How to talk to teens about sex. Some practical tips from a sex educator and trainer which also looks at why talking about sex can be difficult.
Sex is a very big topic. It is very personal, it’s about values, emotions, personal experience. Sex, sexuality and relationships can define us and shape us as humans and can change our lives totally. No wonder it’s difficult to talk about.
I don’t have kids so I’m not about to lecture you on parenting. But I’ve talked to 1000s of teenagers over the last 20 years about sex and relationships. It wasn’t easy at first, and I’m still learning how to do it properly, but with a bit of self-reflection and practice I got more confident. When I train other adults to do the same thing they agree with me.
In this article I’ve put a few exercises together that you can try out with partners or friends (or teens). They are designed to make you think about your values, attitudes and feelings. The stuff we carry around with us since we were really young.
These activities are adapted from training courses I run (which were adapted from a training course from the inspirational Carol Painter) and I would encourage you to do try them out with your partner or friends. I hope that by talking about it with your peers then you will be more confident talking about it with your teens.
You could also help to home-school them by getting your teens (over 14s) to try my Teach Yourself Sex Ed course
I’ve also included some practical tips and information about this, including 5 quick tips at the end. I hope you find it useful!
Let’s start with you
Our own sex education can have a huge impact on how we talk to other people about sex. Try this activity. Think carefully about what messages you received about sex from an early age. Here are a few to help you, but please also think of your own. The messages could be direct (“don’t do that it’s dirty”), or indirect and sub-conscious (“my mum didn’t get embarrassed when there was sex on the TV”). Even think about words which are naughty and stigmatising (think of a swear word – it’s likely to be about sex and relationships).
Many people find that their ability to talk openly and honestly about sex is related to how open and honest their own sex education was. However most people seem to have received very little positive sex education themselves. Think about what you learnt? Was it positive or negative? What do you think now? Do you think what you learnt is good or bad? Which would you like to keep and which would you like to drop?
Why do people have sex?
This activity is very simple and it’s a good one for you to try both with other adults and casually with teens. Write down all the reasons that people have sex (here I’m talking about consensual sex with someone) – go on! Think of at least 20. Once you’ve done that answer the following questions:
Which are positive and which might be problematic reasons to have sex?
Which of these can *only* be achieved through having sex?
What do you notice? Are there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reasons to have sex? How many ‘bad’ reasons are there to have sex? Why do people have sex for ‘bad’ reasons? How is it possible to have sex for ‘good’ reasons? Which of those can only be achieved through having sex – none right? Can sex give us everything we want or can we get what we want through sex from other things? How might self esteem have an impact on our sexual decision making?
Now look again about what you learnt about sex – would what you learnt prepare people for the reality of sex and relationships?
Something else which can make talking about sex difficult is that sex has lots of topics which we can find controversial, or get very passionate about, or find difficult to think about. Thinking about hot topics, and what are our own hot topics, in advance can make talking about sex easier. Try this, get some friends round, open a bottle, or the biscuit tin, or go to the local and maybe talk about some of these things
- Sex under 16
- Sex work
- Equal marriage
- Having more than one partner
- Teenage pregnancy
- Sex without love
I do this in training courses and simply ask people to pick up one of the terms and say whether they value it for themselves, for others or don’t value it. I try not to allow a discussion, but just for people to speak for themselves – this way you get to hear more viewpoints. Try not to argue or prove a point but just listen to each other and take in differing views. Talking about it with your peers can really help to make you more confident dealing with these topics when talking to teens.
What you want your kids to know
Now you’ve tried the activities on here, think about what values and messages you would like your kids to know or learn about sex, sexuality and relationships. Remember that teenagers have probably learnt loads about sex and relationships already (both consciously and sub-consciously) and will have their own views, values, attitudes, feelings and sexuality: my advice is to work with these rather than against them.
Draw a poster outlining what you would like your teens to know about sex, what values and qualities they should have, what knowledge you would like them to have.
Do your homework
Reading up on this website should give you a good starter for 10 on what teens are interested in learning about.
As they say, knowledge is power. However you don’t need to be an expert in sexual health to be able to raise the subject of sex with your kids. Finding stuff out together or admitting that you don’t know all the answers is a really empowering thing to do for young people. Us sex educators are always looking stuff up or asking colleagues: every day I learn something new.
