Andi Cope
RSE Lead for Spectrum

How to talk to your children about sex

Sex can be a tricky topic – and in literature, there is a big market that preys on parental anxieties in talking about the ‘birds and the bees’ with children.

Yet, why should this be? As a parent, you are the person who knows your child best – yet for some reason, so many people believe that this topic eludes you and you are going to ruin their childhood by giving them the wrong information. You are not! You are the best person to have these conversations, and you do not need to buy literature or find links online to help you. Here’s my advice;

  1. If you are asking this question (‘how can I talk to my child about sex?’), then you have already been thinking about it – you already have a headstart.
  2. Before entering into discussions about sex, reflect on your own values around this topic, where these came from and if these are important to pass on
  3. Only respond to your enquiring child or a situation that has caused your child confusion or harm
  4. If you think your child is ready, then it’s about responding naturally – not building up to a BIG TALK.
  5. If your child is asking a question and is quite young, only answer that question – they may not want to know all the details at this stage.

“How did that baby get in Mummy’s tummy?”

You can dream up many elaborate reasons as to why Mummy has a baby in her tummy, but sometimes simple answers work best. For a child under 5 you could say; “to have a baby, you need a female egg and a male’s sperm and when they meet, they can start to grow like this one.” If there is a Mummy and a Daddy, you can say “Mummy’s egg and Daddy’s sperm”, but you could also depersonalise it at this age.

When children are older and start to ask more questions, expand your answers in response to their direct questions, or things that they see on TV or hear in passing. Let them know that asking questions is okay. By the age of 10 or 11, it is very likely that the school nurse will be making an appearance at their primary school to talk about puberty and growing up. Within this talk, sex can be discussed (depending on the school policy). Find out by looking on your school’s website – as I was with a group of teenagers this week who said they had their ‘sex talk’ in yr5. You also need to be aware that if you don’t talk about it at home, they will start to hear conversations within peer groups about sex, babies and perhaps things they see online.

When I ask my Year Seven pupils in my RSE lessons, “What is sex for?”, they respond without hesitation with – “to have babies!” This means that parents are doing a good job but what is missing? Children can understand that communicating love and your feelings towards someone can trigger an emotional response. Teach your child that sex is not just about making babies – it’s also something people do to feel pleasure and because it can be nice, and they enjoy it.

So, some simple tips for talking about sex:

  1. Respond to the question asked
  2. Keep it simple and factual
  3. Use the correct language for body parts
  4. Always look for opportunities for discussion throughout adolescence that reflect the positives and negatives of sex.

Be open to discussion

With my older pupils, one of the things students fear the most about accessing advice about sexual health is parents finding out they are thinking about or are having sex. As the parent of teens myself, I understand that many parents want to preserve their childhood for as long as possible – but not to the extent that when they need support, they don’t feel as though we as parents can help.

Worse, they think we might punish or ground them if they thought we knew they needed guidance or advice about their health or relationships. If we have got honest and open relationships with our children from early years, I absolutely think this makes a difference in their teenage years.

In the Spectrum sexual health clinics, we will always encourage young people to talk to their parents, but we can’t force or ensure that this happens. We do have postcards that we can give out to young people that can help your child raise the conversation with you that they have attended our clinic. If you ever see one of these in your house, reflect on your response as they will have asked for this as a way of reaching out to you at home.

About the author

Andi Cope leads Spectrum’s RSE provision and has been working in Relationships and Sex Education since 2008. She is passionate about the personal, social and health education of young people, and creating innovative resources that address sensitive topics in an interactive and inclusive way.

Andi has a background in creative arts and youth and community work, and is also a doctoral student focusing on RSE policy and practice. Materials developed by Andi for a prison-based RSE programme were awarded the Pamela Sheridan Sex and Relationship Award in 2015, and in 2016 her resources for the Learning Disability RSE Programme were shortlisted for the HSJ Patient Safety Award. Andi works closely with young people as the co-producers of the RSE materials and supports schools and youth services to deliver RSE in line with Government guidance. To find out more, email PR@spectrum-cic.nhs.uk.