Why and How You Should Talk to Your Kids About HIV

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on September 24, 2021
5 min read

The "birds-and-the-bees" talk is rarely comfortable or easy for a parent. And many parents don't want to think that their child could get infected with HIV. But they can, and avoiding the topic could end up harming them. Teens and young adults get almost one-fourth of new HIV infections in the U.S.

Older generations of adults didn't learn from their parents how to start or have discussions about HIV, since AIDS wasn't around when they were young. So if you're uncomfortable with this subject, be honest with your child about that. Your honesty will help them to open up to you in return.

As challenging as it may be, you can and should talk about sex, drugs, and the serious possible consequences like HIV and AIDS.

Children can get HIV when they have sex with, are sexually abused by, or share needles or syringes with someone who has HIV.

As of 2017, about 4 out of 10 high school students had had sex. Ten million new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) reported each year were among young people between the ages of 15 to 24 which raises the chances of getting HIV.

Teens may be injecting steroids or hormones, as well as street drugs like heroin. They may reuse needles for body art, including piercing and tattooing.

Do your homework before talking to kids about HIV.  The basics are:

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
  • HIV is spread from person to person through contact with blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk.
  • HIV can be prevented by using latex condoms during sex, not sharing needles, and avoiding contact with another person's body fluids.

The risk of HIV is increased by:

  • An increased number of sexual partners
  • IV drug use
  • Anal intercourse
  • Any sex without condoms
  • Use of alcohol or other drugs that tend to make people take more chances and make them less likely to use condoms
  • Tattoos and body piercing with contaminated needles or instruments

If you have more than one child, talk to them separately. You'll be able to have more open discussions that fit their ages. You'll need to use simpler words with a younger child, for example.

Give your child all of your attention. Each time you talk, ask questions to find out what they know or heard or remember from before. Correct any wrong ideas about HIV and people with it as soon as you can.

Watch for clues that show they can't absorb any more information right now. Kids often need to tackle complicated or scary subjects in small bits.

You don't need to talk about HIV in your first discussion about sex. In fact, connecting the two from the beginning may leave the wrong impression. Once you start talking about AIDS, though, be prepared to discuss death, too.

Take advantage of "teachable moments." Plots or characters in movies and TV shows, events and people in the news, and public service announcements can open the door: How would you have handled that situation? What do you think about that person? Even the birth of a baby or pet can help you start a conversation, especially with little ones.

Don't brush off their questions. If you don't have an answer, tell them you don't and that you'll find out. Or, if it's not a good time to talk, tell them you'll talk about it later. Then do it.

If your child is in high school, you might think you've covered these topics -- but have you? You may have touched on medical facts, which are important to understand. But your child also needs practical knowledge, such as how to use a condom. If you talk to your teen about condoms before they have sex, they're three times more likely to use them.

You may want to dispel some of these myths about HIV:

  • HIV is not spread by insects.
  • You can’t get HIV from toilet seats. In fact, none of the sexually transmitted infections are known to infect people via toilets.
  • Oral sex is not completely safe sex. Many youths believe this, but oral sex -- especially oral-penile sex or oral anal contact -- might transmit the infection, as well as some other sexually transmitted infections.

Blood from a simple cut that comes from a person with HIV is still infectious. The virus, though, is easy to kill with detergent or exposure to air.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry tells parents to let children know that:

  • AIDS is most often fatal.
  • Anyone can get AIDS. Kids and HIV may not seem like a problem, but many teens have been infected.
  • Condoms can reduce the risk of getting AIDS.
  • You can get AIDS from use of even one contaminated needle or one sexual act with someone who has HIV.

You might worry that bringing up sex, drugs, and HIV may be "too much, too soon" or that it will make your child experiment with sex and drugs. Research shows that's not true. Kids are already picking up a lot from friends, TV, movies, social media, and school. Most have heard about AIDS by the time they're in third grade.

For young children, you can start by talking about body parts. For any child, encourage them to value a healthy body.  To an 8-year-old, you might say, "AIDS is a disease that makes people very sick. It's caused by a virus, called HIV, which is a tiny germ." An older child can absorb more detailed information. Preteens should be armed with information about how condoms can prevent transmission of HIV.

Supporting their self-esteem will also help them to push back against peer pressure. Model how to say "no" respectfully. Teach your child that it's OK to say "no," even when it's not popular or cool.

Children learn from how you react as well as from what you say. Your responses (or lack of them) to questions -- like anger, irritation, or discomfort -- speak volumes about your views, too

By having these ongoing talks, you can make sure they're getting accurate information, along with your family's values. Talking with your child about HIV and AIDS can also make it more likely that they'll delay sex and not try risky behavior, like having unprotected sex or sharing needles.

You're also laying the groundwork for their future. Teens who've discussed sex with their parents are seven times more likely to feel comfortable talking with a sex partner about HIV. And that will help to keep them safe.