Reading a bit about the subject can help you to establish a vocabulary that you are comfortable with. Try talking about what you’ve learnt with a friend or partner – talking it through can help you get over the embarrassment factor.
Find out about services
No matter how much you learn about sex you may need to go to the experts at some stage. There are loads of sexual and reproductive health services in the UK for young people which are free and confidential. You can go with your teen to a sexual health service if you want to, though the clinician may want to speak to your teen by themselves. Young people can also attend these services by themselves. Here’s more about services for young people.
These services are confidential to young people, even those under the age of 16. This means that a young person could (if they satisfy certain guidelines) get contraception, condoms, a pregnancy test, a termination, a check-up for STIs or counselling without a parent finding out. The good people who work in these services can and do encourage young people to speak to their parents, but they are not allowed to speak to parents or anyone else about their visit without the permission of the young person.
You may find this difficult, especially as young people are told about these services in schools and youth projects directly. However, without being able to offer confidential services, young people will be at risk of having unsafe sex and not coming forward. It might be a good idea to be proactive, find out where the local services are and stock some of their leaflets. My post above gives you all the links you need.
Don’t just rely on schools
Unfortunately sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools is still rather patchy. Some schools do loads of excellent teaching with specialist tutors. Some schools (particularly faith schools) either teach nothing or teach from a very moral anti-choice perspective (often including inaccurate and unhelpful teaching about contraception and abortion). The rest do a little bit, but not enough to be effective (often just focussing on STIs, condoms and contraception).
It’s good practice for schools to tell parents what it is that they are going to be teaching and it’s even better practice to involve parents in the design and evaluation of the programme and to offer training and support. If your school doesn’t do this then you could ask the PSHE co-ordinator what is being taught that year. This then gives you an opportunity to ask your teen ‘what they learnt in school that day’ and to be prepared with your own ideas.
You could perhaps do us a favour and lobby your school to give sex and relationships education a higher priority, thanks!
Lots of parents worry that they will have to reveal information to their kids about their sex life or sexual history. A good sex educator will never talk to young people about their own sex life so why should you? The corollary of this is that you can’t expect your teen to tell you everything about their sex life either.
At the beginning of any conversation you have about sex you could talk about how you want to talk about it, when works for all of you, how you all talk about it, and whether you are going to talk at them or have a conversation. You could try my talk for a minute activity if you like?
Talk about others
A great way to make talking about sex and relationships easier is to take, what we call, a distanced approach. This means talking about the sex lives and relationships of people on Eastenders, or celebrities. Eg “what do you think about how Jordan and Peter Andre are handling their break-up?” Or “why do you think people have sex?” Or “why do we have a high rate of teen pregnancies in the UK?” Talking about third parties is so much easier for all concerned, but still a very powerful learning tool.
Pin your ears back
All parents want their teens to be safe, but sometimes the anxiety about them staying safe can lead to people lecturing them and telling them what to do without actually listening to what they are saying. Kids want guidance from their parents, yes especially teens, so to make this easier for them it’s important to demonstrate excellent listening skills. This can be about body language, but also it’s about not being afraid of awkward silences. Also try asking open questions “How’s your love life at the moment?” “How are your friendships at the moment?” Really listening to what they are saying is crucial, try repeating back to them a summary of what they have said.
To make raising the topic easier you could just leave some leaflets around the home and then ask if they have seen them. You could also set home screens on the home computer to a suitable website (bishUK.com for example!) and then ask them about it. You could also have an ‘ask it basket’ in their room. Leave little squares of paper next to a box for your kids to ask a question. They then leave it in the box and you do your best to answer with a written response.
Just do it (little and often)
A big mistake that a lot of parents make is to think of this as one big sex talk. This can be scary and embarrassing for everyone. Try not to make a big deal about it, break what you want to say into little chunks and take it one stage at a time. Once you’ve started it gets a lot easier. Try to talk about sex and relationships in the same normalised way you would talk about anything else (this is the big difference between the UK and other countries such as the Netherlands – for them sex is just sex, no big deal). Remember also it’s a conversation.
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.