Sex, consent and teenagers

couple in bed

Depending on your teenager’s age and the people they hang out with, you will probably find that they have thought about exploring sex and sexual relationships. During the later teenage stages, sex becomes a big deal and each teenager will approach it differently. 

There are things that you can do as a parent to create an open dialogue with our teen where they feel safe to talk to you about sex, consent, and respectful relationships. 

This can help if you:

  • need more information about what your teenager may be thinking or needing to know about sex and consent
  • think your teenager is already engaging in sexual activity
  • want to foster a positive relationship with your teenager and get them talking about sex, consent, and sexual relationships
  • want to ensure your teenager is engaging in a safe and healthy lifestyle.

What sex means for your teenager

Young people are talking about, thinking about and having sex. By the age of 16-17, around one in three teenagers have engaged in sexual intercourse. Even for those who aren’t sexually active, their lives are saturated with different and often confusing messages about what sex and relationships are like. They have easy access to a whole world of information, and that’s where you come into the picture.

Young people from families in which sex, consent sexual relationships are openly discussed are more likely to behave respectfully and safely when they do have sex. Evidence shows that teenagers want to talk to their parents about sex and relationships, and vice versa, but both can feel awkward about starting the conversation.

Signs it’s time to talk about sex

The average age that young Australians are starting to have sex is around 15 years. So it’s important from early adolescence to let your teen know that if they have questions or are thinking about having sex, you’re there for them to talk to.

If your teenager doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about sex, they might be comfortable talking to another trusted adult instead. This could be a family member, a friend, or a GP or counsellor. If they don’t want to talk to you, ask them to list three people who they could go to for information and help if they need.

If your teenager is not at the stage where they feel comfortable talking to anyone about sex, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs they are thinking about becoming sexually active or already are. Many teens are physically ready for sexual activity before they are emotionally ready. If you see any of these signs, it might be time to have a chat:

  • new romantic relationships and public displays of affection
  • hesitant questions on the topic of sex
  • they have purchased contraceptives, like condoms or hormonal birth control.

Your teenager might not open up to you at first, but if you let them know you’re open to and positive about talking to them about sex, it will encourage them to come to you for advice later on.

If you have concerns regarding your teenager’s sexual health or activity, it’s important to be proactive, no matter how uncomfortable the topic is. If things don’t go as they expect or if they don’t really know what to ask, it could cause anxiety, stress or self-esteem issues. Having conversations around consent and respect also helps ensure they will go on to have respectful relationships in the future. So make sure you are switched on to what support your teen may need from you.

Find things to try to help your teen child with here.

How to talk about sex with your teen

Go into the conversation prepared

Many parents feel anxious talking about the topic of sex with their teenagers, so feeling prepared and confident will make it much easier for you and your teen. 

Think in advance about the things that worry you. Are you worried your teen is being sexually active before they are mature enough to understand the consequences? That they’ll be pressured into doing something they don’t want to do? That they’ll become pregnant or get someone else pregnant? These are all legitimate concerns. Instead of coming from a place of fear, it can be more productive to explain to your teenager that you want to make sure they are always respected and safe.  

Do your research

Before you launch into conversation with your teen, it can be helpful to read up on the basics of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and contraception options. When you talk to your teen, always try to use the correct names for body parts, and give accurate information. You can check out fact sheets available from your state’s Family Planning organization

You should also go into the conversation ready to talk about sexual consent and what respectful relationships look like. Talking about consent can feel daunting, but these conversations are key for ensuring that your teen will go on to have safe, healthy and enjoyable sexual experiences when they are ready. For more information, you can read our article on how to teach your teenager about consent, or how to help your teenager develop boundaries

If you have a partner or co-parent, chat about your planned approach beforehand, so you’re both on the same page.

Pick the right moment

These conversations are really important, so you want to pick a time when you don’t have other distractions or commitments. Put your phone on silent, sit down in a quiet space, and give your teen your full attention. This shows your teen that you take these conversations seriously, you want to listen, and you are there for them. 

Ask them about their peers

If you aren’t sure how to start a conversation around topics like sex or relationships, you can ask your teen what other people are doing at school. You can ask open-ended questions like “are other people in your grade dating?”, or “do other people at your school talk about sex?”. You can then follow up these questions by asking your teen how they feel about their peers engaging in these behaviours. This can create a more comfortable starting point for your teen to talk about these issues, and gives them the chance to express their thoughts and feelings. 
You could also start by asking your teen what they already know about sex and consent. This can help you correct any misinformation they may have. 

Remind them that everyone’s experience is different

Reassure your teenager that sex differs for each individual. It’s not a race to see who can have sex first. And it isn’t something they have to participate in just because their friends say they are doing it.