It is so important to talk to your teen or young adult child about sexual relationships, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or intellectual ability. We are glad you are interested in starting the conversation! Talking to your teen or young adult about sexual relationships will give them helpful information, and also show them you are comfortable talking to them about this important topic. Having frequent and open conversations about sexuality with your teen or your adult plays an important role in them having a safe and healthy sex life. Remember, just because you are the parent- doesn’t mean you need to be the expert! Take some time to read more about sex, sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual consent, relationships, safer sex practices, and more… this guide is a great first step!
When should I start talking to my child about sex?
It is never too early to start preparing yourself and your child to talk about sex. This can begin with teaching your toddler the names of body parts and talking to your school-aged child about the importance of personal boundaries like asking someone for permission before hugging them. It is important to talk to your child about gender identity and sexual attraction. Letting your child know that you understand the spectrum of gender identity and sexual attraction can help your teen or young adult be more open when talking about sexual relationships.
These conversations are the foundation for talking about sexual relationships in the future. For the rest of this guide, we will focus on talking about sexual relationships with your teen or young adult.
How do I talk to my teen or young adult child about sex and sexual relationships?
Talking about sex with your teen or young adult can seem overwhelming. Remember, this doesn’t have to be one big conversation. Breaking this topic down into small, frequent discussions can make this conversation easier. This also helps show your teen or young adult that it is important and normal to talk about sexual relationships.
You can play an important role in your teen or young adult developing a safe and healthy sex life. Research shows that talking to your teen or young adult about these topics does not make it more likely for them to have sex. In fact, teen or young adults who talk to their parents about sex take fewer risks in their sexual relationships.
You and your teen or young adult may have different definitions of sex and sexual relationships. Sexual relationships in teenagers and young adults can be casual (“hook-ups”) or more serious (dating relationships). They can also include two or more partners. It is important to get on the same page before having a conversation about sexual relationships. Try asking your teen or young adult what sex means to them and what their idea of a sexual relationship is.
There is not one correct way to talk to your teen or young adult. Here are some tips you may find helpful:
- Develop values
- Before you start having conversations with your teen or young adult, take some time to consider your own values. What makes a healthy sexual relationship? When you think it is appropriate for your teen or young adult to be in a sexual relationship? And why? This will help you have a clear message when talking to your teen or young adult.
- Encourage your teen or young adult to think about their goals for a sexual relationship. Who are they attracted to? What types of sexual activity are they interested in?
- Understand this is a big topic
- Talking about the act of sex, is just one small part of the conversation. Talking about sex also includes sexual orientation (who they are attracted to), sexual consent (agreement for sexual contact), relationships, body image, masturbation, porn, sexual assault and rape, sexually transmitted infections, anatomy, pregnancy, abortion, safer sex practices (preventing pregnancy and protecting against sexually transmitted infections), and more.
- Use everyday experiences
- There are examples of sex and sexuality in our everyday life. For example, you can use a sex scene in a movie to start a conversation. Was this a good or bad example of sexual consent? Did the characters talk about preventing sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy? Was it realistic? How did the characters feel after having sex?
- Avoid punishment
- During these conversations, your teen or young adult may ask you questions that concern you or make statements that you disagree with. Try to follow-up with an open-ended question to understand their thoughts. For example, if they say, “I am ready to have sex” try responding with, “Can you help me understand your decision?”
- You may find out your teen or young adult is doing something you do not agree with. Remember that you cannot fully control their behavior, but you can help guide them towards making healthier and safer decisions. For example, if you discover they are having sex, instead of grounding them, ask them questions and help them plan. How do they feel about the decision? Can you help with birth control and/or condoms? Can you review sexual consent?
Your teen or young adult’s healthcare provider will also talk confidentially with them about sexual relationships. Let your teen or young adult know this is an important part of their health and encourage them to ask their healthcare provider about sexual relationships. You can always ask their healthcare provider about how to talk to your teen or young adult about sex and where to get more resources.
What is sexual consent?
Sexual consent is an agreement between two (or more) people for a specific sexual act. Consent is needed for all types of sexual contact every time. Sexual consent is always needed regardless of the type of relationship (a causal relationship, committed relationship, or marriage). All partners are responsible for asking for and giving consent regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
Someone who is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs or substances cannot consent to sexual activity. Someone who is passed out, sleeping, or unconscious cannot consent to sexual activity. There are laws about the age of sexual consent, meaning how old a person needs to be in order to consent to sex. These laws vary by country-to-country and region to region. These laws exist to protect minors (those less than 18 years old) from adults pressuring them to do sexual acts. In the US, the legal age of consent is between 16-18 years old, depending on the state. In general, this means an adult having sex with someone younger than 16-18 years old is sexual assault or rape. To learn about the specific consent laws in your state, visit this website.
