How to talk to teens about sex — and romance

  • June 28, 2017

Teens need to know the birds and the bees, but don’t forget love and romance too

I find it easy to talk about sex. I’m the woman who instructed the Cosmo team to interview couples who had experienced “extreme orgasms” in outer space and on the seabed. The s-word holds no fear for me, so I’ve always been open about the subject with my offspring. We encourage the children to use the correct terms for their sexual organs in our house — there’s no fannying around with daft pet names. I recall one visitor being slightly alarmed when my five-year-old referred to hurting her “vagina” after she fell over.

I first started to talk properly about sex to my eldest girls when they were eight years old, but back then the reality of sex was some way off. It looms large now they are 13 and 14, so I think it’s time to have that ever-so-serious, factually accurate conversation about what to expect.

Well, I was thinking that, until I spoke to a fellow mum who has teenagers older than mine and realised I had got it all wrong. She’s had “the talk” with her daughters and concluded that, actually, I shouldn’t be talking to my girls about sex, I should be talking to them about love. I shouldn’t be discussing what goes where while they cringe with embarrassment, I should be talking about feeling cared for, supported and respected.


  • 7.1% The percentage of men aged 16 to 24 whose parents were their main source of sex education, compared with 14.1% of women (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 2012)

She realised that while we as parents are obsessed by the potentially casual nature of teenage sex, teens themselves are more worried about the romantic aspects of new relationships.

“My 15-year-old daughter’s first boyfriend refused to walk her to the bus stop after a date,” she told me. “This upset her far more than anything physical that may or may not have been happening.”

A refreshing survey published last month asked 3,000 young adults what they wanted from “the talk” and 70% of 18- to 25-year-olds said they wished their parents had told them more about romance than sex. And 65% said they wanted emotional guidance in their sex-education classes. The study also points out that the basic issue of consent wasn’t being tackled adequately either, by parents or teachers.

This was reinforced by another survey last month, which found that sex education in schools may actually increase teenage pregnancy rates — because it can encourage risky behaviour.

So what do we do? The first report, published by Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, includes a series of useful suggestions for parents that are worth reading online. Its general advice is to stop focusing on the physical side of teenage “hook-ups”, and start to unpick the more complicated but rather lovely side of young love and all the possibilities it holds.

Of course, “the talk” has to happen, but it’s less painful when put in the context of love. How many of you have thought about it this way? Now I am looking forward to talking to my girls about love and the wonderful adventures ahead of them.

Parenting Hacks: How to talk to your child about sex

Take your time
Don’t feel under pressure to have one big conversation that explains everything. Instead, see it as a topic that you’ll both revisit over several years.

Lighten up
Attempt to answer any questions as directly as possible. If either of you feel embarrassed, admit that sex can be an awkward topic and inject humour where possible.

Love is the message
Try not to lecture. Clearly state your feelings on specific issues such as birth control and consent, but also relate sex to love, self-esteem and a healthy relationship.

Pick their brain
Instead of panicking at a difficult question, ask your child why they want to know what they’ve asked. Knowing the context will help to shape your answer.