Talking to your kids about HIV and AIDS


A medical doctor and I go to schools to give talks to children about HIV and AIDS – a difficult topic for adults to understand, never mind children. To ensure that they have understood what’s been said, we give them a question and answer sheet to fill in. Their answers and remarks have helped us realise how much children know about sex, and how confused they are about HIV.

Many children have heard distorted stories about AIDS from their friends at school. I have been asked questions like: “I heard that AIDS comes from a woman who had sex with an ape” and “Can you get AIDS if you masturbate?”

Parents need to speak honestly about HIV and AIDS. If we don’t tell our children, somebody else will, and when they do, it may be wrong or inappropriate information.

It takes courage to talk to your children. Parents need to take each child’s age and level of understanding into consideration. Some children are able to grasp facts easily without getting upset. Others are sensitive and easily frightened when they’re told the facts of life.

Be there when your child wants to talk to you but don’t overreact and say things like “I don’t want to talk about it” or “Ask your father”. It’s also OK to say “I don’t know” and to find out.

We can talk to our children through storytelling. Many books have been written about HIV and AIDS – speak to your librarian. You can get your child to draw a picture of what she thinks AIDS is. Many children draw the virus as a monster with soldiers as the defending white blood cells. Build a story around the picture.

Sadly, many children today are surrounded by death and funerals as a result of HIV and AIDS. Little children are confused by death, and more so when adults don’t want to talk about the cause.

What to tell your children

  • You don’t “catch” HIV like you get a cold.
  • HIV is an illness that anybody can get if and when they are exposed the HIVirus.
  • People don’t get HIV and AIDS on purpose.
  • People with HIV don’t want to give the virus to other people.
  • There is no easy way of telling if a person has HIV, for instance just by looking at them.
  • Not everybody who is thin has HIV.
  • People with HIV want to live a normal life.
  • People with HIV get sick more easily so they need to be protected.
  • People with HIV can be treated with medicines and can live for a long time.
  • When you help somebody who is cut and bleeding, wear gloves.

Answers to their questions

Answer questions honestly. Encourage conversation by talking openly about these matters. If you are inhibited by circumstances, culture or social boundaries, talk to your child’s teacher or a counsellor at your local clinic or HIV and AIDS centre.

Here are some commonly asked questions. Give an age-appropriate explanation, but here are the basic facts you will want to impart.

What is a virus?

A virus is a nasty trouble-maker that can make a person sick. Viruses are everywhere and they spread when we touch things, they’re on our food and even in the air we breathe. Viruses cannot be destroyed by antibiotics; only white blood cells (we call them “soldier cells”) in the body can do this.

When the body fights a virus, it creates a special army of antibodies (“firing soldiers”) to fight that specific virus. This means that if the virus gets into the body again, the antibodies will kick into action and the person won’t get that particular sickness again (that’s why you won’t get measles or mumps twice).

However, once a virus gets into the body, it stays for good. Fortunately a strong immune system keeps us healthy.

What is HIV?

HIV (Human Immunological Virus) is a very smart virus that attacks only humans. You can explain to your child that it is very, very small (5 000 particles can fit into a single full stop at the end of a sentence), and if it gets into the blood, it will begin to multiply itself on the white blood cells.

It does this by “squeezing then hiding” itself into the “brain” of the white blood cell. Here it convinces the white blood cell that it is an HIV-manufacturing factory, and it begins to make millions of copies of itself.

After doing this, the white blood cell is destroyed, and so the number of white blood cells in the body becomes fewer and fewer while the number of HIViruses gets bigger.

What is AIDS?

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) happens after many years when the body can no longer make new white blood cells. Now there are too few of the protective white blood cells that keep the body healthy and the immune system (or “army”) gets very weak.

Dormant viruses, contagious illnesses, and even cancer cells have the chance to become powerful and the person is said to have AIDS. Antiretroviral medication can help to strengthen the immune system and a person who takes their medicine regularly can live a normal, healthy and productive life for many years.

Sadly though, when the body succumbs to AIDS, people die from a host of illnesses that one could otherwise recover from with a healthy immune system.

How do people get HIV?

Some babies are born with the virus. It is usually passed on to the baby from the mother when she gives birth. These babies are given medicine soon after birth, and this can help them to stay healthy for many years.

Some people may get the virus if they have been given blood with the virus.

Older children need to understand that HIV is spread by sexual intercourse. Explain to them that even rectal and oral sex spreads the virus.

How can I protect myself?

Children must never play with needles, or make “blood brother” pacts. Because the virus multiplies in the blood, any used injection needles or anything with blood must be carefully destroyed.

Teachers should tell children that they must not touch blood, and to call the teacher if there are accidents at school.

When your children start asking questions about sex, this is a good opportunity to explain that sex is something that only adults do, to show their love for one another. They need to understand that sex is special and should not be done with just anybody. Explain to them that the act of sexual intercourse is where new life begins – it makes babies too.

On a tougher note, warn preteens that there are as many as 63 recognised sexually transmitted diseases! Not only are these on the increase, they’re also becoming more difficult to treat.

Then you can tell them about the HIVirus that hides in the fluid ejaculated from the penis (semen), or in the mucus found inside a woman’s cervix and vagina. When these two organs come together during sexual intercourse, there is a mixing of this fluid, and this is how the virus is spread from one person to another.

Older children need to know that having sex at a young age puts them at risk – particularly girls, because their reproductive organs are immature and vulnerable. They need to understand that by having sex with more than one partner they are even more at risk. Once they become sexually active, it’s often more difficult to say no the next time.

So, what about safe sex? Tweens need to understand that the only “safe sex” is no sex at all – and that includes oral and rectal sex and mutual masturbation. Condoms are made for adults and are not always 100% safe, They can break and they don’t provide protection against all skin-to-skin sexually transmitted infections.

What if someone I know has HIV?

Help children to understand that there is no need to be afraid of a person who is HIV positive. They cannot get the virus by playing with an HIV positive friend, sharing their food, holding hands, hugging or even kissing, so don’t tell your child to avoid certain children at school.

The HIVirus is surprisingly weak when it’s in the wrong place like the air, in fluid (this includes mosquito saliva, swimming pools, toilet seats etc), household cleaners and all chemicals. However, it’s incredibly powerful when it’s in the right place which is in human fluid (particularly the
sexual fluids).

Younger children can be told that when people get sick, it’s not because they have done something wrong or that they are being punished. When people are sick, they need to be helped with medicine, and sometimes when they are very weak, they need other people to help them do simple everyday things like eating and washing.

About the writer

Burgie Ireland is a registered nurse and midwife with a special interest in sexual health and development. She started the “Just One Teenager” programme for children and their parents and teachers. Contact her on (011) 453 5096 or 083 659 7515 or

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