The main points
- It is normal to feel awkward or unsure when talking with a young person about relationships and sexuality.
- Young people need accurate information about sex to negotiate sexual relationships safely and responsibly.
- Sexuality discussions should cover a broad range of topics, including the biology of reproduction, healthy relationships, making decisions, sexual and gender diversity, contraception and STIs.
- The most influential role models for young people are their parents/carers.
Young people are exposed to images and stories about sex, through the media and the internet, that can be confusing and confronting. They may talk with their friends or look online for answers to their questions, but the information they find will not always be accurate, positive or age-appropriate.
Surveys show that young people want to talk with their parents/carers about relationships and sexuality, however many parents/carers may feel uncomfortable about having these conversations. Some parents/carers are unsure of where to start, but avoiding the subject will not stop young people from having sex or keep them safe.
By being honest and open, your young person is more likely to turn to you for accurate information and answers to their questions. This reduces their risk of being in an unhealthy relationship, of experiencing unwanted sex or an unplanned pregnancy, or of getting a sexually transmissible infection (STI).
Research shows that talking to young people about sex does not encourage them to experiment sexually. It also shows that young people who receive comprehensive sexuality education have a lower risk of experiencing unplanned pregnancy and are more likely to delay their first sexual experience.
Relationship and sexuality education in schools
In Victoria, sexuality education is a compulsory part of the school curriculum and parents are encouraged to contact their child’s school if they want more information about the school’s program and the specific content and messages that are delivered. You may, for example, ask whether or not the program is pro-choice or if it delivers sex-positive messages.
Research shows that school-based sexuality education improves sexual health outcomes for young people. It is a way of providing children and young people with the skills and knowledge to manage their sexual wellbeing and it can provide them with the fundamental tools they need to have healthy, responsible and satisfying sexual lives.
How and when to start talking about sexuality
Many adults feel awkward or unsure when talking with their young person about sex, particularly when they first start having these conversations, but you will become more confident with time and practice. The easiest way is to start when your children are young by using the correct names for body parts. Before puberty starts is an ideal opportunity for discussions around sexuality and puberty changes. It is important to answer a child’s questions honestly and directly when they come up, but you are not expected to have all the answers. If you cannot answer a question, you can suggest finding the information together. Remember to keep the answer age-appropriate and short, as your young person can ask more questions if they need to.
For some young people puberty and its changes can pose challenges and this can cause some tension and arguments at home. Offer support and understanding without making a fuss and let your young person know you are available to listen if they need or want to talk. Your young person might not tell you everything. Respect that right and steer them towards other trusted adults, professional services or trusted internet sites.
Preparing yourself for talking about relationships and sexuality
The first step in talking to your young person about relationships and sexuality is to prepare yourself. Ways of doing this might include:
- talking about the topic with your partner or other adults
- deciding what values and messages you want to communicate
- reading about current sexual issues
- attending a parent/carer information session delivered at school by Sexual Health Victoria
- accepting that young people could have different views to your own
- remembering that the aim is to talk openly and honestly about the topic
- finding developmentally appropriate books to read with your young person.
A positive approach to sexuality
The best sexuality education is ‘sex positive’. This involves:
- acknowledging that young people choosing to be, or not to be, sexually active is a normal and healthy part of adolescence
- recognising that adolescence is a time of sexual development and experimentation
- supporting the right of young people to develop healthy, respectful and consensual sexual relationships
- talking about sexual orientation and gender in a positive way
- not assuming all people are opposite sex attracted or the gender they were assigned at birth.
Try to use everyday moments as opportunities to start talking about sex. Television shows, news stories and radio topics can all be great starting points. Try asking your young person, ‘What do you think about that?’ or ‘Do you agree with what they said?’ Remember it is more beneficial to have ongoing conversations, not just a one off TALK! It’s a lifelong process.
What young people want to know about relationships and sexuality:
- puberty and how the body works
- healthy, respectful relationships
- sexual feelings
- sexual pleasure
- personal values and beliefs about sexual relationships
- gender roles
- sexually transmissible infections (STIs)
- safer sex (such as using condoms)
- contraception, including emergency contraception (sometimes known as the ‘morning after pill’)
- intimacy without sexual intercourse
- sexual problems
- sexual orientation
- how to say ‘no’ to unwanted sex and what to do if it happens
- what to do if you get pregnant
- how to have the conversation with their partner eg. about condoms
- sex, the law and consent
It is important to talk with your young person about contraception and how to practise safer sex. The reasons some young people do not use contraception include:
- lack of knowledge
- feeling unsure about how to access clinical services
- worrying that their parents could find out
- thinking it’s their partner’s responsibility
- thinking that using contraception means they are promiscuous
- thinking that planning for sex takes away the spontaneity
- being under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.
Making decisions about sex
Young people need to learn how to negotiate sexual experiences positively and responsibly.
Ways to help a young person make safe and informed sexual decisions include:
- giving them correct and clear information about contraception, safer sex and STIs
- encouraging them to talk about sex and its consequences with their partner
- coming up with ways to deal with unwanted sexual pressure, including peer pressure
- encouraging them to find answers to their questions about sex by directing them to reliable sources of information
- making sure they understand how important it is to practise safer sex (such as using condoms)
- always keeping the lines of communication open
- encouraging them to access youth friendly medical services.
Ground rules at home
Most young people will become sexually active at some stage. Not allowing them to have sex at home will not stop them from having sex. You will need to decide on the ground rules about sexual behaviour in your home, which could include whether or not your young person is allowed to have their partner in their bedroom or to stay the night. The best time to decide on these rules is when you are talking openly about sex and before the situation arises.
Where to get more information, support or advice
- Contact your local doctor (GP)
- Contact Sexual Health Victoria's clinics
- Visit Better Health Channel