Kids Mental Health/Wellness

How To Handle “The Talk” With Pre-Teens, From a Mental Health Therapist

Written by Jessica McCaslin

As a mental health therapist, I’m familiar with “the talk”. I’ve had a lot of “talks” with children and teenagers in the past. However, it’s different when it’s your own child. 

My husband—well, he’s been dreading this day since about 10 minutes after our daughter was born.

We were watching a movie together when suddenly both my husband and I realized a sexualized scene was coming up. We told our daughter to look away, which she did but not before peeking, and screeching “Oh, uncomfortable!”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Afterward, she came up to me and asked, “Mom, I want to know about the changes my body will have. One girl in my class told me all about bras.”

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And so I told her she would likely watch an informational show in the next year during school about growing up. I told her about breasts, armpit and pubic hair, and menstrual cycles. She listened intently, letting out a few giggles. I finished with, “If you have any other questions, please ask Dad or me.” Then we were done.

Or so I thought.

I went into the other room and told my husband about her questions. He got that dad-in-the-headlights look. Then he said the bravest thing he could: “I suppose I better go let her know I’m willing to listen and talk, too.”

I gave him a few minutes while helping the other kids get ready for bed and then came into the bedroom. My husband looked very uncomfortable, and my daughter had a big grin on her face.

He looked at me and said, “She wants to know everything about sex.”

Yep, not even in double digits yet and she wants to know about sex. First, this provided an opportunity to re-visit previous discussions we’ve had about appropriate touch. After all, this was out-of-the-blue and I wanted to make sure we didn’t need to seek more help. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

I’m pretty certain I led a sheltered life because I didn’t know that world until I was a pre-teen; where did she come up with that? However, as a therapist, I’m acutely aware that kids are sexually active at a younger age, and by the time parents get around to talking to their kid about sex, the kid is “well-informed” by their peers, or has already experienced sexual acts.

Scared yet? Because I am. 

Our children are sexualized at a very young age. And I’m not just talking about sexual abuse. I see clothing in stores and on kids that is low-cut, high-cut, or has inappropriate statements. I hear people talk explicitly about sexual behaviors in front of children. Movies and video games have sexual content. Billboards while you drive down the road. Elementary kids are getting caught viewing pornography on school computers.

What starts as an innocent search for kid-appropriate songs online can easily lead to a click on a not-so-innocent video disguised as an innocent one. I even searched for a song my kids liked and was appalled at the singer writhing on the floor, barely clothed, while singing. Yep, it’s easy to find, and our children notice.

Make no mistake about it—your child will be exposed to an enormous amount of sex-related content. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to shield them—it’s out there.

As parents, we need to be aware and not assume our children are innocent about these matters. When parents fail (or avoid) to talk with their kids about what they experience, they are left to manage it on their own. Many turn to friends, some to the internet, and some may act out what they see, and these forms of information are not always helpful or positive.

In the midst of all this, there is good news. If you are an approachable parent, if you start talking with your child using love, age-appropriate words and explanations, age-appropriate context (they don’t need ALL the details at age nine!), and honesty, your child will feel comfortable coming to you with questions. You will also be able to help your child sort through some of the things he saw, heard, or experienced in the world around him.

And try to do the parent-freak-out moment without your kid around. Plan ahead, if you can, so you’re prepared for this moment. If it has already passed, it’s not too late to start being open with your children.

Lots of young kids don’t really care about sexual matters—they are just curious and want their questions answered honestly. They can smell fear and dishonesty a mile away, so be prepared and proactive.

I told my nine-year-old daughter sex was a way God gave us to show love when we’re married, and to have babies; you may not agree completely with my explanation but you can edit it for your worldview, just as I will edit as she ages. I said it was like the animals mating on her nature shows. Her eyes got big, her hand went to her mouth, a little giggle escaped, and she turned red. For now, that really was the end of the conversation. 

About the author

Jessica McCaslin

Jessica is a Stay-At-Home-Master-Mom who is learning to cope with the daily challenges of being a full-time parent. She graduated with her Master’s degree in community counseling from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2005.

Jessica joined Family Resources of Greater Nebraska in January 2012. She worked with children, adolescents, adults and families in and around Broken Bow, NE. Her attention has now turned to raising her children while doing online work for Family Resources of Greater Nebraska. She loves horses and has attended several Level 1 Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning trainings, where horses are used as a co-therapist for mental health issues. It’s a dream to someday be able to incorporate horses into her therapy sessions. She resides near North Platte with her husband and children.