It is important to know that some disabilities may affect a person’s ability to communicate consent, understand consent, or consent freely. For example, a person with a disability may rely on another person for assistance. This relationship may make it hard for a person with a disability to say “No” to a sexual act, if they are concerned the person will stop helping them in the future. There are laws that exist in some states in the US that discuss the ability of people with disabilities to consent to sexual acts. To learn more about consent and people with disabilities, visit this website.
How do I talk to my teen or young adult about sexual consent?
Making sure your teen or young adult understands what sexual consent is, who can give it, how to ask for it, and how to show if they consent will help them have healthy and respectful sexual relationships. It is important to talk to your teen or young adult about sexual consent, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or intellectual ability.
Here is a simple way to think about sexual consent when talking to your teen or young adult:
What are sexual assault and rape?
Everybody deserves respect and to feel safe in their sexual relationships. We know that sexual assault and rape can happen. It is important for your teen or young adult to know what sexual assault and rape are, what to do if they have been a victim of sexual assault, and where to go for more information. In addition to talking about sexual assault, it is important to discuss other types of abuse someone can experience in a sexual relationship like physical abuse, emotional abuse, and digital abuse.
Sexual assault and rape are legal definitions used for sexual contact without sexual consent. These definitions vary from country to country and region to region. Sexual assault and rape do not have to be violent or leave a physical mark. To learn more about the specific definitions in the United States and your specific state, visit this website.
Unfortunately, sexual assault and rape are common in the United States:
- About 433,648 people over the age of 12 experience sexual assault or rape every year
- In the US, a person is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds
- More than half (54%) of people sexually assaulted are under 30 years old
Sexual assault and rape can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, intellectual ability, or physical ability, and it is never their fault. Sexual assault or rape cannot be blamed on what a person was wearing, how they were acting, where they were, or how late they were out. More than half (55%) of sexual assaults occur near or in the victim’s home. A stranger, friend, dating partner, or a spouse can commit sexual assault or rape. In fact, someone the victim knows commits 80% of rapes.
Sexual assault and rape may have immediate consequences including pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Additionally, sexual assault and rape may have lasting effects including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, drug use, problems at school or work, and problems in personal relationships.
What should I do if my teen or young adult child has experienced sexual assault or rape?
It is hard to find out that your teen or young adult has been hurt. The most important thing you can do is support your child and remind them the assault is not their fault.
Here are some things you might want to consider immediately after a sexual assault:
- If your teen or young adult is in danger or injured, please call for emergency services (911 in the United States) or go to an emergency department for medical care.
- Call your teen or young adult’s healthcare provider, a Sexual Assault hotline (see below) and/or go to the emergency department to discuss:
- taking medications to prevent sexually transmitted infections including HIV (within 3 days)
- having a sexual assault forensic exam or “rape kit” (within 3 days)
- A sexual assault forensic exam or “rape kit” is used to collect evidence from a sexual assault. It is best to have the sexual assault forensic exam before doing things that could get rid of evidence like showering, washing, changing clothes, going to the bathroom, or combing your hair. Even if a parson has the sexual assault forensic exam, they do not need to report the assault, “press charges”, or talk to the police.
- get emergency contraception to help prevent a pregnancy (within 5 days).
Your teen or young adult may or may not decide to report the sexual assault or rape to the police. It is important to understand that this is a personal decision, and it is their choice. Let them know you are there for them no matter what they decide to do. Many people who have experienced sexual assault or rape never tell anyone about it. There are many reasons why someone may not report sexual assault including:
- Not sure if it was sexual assault or rape
- Don’t know who to tell
- Relationship with abuser
- Immigration status
- Not sure if there is enough evidence or proof
- Fear of judgment
- Fear of police or justice system
Talking to a trained professional (counselor, therapist, healthcare professional, or calling a national hotline) may be helpful to process what happened to a victim of sexual assault, to get medical care, to treat depression or PTSD, or to be referred to resources in their area.
If your teen, young adult, or someone they know has experienced sexual abuse or rape:
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
- If they have thoughts of hurting yourself or of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Visit RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
Where can I learn more?
Talking to your child about sex