Tip & Info
Tip & Info

Understanding Sexuality

An overview for parents

Sexuality and development

“Sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure and intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships” (World Health Organisation, 2002).

All people are sexual beings throughout life and have the right to information and choice. Acceptance of one’s own sexuality is integral to health throughout the life course, and a key phase in our development from child, to young adult, to adult.

For children and young people, learning about sexuality is as important as any other learning and it is important that we help our children to feel good about their bodies and the changes that take place and the decisions they are making. When parents can talk openly with their children, children are more likely to talk with them as they sort out their own values, learn to be comfortable with their developing sexuality and begin to make choices.[1]

However, for some parents, discussing sexuality with your child can be a daunting and confronting time. Knowing what to say, how much to say and how to say it in a way that is accurate, informative and age-appropriate can cause some parents a great deal of anxiety. Conversations about sexuality are some of the most important conversations you will ever have with your son or daughter, so it’s important to think about how you’ll approach it so that you feel comfortable and capable when it does happen. This topic aims to support parents to discuss sexuality with your children and to feel confident and capable in how to approach these topics

Sexuality is a broad area of conversation and includes a diverse range of topics that will change depending on the developmental phase of your child. As your child ages, new topics will need to be discussed as your child is faced with new physical, psychological or emotional changes.

What should I be talking to younger children (3-9 years) about?

It may be helpful for you to discuss the following sexuality topics with your child. However, parents should adjust the information given to your child to be appropriate for his or her age and developmental stage.

  • Bodies, anatomy and gender
  • Simple explanations about reproduction and sex
  • Personal boundaries and self-touching
  • The difference between public and private behaviours
  • Safety messages about sexual abuse

It is important that you talk to your child honestly and give them factual information. Dispelling myths and clarifying talk that your child may have heard in the playground, will ultimately leave them feeling more confident in their own bodies and knowledge, and lead them to feel confident in talking to you about their sexuality in the future.

If at any stage, you are unsure about your child’s sexualised behaviours, Family Planning Queensland offers the following Traffic light guide[2], highlighting which sexual behaviours are normal for different age groups [0 to 4 years; 5-9 years; 10-13 years; 14-17 years]-, those that are outside normal and require monitoring and those behaviours which are problematic or harmful and require immediate attention.

What about my older children  (10-12 years) and teenagers (13-19 years)

The rapid nature of their physical, psychological and emotional development leads to the need to have discussions with your child about the following topics:

  • Female physical development (includes menstruation, pubic hair and breast growth)
  • Male physical development (includes erections, wet dreams, pubic and facial hair, muscle growth)
  • Masturbation
  • Sexual and gender identity
  • Sexual feelings and desires
  • Sexual experiences and consent
  • Healthy relationships
  • Safe sex, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV/AIDS
  • Pregnancy and child birth

Is my teenager having sex?

In her book about teenage sexuality[3], Sinikka Elliott states that “teenagers have sex. While almost all parents understand that many teenagers are sexually active, there is a paradox in many parent’s thinking: they insist their own children are not sexual, while characterising their children’s peers as sexually-driven and hypersexual”. While it may make you uncomfortable to think about your child as a sexual being, talking about sexuality and talking about it regularly and in an ongoing basis will build trust between you and your child, and result in them being informed and confident about their own sexuality.

An American study into teenage sexual behaviour found that “adolescents who have repeated communications about sex, sexuality, and development with their parents, are more likely to have an open and closer relationships with them, in addition to being more likely to talk with their parents in the future about sex issues than adolescents whose sexual communication with their parents included less repetition”.[4] In addition, another American study showed that teenagers who felt connected to their parents and family were more likely than other teens to delay initiating sexual intercourse.[5]

Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
What about other types of sexual orientation?

While the majority of individuals will identify as heterosexual, it is also important to acknowledge that your child’s sexual identity may not be heterosexual, but may be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ). Similarly, while the majority of other parents will be heterosexual, a number of LGBTIQ people and couples are having families, and this is increasing. A separate topic has been developed that looks specifically at the types of information and support available for parents of LGBTIQ people. If you have a child that is intersex, you can contact Organisation Intersex International Australia to get some more support and information to assist your child during their developmental stages of sexuality and growth.

Where can I get more information?

There is a huge amount of information available on the web and in books about these issues. The challenge of being a parent is to keep up to date about the issues and what information is available, so that when you engage in conversation you can offer relevant, current information or at least know where to go to find out more if necessary.

If you have taken time to think a bit about the issues then it will be easier to talk about some of the concerns your child may have. Leaflets from the GP, library, health centre or school can also be helpful and up to date.

Developmental issues – Puberty, and sexual and physical development

Parenting SA: Children’s Sexual Development
Children, Youth and Women’s Health, Kids’ Health: Adolescence
Family Planning Association of Western Australia (FPWA) Puberty: Everything you want to know

Gender identity issues and sexual identity

Twenty10: A Coming Out guide for parents
Trans Youth Family Allies: Frequently asked Questions about Gender Identity
American Psychological Association: Individuals with Intersex conditions
Organisation Intersex International Australia: Information for parents of intersex kids

Sexual abuse and assault

Yarrow Place: Information for Parents whose teenager has experienced a rape or sexual assault.
Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service, Teen Health: Surviving Sexual Abuse


Better Health Channel: Teenage Pregnancy
Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service: Pregnancy – Options

Contraception, Sexual Health and safer sex (sexually transmitted infections (STI’s)

Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service. Safer Sex
NSW Health: Play Safe
Western Australian Government: Get the Facts. Contraception
Better Health Channel: Contraception, choices explained

Respectful relationships

Headspace: Adolescent Romantic Relationships

Starting and continuing sexual relationships

Family Planning Western Australia: Relationships
Family Planning Queensland: Sex – You decide
Better Health Channel. Sex – are you ready?

Sexual education for children with disabilities

Family Planning Queensland: Sexuality Education and Asperger’s Syndrome
Family Planning Queensland: About Periods: For Girls with an intellectual disability
Better Health Channel: Sexual education for children with intellectual disabilities

Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.


1. Family Planning Queensland. Retrieved from:

2. Retrieved from:

3. Elliot, S. (2012). Not my Kid: What Parents believe about the sex lives of their teenagers, New York University Press: New York

4. Martino SC, Elliott MN, Corona R et al. (2008). 'Beyond the "Big Talk": The Roles of Breadth and Repetition in Parent-Adolescent Communication about Sexual Topics'. In Pediatrics. 2008;121:e612-e618

5. Resnick MD et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. JAMA 1997; 278:823-32

This topic was last reviewed May 2015

Share this post with your friends!