Talking to your teenager about sex

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 safe sex, sexual consent, and sexual relationships

  • want to ensure your teenager is engaging in a safe and healthy lifestyle.

What is safe sex and how can I ensure my teen is safe?

Safe sex is used to describe sexual activity that is respectful, consensual and minimises the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancy. Having open, honest conversations with your teen about sex is one way to help encourage your teen to have safe sex. By refraining from judging them, you can cultivate a safe space for your teen to communicate with you about sex and even help them access relevant sexual health services and resources.

Ensuring they understand what consent means

Understanding consent is critical to a safe sexual experience for your teen. Ensuring your teen has a clear understanding about consent and boundaries helps them make  good decisions in the moment, for themselves and other people. Consent also means that it’s okay for your teen to say no if they feel unsafe or don’t want to go any further with a sexual partner, even after sexual activity has started. This also means ensuring your teen understands that if their partner says no at any stage during sexual activity, it’s something that needs to be respected.

Teaching them about contraception for their first time having sex

Talking to your teen about contraception is an important part of the sex talk and helping them have a positive and safe sexual experience - especially if it’s their first time. Contraception can help prevent unwanted pregnancy and also reduce exposure to STIs. From the contraceptive pill and condoms to intrauterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive injections, you can learn more about the different types of contraception available for your teen in this guide from Family Planning NSW.

What sex and a teen’s first time means to them

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, and 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.

What age should I talk about sex with my teen?

The average age that young Australians are starting to have sex is around 15 years. Instead of waiting until then, it can be helpful to have this talk before the stage where your teen is having sex. This could be when they’re at an age where peers are beginning to have sexual relationships, or they’re in a romantic relationship which does not yet include sex. 

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. Having this conversation can lead to them being more confident in understanding where they’re at, setting boundaries with peers and navigating consent.

If your teenager doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about have a sex talk with you, 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.

Signs that you should have a sex talk with your teenager

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.

What to do if my teenager isn’t ready to talk about sex

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 sexual 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.

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 their first time having sex or 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 having the sex talk

Before you launch into a 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 organisation.

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.

What to do if you’re still struggling to talk to your teen about sex

If you’re still struggling to start the conversation then hit them with the good-ol’ “remember I was your age once…”. And have a laugh by confronting the awkwardness head-on. 

Remember that your teen is going through many physical and emotional changes and it is usually quite an awkward time. Don’t push, laugh or make fun of them or they might shut down and not come to you for the information and support that they need.