Sexual health for kids and teens

Sexual health involves an individual’s sense of wellbeing in relation to their sexuality and sense of sexual self. Like any other form of personal health, it comes from a place of accurate knowledge, personal awareness, acceptance and sense of self. 

The World Health Organisation defines sexual health as:

"A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

Knowing the differences and commonalities between sexuality and sexual health will help you as a parent support your child as they grow and develop. Sexuality is central to who a person is. It includes a young person’s gender, gender identification and sexual orientation.  

By 17 years of age

  • Approximately 2 in 3 teenagers have had a romantic relationship  
  • Approximately 1 in 3 have had sexual intercourse 

Sexual health includes: 

  • safety to express individual sexuality (including sexual orientation or gender identity) 
  • the right to healthy relationships 
  • freedom from coercion and the right to sexual consent 
  • protection and treatment options for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) 
  • access to accurate information and relevant healthcare. 

Consent laws in Australia

The age of sexual consent across Australia is 16 years of age, except for Tasmania and South Australia, where it's 17. Being able to give consent means you can say yes or no willingly. 

Adults and teenagers alike must understand that a person cannot consent if they are:  

  • under 16 (or 17 in S.A or Tas)
  • unconscious 
  • under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol 
  • forced, intimidated, or tricked 
  • incapable of consenting due to cognitive impairment. 

Capacity to consent involves understanding what the sexual activity involves, having enough information to decide, and being able to communicate decisions. Teaching your child about sex and consent empowers them to say no. If concerns arise about your child’s capacity to consent, speak to your local doctor. 

Sexual consent laws

The age of sexual consent in NSW and most of Australia is 16 years of age.

Sexual consent

Consent is the permission a person gives for something to happen or the agreement to do something. It is considered, reversible, informed, specific and participatory. 

Consent is one of the most important topics you can teach your child in order for them to have positive, respectful and safe sexual health relationships as they develop into adults. As with all conversations, starting early and making sure they are age-appropriate will help your child understand the concept of consent by the time they hit their teenage years. 

These conversations can relate to other forms of consent when your child is younger to introduce the idea of consent. The more often you have conversations around the ideas of consent and, more specifically, sexual consent, the easier they will become.  

See Emerging topics - consent for more information. 

Teaching consent at a younger age can take the following forms:

  • preferring a high five than a kiss from a certain distance relative 
  • refraining from tackling or wrestling another sibling because they don’t enjoy it as much  
  • saying no to using an image on a friend’s social media page 
  • wanting a parent to pick them up from a social event early.

The most important reason to have ongoing discussions regarding consent with children is to empower them to make informed choices and to respect the boundaries of people around them. 

The benefits of having conversations around consent with your child include: 

  • providing the tools to set healthy personal boundaries 
  • creates respect, empathy and consideration for others 
  • building independence and autonomy 
  • minimises shame around their body and how they express themselves 
  • creates a safe space and bond between your child and you as a parent or carer 
  • helping understand certain situations they may find themselves in. 

Prevalence of sexual assault

Nearly 2 million Australians have experienced at least one form of sexual assault since the age of 15. Teaching children about sexual consent can help reduce these numbers.

When your child learns their personal boundaries and can respect others, they can respond in the right way when there is disagreement following a behaviour. The beauty of teaching children about consent is that the message is the same for both parties. All people, in all situations, have the right to give or deny permission based on what they are comfortable with and where their personal boundaries lie.

Did you know?

Of the 31,118 victims of sexual assault recorded to police in Australia in 2021, 49% were under the age of 18.

Starting the conversation about puberty, sex and consent

Parents or carers may be uncomfortable or unsure where to start the conversation about sexual health, sexuality, relationships and consent. The traditional ‘birds and bees’ discussion has evolved over the years and children and young adults are looking for more well-rounded and accurate information regarding their bodies, consent, relationships and sexuality.  

While sexual education is often taught in schools, parents shouldn’t assume and rely on that as the only source of information for their children. Avoiding having conversations with your child about sexual health will not stop them from exploring their sexuality or keep them safe. 

Equipping children with the right information

Children and adolescents are looking for much more than a discussion on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancy. They are looking for guidance around their bodies, consent, relationships and sexuality too.

Parents have a key role in supporting children to make informed choices about their sexual health. This includes gradual, ongoing conversations from an early age, which are proven to be more effective at: 

  • increasing your child’s knowledge about their health and body  
  • lowering rates of unintended pregnancy 
  • lowering rates of sexually transmitted infections and related health issues 
  • safeguarding children from sexual abuse. 

Talking about relationships, puberty and sex from an early age can not only help them navigate the world around them, but it will also upskill your child to know their body and help identify any health issues or concerns early as they develop through their puberty years. Talking about these topics will look different in every family depending on differences in background, culture, religion or family dynamics.  

