Healthy relationships

Advice for parents and carers on how to talk to their child about relationships, sex and consent.

It’s natural for children and teenagers to be curious about sex and relationships as they grow older. But for some parents and carers, their child starting a new relationship or to have sex can also be a worrying time. More young people are also starting relationships online, or use things like social media or video apps to communicate with their partners.

You may feel anxious that your child’s growing up too fast or be worried about their safety. We have advice to help you understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and on what you can do to support your child.

How to talk to your child about relationships

Many parents or carers may feel awkward or uncomfortable talking to their child about relationships and sex. But there are ways you can make the conversation easier:

    • Try to find a good time to start a conversation. Pick a time when your child’s relaxed and when there aren’t other people in your family around. You might want to have the conversation in a neutral place, such as on a walk or a bike ride, or even in the car, rather than somewhere at home where you might be interrupted.
    • It can help to make the conversation relevant to something that’s happened recently. For example, if you’ve been watching a TV series or film where one of the characters is in a relationship. You could ask your child what they think about the character’s relationship and if it’s healthy or unhealthy. Or if your child’s been learning about sex and relationships education in school, you could ask them how they’re finding this or what everyone in the class thought about it.
    • Try not to rush the conversation and let your child talk to you in their own time. It can help to have several short conversations rather than trying to cover everything at once. If your child feels uncomfortable, let them know that you’re there if they want to talk to you about relationships at a different time.

Worried about a child?

If you're worried about a child or young person, you can contact the NSPCC helpline for support and advice for free - call us on 0808 800 5000 or contact us online.

Children can contact Childline any time to get support themselves.

Get support

Support if you're worried about your child's relationship

Realising that your child may be involved in an unhealthy relationship can be upsetting and worrying for parents and carers. It can also be difficult to know if something’s wrong or how to help them. We can help you to spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship and know what to do if you’re worried.

Signs that a child might be in an unhealthy relationship are: 

    • Becoming isolated and spending little time with family or friends.
    • Controlling behaviour, such as being told what to wear, always needing to let the person know where they are or what they’re doing or having their social media accounts monitored.
    • Feeling pressured or like they have to do things they’re uncomfortable with. This could include being pressured into sex or to send nudes or sexual images.
    • Having their money, access to food or day-to-day items controlled.
    • Being prevented from working or going to school or college or feeling reluctant to go to school.
    • Persistent changes to a child's mood or behaviour can also be a sign that something's wrong. 
    • Being bullied or experiencing sexual bullying, either online, in private or in front of others at home or in school.

If you’re worried a child or young person might be experiencing grooming, sexual, emotional or physical abuse, it’s important to get help right away. Our trained helpline counsellors can offer support and advice over the phone on 0808 800 5000 or online. Children and young people can also contact Childline to get support themselves.

Talking to children about consent

It's important for parents and carers to talk to their children about sex and relationships to help keep them safe and recognise the signs of abuse. We have advice to help you start the conversation below. It can also help to speak to teachers at your child's school about the kinds of topics being covered in sex and relationships education and discuss how you could add to this at home.

When talking to your child about sex and relationships, it's really important that you help them to feel supported by listening openly and non-judgementally. Let them know that they can talk to you if anything inappropriate or that's upset them has happened, whatever the circumstances. And that it's never their fault if it has.

Talking to your child about sex while they’re still in primary school will help you to work out their level of understanding and encourage them to ask questions. Try not to lecture your child but talk together and listen.

You could try:

    • Having short, informal chats now and again. 
    • Using everyday situations to start a conversation, such as seeing a pregnant woman or discussing stories in the news.
    • Using Talk PANTS - a simple conversation to help keep your child safe from sexual abuse. From P through to S, each letter of PANTS provides a simple but valuable rule that can help keep your child safe.
    • Using humour if it makes things easier.

Encourage your child to make safe choices about sex. As children get older it’s important to talk about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception and pregnancy. Although children are generally taught these topics in secondary school, it’s helpful for them to know they can talk about them with you too. Let them know you're there for them if they have any questions or need support.

Childline has advice for young people about pregnancy, STIs and contraception and safe sex.

It's important to talk to children and young people about consent. You can help them to understand that consent in relationships is about feeling in control and saying yes or agreeing to sexual activity because you choose to, not because someone is pressuring you to. Remember sexual activity can be in person or online.

Consent means actively saying yes, using both words and body language. You should explain to your child that they should always check to ensure the other person is happy to have sex or take part in sexual activity of any kind. And that it's important to be aware of the other person's body language and behaviour, and to stop if you think that the other person is uncomfortable or unhappy.

Let your child know that even if they’ve agreed to sexual activity or sex before, whether online or in person, they have the right to change their mind at any time. Tell them they can always talk to you if they feel pressured or unsure if they’re ready to take part in sexual activity or do things like send sexual images. And if they're worried that an image of them has been shared online without their consent, they can use our Report Remove tool to have it taken down.

Childline has advice to help young people understand healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Consent can be complicated and sometimes it can be hard for a young person to recognise what's okay and what's not. We can help if you're worried about a young person's sexual behaviour and find professional support. We can help if you're worried about a young person's sexual behaviour and find professional support.

The law

The age of consent or the legal age to have sex in the UK is 16. The laws are there to protect children and not to prosecute under 16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity.

Any sort of sexual contact without consent is illegal, regardless of the age of those involved. Children under 13 cannot legally consent to any type of sexual activity.

Starting conversations about relationships and sex can sometimes mean a child shares an experience that's distressing or abusive. This can be upsetting or shocking for parents and carers, but there are things you can to help a child feel supported.

1. Show you care and help them to open up
Give the child your full attention and listen without interupting. Be compassionate and reassure them that their feelings are important. 

2. Slow down and take your time
Let the child talk at their pace and don't interupt them while they're talking. Try not to rush them and let them know that they can talk to you again at another time if they don't feel comfortable sharing everything straightaway. Sometimes it can take several conversations for them to tell you everything. 

3. Show you understand 
Show that you're interested in what your child's telling you and check if you're unsure by repeating back what they've told you. Use their language to show it's their experience. 

We have more advice to help you know how to respond if a child discloses abuse.

Support for young people from Childline

    • Healthy and unhealthy relationships - advice on the signs of unhealthy relationships and consent.
    • Relationships - advice for young people starting relationships. 
    • Sex - how to know when you're ready, consent and safe sex.
    • Sexting - advice for young people on sharing and sending nude images.