And although they may insist they know it all and shrivel with embarrassment when you try to tackle the nitty gritty, we asked the experts how parents can persevere.
The groundwork to open conversation can begin when they are young children, when mums and dads typically tackle the early discussion about body parts in response to questions from the children themselves.
Talking to teenagers about important life matters should certainly include transparent conversations around safe sex.
“That means protecting against pregnancy, but also against sexually transmitted infection. Young people will be getting that information from a range of sources, from school, peers, online, but home is definitely a great place for them to get it,” said Raising Children executive director Professor Julie Green.
Of course, sexual health is not simply about the act itself – it’s intimately related to mental health, consent, confidence, peer relationships, acceptance … the list goes on. Ashley de Silva, CEO of ReachOut, the online mental health service for young people and parents, acknowledges that talking about sex can be daunting for both parents and teenagers. Like Prof. Green, he urges parents to avoid the one-off – and awkwardly one-sided – ‘serious talk’ they may have endured themselves in their youth.
“Regularly integrate positive messages about sex and relationships into conversations with teenagers,” he says.
Despite parents’ best efforts, both experts say that encountering teen resistance is common. Increased independence and claiming greater privacy are both normal parts of any adolescent’s development.
“If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you, there may be other ways they might want to communicate. For example, they might be happy for you to email them articles to read,” Mr de Silva says.
Mother of two Michelle Tulloch believes her kids Nathan, 18, and Abigail, nearly 16, aren’t embarrassed by the topic because they don’t see sex as something that shouldn’t be talked about – it’s always been part of ordinary family discussion.
“It’s not a big deal, it’s like nudity, periods,” she says. “They know that it’s perfectly normal. They’re really quite comfortable talking about it.”
Now they’re maturing and confiding more in peers, Ms Tulloch says her role has naturally transitioned.
“I’m not their friend, I’ve never been wanting to know what’s going on in their personal life. My job is to be their parent. I’m here if they need me, as opposed to sharing stories and conquests,” she says.
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Start early is not a phrase in anyone’s sex education playbook, but parents can safely take the advice themselves. Experts suggest that a solid foundation for sexual health and safety begins with normalising conversations about sex in line with every child’s natural curiosity about bodies and what they do.
Prof. Green says discussing sexuality and sexual development can – and should – begin very early, including naming body parts and plain talk around bodily functions.
That foundation gives parent and child both language and confidence as children grow into young adulthood.
“Conversations around puberty can hopefully start before those physical changes happen. Early puberty for girls might be before eight; for boys, that might be before nine. One of the helpful things for parents is to look ahead and try and be prepared,” Prof Green says.
“They’re not just single conversations – what’s really good is for them to be frequent conversations. A great starting point is (asking) what your child knows about something.”
Prof Green says there are many ways to initiate such exchanges. Watching a movie together or responding to a news item around sexual identity or elements of sexuality can be good entry points.
“One of the central points around sexuality for young people is for them to feel comfortable and to understand sexuality and sexual development, and for both parents and young people to understand that is central to healthy development,” she says.
FREE RESOURCES TO HELP PARENTS
Parenting resources for child sexual education include your GP, state family planning clinics and trusted professional organisations. Here are Professor Green’s top tips:
1. Think about what’s good for young people’s health and development.
2. Start with what your child knows.
3. Have frequent conversations, drawing on cues from daily life.
4. Look ahead, prepare yourself and build your own knowledge.
5. Take your cues from your child and keep the door open.
6. Stick to common, anatomical names for body parts and their function.
For more information, forums and support, visit raisingchildren.net.au and reachout.com