Tips for discussing sexual health

Find the teachable moments

Leading into conversations about sexual health can be much easier when there is a bit of a prompt such as a TV show referring to sexual health or a related school health topic. Ask your child their thoughts on what they are seeing or whether they discuss those topics with their mates.

Be approachable and manage your reactions

Like any other topic you discuss with your child, if your emotions are calm and rational in the situation, your child is more likely to open up in the future. Even if you don’t fully agree with a certain situation, try to remain rational as it is better than you are informed in order to keep your child safe. 

Be open and honest

Listen openly to what your child is telling you and provide them with accurate information. Refer to things by their proper name so your child is not confused by any concepts. If you do not know the right information or aren’t confident, then research it together with your child from a reputable source. 

See resources for parents and children for more information. 

Encourage your child to ask questions

If your child is seeking further information from you, it means they are likely getting the right information at the right time. Let them know you are happy they came to you and to keep asking regardless of the topic.

Know that you don’t have to be their only support

Some topics your child may want to discuss with a third party as bringing it up to a parent seems strange. Keep an open line of communication with your child but inform them there are other people who can help with their questions too, including a trusted family member, a youth worker or a known healthcare professional. By allowing this, you take the pressure off yourself as a parent and your child can open up to an external trusted source.

Be conscious of different perspectives

When you teach your child about different gender identities or different perspectives, they are much more likely to be empathetic to others in certain scenarios. Discussing sexual health while asking further questions like “How would a young female or male feel in that scenario?” or “What about a person who is navigating their gender identity?”

Some starter questions for parents

  • “Do you know the changes that occur to your body during puberty?” 
  • “How do you feel when talking about topics like respect, consent and consent in a relationship?” 
  • “Do you talk about different aspects of a relationship with your friends currently?” 
  • “Have you had many discussions around sexual health with your friends or at school? Would you know where to find accurate information if you were curious to know more?” 

Topics to discuss

Condoms, contraception, consent and sexual health checks are an essential part of discussions with your child as they reach their teenage years. Research has shown that talking about sexual health early can delay the age at which a teenager becomes sexually active because they are informed and can make decisions about their health and wellbeing. 

Did you know?

In NSW, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) like chlamydia and gonorrhoea are most common in the 15–29-year age bracket.

STIs: how they spread, treatment, and prevention

While STIs infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be treatable, they are very easily spread and can have lasting impacts on health, for example, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, preterm birth, neonatal death, and pelvic inflammatory disease. Some infections, like HIV and herpes, spread easily and cannot be cured. This is why knowledge about safe sex is so important for teenagers. 

The most common examples of STIs include:  

  • chlamydia 
  • herpes virus 
  • gonorrhoea (the clap) 
  • genital warts 
  • hepatitis B 
  • hepatitis C 
  • human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) 
  • human papilloma virus (HPV) 
  • syphilis.

STI should be diagnosed through a sexual health clinic. The Family Planning NSW Talkline is a free and confidential service if your child does want to seek out STI testing discretely.  

STIs are usually treated through a course of antibiotics or antiviral medications and will be prescribed, if necessary, after a sexual health checkup and positive diagnosis. 

Types and purpose of contraception

Contraception methods (birth control) help prevent or reduce the chance of unwanted pregnancy. They block the fertilisation of the female egg from the male sperm during and after sexual intercourse.  

There are many contraception options including: 

  • Condoms: Condoms are either a (male) thin rubber tube which covers the penis or (female) can be inserted into the vagina. Condoms are a barrier method to contraception which can be sources through pharmacies and family planning clinics. Condoms (internal and external) not only help as a contraception aid, they are also a great way to practice safe sex as they stop infections from spreading for vaginal, anal or oral sex. Condoms can be up to 95% effective if used correctly and there are no breaks or slips. 
  • Contraceptive pills: a hormone containing medication which is necessary to be administered daily. The most common contraceptive pill is the combined pill (aka “the pill”) which contains the two hormones- oestrogen and progestogen. The combined pill has 21 regular tablets and 7 sugar tablets to help keep the habit consistent through the time of a female's period. The other pill option has 28 total tablets and contains progestogen only. These have an effective rate of 93%. 
  • Intra Uterine Devices (IUD): a small device which is inserted in the uterus. There are two main types of IUDs (hormonal IUDs and copper IUDs) and can stay in place as a contraceptive device for 5 to 10 years. Both forms of IUDs must be inserted and removed by a trained medical professional. 
  • Contraceptive implants: a small device containing hormones inserted into the inside of the upper arm by a trained medical professional. It can last for up to 3 years. 
  • Depo Provera injections: a hormone fluid injected into the arm or bottom and lasts up to 3 months. 
  • Vaginal rings: a soft plastic ring which is inserted into the vagina and can last up to 3 weeks with the same 2 hormones as the contraceptive pill (oestrogen and progestogen). 
  • Diaphragms: a cup-shaped device inserted into the vagina before sex to prevent pregnancy. They are not seen as effective as other methods of contraception and do not prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) 
  • Withdrawal methods: This is when the penis is pulled out of the vagina before ejaculation and fluid is released. This is a difficult contraceptive method to control and is not advised. 
  • Emergency contraception: This method is used to prevent unplanned pregnancy if no protection was used during sex, a condom was broken or there was a contraceptive pill missed or not taken. It can be purchased at a pharmacy, is only one tablet and needs to be taken as soon as possible after sex. This is also often referred to as the morning after pill. 

