Research shows children and young people want to talk with their parents or carers about relationships, sex and sexuality.
Many parents or carers are unsure of where to start, or may feel uncomfortable about having these conversations. Avoiding the subject will not stop your child from having sex or keep them safe. If you’re uncomfortable don’t panic, there are useful tools available to help you.
If children and young people are given accurate information about bodies, relationships, sex and sexuality they are more likely to make safer choices as they become adults.
Being able to talk about these things gives parents and carers an opportunity to discuss their own values about relationships, sex, and sexuality.
How and when to start talking about relationships, sex and sexuality
It is normal to feel awkward or unsure when talking with your child about sex. Most adults feel this way when they start having these conversations – you will become more confident with time and practice.
Try to work on these principles:
- Start conversations early and keep talking as your child gets older.
- Be the one they ask for advice.
- Keep conversations casual.
- Use cues around you.
- Find books and resources for ideas.
Start early and keep talking
Children learn about relationships, sex and sexuality from the moment they are born. Very young children get messages from adults about their bodies. This includes learning what words to use to describe their body parts and functions, and important concepts about public and private body parts and behaviours.
It is normal for young children to be open and curious about their own bodies and those of others. Try to use correct terminology for private body parts. This helps to reduce anxiety and shame, while also allowing children to more effectively ask questions about their bodies and report to a trusted adult if something isn’t right.
As your child gets older, continue these conversations as opportunities arise, and before they become critical. It is best to be proactive rather than reactive. Such as start talking about:
- Puberty before changes start happening for your child.
- Healthy, respectful relationships before your child is likely to be exposed to pornography.
- Safe sex practices before your child becomes sexually active.
If young people are given age appropriate information early, it means less anxiety for them (and you) later. If you haven’t begun these conversations as early as you might have liked, don’t panic – find an opportunity.
Research shows that providing young people with accurate, honest, comprehensive information about relationships, sex and sexuality does not encourage them to experiment sexually. In fact, young people who receive comprehensive sexuality education are more likely to delay their first sexual experience and engage in safer sex practices than those who are less informed.
Be the one they ask for advice
If children know that they will get an accurate answer to their questions about relationships, sex and sexuality, they are more likely to ask for your advice at home.
Be honest and approachable. Create an environment where asking questions is encouraged.
Keep conversations casual
Talking about relationships, sex, and sexuality doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down occasion. This can be integrated into any other conversation, so it becomes a normal part of life.
Young people often want short, direct answers to their questions. They can ask more questions as they arise.
Start conversations by using cues around you
It is possible to use opportunities from news, current affairs, social media, advertising, song lyrics, books, television, and movies as chances to start a conversation about relationships, sex and sexuality.
You might also observe people around you and the natural world to begin or continue your discussions.
You don’t have to wait for your child to ask questions, be proactive and begin the conversation.
You can use open-ended questions like “what do you think you would do in that situation?,” to get the ball rolling.
Use books and resources to explain concepts
Using picture books for young children to explain complicated ideas like conception and pregnancy is a great start. Older children may need help finding suitable, accurate resources.
If a child searches online for information about relationships, sex, and sexuality there is a good chance they might come across misleading information or pornography. It is better to be approachable and look for suitable information together.
You may also want to discuss who else they could talk to if they feel reluctant to come to you (such as a trusted adult friend or relative).
Preparing to talk about relationships, sex and sexuality with your child
The first step in talking to your child about relationships, sex and sexuality is to prepare yourself.
You are not alone if you feel uncertain. Many parents and carers may feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or hesitant when talking to children and young people about sex.
Plan your approach. You may like to try some of these suggestions:
- Discuss the topic with your partner or other adults involved your child’s parenting. Decide on a consistent approach.
- Decide what values and messages you want to communicate. Children won’t know about your morals, values and beliefs unless you tell them.
- Be informed about current sexual issues.
- Remember, the aim is to talk openly and honestly about the topic. Be truthful – tell them if you feel embarrassed.
- Accept your child could have different views to your own.
Topics to talk about with your child
It is normal for young people to be interested in adult things like sex. Answer questions honestly and with as much information that is suitable for their age. If your child is asking questions, they are probably ready for answers.
By the end of primary school, young people should have a good understanding of how bodies work and change as we grow (including puberty and how babies are made). Don’t forget to discuss relevant changes in the opposite sex as well. The more accurate information they have, the less anxiety they will feel.
In secondary school, the conversation should move more towards relationships – including respectful intimate relationships and enjoyment. It’s okay not to answer questions about your own experiences.
Teenagers need to know that they can visit a GP (doctor) for confidential support with anything relating to their sexual and reproductive health. Once your child turns 15, they can apply for their own Medicare card.
Topics to talk about at different ages and stages
Below are some examples of age appropriate topics to discuss with your child. Revisit topics throughout childhood and adolescence.
Remember, start conversations early and keep talking.
|Children (0-5 years)
||Middle / Upper Primary School
- Body autonomy – teaching them about rights and consent (e.g. they are the boss of their body and they get to say what goes).
- Public body parts – learning they have the right to choose which parts of their body are public and that this can be based upon factors such as preference, culture or religion.
- Private body parts and appropriate behaviour – such as which areas no one has permission to see or touch. Or situations where private parts are covered (e.g. wearing bathers at the local swimming pool).
- Giving accurate names for private body parts – (e.g. penis, scrotum, vulva, breasts, bottom).
- Getting help from people they trust when they are scared, worried or feel unsafe.
| Early / Middle Primary School
|| Secondary School
Develop a positive approach to relationships, sex and sexuality with your child
Most young people will have an interest in being sexually active at some stage as they move into adulthood.
Providing sex-positive, accurate, honest and comprehensive information about relationships, sex, and sexuality will help your child make healthy, safe, positive choices about what they want in their relationships.
Remember to listen to your child. It should be a series of discussions not a lecture. Be prepared for the possibility that they may not feel the same way or agree with you.
Helping young people make decisions about sex
Teenagers need to learn how to negotiate sexual experiences positively and responsibly.
Ways to help your child make safe and informed sexual decisions include:
- Give them correct and clear information about contraception, safer sex and sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
- Encourage them to talk about sex and its consequences with their partner.
- Come up with ways to deal with unwanted sexual pressure (including peer pressure).
- Encourage them to find answers to questions about sex by directing them to reliable sources of information.
- Make sure they understand how important it is to practise safer sex (such as using male and female condoms).
- Keep communication open.
Sex and establishing 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.
Parents and carers need to establish ground rules about sexual behaviour in your home. Decisions may include whether your child can 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.
Relationships and sexuality education in schools
In Victoria, relationships and sexuality education is compulsory under the health and physical education curriculum for years 3 to 10.
Throughout their schooling, children and young people will also explore relationships and sexuality in other contexts that address the four capabilities of the Victorian school curriculum – critical and creative thinking, ethical, intercultural and personal and social. This may include:
- student health and wellbeing
- whole school activities celebrating diversity
- targeted education for students with specific needs
- addressing issues after a critical incident has occurred (such as sexual assault).
Keeping children safe at school
Schools encourage a whole-school learning approach to sexuality education that not only involves teachers, but parents and carers and the local community.
Your child’s safety is important. Any Victorian organisation that works with children must comply with the Child Safe Standards set out by the Commission for Children and Young People. Schools are required to have strategies in place that are inclusive and promote participation and empowerment of all children.
Contact your child’s school for more information about their learning program. It is often helpful to know about the specific content, messages, and delivery of the education program so you can continue discussions with your child at home.
Where to get help