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How to talk to your Child about Sex - Ages 12 - 16

What's the best way to initiate a conversation about sex with my child?

First of all, give up on the idea that it's going to happen the way you plan it -- fruitful conversations with adolescents rarely take place when and how their parents want them to. If you're the one who brings up sex, don't be offended when your child looks horrified that you did so. At least now they know you're willing to discuss it.

Remember how much your teen both does and does not want to talk about sexuality with you of all people -- who, as their parent, are not supposed to have any of your own. Try to stay open to their overtures on the subject because when you least expect it -- say, at 11:30 at night, as you're trying to get them to turn off the stereo and go to sleep -- you may find yourself answering an important question or exploring a delicate topic. (These conversations also frequently take place in cars, which have the advantage of being private spaces in which you don't have to look at each other.

Another useful gambit is to buy a good, readable book for teenagers on sexual development. Before buying, skim it to make sure you like its approach. Some popular choices include Let's talk about sex by Robbie Harris, Boy talk and Girl talk, by Lucienne Pickering and Ready steady grow, by Angela McNamara. Leave the book of your choice in your teen's room, where they can read it in private. Casually let them know that you put it there and that they can check it out if they feel like it. You can be sure the book will be read, and it may ease their fears as well as their discomfort about talking to you about sexual issues and feelings.

What issues are likely to be on my child's mind at this age?

By the time your child is in secondary school, the chances are that they will know the mechanical details of sex even if you weren't the one who explained it to them. Now the information they need is more complicated but just as important. Common questions include:

  • What's date rape?
  • What's sexual harassment?
  • How does the morning-after pill work?
  • How long should I wait before having sex?
  • Is it normal to think about sex all the time?
  • Am I still a virgin if it was only oral sex?
  • What's a transsexual?
  • How do I know if I'm gay?
It's better not to wait for Big Discussion moments to explore these tough topics. Introducing them matter-of-factly in the course of other conversations lets your teen know that they won't have to endure a big awkward scene if they ask you a highly charged question. You may also find conversation-starters in television dramas, movies, newspaper articles, or even works of literature assigned in school. (Remember, the precipitating event in To Kill a Mockingbird is an accusation of rape.)

How do I talk to my child about birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases without implying that I approve of sex at their age?

Almost all parents grapple with this question at some point. Many teenagers become sexually active before they think seriously about protection, and a single incident can force a youngster to confront pregnancy or life-threatening illness. You may be deeply convinced that abstinence is the best course for your child, but if they think you won't forgive them for losing their virginity, they may be afraid to talk to you and end up in trouble.

Thinking about your own adolescence might be your best training for this, if you can remember how mixed up you felt. That doesn't mean filling your child in on the details of your teenage love life, which they absolutely do not want to hear. It means letting them know that you remember how tough it was to be 14 and how many questions and turbulent feelings you had. If you show your child it's safe to come to you for help, then it's easier to convey important messages: "Respect yourself." "Know how much responsibility sex carries with it." "Don't let anybody pressure you into doing something you don't want to do." "I love you." "You can count on me for support."

The area in which you can make the most difference may be helping your child cope with the peer pressure to have sex -- or, at least, to appear sexually sophisticated. Beyond the abstractions of sex education, dating involves a lot of tough choices and moment-to-moment decisions. What your child might really like help with, for example, is how to say no without hurting someone's feelings, and how to accept being told no. Or what to do when their friends smirk and laugh about how far they went on their Saturday night dates. If your child is open to this, you might talk about ways they might respond to pressuring suggestions.

If you're sure that your teen is having sex or intends to, no matter how much you disapprove, then your only option may be to guide them towards securing the best birth control and disease protection they can get. If you don't feel comfortable about taking them to a GP or Family Planning Clinic, have an adult friend or relative do it, or at least give them the information they need to go on heir own.

If you are encouraging your daughter to use contraception make sure she has some condoms too, as the pill and other birth control methods for women don't offer protection from disease. This doesn't mean you have to stop talking to her about the importance of waiting until she's older -- it just means she's protected from disaster right now. If you are encouraging your son to use contraception, ensure that they know to replace any condoms they have in wallets/pockets every 1-2 weeks, as the friction and heat that comes from being stored there can cause the condoms to weaken.

Further Questions?

How do I talk to my child about oral sex?

How should I respond to my child's questions about homosexuality?

Read our supplementary article How to Talk to your Child about Sex - Ages 6 - 12 years

Reprinted with kind permission from