Teenagers and sex
Advice for parents on talking to teenagers about sex, relationships and how to stay safe
Young people can feel confused, anxious or pressured over sex and whilst they often want advice, they don't always know how or who to ask.
There are ways parents can support teenagers as they develop sexual awareness and relationships. However, children may not want to talk to their parents about sex. If it is difficult for you and your child to talk about this subject you can encourage them to contact ChildLine or another advice line.
If you are able to talk to your child about sex and relationships, it is important to strike a balance between overprotecting or under protecting them and this can be a challenge. Many parents and carers worry about how to advise and support young people about issues such as what is legal, what is safe, and how to recognise risk.
The age of consent across the UK is 16 years for both opposite sex and same sex relationships. The law is there to stop adults or other teenagers abusing young people. Some aspects of the law are complex and if you are worried about your teenager or confused about what is legal, you can contact us for advice from our trained counsellors.
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Teenagers need to be informed and feel supported to make safe decisions about sex and relationships.
Knowing the facts helps avoid confusion
Not giving teenagers the facts about sex and the law may leave them confused and more likely to seek sexual experiences early.
In all four nations of the UK, sexual acts are unlawful with any teenager under 13 years old.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law aims to protect teenagers under the age of 16 from abuse from adults but recognises the possibility of mutual consensual sex between teenagers aged 13 to 15 years.
The legal position in Scotland is slightly different but the authorities may not always decide to prosecute such cases.
For more information, read the Family Planning Association’s factsheet on the law on sex.
Sexual activity at an early age may affect self-esteem
Teenagers who become sexually active at an early age may later regret their actions. The younger the age of first intercourse, the more likely there will be an impact on their self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
One in four girls and one in three boys have had sex by the time they reach the age of 16. Young people who rely upon friends or the media as their main source of information about sex are more likely to have had early sexual intercourse. You can read more facts and figures about sexual activity and teenagers on the Brook website.
Bullying and peer pressure
Young people may be bullied by peers into sexual activities they don't want to do. There has been an increase in reports of coercive and abusive relationships between teenagers. Our research showed that two out of three cases of sexual abuse in teenagers aged 0-17 years were carried out by perpetrators who were also under 18.
Peer pressure is a more common factor for young men, whereas young women more commonly report pressure from their partners influencing their decisions to have sex. In another NSPCC research study, one in three girls and 16 per cent of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence.
There is also a growing incidence of bullying behaviour through sexting - using mobile phones and social network sites on the web.
Sexual risks may lead to other risky behaviours
Young people who are involved in other risky activities such as getting drunk or taking drugs may also take sexual risks.
These may include having sex with people they don't know or not using contraception which can lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy.
Starting up a conversation about sex can be uncomfortable. Young people may find it difficult to raise the subject or ask for advice. If you take the initiative you may find they are relieved to have your guidance and support.
One way to do this is to tell them you want to have a private conversation, but let them choose the time. If it is difficult to find time alone at home, try to find somewhere else to talk where you both feel comfortable.
Read our guidance on sexual behaviour of children what's normal and when to worry.
When to start talking about sex and relationships
Ideally, start whilst they are young and discuss sex and relationships in an age appropriate way. The more you are willing to talk, the less likely your teenager is to get (possibly inaccurate) advice somewhere else.
Take a look at our guidance which gives some ideas on how to talk to young people about sex.
Encourage your child to speak out when they feel uncomfortable. This will help them to feel confident that they will be heard and respected, and will build their resistance to peer pressure as they grow up.
Discuss how to stay safe online and on the phone
Talk to your teenager about internet safety, including how to deal with unwanted contacts on social networking websites and on their mobiles; and how to 'block' people they don't trust. Many parents may find that their children know more about social networking and the cyber world than they do! You can learn from them and that may be a start for a discussion.
Talk about sexual experimentation and peer pressure
Share what the law says about age of consent and let your teenager know you think about these matters. You should, however, let them know that you will support them and you are always there for them to talk to you.
Try to remain calm, be open-minded and listen without judgement to what your child is saying to you. This can be difficult, especially if you are worried about what they are talking about.
If they talk about things that you don't understand or don't have enough information about, such as contraception and safe sex, tell them you don't know but offer to find out for them or with them. You can always contact us if you need to talk things through.
Be familiar with their friends and other relationships
Take an interest in their friendship group and who they are dating. Make certain that if they are dating someone older, this person is fully aware of your teenager’s age.
Listen to their worries
Take them seriously and follow up on their concerns. Stay calm (or at least try to seem calm!) when things go wrong or mistakes are made, so your teenager feels confident to share upsets with you without worrying about how you will cope.
You may also find these other resources or websites helpful:
Children can also visit the ChildLine website for advice on sexual matters.