For many parents, having ‘the talk’ with their children can seem like an awkward and uncomfortable moment. But the conversation should be about more than just sex – it’s a chance to talk about bodies, relationships and consent. Having these chats early helps parents empower their children with the knowledge and confidence to make healthy life choices.
Why do we need to have these conversations?
Children are naturally curious about relationships and their bodies. Surveys suggest children as young as 11 might experiment with kissing, while teenagers may have access to pornography and begin experimenting with sex.
But according to a US study, 37% of teen boys and 56% of teen girls have never spoken to their parents about contraception.
There’s no doubt it can feel daunting, but research shows that parent-child communication about sex is vital. In one study, open, supportive conversations were found to reduce the chance of children engaging in sexual behaviours. Studies have also shown that children whose parents spoke to them about sex and consent were more likely to use safer sex practices, including contraception.
‘While many young people find these conversations embarrassing, most of them do report that they’re helpful,’ says Beatrice Lindéh, a Livi psychologist specialising in sex.
When is the right time to talk to children about sex and consent?
‘By starting these conversations early, you can help to promote that sense of integrity and your child’s respect for themselves as well as others,’ says Lindéh.
Here’s some advice for approaching each age group:
1. Very small children
‘You can start talking about relationships as early as when children are just starting to talk,’ says Lindéh. ‘Listen when they say “no” or “stop” to certain actions – and avoid forcing intimacy like hugs if they show signs of not wanting to.’
2. Preschool and primary school years
‘Help your child understand social rules and expectations, like if you hit someone, they won’t want to be your friend,’ says Lindéh. ‘This age is also about teaching them to talk to a trusted adult when something feels wrong. You could explain that if they’re asked to keep secrets they have a bad feeling about, they should tell an adult.’
3. Pre-teens and teenagers
When it comes to pre-teens and teenagers, open communication is key. ‘Building a good foundation for having these conversations is important, as sexual health becomes more important for teenagers,’ says Lindéh.
‘Having the ability to talk openly and honestly about sex makes it easier for them to ask for help if something feels wrong or somebody is crossing boundaries.
So, what should I say?
‘You might find it challenging, but as a parent or guardian, it’s your responsibility to have these conversations,’ says Lindéh. Here are a few suggestions for getting the conversation started:
1. Use everyday situations
With smaller children, use real-life examples to teach them about consent and boundaries. ‘When you see your child behave in an undesirable way towards a sibling or friend, flag it right away. You can ask, “What happened there?” and explain what’s OK and what’s not,’ says Lindéh.
‘As your child gets older, you can say, “I heard that your friend was upset over something that happened at the party. Can we talk about that?”
‘When they start having sex education at school, chat about it: “I heard you spoke about this at school today. What are your thoughts?”’
2. Respect their boundaries
Show them you’re paying attention to their feelings. ‘If a child is hiding when their aunt wants a hug, say, “I can tell you don’t want to hug right now, and that’s OK – do you want to wave instead?”’ suggests Lindéh.
3. Ask if they feel safe
‘Once children are old enough to go on a date or start a relationship, ask if they feel safe with that person,’ says Lindéh. ‘Check if they feel able to say “yes” or “no” when it comes to sex and intimacy.’
4. Make conversations positive
‘Conversations about boundaries, consent and learning to say “no” can sometimes tend towards the negative, but it’s good to highlight the positive aspects of sex and relationships too,” says Lindéh.
‘Having open and supportive conversations has the most positive impact. Avoid stern lectures, as they tend to have the opposite effect. It’s best not to try to fit everything into one big chat but to have smaller, regular conversations. That way, it will also be more natural for the child to raise questions.’
How can I help with peer pressure?
‘You can talk to your child about learning to listen to their inner compass. If something feels wrong, it usually is,’ says Lindéh.
But be conscious not to blame and shame your child, even if they do fall for peer pressure. ‘Peer pressure is all about wanting to belong, which is only human. Talk to them about what’s happened from their perspective,’ Lindéh advises.
When and how should I talk to my children about contraception?
‘Most schools don’t cover the subjects of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections until nearer the end of secondary school. If your child is curious, it’s a good idea to broach the subject sooner – possibly as early as when they start asking questions about how children are made.
‘You could always open up the conversation by buying a packet of condoms and letting your teenager know they’re there if they need them,’ Lindéh suggests.
How do I deal with the issue of porn?
Most children come across porn at some point during secondary school and, for many, it can be the only source of information about sex they have. However, it can be reassuring to know that most young people understand that it’s exaggerated and unrealistic.
‘Make your child feel that it’s OK to ask questions,’ says Lindéh. ‘Try to explain that porn may feel frightening, exciting and arousing all at once, and ask how your child feels about that.’
‘Try to emphasise to your child that you should only ever do what feels good for you.’
Should I talk to my child about self-pleasure and masturbation?
‘A lot of children masturbate – many of them from an early age – and it’s something that isn’t talked about enough,’ says Lindéh.
Children can feel shame around pleasure if that’s what they’re taught. ‘It’s important to point out that pleasure is good and healthy, based on your child’s level of maturity. Explain that masturbation can feel good. Some children touch themselves in a soothing way, for instance at bedtime, and you can validate their experience by pointing out that they can do this if they want to when you’ve said goodnight and they’re alone.’
‘All forms of sex are about pleasure, whether it’s self-sex or sex with someone else, so try to get this across when you’re talking about sex and consent.’
This article has been medically reviewed by Beatrice Lindéh, a Livi psychologist specialising in sex.