Many parents find it difficult to talk with their children about sex—they don’t want to say the wrong things, or have to think back about decisions they made as teenagers. Teens may also be embarrassed, not trust their parent's advice, or prefer not to talk with their parents about it. But sex is an important topic to talk about.
The following tips may help make talking with your teen easier:
- Be Prepared. If needed, read about things you’re unsure about so your own questions are answered before talking with your teen. Practice what you plan to say with your spouse or partner, a friend, or another parent. This may make it easier to talk with your teen when the time comes. Speak calmly and clearly.
- Be Honest. Let your teen know that talking about sex isn't easy for you but that you think it's important that information about sex comes from you. And even though you would prefer that your values be accepted, ultimately decisions about sex are up to your teen. If your teen disagrees with you or gets angry, take heart, you have been heard. These talks will help your teen develop a solid value system, even if it's different from your own.
- Listen. Give your teen a chance to talk and ask questions. It's important that you give your full attention.
- Try to Strike a Balance. While teens need privacy, they also need information and guidance from parents. If your teen doesn't want to talk with you about sex and tells you that it's none of your business, be firm and say that it is your business. Your teen should know that you're asking out of love and concern, especially because there are potentially harmful situations. If your teen is quiet when you try to talk about sex, say what you have to say anyway. Your message may get through.
- Ask for Help. If you just can't talk to your teen about sex, ask your pediatrician; a trusted aunt or uncle; or a minister, priest, or rabbi for help. Also, many parents find it useful to give their teens a book on human sexuality and say, "Take a look at this, and let's talk."
Helping Your Teen Understand the Importance of “Waiting”
Also, no matter personal, religious or other values, it is universally agreed upon by medical professionals that outcomes for teenagers are better the later they wait to have sex.
Here are reasons why waiting to have sex makes sense, and these can be good conversation points:
- Sex Can Lead to Pregnancy. Are you ready to be pregnant or become a teenaged parent? It's a huge responsibility. Are you able to provide food, clothing, and a safe home for your baby?
- Sex Has Health Risks. A lot of infections can be spread during sex. Sexually transmitted infections include chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, herpes, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), human papillomavirus (HPV—which can cause cancer), or syphilis.
- Sex Can Lead to Emotional Pain and Distractions. You may feel sad or angry if you let someone pressure you into having sex when you're not really ready. You also may feel sad or angry if you choose to have sex but your partner leaves you. Your partner may even tell other people that you had sex with him or her. Parents often fear that if they talk about sex, their children may want to try it. But teens are curious about sex, whether you talk to them about it or not. Studies show that teens whose parents talk openly about sex are actually more responsible in their sexual behavior.
When it comes to something as important as sex and sexuality, nothing can replace your influence. You are the best person to teach your teen about relationships, love, commitment, and respect in what you say and by your own example.
Keeping Communication Open
We want to share some overall tips for communicating with your child, and keeping communication open. Whenever your child needs to talk to someone about something important, you really want him or her to feel safe in coming to you.
Our children live in a highly sexualized society where they are exposed to sexual language, images, and behaviors before they are developmentally prepared to handle them.
Kids didn’t “ask” for hormones at age 12, but they are stuck learning how to handle their changing bodies and urges in a society that shows them “yes” but tells them “not now.”
Your child may need to talk to you about sex, or they might come to you because they’re in some other kind of trouble--or they have a friend who is. Maybe they know someone using drugs and want to know more about it. The possibilities are endless.
The points below are about sex and sexuality, but they translate to other topics as well.
- Don’t Discredit the Power of Teenage Love. Understand the importance of romantic attachments in a teenager’s life and the intensely strong feelings that they generate, even if your definition and perspective of love differ from your child’s.
- Don’t Abstain from Educating your own Children. If you don’t educate them, someone else will. They learn from behaviors and attitudes modeled by other adults, from the media and popular culture, and certainly from peers. Be clear about your own knowledge, concerns and views as part of their sex education, conversations about drugs, and more.
- Talk About Sex Early and Often. They don’t always hear you. They may not always believe you. They often don’t remember, especially if they weren’t ready to hear you. (But they are often listening when they are pretending not to be.) A good way to have conversations is in the car. You’re driving and not looking at each other. Side-by-side conversations are often more comfortable for both parties. Going on a hike together, or even shooting hoops together in the driveway, can make an awkward or difficult conversation more comfortable.
