Sexuality is part of who your child is and who he’ll become. Feeling comfortable with his sexuality is essential to your child’s healthy development. You can support your child by talking openly with him about sex and sexuality.

Teenage sexuality: the basics

Sexuality is a part of who your child is and who she’ll become. Sexuality develops and changes throughout your child’s life. Feeling comfortable with her sexuality and sexual identity is essential to your child’s healthy development. 

Sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s also about how your child:

  • feels about his developing body
  • makes healthy decisions and choices about his own body
  • understands and expresses feelings of intimacy, attraction and affection for others
  • develops and maintains respectful relationships.

Your child’s beliefs and expectations about sex and sexuality are influenced by her personal experiences, upbringing and cultural background. 

And you’re your child’s most important role model. You can help your child by modelling and reinforcing values and beliefs about safety, responsibility, honest communication and respect in relationships by treating your partner with respect and talking about how to stay safe.

Understanding teenage sexual behaviour, sexual attraction and sexual identity

Most teenagers will experiment with sexual behaviour at some stage – this is a normal, natural and powerful urge in these years. But not all teenage relationships include sex. 

Teenagers are also maturing emotionally and socially. They might want romantic intimacy and ways to express love and affection. And they might be curious and want to explore adult behaviour. 

Some teenagers are sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender, some are attracted to people of the same sex, and some are bisexual. 

Sexual attraction and sexual identity aren’t the same. Young people who are same-sex attracted might or might not identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. They might identify as heterosexual. 

Your child’s sexuality might be different from yours or from your expectations. But if you can accept your child’s sexuality, it’s good for your child’s healthy development – and for your relationship with your child.

Promoting open communication about teenage sexuality

Your child will learn about sexuality at school, talk about it with friends, and get information about it online and through social media. But young people do trust the information they get from their parents.

If you talk about sex and sexuality with your child, it will help him sort through the many messages he gets about sexuality. These conversations might not feel comfortable at first, but you can make them easier by:

  • using everyday opportunities to talk about sexuality – for example, when you hear something on the radio together, or see something relevant on TV
  • letting your child know that you’re interested in seeing things from his perspective – for example, asking him what he thinks about sexual identity
  • being ready to talk about issues or concerns when your child raises them, and assuring your child that he doesn’t need to feel embarrassed
  • being honest if you don’t know the answer to a question – you could suggest that you look for the answer together
  • asking your child what he already knows, then adding new information and clearing up any misconceptions 
  • using active listening skills.
It’s normal for you and your child to feel awkward when you’re talking about sex and sexuality. Our article on handling difficult conversations has ideas for managing those uncomfortable moments.

Talking with your child about sexuality

Here are some ideas and strategies to make it easier to talk with your child about sexuality.

Start conversations early
There’s no perfect time to start talking about sexuality, but conversations from a young age can help your child understand that sex and sexuality are a normal, healthy part of life. Early conversations can help make later ones easier.

Be prepared
Your child might ask you all sorts of questions, so it’s good to check your understanding of puberty, periods, contraception, wet dreams, masturbation and more.

It might also help to think in advance about your values and beliefs so you can be clear and consistent with your child. For example, if your child feels confused about her feelings for someone and asks you about same-sex attraction, responding positively and non-judgmentally is a good first step. So sorting out your own feelings about this issue in advance is a good idea.

Talk about the really important stuff
There are some things it’s really important for every young person to understand:

  • Your child has the right to say ‘no’. All young people have the right to control what happens to their bodies, and your child should never feel pressured into doing anything that doesn’t feel right. Talk with your child about recognising what feels comfortable and safe, rather than doing what his friends are doing.
  • ‘Safe sex’ means protecting against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Your child can do this by using condoms if she’s sexually active. 
  • If your child is sexually active, it’s important to be tested for chlamydia – this condition is usually symptomless and is very common in young people of both sexes.
  • Your child can get advice about sexuality and sexual health from several places, including his GP. You can also tell your child that he can ask you anything he wants.

Think about what you don’t know
When you work out what you don’t know, you can also work out how to get the information you need. There are many reliable sources, including:

  • a GP or sexual health professional
  • your child’s school counsellor
  • community health services and organisations, like the Family Planning organisation or a sexual health clinic (generally free and confidential) in your state or territory
  • books and pamphlets
  • the parenting hotline in your state or territory. 

Choose your words carefully
It’s important to pitch your language and terminology at a level that’s right for your child.

Read your child’s signals
Look out for signs that show that now isn’t the right time for a ‘big talk’, like when your child is busy, tired or distracted. You can always try again later.

Remind yourself about why discussing sexuality is important
When you keep the communication channels open, you help your child make positive, safe and informed choices, now and in the future. But if you delay talking about sexual health, you might miss an opportunity to help your child make positive decisions.

Talking about sexuality is particularly important if you want your views to help guide your child’s own sexual decision-making process.

It’s a good idea to make your ground rules clear to your child from very early on – that way, she’ll understand your values and expectations about behaviour. For example, a rule might be that your child treats others with respect and always checks on consent before sexual activity. But on other, less important issues, you might choose to negotiate with your child and set the boundaries together, so she feels involved and listened to. 

Young people with additional needs

Talking about sex and sexuality is just as important for children with additional needs. 

Your child needs information that’s relevant to him in a way he can understand. When you’re talking about sexuality with your child with additional needs, consider his:

  • decision-making skills
  • ability to think through the outcomes of actions
  • knowledge of boundaries, privacy and intimate relationships – this will help you fill in any gaps, and clarify misunderstandings
  • understanding of the risks associated with some behaviour. 
Video

Sexuality and relationships: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder

7:42

In this short video, parents and experts talk about sexuality for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You’ll hear why it’s a good idea to talk about sexuality before children start thinking about sex. You’ll also get tips and ideas to help you talk to your child with ASD about sexuality and changing relationships in a way your child can understand.

If you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you might like to read our article on sexuality and ASD.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-12-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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