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How to talk to your child or teen about sex

A young father with his three children, two boys and a girl, on Mooloolaba Beach. They are all wearing hats, suncreen and sun-safe shirts

For some parents and carers having ‘the talk’ can be awkward and confronting, but it needn’t be.

Your child or teen is going to learn about bodies, relationships, sex, and sexuality at some point anyway, and wouldn’t you rather they first learn safe, factual, and reliable information from someone they can trust?

It’s never too early to start talking with your child (9 or younger), pre-teen (10-12), or teen (13-19) about these important topics. In any case, children and young people often have a natural inquisitiveness about them. It’s also important to try keep the conversations going and the lines of communications open as your child or teen grows.

Here’s a quick roadmap and some ideas for starting and continuing these important discussions.

A middle-aged man in a contemplative mood thinking about how to talk to his children about sex

Get yourself on board

Check in with yourself. You may have some feelings of awkwardness, discomfort, or embarrassment when talking about sex, genitals, sexual acts, and so on. That’s totally okay.

Thinking about how you feel ahead of time can help you work on ways to feel calm and prepared and deal with the feelings. Some people may find reading an appropriate-level book on sex with their child can help them get started. There are many fine books available suited to children and teens of various ages.

A smiling young couple walking arm in arm in a forest

If you have a partner, get them on board

It helps to also keep the conversation open with your partner about how you will teach children in your care about sex and sexuality so you can agree on your approach and can both contribute. Also, if children and teens see you and your partner talking openly and without embarrassment about these topics, it provides a good model for them to follow.

Starting the conversation

It’s great to try start these chats in a natural way—for example if a topic comes up on TV, or at the dinner table, or your child asks about it on their own. You can gently steer the conversation by asking questions.

You can ask, ‘What do you know about . . .?’ or, ‘What have you heard about . . .?’ or, ‘What do you think about . . .?’

If it doesn’t come up naturally, you could agree with your partner to naturally bring it up when you’re all together, leave an appropriate book lying around, or suggest watching an age-appropriate movie or TV show that brings up some of these topics, to open the discussion.

A man reading to his child on the couch. They both are smiling and look slightly shy

Provide information using the correct facts and names

Give them the facts, try to explain it at their level, and if there is any wrong information in what they already know, gently correct it. Use the correct names—penis, vagina, clitoris, scrotum, labia, and so on—so there can be no later confusion.

For example, if a child says, ‘What’s is puberty? My friend told me it’s when you get more more hairy.’

You could say something like: ‘Well, that’s right, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Puberty is when your body changes from a child’s body to an adult body.  You will usually have a growth spurt and your friend is right that you get hairier, especially in your armpits and around your genitals.

‘Puberty starts when the brain sends hormonal signals to your body. You also become sexually and reproductively mature, and there are other changes. Did you want to know about the other changes?’

Try keep the conversation going by providing additional information, asking good questions, and addressing any follow up questions.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. You can tell them you’ll do some research and get back to them with the information. Make a note and try make sure you do get back to them. Alternatively, you might want to look it up together and discuss it further.

Websites such as Raising Children Network can be very helpful when searching for simple, clear information.

A young child is under the bedcovers in the dark looking at a mobile phone with the light from the phone lighting up his face

What do children or teens already know?

You may be surprised. Schools provide some education on these topics, and there is a lot of information available online, or from friends. Of course, info from the latter two sources is not always reliable (and is sometimes funny, bizarre, or totally wrong).

Pornography

It is also very common these days for young people to have viewed pornographic content—even at a young age—without their parents’ or carers’ knowledge. Pornography can be confusing and upsetting to young children and pre-teens. It can harm young people’s abilities to form healthy relationships. Having digital device and online safety guidelines for your child, pre-teen, or teen can help prevent this.

Talking to your young people about pornography and its effects is one of the best ways to protect them from these negative outcomes.

Online sexual activities—sexting

Many young people are exposed to sexual activity and information through their digital devices. For example, sexting is the sharing of sexual images, videos, text or emojis using digital technology. As with pornography, it is important to have early conversations about sexting, and set rules for respectful behaviour online and the sharing of images or sexual content.

The eSafety Commissioner, Raising Children Network, and ThinkUKnow have excellent information on keeping children safe online, teaching them respect for others online, and what to talk to them about.

Sexually transmissible infections

You can never be completely sure when your child will start to become sexually active, and again it can be earlier than you expect. It’s important that they know about sexually transmissible infections (STIs) before they do become sexually active, so they know how they can protect themselves.

For more information on STIs and sexual health in general see: Your ultimate guide to sexual health.

Pregnancy

Early pregnancy can have a huge impact on the physical and mental health of young people and affect their lives in many ways. Discussing contraception with your child can help them understand how conception happens and what methods are available to prevent it.

For information on types of contraception see: 9 types of contraception you can use to prevent pregnancy (with pictures!).

Consent

It’s important that you talk to your children about consent.

You could tell them sex is very personal, and that every person has the right to choose when, where, how, and with whom they’ll have sex.

They have the right to say ‘no’ to sex with any person at any time, and that they never have to have sex or engage in sexual activity with someone if they don’t want to, even if they’ve had sex with them before, or told them that they would.

See the links below for more information on the topics discussed in this blog, including consent.

More information

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Last updated: 2 September 2022