Teenage sexuality: the basics
Sexuality is essential to healthy development.
Sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s about the way your child feels about her developing body. It’s also about how she understands feelings of intimacy, attraction and affection for others, and how she develops and maintains respectful relationships. Your child’s ability to express affection, love and intimacy is important, too – and so is her ability to make healthy decisions and choices about her own body.
Sexuality doesn’t start at puberty and stop in adolescence. Sexual wellbeing continues to develop throughout life.
Open communication between parents and their children has a positive influence on adolescent sexual behaviour. For example, young people who talk openly about sexuality with their parents are less likely to become pregnant before the age of 18. They’re also more likely to use contraception the first time they have sex.
Promoting open communication about teenage sexuality
Talking about sexuality with your child might not come easily. But you can make it easier by:
- using everyday opportunities to talk about sexuality
- showing and telling your child that you’re interested in his beliefs, opinions and point of view
- being available to your child to discuss any issues or concerns
- assuring your child that he doesn’t need to feel embarrassed
- trying to see things from your child’s perspective
- being honest if you don’t know the answer to a question – and even suggesting 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 talking about sex and sexuality. For some ideas on managing those uncomfortable moments, you can read our article on handling tricky conversations
Talking to your child about sexuality
Here are some ideas and strategies to make it easier to talk to 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.
Your child might ask you all sorts of questions, so it’s good to be prepared. Young people are more likely to ask you questions about puberty, periods and contraception than they are about wet dreams or masturbation.
It might also help to think in advance about your values and beliefs around sexuality so you can be clear and consistent with your child. For example, she might ask you about same-sex attraction, and a positive response from you is vital – 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. For example, your child needs to know:
- that he has a 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
- what ‘safe sex’ means, and how to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
- about the laws that apply to sex and sexual touching
- that if he’s 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
- how, when and where to get advice on any issue related to sexuality.
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, such as the Family Planning organisation or the sexual health clinic (generally free and confidential) in your state or territory
- books and pamphlets
- the parenting hotline in your state or territory.
Create and recognise opportunities to talk about sexuality
Sometimes your child will ask you directly about sex and sexuality, or an opportunity might come up naturally.
Other times you might need to pick up on ‘teachable moments’. These are everyday times when you can easily talk about important issues with your child – for example, when you hear something on the radio in the car together, when your child reads a story about relationships in the paper, or when you see something relevant on TV. These moments are often more comfortable for you both, and can help your child feel OK about raising more issues with you in the future.
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’, such as 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.
Over half of Year 10 students have experienced sexual touching, and over one-quarter have had sexual intercourse. By 16 years of age, the majority of teenagers will have had some sexual contact. Many teenagers also engage in sexting.
By delaying communication about sexual health with your child, you might be missing 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.
Teenage sexuality: your role as a parent
You are your child’s most important role model. You can help your child by modelling and reinforcing values and beliefs about safety, responsibility and respect in relationships.
Young people often adopt their parent’s attitudes and beliefs about sex. Clearly and consistently communicating your values, and encouraging your child to explore these values on her own, rather than insisting she automatically adopts them, is important.
Beliefs and expectations about sex and sexuality are influenced by your cultural background. Whatever your feelings about sexual issues, your child’s sexuality is an important part of who your child is and who he’ll become. You can show your child you’re interested in finding out the views he hears from friends and peers by talking about different people’s opinions on sexuality.
Your child will learn about sexuality at school, talk about it with her friends, and get information on the internet and through social media. But young people do trust the information they get from their parents, so get informed by looking at reliable and evidence-based websites and information – this way, you’ll be ready to help your child sort through the many messages she gets about sexuality.
It’s a good idea to make your ground rules or ‘non-negotiables’ clear to your child from very early on – that way, he’ll understand your values and expectations. But on other, less important issues, you might choose to negotiate with your child and set the boundaries together, so he feels involved and listened to.
Young people with special needs
Talking about sexuality is just as important for children with special needs.
It’s vital to give your child information that’s relevant to her in a way she can understand. When talking about sexuality with your child with special needs, consider her:
- 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.