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View London Safeguarding Children Procedures View London Safeguarding Children Procedures Sex and Personal Relationships

Acknowledgement is made to the Sex Education Forum "Let's talk about sex and relationships", from which this chapter is drawn.

For issues in relation to confidentiality, see Confidentiality Guidelines regarding Personal Relationships and Sexual Health of Looked After Children


  1. Introduction
  2. What do we Mean by Personal Relationships?
  3. What do Children Need to Know?
  4. Talking about Sex and Personal Relationships
  5. Anti-discriminatory Practice

1. Introduction

Talking about sex and relationships with children who are Looked After is crucial to their development as adults.

Residential workers, foster carers and social workers will have many opportunities to help children learn about sex and relationships both informally and formally.

2. What do we Mean by Personal Relationships?

Sex and relationship education is a right and entitlement of all children and is crucial to their development as adults. It is a lifelong learning process of acquiring information, developing skills, and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexuality, relationships and feelings.

There are 3 elements to providing sex and personal relationship education. These are:-

  1. Attitudes, Values, and beliefs - opportunities for children to explore values and attitudes and to consider how they are affected by them. This will enable them to develop clarity about what they believe, why they believe it, and a respect for and understanding of the beliefs of others;
  2. Skills - communication and personal skills, which are necessary to develop and maintain safe and healthy relationships, and to make informed choices and decisions regarding sexual health, emotional well-being and personal responsibility;
  3. Knowledge - simple, easy to understand, age appropriate information on how bodies develop and work; sexuality; the law; sexual reproduction; sexual behaviour; sexual health; emotions and relationships. The emphasis on the knowledge imparted to children by social workers, foster carers, and residential workers is on harm minimisation (a realistic approach based on reducing risky behaviour rather than the "just say no" approach).

3. What do Children Need to Know?

Children, as they grow and develop, will have questions which will vary depending upon their age, understanding and maturity. Whatever their questions, children want accurate information and the opportunity to discuss sex and personal relationship issues.

Children need to know and be prepared for changes in their body, and feelings before they happen.

Children need a balance of simple, accessible information, the chance to learn social and personal skills, as well as the opportunity to think through and talk about moral issues and dilemmas. Both informal and formal discussions need to take place in a safe, anti-oppressive environment, and take into account the young person's religious and cultural values.

Children under 11 will need opportunities to:-

  • Talk about and name feelings and emotions;
  • Know the names of parts of the body and how they work;
  • Talk about different kinds of relationships;
  • Prepare for puberty, understand body changes and be able to manage periods;
  • Have misunderstandings corrected;
  • Be able to ask for help and support;
  • Understand appropriate and inappropriate touching;
  • Learn how to make themselves safe, or seek adult assistance to deal with abusive situations;
  • Develop good personal hygiene;
  • Ask questions and receive sensitive but factual responses.

Children over 11 and young people will need opportunities to:-

  • Develop interpersonal skills such as listening, asking questions, making decisions, negotiation, and conflict resolution;
  • Receive accurate, easy to understand information, in a language they can understand, about sexual development and behaviours, sexuality, sexual response and desire, reproduction, birth, contraception, termination of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV and AIDS) and safer sex;
  • To be able to express and manage their emotions;
  • Understand the importance of personal relationships, and respect for oneself and others within relationships;
  • Explore their own attitudes to themselves and others, and develop personal morals and values;
  • Understand the effect of stereotypical sex and gender rules;
  • Learn how to avoid and resist unwanted sexual pressures;
  • Know how to access confidential information/advice/services about sexual health.

Children who have difficulties accepting advice need to be offered ongoing access to the above opportunities as well as access to outside support agencies.

4. Talking about Sex and Personal Relationships

Social workers, foster carers, and residential workers will need to:-

  • Be aware of sexual health education being provided in schools and provide a context to discuss this with the child;
  • Develop their own confidence in talking about sex and personal relationships;
  • Find a language that they feel comfortable with. Children and young people don't seem to like adults talking "their" language as they may feel patronised;
  • Make sure they have some facts - they don't need to have encyclopaedic knowledge. Reading leaflets that are available, or a book aimed at the age-group they are looking after will help increase their knowledge and find a tone and style they feel comfortable with;
  • Remember that children learn by example, so they need to ensure caring and respectful relationships in the placement;
  • Maintain respect and their sense of humour. Never laugh at, but laugh with, children;
  • Listen, don't judge or lecture, don't rush in with advice, or tell the child what they would have done. Reassure and remind children that "there is no such thing as a silly question";
  • Answer the question as it is asked. Check that you have understood the question;
  • Admit it if you don't know. "I don't know the answer to that one, let's look it up in one of our books, or ask someone else". Check it out with a colleague if you are unsure of what to say, but ensure that you talk about it later or the child may feel let down, or may not ask questions in the future;
  • Know their own boundaries - be aware of what they are equipped to talk about;
  • Challenge prejudice - so many children are bullied because they are perceived to be different. It damages the emotional development of the child who is being bullied. Bullying makes the environment emotionally and physically unsafe for the child;
  • Use hypothetical but realistic scenarios/situations;
  • Use information in the media. Ask questions like: What do you think they should have done? How do you think they might feel? Distinguish between responsible and sensationalist messages from the media;
  • Read books, leaflets, watch programmes with the child - then discuss and explore ideas together;
  • Talk while doing something else - it will be a good time to talk when the child feels relaxed;
  • Discuss resources with supervisors, colleagues, other agencies (e.g. Looked After Children Health Visitor/The Phoenix Project), for leaflets, books, videos etc. Remember that if you feel confident, you will enjoy it and be offering the young people you help look after a positive attitude towards sex education and personal relationships.

5. Anti-discriminatory Practice

When talking about sex and personal relationships it is essential that issues such as ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, and HIV status are considered as they relate to the child.

Religious and cultural diversity will affect how sex and personal relationships will be discussed. This does not mean that children should be denied the benefits of this information.

Staff and foster carers who do not share the child's ethnic religion will need to inform themselves about the culture/faith of the child without making assumptions based on stereotypes. All cultures and religious have a range of views/ values held by individuals from a specific community.

Planning a successful approach will mean:-

  • Finding out as much as you can about the culture/religion of the child;
  • Building links with places of worship, community groups;
  • Listening to the child, his or her family and significant networks;
  • Having information translated or interpreted;
  • Consideration of identifying the person best placed to discuss personal relationship issues (as a general rule it should normally be someone of the same gender) - in relation to issues of ethnic origin, cultural background, and religion. The child may be able to say who it is they would prefer to undertake this work with them.