Talking about Puberty, Sex and Relationships
Growing up is a complicated process. It can be challenging, and even embarrassing for many parents, to face the fact that their little baby is becoming an adult.
But it is vital to talk with children and young people about important issues like puberty, sex and relationships to help them to make the right decisions when the time comes.
This page provides practical suggestions for age-appropriate ways to discuss these issues. It helps to clarify what information should be provided and at what ages.
That said, only you know what is age-appropriate for your child, and only you can decide what you are comfortable discussing.
Talking about Puberty: An Ongoing Process
It is probably fairly clear that it would be a bad idea to leave discussion about puberty, sex and relationships until the onset of puberty itself. We all like to be prepared for change, and puberty is a particularly big change in anyone’s life.
Quite apart from anything else, all the hormonal changes that happen during puberty and adolescence more generally (and for more about this, see our page on Understanding Adolescence) may make it harder for teenagers to take information on board.
Instead, experts advise that the process of talking about puberty, sex and relationships should be an ongoing one, carried out in an age-appropriate way from a very early stage.
They suggest that it’s a good idea to use opportunities as they arise. The general consensus is that you should probably start to talk to your children about sex and relationships when they start to ask you questions. That way, it’s not an embarrassing issue for either of you, and they will be used to coming to you for information.
But what if they don’t ask you?
Then you will have to create opportunities to talk. Many schools discuss puberty as part of personal social, and health education, which may give you an opening. If you don’t know what your child’s school is doing, make an appointment with your child’s teacher and go and ask.
Many parents say that it is much easier to talk to children of 6 than 13: they are used to seeing you as the ‘fount of all knowledge’, and are much less embarrassed by talk about their bodies. Start early and you will probably avoid having to sit down for ‘The Talk’.
Parents often worry that talking about sex will make their children more likely to want to engage in it. However, research shows that children who feel that they can talk openly to their parents about sex are both more likely to wait longer before having sex, and also use contraception when they do.
It is well worth putting aside any embarrassment you feel and being open and honest with your children on this important subject.
What Information Do Children Need?
Children need a mix of practical and emotional information.
- Practical information includes, for example, what to expect during puberty (and for more about this, see our page on Understanding Puberty) and, for girls, how to manage their periods. Experts suggest that it is important for boys and girls to understand the changes that both sexes go through.
- Emotional information includes, for example, discussions about relationships and how sex fits into a loving relationship, respecting other people, and how to work out whether you are ready for sex, as well as resisting peer pressure.
This information also needs to be age-appropriate.
Talking to young children
Parents can start to talk to children about relationships and sex from a very early age. Particularly if younger siblings are on the horizon, a conversation about ‘where do babies come from?’ is likely to happen very early on. However, more detailed discussions should probably wait.
Talking to primary school children (aged about 5 to 10)
UK schools generally take the view that children aged about 5 or 6 should be aware of the proper names for parts of their body, and start to have an understanding of the differences between boys and girls, in very broad terms. Discussions about differences at this stage tend to cover issues like whether girls can play football and boys can play with dolls, so be prepared for some fairly unspecific questions and a lack of understanding about genuine differences.
Bearing in mind that some girls start their periods as young as 8, it is helpful to start talking about periods between the ages of about 5 and 8.
You do not want your daughter to be taken by surprise, after all.
At this stage, children need to know in practical and accurate terms what is going to happen to their bodies. Both boys and girls need to understand about periods and about all the other changes that will happen in due course.
It is also helpful to discuss the mechanics of sex in fairly simple terms (for example, a seed from the daddy, and an egg from the mummy coming together). There are plenty of books that explain this, so it may be worth visiting your local library to have a look at what is available.
Talking to pre-teen children
By the time your children reach the ages of 10 to 12, they are wondering more about the mechanics of sex, and also about relationships more generally.
Remember, there may be plenty of things that they don’t understand, so don’t assume that they already know all the important stuff.
Instead, try asking what they know and then fill in the gaps.
At this stage, the mixture of emotional and practical information is particularly important.
They need practical information, such as the importance of using contraception, and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. They also need to understand how sex fits within a loving relationship, and the importance of both partners agreeing that they want to have sex.
Talking to teenagers
By the time your children are teenagers, and if you have followed the advice on this page, there is probably very little general advice that they need.
On the other hand, they may need some pretty specific advice or information from time to time, or they may just need to chat to someone. As our page on Communicating with Teenagers makes clear, it’s a good idea to keep channels of communication open.
If you’re worried about something in a relationship, in particular, then ask them gently if there is anything that they want to discuss about their relationship. There is more on this in our page on Talking to Teenagers about Sex and Relationships.
Don’t put pressure on them to talk, but do make sure that they know that you are available when and if they want to discuss anything.
In particular, don’t be surprised if they quite suddenly decide that NOW is the perfect moment, even if you are just about to serve dinner!
What if you don’t know the answer?
Don’t pretend that you do.
Children and young people are often embarrassed to admit that they don’t know everything, particularly about sex. It’s good for them to see that you don’t know everything either. Admit your ignorance and you can look up the information together.
Where to find further information...
There is more information about puberty on the NHS Choices website.
There is a really good leaflet produced by the Family Planning Association in the UK about periods. It is available here.
The easyhealth website also has four leaflets on periods that are designed to explain periods in simple terms.
The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know) by Karen Gravelle, and published by Piatkus, is a well-known book for any girl approaching puberty. It explains what to expect and how to cope with periods.