How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body and Sexuality

mother and teenage daughter sit and talk on sofaMost mothers likely want their daughters to develop a positive body image and a healthy sexual self-esteem. However, many moms inadvertently act in ways that are counter to this goal, often because they may feel shy or embarrassed to talk about their bodies and sexuality. This message may, over time, get passed along to their daughters.

What is a healthy sexual self-esteem, exactly? This refers to a person’s ability to connect to their sexual identity and self in an age- and developmentally appropriate way. Healthy sexual self-esteem could mean experiencing our body in a sexual way, enjoying our body sexually, and eventually sharing our body sexually with someone else. Many moms tell me they want to raise their daughters to be like this one day. They want their daughters to feel great about their bodies and to experience pleasure when they are older, in a healthy adult relationship. The question is: how do we get there?

First of all, it may be necessary to reframe the part of you that still believes talking to your daughter about her body and sexuality may be harmful. The research does not support this notion. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for example, researchers Kohler et al. found that adolescents who received comprehensive sex education were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancy than those who had received abstinence-only education. In fact, abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse, but comprehensive sex education did.

With the research firmly on the side of talking to your daughter about her sexuality, how do you go about it?

General Tips

  • Start early and deliver age-appropriate messages. This conversation is a years-long one. Don’t wait for children to ask questions or initiate, as some may be too embarrassed. As the adult, overcome any discomfort you feel and talk to them.
  • Model healthy body image, no matter your shape or size. Reject media images of so-called ideals. Promote a greater picture of health and nutrition rather than focusing on fat or weight specifically. Model appropriate affection with your partner.
  • Be real. This means being direct, honest, and conveying the facts alongside a positive and affirming perspective.

Toddler Years

  • Put a positive spin on bodily functions (i.e., “You threw up because your body was saying the food you ate did not work well in your body. Your body can be trusted and knows how to protect you!”).
  • Don’t shame their bodies by saying things like, “Go put your clothes on,” or, “Don’t run around the house naked.”
  • Teach them the correct names of body parts: vagina, penis, testicles, etc.
  • When the time comes/when they ask, tell them how babies are made. For example: “When a mommy and daddy love each other very much, the mommy’s egg meets the daddy’s sperm and that makes a baby. Then the baby grows in the mommy’s uterus until it’s big enough to come out. When the baby’s ready, the uterus squeezes, and the baby comes out of the vagina. Then mommy’s body goes back to the way it was.”

Pre-Puberty/Puberty

  • Put a positive spin on distressing changes (i.e., “You are becoming a woman! That’s wonderful! Welcome to the world of womanhood.”). At the same time, discuss openly any negative aspects of puberty-related changes rather than glossing over them.
  • Tell stories from your childhood—your first period, perhaps, or even embarrassing stories. Show them that you survived and they will, too.
  • Don’t shame their bodies with messages like, “You can’t wear that.”
  • Teach them about male and female puberty, natural bodily changes, and the basics of sex.
  • Take your daughter to get her first bra. Bring it up; she may be too embarrassed.
  • Give her deodorant, a razor, sanitary pads, tampons, etc. Tell her you have noticed she’s becoming a beautiful young woman. Again, pre-empt these things.

Adolescence

  • Encourage your daughter to trust her body and to listen to it (i.e., if she gets a stomachache before a test, talk to her about how her body is telling her something).
  • Again, don’t shame their bodies. Talk about what messages they want to portray about themselves by the way they dress and appear. Share examples from your own life.
  • Talk about relationships as portrayed in books and movies and how those portrayals differ from real life. Talk about couples dynamics and what your child may like/doesn’t like about how relationships are portrayed vs. the reality of relationships.
  • Don’t encourage her to hide her wanting to grow up. Pick your battles. If you find out she’s tweezing her eyebrows, it’s not the end of the world. Instead, help her find an article online about eyebrow tweezing (or whatever else) and use this as an opportunity for open discussion. Shaming a child can lead the child to want to hide things from you later.
  • Talk to her about her period. Introduce her to the variety of menstrual supplies available and encourage her to explore all of them to discover what works best for her. Tampons may seem scary, for example, but using them may help some adolescents become more comfortable with their bodies. Help her get used to her period as a normative event, not something shameful or secret.

