Talking to pre-adolescent children about sex
Written by Christine Webber, psychotherapist and Dr David Delvin, GP and family planning specialist

When is the right time to talk to your pre-adolescent children about sex? Well, evidence points to the fact that good sex education tends to delay actual sexual activity.

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When is the right time to talk to your pre-adolescent children about sex? Evidence points to the fact that good sex education tends to delay actual sexual activity.
So, in a sense it’s never too early to start. Of course, loads of parents feel anxious about having these kinds of discussions, but if you think about this part of education as being a long, ongoing process in which you answer questions as they arise rather than go in for one ‘big’ serious talk, you will probably begin to see the whole thing as being routine rather than frightening.

Certainly, you will find it enormously difficult to have a big talk with your older teenage kids if you have never created this environment where sex is discussed naturally.

Older teenage children find it seriously embarrassing to talk to their parents if the subject was taboo when they were younger.

In the year 2000, a MORI poll of parents was conducted for the FPA (formerly, the Family Planning Association and in it 92 per cent of parents said they believed that they should play 'a significant role in informing young people about sex and relationships'. A further two-thirds mentioned teachers as important sources of information.

Interestingly, these results were rather different from a 1994 study that showed that parents found it difficult to discuss sex with their children. In that study, only half the parents interviewed said they had broached the subject with their own offspring.

So, even if things have changed hugely for the better since 1994, it seem likely that what parents believe they should do, is not the same as what they actually do when it comes to talking about sex with their children.

Broaching the subject

Given that you probably want to do something about talking to your children – or you wouldn’t be reading this article – how should you get started?

Our experience over the years suggests that parents are happier to ‘do the talking’ if they feel prepared and know what words to say.

So you might like to buy a copy of a video made by the FPA called 'Talking to your kids about sex' (more details at end of this article).

The video is aimed at parents with children approaching puberty and its purpose is to advise mums and dads the best way to go about talking to their own children on this difficult but terrifically important subject.

This video was funded by the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Unit as part of the government's commitment to reducing unwanted pregnancies in teenagers. Currently, the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe - and sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase among young people.

Sex education is vital

It is clear that children need to know about sex - both anatomically and emotionally - and that they need accurate information before puberty.

Some people believe that talking to young people about sex encourages early sexual activity, but as we have already mentioned, all the evidence points to the fact that when children are given good sex education, they tend to delay actual sexual activity.

We saw this fact borne out at first hand during our research into our 1995 book, 'The Big "O"'.

We interviewed a group of girls in the West Country - who had all had babies despite their young ages of 12 and 13 - and also a group of children who had had good sex education both at school and at home in Hertfordshire. The Hertfordshire group - whose average age was 14 - knew far more theory about sex, but none of them had tried it. The West Country group had had no sex education at all and did not even know about periods or how babies were made prior to their pregnancies.

So, education is vital in giving young people informed choices. And it's important that this education should start before the child notices bodily changes in him or herself.

Having said all that, many parents are extremely anxious and shy about discussing sex with their kids. So here are some useful tips:

  • talk about your own experiences. If you were shy about kissing or about how to put an arm round a girl, tell this to your children. Children of this age love stories about you when you were younger. And it helps them to realise that you understand what it's like to be fascinated by sex, but nervous at the same time.

  • talk about feelings - not just anatomy. Of course children need to know what happens during sex. But they also need to know about feelings. When youngsters get into trouble with sex - such as when they fall pregnant - they often say to health professionals: 'No one told us how much we were going to want to do it.' So make sure that your kids know that there's a strong urge to have sex because it's very nice, but also that it's worth saving for a very special, loving relationship.

  • when your child asks difficult questions, ask them some questions back before you launch into an explanation. This will give you a bit of time and help you to know how much knowledge they have already.

  • try to create a climate at home where kids can ask about sex. That way when, for example, some story-line about sex emerges in a TV programme and they want to know about it, they'll feel they can ask you.

  • don't set aside a special day or time to talk about sex. Most kids find this quite alarming. Instead, be prepared to answer questions as and when they happen.

  • it helps parents to have the right 'language' to talk about sex. Buying the FPA video or getting hold of some good books on sex can help. If you and your children are all using the same words for body parts and activities, then you'll feel much less embarrassed.

  • if your child asks a question about sex in a public place, like the supermarket, delay answering, but promise that you'll talk about this important subject just as soon as you get home. And make sure that you do!

Further inforamation

The fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association) have released a new parents' pack to help mums and dads talk to their children about sex. It is available , price £5.50, from fpa, 2-12 Pentonville Road, London N1 9FP . Or you can email, making sure to give your credit card details and address, to:

Last updated 18.01.2005

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