel comfortable saying and would actually say. That’s what’s most important, not how I would say it, not how Rachel says it, but to take what they’ve heard us say and find their version.
Rachel Nielson: Yes. Well I think this is a great time for you to tell us a little bit more about your course and the resources that you have for families. I think these three basic takeaways are such a great start for parents and hopefully will get them thinking. Get them a little bit more open and comfortable to the idea of talking about these things. But if they want to dive deeper, tell us about your other resources.
Kristin Hodson: So the first, I’ve made these three courses in response after doing so many workshops and seeing so many clients that I wanted to help as many people as possible. The first one is my fundamentals course, which is Yes! You Can Talk To Your Kids About Sex. Everyone can and I hope everyone does. And then from there once they have the fundamentals, they can go deeper with more specific areas.
My next one is talking to your kids about pornography and sexually explicit media which then naturally lead to a course on masturbation and finding clarity in the conflict that naturally many parents feel around that. So those are the three course offerings I have to really empower parents and give them skills and confidence and scripts and all of these things. So there you have it.
Rachel Nielson: Perfect. Well Kristin, thank you so much for not only coming on 3 in 30 but for doing this work. I love on your Instagram that you are so open and you model for us that this isn’t shameful. Our own sexuality isn’t, and the sexuality of our children isn’t shameful. It’s so important that we have women doing this work. So thank you for all you’re putting into the world.
Kristin Hodson: Thank you and thank you so much for having me. It’s been a total pleasure.
Rachel Nielson: Many thanks to Kristin Hodson for a great discussion on this super important topic I will link to her website in her show notes if you’d like to dig into more of her work. By way of a reminder, recap:
Here are her three takeaways for becoming the sex expert of your home. First, expand your definition of sex to be sexual health and have 1,000 one-minute conversations about sexual health over the course of their lifetimes. Second, become comfortable with your own sexual history and development, so you are comfortable talking about these topics with your kids. Kristin has graciously offered a list of questions exploring your sexual history that you can find a link to in the show notes and I will send it out with my weekly email if you are signed up to receive that. And finally takeaway number three, view talking to your kids about sex as a skill you will get better at with practice. Practice using anatomically correct words like the Grocery Store Challenge, she did with me, until they roll easily off the tongue and get lots of books and children books around the topics of sexual health. I am going to send out a list of some of my favorite books on these topics in the email later.
We can do this mommas and we must! We, along with our partners if we are lucky enough to have one, are our children’s most important teachers. They need us to get brave and to talk to them about some of the tough stuff. I love you all. I’m rooting for you. And I hope you have a great week with your family.