What parents know about their teenagers’ sex lives


Let me clarify. First, for the purposes of this post, I am defining sexual activities as including everything from hand-holding and romantic kissing to oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse. For much of a child’s early life, his or her parents assume he/she is not engaging in sexual activities. For much of an adult’s life, his or her parents assume he/she is engaging in sexual activities.

It’s that tricky time in between childhood and adulthood where parents are, I have found, lagging in their assumptions about their child’s sexuality. For teenagers who have not started engaging in sexual behavior, their parents almost always correctly believe their children are not being sexual. For teenagers who have started engaging in sexual behavior, parents almost always assume their teenagers are engaging in lower levels of sexual activity than they really are. Eventually, although maybe not until the wedding night, parents’ assumptions catch up with their children’s sexual behavior.

This middle point, where parents’ assumptions are lagging their teenagers’ behavior, is a critical time, because it’s when teenagers need the most education about sex, sexuality, and relationships, and their parents aren’t even aware that they need it.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Do most parents and teenagers talk about sex at all, on any level? I started engaging in low level sexual behavior at age 17 and I remember thinking they would kill me if they found out, so talking to them would be stupid.

  2. Some parents and teenagers do talk about sexual activities on some level. It’s not uncommon for teenagers who are dating someone to kiss good-bye in front of their parents. But it is uncommon for teens and their parents to talk about sexual intercourse.

  3. I think the best we can do is try to have a continuing conversation about matters sexual with our children. Its impossible for them not to be influenced by our culture, which means there is embarassment surrounding the topic. We can presume they’re not telling us everything. But we can try, as Karen indicates, to give them information before they need it. That also means the parent needs to be willing to talk about important matters without requiring that the adolescent actually engage in the conversation. The young person might not be ready to talk about it at that point, but you can assume they hear the words and will think about them.

    I really appreciate this forum. It prompted me yesterday to ask my 10-yr-old if she knew what a condom was. She didn’t, but wanted to know. I told her, along with the purposes. She asked, “Why would anyone NOT want to get pregnant?”

    Good to know that response is in her! So, that led to a good conversation about why waiting to have children is a really good idea, for many reasons.

  4. This is a great, point, Ruth. Parents have to keep talking to their teenagers, even if they aren’t talking back, and even if they don’t appear to be listening.

  5. It’s none of your buisness really what we are doing.

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