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Supporting your children's sexuality as they grow up

sexualityIf you are finding it hard to know how or where to start talking with your child about sexuality, you are not alone. Many parents feel this way even though they may recognise the importance of having these conversations. These feelings can be due to the breadth of the topic, the personal nature of some of the topics involved, as well as the relationship you have with your child.

However, although these conversations can be difficult, it is important for young people to learn about sexuality. Talking can help them feel good about their bodies, the changes that may be taking place and the decisions they are making.

What is sexuality and how do I talk about it with my child?

The World Health Organisation defines sexuality as:

"A central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure and intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships."
(WHO) 2002

Issues that relate to sexuality include:

  • developmental issues - puberty, sexual and physical development
  • respectful relationships
  • contraception and family planning
  • pregnancy
  • starting and continuing sexual relationships
  • gender identity issues and sexual orientation: homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues
  • sexual assault
  • sexting
  • sexual health and safer sex - sexually transmitted diseases
  • sexual education for children with intellectual disabilities

Counselling contacts at Kids Helpline

Of the 53,111 Kids Helpline counselling sessions with young people in 2009, 2,790 were about sexuality-related issues. The specific sexuality-related concerns that young people wanted help with included:

  • pregnancy (30%)
  • sexual assault (25%)
  • sexual activity (17%)
  • sexual orientation (16%)
  • contraception/safer sex (5%)
  • sexual harassment (3%)
  • sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (2%)
  • sexual development (2%)

Communicating with your child about sex and sexuality

A helpful way to support and nurture your child's developing sexuality is to keep communication channels open. If you can talk openly, they will be more likely to talk with you as they sort out their values, learn to be comfortable with their sexuality and begin to make choices.

Talking about sex and sexuality does not have to be difficult, and usually, the more you talk about it, the easier it becomes. Introducing conversations about these issues when your child is young can make it easier, however it is important that conversations about sexuality are age appropriate.

If your child asks you a specific question, try to answer it straight away, or if it is not appropriate, then arrange a time to do so later. As children get older use news stories, television programs or things you see around you to act as prompts to start conversations.[2]


It can be helpful to make time to talk with your teenager about sex and sexuality.[6] Parents can help their child to see that sexual expression is involved in a whole range of feelings and activities. They can also help young people enter relationships and sexual activity with confidence and acceptance of themselves, so that they are more likely to have fulfilling, loving and lasting relationships. Below are some tips to help you with these conversations:

  • Try to pick your time well - often talking in the car can work well because you are not looking directly at each other
  • If you are not sure of the answer to something, suggest you can find out together
  • Be honest about your own values
  • Try not to lecture or moralise
  • Talk less and listen more
  • Keep it short and use humour if possible[1][2]
  • Admit if you are feeling a bit uncomfortable - your teenager might be feeling the same way and appreciate your openness
  • Talk about the reality of peer pressure and practise strategies to say no
  • Find opportunities to praise your child about their maturity, insight or good judgement[6]
  • If you don't feel comfortable talking about these issues, encourage your child to talk to their GP, a counsellor or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
  • Give positive feedback and praise - avoid reminding them about past mistakes
  • Try to validate their autonomous adult behaviour and support their emerging maturity
  • Respond to your child in an encouraging way, such as 'mmm' or 'yes' or 'tell me more' to show you are listening and want them to continue
  • Think about how you are sitting - use open body language such as sitting without crossing your arms, and try to look relaxed
  • Try to use open ended questions like "How do you feel about your decision?" instead of "Are you disappointed with how things turned out?"
  • If either of you get too emotional, then call 'time out' and agree on another time to talk
  • Use 'I statements' to convey honesty and openness about your feelings and concerns. Be aware that your child may feel differently from you about the subject in question

It is important for teenagers to be able to express their emerging sexuality and to feel good about themselves. This does not mean that parents need to go along with and accept all types of sexual activity.[4] However, once you have shared your values and attitudes about these issues, it is really up to your child to make their own choices about their relationships.[3] If you would like more information about talking to your child about sex and sexuality, have a look at the list of reference books at the end of this hot topic.[5][2]

Sexuality and popular culture

There is an increasing amount of sexual images and references in popular culture, in forms such as song lyrics, music videos, magazines, advertising and television. As a result, young people are presented with pictures and words relating to sexuality from an increasingly young age.

However, research indicates young people who have access to good information about sexual facts and have had the chance to talk through issues, delay sexual activity.[2] In addition, a recent American study shows that parental involvement in adolescence reduces the chances of teens becoming sexually active at a young age.[8] Teens of both sexes who reported higher levels of parental monitoring and awareness were less likely to have initiated sexual activity by the age of 16. This is important because delaying sexual activity reduces the risks of negative health outcomes, unwanted pregnancy and emotional distress.

Where to find out more about sexuality

There is a lot of information available about issues relating to sexuality. It may be useful to read up on this information, and think a bit about the issues involved, so that when you talk to your child, you can offer relevant, current information, and know where to go to find out more if necessary.

Below are a list of websites that contain information on a number of topics relating to sexuality. You may also find useful leaflets at your local GP, library, health centre or school.

Who can I contact for more information?

You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.

Useful resources for young people:

Cooke, K. (2007) Girl Stuff. Viking.
Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (ed) (1998) Girl's Talk. Finch Publishing, Sydney.

Marsden, J. (2003) Secret Men's Business - the big gig. Pan Macmillan, Australia


  1. Carr-Gregg, M. (2005) Surviving Adolescents, the must-have manual for all parents. Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria.
  2. Fuller, A. (1998) From surviving to Thriving - Promoting Mental Health in Young People. ACER, Melbourne.
  3. Gelin, M. (1993) Sex in simple words - explaining the tough sexual facts to your children. Crawford House Press, Sydney.
  4. Gressor, M (ed.) (1997) A Parents' Survival Guide - Raising kids. Gore & Osment Publications, Woollahra, NSW.
  5. Hayman, S. Living with a Teenager (1988) Piatkus Publishing, London.
  6. Mellor K. and E. (2004) Teen Stages - How to guide the journey into adulthood. Finch Publishing, NSW.
  7. Pipher, M (1994) Reviving Ophelia - saving the selves of adolescent girls. Random House Publishing House, US.
  8. Ikramullah E., Manlove J., Cui C. and Moore K (2009) Parents Matter: The Role of Parent in Teens' Decisions About Sex. Child Trends Research Brief No 45.

Published: 14 August 2010