Talking to Teenagers about Sex and Relationships

See also: Communicating with Teenagers

We all know that talking about sex and relationships can be embarrassing, even between adults.

Talking about sex with your teenage children? Many people will freely admit that they would rather do almost anything else. And teenagers are unlikely to broach the subject freely.

But an essential part of parenting is to make sure that your children are fully informed. And in a world where many children now get their information from online pornography, the potential for misunderstandings and misconceptions is huge.

We Need to Talk…

You may think that talking to your children about sex is not important once they are teenagers. After all, teenagers have plenty of sources of information with the whole internet at their fingertips.

But it is hard to distinguish between correct and incorrect information without help.

There are a number of studies showing that the main source of information about sex and relationships for many teenagers is either their peer group, or online pornography.

Teenagers have never been the most reliable source of information, tending to believe what they want to believe. And online porn is not exactly realistic in its portrayal of bodies or relationships.

Quite a number of commentators have put both the rise of the ‘lad’ culture and a recent increase in rape cases down to the tendency to watch porn. Why? Because porn tends to objectify women, and violence is common.

Research also shows that children who feel that they can talk openly to their parents about sex and relationships are:

  • More likely to wait longer before they start to engage in sexual relationships; and
  • More likely to use contraception when they do start having sex.

Talking to your children about sex and relationships from an early age ensures that they have accurate information to balance anything they see online or learn from their peers.

There is more about this on our page on Talking about Puberty, Sex and Relationships.

How to Talk to Teenagers about Sex and Relationships

Top Tip!

The best time to discuss anything with your teenager is when they want to discuss it. This is best achieved by keeping open channels of communication, and offering opportunities.

For more about this, see our page on Communicating with Teenagers.

It is also vital to make sure that your response to seemingly casual questions is not judgemental or dismissive.

These ‘casual questions’ may be testing the water. For example, your child may tell you that a friend or acquaintance is pregnant, in a difficult relationship or otherwise in trouble. A dismissive or judgemental response will probably lead to the subject being dropped and never raised again.

This could be a problem if the ‘friend’ in question is actually your child.

Keep an open mind, and show that you are doing so.

What Should You Discuss?

Conversations may be driven by what your children have seen on TV, or situations they have read about.

But there is probably a key area where you may want to actively look for opportunities to talk, and that is the importance of ‘good’ relationships, grounded in values like trust and integrity.

Talking about healthy relationships and values

Sexual information can sometimes focus very much on the mechanics: what goes where, what happens then, and the possible consequences.

But there is, of course, much more to relationships than sex.

Teenagers may want and need help to understand the nature of a ‘good’ relationship: a healthy, loving relationship in which both partners respect and support each other. Your teen will be getting information about this all the time from you, from television and the internet, and from their peers. You, however, are a key trusted source in making sense of the information and sorting the ‘wheat from the chaff’.

This is very much an area for ongoing conversations.

It is a good idea to use television programmes, newspaper stories and the like as an opening for discussion, and be prepared for your teenager to come back with more questions later.

There are a number of important elements of a healthy relationship which you may want to emphasise. For example, both partners should:

  • Be willing to compromise;
  • Feel comfortable being themselves;
  • Be able to admit when they are wrong;
  • Feel safe when they are together;
  • Respect each other’s feelings, opinions and friends;
  • Accept that the other may sometimes say no;
  • Accept that they can both change their minds; and
  • Resolve disagreements by talking;

Your teenager needs to know that something is probably wrong in their relationship if either partner feels jealous or possessive, their partner tries to control their clothes, activities and friends, or their partner physically or emotionally hurts them.

It can also be helpful for your teenager to understand that making a relationship work well takes time and effort from both partners.

Both partners need to be committed to making the relationship work, and take action to work together.

Talking about relationship problems

Relationship problems include everything from suffering from unrequited love (often known as a teenage crush), through problems in a relationship, including potential abuse, to being dumped.

None of these are easy at any time, but they are perhaps especially difficult as a teenager because this may be the first time that your child has experienced them. Adolescence is also a period of heightened emotions and feelings (and for more about this, see our page on Understanding Adolescence), so everything seems more intense.

As our page on Dealing with Concerns about your Teenager suggests, abnormal behaviour in your teen may be sign that something is wrong.

It is probably a good idea to do some gentle questioning to see if you can discover the nature of the problem. If they are shutting themselves in their room more often, perhaps take them a cup of tea and casually say something like:

  • I notice you don’t seem very happy. Can I do anything to help?” or
  • I’m worried about you, because you seem very unhappy. Is there anything I can do to help?

If you think they may have split up with a partner, or be experiencing problems in their relationship, perhaps because they’re suddenly at home more, and without that partner, try:

  • I haven’t seen very much of X recently. Is everything OK?

It is important to show that you are there and available to provide support, but that you won’t intrude if they don’t want to talk.

Specific Areas for Discussion

There are a number of specific areas where teenagers may need help, advice and support. There are others where you may feel that it is important to have a conversation, to be sure that they understand all the nuances of the subject.

These include contraception, where you want to be confident that both boys and girls have sufficient information to keep themselves safe, consent, and pornography. There is more about these issues in our next page - Talking to Teenagers about Specific Sex and Relationship Issues.

More Information

Useful sources of help and advice about talking to teenagers about sex and relationships include Relate and Family Lives.

There is more information about sexual health and general well-being of young people available from Brook, the young people’s sexual health and well-being charity.

Above all…

It is important to keep the communication channels open, and options available for discussion. Your teenager may decide that they want to talk to you at any time.

If they do want to talk, it is important to provide support. Relationship problems can lead to low self-esteem and self-confidence, and young people in this situation may need a bit of help to recover. They need to know that you love them and will be there for them.