Talking to teens about sex

Advice for parents on when, how, what to say and why it’s so important. Photograph: Independent Newspapers

Advice for parents on when, how, what to say and why it’s so important. Photograph: Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 30, 2024


The topic often referred to as "the birds and the bees" or "the facts of life" can be a daunting one for parents when it comes to discussing sex and sexuality with their teenagers.

Ayobami Precious Adekola, a postdoctoral researcher, from the University of South Africa and author for The Conversation, says that many parents feel uneasy or unsure about broaching these subjects, perhaps due to embarrassment or concerns about their own understanding.

Additionally, cultural norms in certain regions may discourage open conversations between adults and adolescents about sex.

Nevertheless, these discussions are crucial. Extensive research indicates that teenagers who engage in open dialogue about sex and sexuality with their parents are more likely to engage in safer sexual practices, leading to improved reproductive health outcomes.

Furthermore, it's essential to recognize that these conversations shouldn't be a one-time event. Adolescents experience ongoing development, encountering new questions and challenges as they grow.

Continuous communication enables parents to offer ongoing support, address emerging issues, and reinforce values over time. Moreover, it cultivates an environment of trust and openness between parents and teenagers.

Determining the appropriate time to begin conversations about sex and sexuality with your children isn't a one-size-fits-all matter.

However, Adekola recommends introducing discussions about body parts and puberty before your children reach the age of 10. As for conversations specifically about sex and sexuality, initiating them around the age of 10 can be beneficial.

Regardless of your teenagers' age, it's crucial for parents to establish a supportive environment for these discussions. Let your teens understand that they won't be judged and that everything they share will be kept confidential.

Family dynamics vary greatly among households. It's common for teenagers to feel more trusting or comfortable with one parent over the other.

However, it's important for both parents to align their messages to avoid confusing their teens. While it's beneficial for both parents to be involved in discussing sexuality education with their teen in a two-parent household, it's not always necessary for them to do so jointly. Combining individual and joint conversations can prove effective.

What topics fall under the realm of sex and sexuality?

Parents can cover essential subjects with their teenagers, such as:

  • Understanding the functioning of the reproductive system
  • Cultivating healthy relationships, emphasizing concepts like consent, communication, mutual understanding, and boundaries
  • Addressing the physical and emotional changes experienced during puberty
  • Promoting good sexual health practices and hygiene.

Some parents may feel that discussing these topics with their children goes against their religion or culture. Parents may hold misconceptions or biases regarding sex, often influenced by their religious or cultural beliefs.

However, avoiding these discussions doesn't prevent teenagers from engaging in sexual activities or seeking information elsewhere. Research indicates that "parent-child communication is strongly associated with a child’s safer sex practices, including condom use and delayed sexual debut."

Confront your own biases and preconceptions regarding sexuality directly when conversing with your teenagers. For example, don't avoid discussions about the diverse spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities. Emphasize the significance of respecting, embracing, and accommodating various sexual orientations and gender identities.

Adekola says that feeling unsure about certain concepts your teen brings up is common and understandable. Most parents aren't experts in these areas. What matters most is actively listening to your teen—attentively tuning in to their thoughts and emotions—without passing judgment and with empathy. Strive to respond to their inquiries thoughtfully, factually, and compassionately, avoiding dismissiveness.

Furthermore, it's perfectly acceptable not to have all the answers immediately available. It's okay to request some time to research the topic. You might propose exploring it together or suggest that your teen conducts some research and shares their findings with you for further discussion.

Another pragmatic and effective strategy for addressing your teen's inquiries and worries is to connect them with accessible community resources. These may include school counsellors or community healthcare providers like doctors and nurses who can offer age-appropriate information and confidential medical assistance.

Seek out local community organizations and support groups that provide sexuality education, peer support, and safe environments. Encouraging your teen to utilize these resources and services through your recommendations and referrals can enhance their trust in such care services.

"My teenager has come out as LGBTQ+. I'm unsure how to support them!"

First and foremost, it's commendable that your teenager felt comfortable enough to confide in you, and it's admirable that you're willing to learn and provide support.

Here are some steps Adekola suggests parents can take to support their LGBTQ+ teenager:

  • Acknowledge and validate their identity by expressing your love and acceptance.
  • Listen attentively without judgment, allowing them to freely express themselves. Ask open-ended questions to demonstrate your interest and understanding.
  • Inquire about the type of support they require from you. Whether it's just knowing you're there for them or connecting them with LGBTQ+ resources or support groups.
  • Be patient and give them space to navigate their feelings at their own pace, as accepting one's sexual orientation or gender identity is a personal journey.
  • Challenge your own assumptions and biases. Reflect on your beliefs and be open to adjusting them if necessary.
  • Be an ally by showing support not only within the family but also publicly.

Seek guidance if you're feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about supporting your teenager. LGBTQ+ organizations, therapists, or support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ youth can offer assistance.

Investing in your teen's future

Adekola says providing accurate information, fostering open communication, and offering support enables your teen to navigate sex and relationships responsibly.

When parents engage in conversations about sex and sexuality with their teenagers, they invest in their future health and well-being. By approaching these discussions with sensitivity, honesty, and empathy, you can establish a solid foundation for open communication and empower your teens to make informed decisions.

IOL Lifestyle