Hopefully you've talked to them about sex in basic terms already, and they'll have had sex education lessons and covered subjects like puberty at school - but don't presume that this is enough. As much as you might not want your child to have underage sex, it is part of many teenagers' development and you need to prepare them properly with some straight talking advice before they make the decision for themselves.
Here's how to get started:
20 tips for talking about the birds and the bees1. Put yourself in their shoes. Many parents dread talking to their child on the subject, often because they can't bear the idea that their son or daughter may have sex.
Try to remember what it was like for you. Were you horribly ill-prepared for your first sexual encounter or didn't have a clue about how your body worked? Just because you talk to your child about sex, doesn't mean they're going to rush off and have it. Talking openly and giving them accurate information will take away the mystery and confusion of sex and probably help them be more responsible.
2. Just have a chat. If you bring sex into everyday conversation it will be so much easier to talk about, so don't make a big fuss about it and insist on sitting down and having a 'serious talk'. Your teenager may run a mile. Instead, just mention things when they pop into your head.
Talk about relationships on TV soaps, news stories about teenage pregnancy, and use cues to bring up difficult subjects such as sexual abuse or masturbation. If it's part of your normal discussions, this will help your child to feel confident about talking about sex with you.
3. What do they know already? You'll probably be amazed by how much your teenager has already picked up from their mates, from TV and sex education at school. Find out what they do and don't know, fill the gaps and put them right on anything untrue they may have heard.
4. Help them through puberty. This can be a scary and confusing time for your child. Their body will be starting to change into an adult with their sexual organs developing, pubic hair growing and hormones kicking in. With menstruation and growing breasts for girls and wet dreams and voice breaking for boys, it's a lot for both sexes to cope with. But puberty doesn't happen overnight. It's a series of developments that can take years. Explain to your child what's happening to their body and why.
Puberty seems to be happening earlier. The average age is 12 to 14 in girls and 13 to 15 in boys, but girls as young as nine, or younger are now starting their periods. When you and your partner started puberty will be a good indicator of when your child will start theirs.
5. Teach respect. Tell them that as well as respecting other people's feelings about intimacy, it's important that they respect themselves and their own bodies too. They may regret doing something they're not ready for. Tell them that their body is private and that no-one has the right to touch them or do anything else that they don't want them to do without their permission.
6. Explain your values. It's important to talk about your moral or religious values with your child. They may not adopt them too, but if you explain why you'd be unhappy if they had underage sex, for example, or sex before marriage, it can be a talking point for you both to discuss yours and their beliefs.
7. They'll want to experiment. Of course they'll be curious about their bodies once they hit puberty, if not before. Reassure them that it's perfectly normal to have these new feelings of arousal and encourage them to talk to you if they're worried about their development.
8. What about sexual feelings? Feeling sexually aroused is all part of growing up and it's important to tell them that this is natural. Your boy may be embarrassed by his erections and your daughter may be aware of feelings she hasn't had before. Give them the privacy they need now.
9. Too embarrassed? Don't put off talking to your child because you're embarrassed. They probably will be too. Read up on the subject first. The Family Planning Association (FPA) has lots of useful articles and advice that can help you with particularly difficult subjects.
10. Give them the facts. This is no time to be wishy-washy about the facts of life, but if you're worried you haven't got the latest information, supply it, either yourself through organisations such as Brook and Marie Stopes, which offer confidential advice for youngsters on contraception and sex.
11. Getting intimate? There are many ways that your teenager may become intimate without having full-blown sex. Their first kiss and first fumble are important stages in their sexual development, so try to help them by explaining that they can still show their emotions and experiment without having sex.
12. What about love? Explain that the best setting for sex is in a loving relationship. That they'll want to share that special experience with someone they really care about.
13. No, not EVERYONE is having sex. Most young people have sex in a lasting relationship. Recent figures show that three out of every four girls and two out of every three boys haven't had sex by the time they're 16. So no, they're not all doing it! Their mates may have been bragging that they've all had sex already, but tell your child they shouldn't ever feel they have to do something they don't want to do.
14. Tell them it's OK to say no. Remind them that being forced to have sex is against the law. It is rape.
15. Tell them about the law. Explain sexual consent to them and that it is illegal to have sex if they're under 16. They could be arrested for having sex with an underage partner, or if they are underage themselves and their partner is over 16, their partner could be in trouble with the law.
16. So they've got their first boy/girlfriend? Try to get them to open up about their feelings. How do they feel about them? Are they just good mates or do they have stronger feelings? Have they been intimate with each other? If they'll admit to that, then talk to them about the consequences.
17. What if they fall in love? Young love can be very painful, but a really important learning curve for your child. Talk to them about their emotions and explain that sometimes relationships can end in tears, and that you're always there for them. Try to get to know their boyfriend/girlfriend and include them in your family life. Invite them around for dinner, chat to them too. Let them know that you care about your child's relationship with them.
18. Help keep them stay safe. They may not be having an intimate relationship, but sexually transmitted infections have risen dramatically in the last decade amongst young people, so it's important that your teenager knows about STIs and the importance of safe sex. Brook Advisory or the Government R U Thinking site both have lots of information and help aimed at teenagers on STI's.
19. What about contraception? Of course, unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy too, so talk to your youngster about the dangers and contraceptive choices. It's very important that boys are equally aware of the importance of contraception and act responsibly when it comes to an intimate relationship. Offer to go with your teenager to your local sexual health clinic or doctor to talk about contraception.
20. What about pregnancy? Stay calm and support your daughter as best as you can. Take your child to see your GP. They will confirm the pregnancy and offer advice. Brook has counselors too who can help. Of course, you can give advice and support, but your daughter has to make her own mind up on what to do about her pregnancy. If your son thinks he has made a girl pregnant, try to speak to the girl and ask her if you can talk to her parents, if they know about the pregnancy. Again, give as much support and help to both of them as you can.