No form of contraception is 100% accurate in preventing pregnancy for those who are sexually active. 

It is advised to talk to your family doctor to help understand what contraceptive method is right for your child. 

The importance of consent in relationships and sexual encounters

It is important to discuss with your child the important lines of consent including the rights and responsibilities they have as an individual. as well as the rights and responsibilities other people have as well. See Sexual consent to help you discuss these topics with your child. 

Online sexual content

Research shows that children encounter sexual content earlier than their parents, usually through the internet and online pornography. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 years of age, which can seem worrying for parents, but there are some useful tips to help. Along with the Tips for discussing sexual health information, try to keep shame out of the conversation, reassure them that being curious is normal at their age and make sure pornography isn’t a taboo topic. 

It’s important for parents and carers to talk to children early about sexual health, puberty and sex to make sure they get the right information early, delivered in a safe and age-appropriate way. If these topics are completely ignored by parents, the risk is children are getting their information from unknown or more provocative sources. 

Other questions your child may ask: 

  • What happens if a condom breaks? 
  • Do tampons get stuck?  
  • What is an orgasm? 
  • Do people have to have sex? 
  • Can lesbians have babies? 

Family planning

Family planning as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is: 

“the ability of individuals and couples to anticipate and attain their desired number of children and the spacing and timing of their births.” 

Family planning includes all the services and support leading up to the point of conception and can include: 

  • contraception 
  • sexual education 
  • prevention and management of STIs 
  • counselling services 
  • infertility management. 

Call the Family Planning NSW Talkline on 1300 658 886 for free and confidential sexual health support if you have further questions about family planning for your child. 

Considerations for people living with a disability

People living with a physical, intellectual or neurological disability have the right to express their sexuality and sexual health like anyone else. As a parent or carer, there may need to be some extra support and discussions in place to help guide your child through this process. 

Along with the Tips for discussing sexual health, parents and carers should consider these extra supports for people living with a disability: 

Always come from a space of respect and dignity

People with a disability deserve all the respect and dignity as they try to navigate this often-confusing world. Acknowledging their autonomy and answering questions in an age and intellectually-appropriate way will help you meet them where they are on their sexual health journey.

Empower your child

Along with providing accurate information for sexual health, contraception, consent and healthy relationships, explaining the social rules of sex is beneficial. Knowing what is acceptable private behaviour and what is acceptable public behaviour can help your child understand their own rights and responsibilities, for example, highlighting topics like masturbation aren't naughty or negative activities; it is a private act usually for the privacy of their own room.

Understand their needs

People with a disability have their own thoughts, feelings, needs and desires. Recognising that curiosity and exploration exist and helping them understand when and where they may be able to recognise and explore their sexual health is important. If this is in the form of relationships, bring the other party’s parents in on the conversation to help create transparency and further support. 

Avoid automatic assumptions

By assuming your child ‘doesn’t do that’ or they ‘won’t like that’, denies them the right to explore and understand for themselves. People living with a disability are often wrongly perceived as childlike or asexual. As long as they are in a safe, informed and consenting environment, respect this and allow your child to develop their sexual health.

Provide information for others

Allowing others to understand where your child is on their sexual health journey will help keep a consistent message for your child. This could be other family members who care for your child or disability support workers who provide short-term accommodation. Like any other topic, checking in with other carers can keep you informed and on the same page.

Supporting your child to create healthy relationships is one of the best things you can do as a parent or carer. By implementing the information regarding sexual health, you set them up for success as they grow and develop. 

Resources for parents and adolescents

The following links are great resources on sexual health support for yourself as a parent or your child. Often, your child may want to seek information themselves which is encouraged. 

  • Play Safe: Information about STIs and sexual health checks 
  • Body Talk: Information about puberty, relationships, contraception and STIs 
  • ACON: Information for those who are same-sex attracted, intersex and gender-diverse health 
  • Family Planning NSW Talkline (1300 658 886) for free and confidential sexual health support. 
Last updated Monday 6th May 2024