Raising any child is difficult, but raising a daughter may come with its own particular challenges. To promote healthy body image and sexual self-esteem, keep your conversations real and regular, be a trusted resource for accurate information, and model what you want your daughter to aspire to both in and out of relationships.

Reference:

Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mieke Rivka Sidorsky, LCSW-C, CST, therapist in Silver Spring, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
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  • Meredith

    Meredith

    August 8th, 2016 at 8:12 AM

    We started very early talking to our girls about their bodies and we talked about it very openly. I think that because we did that they have always felt pretty comfortable coming to us with any questions because it didn’t feel like it was something that they shouldn’t be talking about. For our family this was a wise choice, and we felt like it was the responsible thing to do.

  • davey

    davey

    August 8th, 2016 at 4:24 PM

    Have to leave this one up to the moms

  • Rose

    Rose

    August 9th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    Of course you also need to be aware of how open is your daughter to having this conversation with you.
    There are going to be some things that you have to consider pretty carefully, like whether they are emotionally maturate enough to handle much of this kind of conversation.
    They may look one way on the outside but on the inside they are still just your little girl.

  • Aimee

    Aimee

    August 9th, 2016 at 2:20 PM

    Well it’s not as if this is going to go away even if you choose not to talk about it. Growing up is becoming comfortable with who you are and your body and I think that the only way that we can instill this confidence and self esteem in our young girls is to have these conversations with them.
    They might not be fun but wouldn’t you rather that they get the correct information from you and not from a bathroom wall at school?

  • nita

    nita

    August 10th, 2016 at 9:31 AM

    Ignoring these changes is not a good thing at all, and acting like they are something to be ashamed of is even worse!

  • Molly

    Molly

    August 10th, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    We found this really cool class called Girlology offered at our local hospital system, not sure if this is a national thing or not, but it was one of the best things that we ever did for our daughter. I went to the class with her but it was taught by someone else, so I think that this creates more of an ease for conversations and asking those questions that she may have been too embarrassed to ask me alone. I would recommend this for so many other parents, and I think that they even do one for tween boys too.

  • louise

    louise

    August 11th, 2016 at 1:46 PM

    I know that it can be stressful for dads to get involved in these conversations but I think that young women really appreciate it when their dads are interested in the things going on in their lives and that they understand how they are feeling. It might not be the easiest thing to do dads, but you want your little girl to know that she is loved and important and one of the best ways that you can show her that is being in tune with the things going on in her life.

  • Alicia

    Alicia

    April 5th, 2019 at 12:37 PM

    Great Article! It confirmed that I am on the right track with my girls.

  • heidBetsy

    heidBetsy

    August 12th, 2016 at 2:13 PM

    No matter what you might think it is never too early to start talking to them.
    You might have to make the language a little more child friendly depending on their age, but I think that your girls will have a much better appreciation for the female body and for themselves the earlier you start giving them this information.

  • Marina

    Marina

    August 13th, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    If we as parents do not stress to them just how beautiful they are, some guy will come along and destroy them because we have not given them the confidence that they need to fight back against that.

  • Emmy

    Emmy

    August 15th, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    I have never quite understood the discomfort of talking about things that everyone goes through and that is natural?

  • alan y

    alan y

    August 16th, 2016 at 7:17 AM

    Are these conversations hard? yes. Would I rather do it than have her learn the wrong things from the wrong people? Yes

  • Bianca

    Bianca

    August 16th, 2016 at 5:13 PM

    Thanks for the precious informationsmy teenagedaughter had an eating disorder in high school she had no idea what to believe online because everything seemed to be an advertisement. I actually read a personal review and it seemed like the person had great success using a metabolic book so I gave it a try. I couldn’t have been more excited about the results, as she is now 50 pounds lighter than when she first started using it. The article was very helpful to me and her– if you want to check it out yourself you can read it here: tinyurl.com/jbrv7cw

  • how to talk to girls

    how to talk to girls

    June 26th, 2018 at 10:29 PM

    We started very early talking to our girls about their bodies and we talked about it very openly because it is natural thing and thank you for sharing this blog

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