- Avoid Sexuality Conversations that are all “Don’ts.” Parents often recount that they speak to their teens often about sex. Yet generally those conversations are all about the “don’ts.”
- Don’t have sex.
- Don’t get pregnant.
- Don’t get a disease.
- It’s Don’t, Don’t, Don’t. But what gets left out are the “do’s.” What can they do to make good decisions with a partner that they care about? How can they decide whether a partner is interested in them as a person or just as a potential sex partner? What ways can they address peer or partner pressure to be sexual when they don’t feel they are ready? These topics need to be part of any discussion of healthy sexuality. Give them some things they can do! These same ideas and processes apply with other big decisions and peer pressures.
- Be Real. Dispel myths and rumors. Provide accurate information. Use simple language, but respect their intelligence and curiosity. Above all, avoid talking down to children and teens about sex.
- Empower your children to know what a healthy relationship looks and feels like. Let them know they deserve to feel honored in their relationships, to have their own space, to keep their friends, to include their family, and to feel good about who they are. Teach them to expect give-and-take, but that, in the end, a good relationship helps you to be more of who you already are and feel even better about it.
- Set Positive Expectations. Discussing what’s good about sex will help them to have positive standards by which to judge sexual experiences. Help your kids know why sex is worth waiting for.
- Use the Media (the Good, Bad, and the Ugly). Use topics presented in daily media sources and popular teen culture as springboards for theoretical conversations about sex and relationships. It can be hard, but avoid proclamations and judgments, even about fictional characters; your children will anticipate your reacting to them in the same way should they ever be in that situation.
- Live by Example. If you have a good relationship, let your children know it. Let them witness you and your partner having a disagreement and working it out; let them see you kiss and make up. (And if you’re not setting an example that you want your kids to imitate, give that situation some serious thought.)
- Teaching Kids about Sex Doesn’t Mean Parenting Without Values. Acknowledging sexuality is not the same as condoning or giving permission to have sex. Helping their children understand that sexual thoughts and feelings are normal gives parents the opportunity to follow up with conversations about how (and from what) to be abstinent as well as how to regulate their impulses and urges. It opens the door to continued conversation about how to be safe and responsible when their adolescents begin to engage in intimate physical or sexual activities.
- You have 2 Ears and 1 Mouth. Listen more than you talk. And ask—don’t just “tell.” Find out what your child is thinking when talking about their relationships or sexual experiences. What does it mean to have a boyfriend or girlfriend at what age? Listen to what it means to the teen at that time. The teen's level of understanding and participation may actually be appropriate for her developmental level. It is also helpful to talk about her friends and her relationships. Teens can be more chatty about their friends than about themselves, but listening to what their friends are doing will offer insight into how your teen herself feels. Yet….don’t ask too many questions, or you won’t get any information at all. It’s a delicate balance!
- Keep it Generic. Being willing to speak in generalities allows conversations about difficult subjects like sex to move forward without getting anyone too uncomfortable. Let your children know that you know of people that had certain experiences when they were younger, that you have been in difficult situations or know others who have been, and that you’re not afraid to discuss those things on some level. Avoid interrogating your teen about what exactly they did or didn’t do sexually; you don’t want them to demand details about your love life, either. Keeping things on a surface level gives permission to continue the discussion over a greater breadth (and possibly depth) of topics and allow you to communicate more honestly about sex in ways that may very well be helpful one day.
- Adolescence is for Practice. The teenage years are great for learning about relationships. What is the difference between a crush and real love? Between a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” and a friend who is a boy or a girl? What belongs on Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/Twitter and what doesn’t? How does he treat you when you’re alone compared to when your friends or parents are around? Without a few battle scars, how will we know a good relationship when we see it? On the other hand, major mistakes that change our lives (like disease or unintended pregnancy) are best avoided, and teens need to know that’s what you’re trying to help prevent.
- Help your Teen Learn From His or Her Mistakes. The goal is to learn to develop and maintain healthy relationship skills. Protecting your children from every trauma may not bring the message home, as well as the lessons learned from experiencing a broken heart themselves.
- Beware of the “D” Word. Children fear disappointing their parents more than just about anything else in the world. While you should let children know when their behavior is dangerous or wrong, be very clear that there is nothing they could ever do that would make you stop loving them. Reassure them that after your blood pressure comes down, you still want what’s best for them and you will see they find help when they need it. Avoid getting into situations where their fear of your disappointment or anger keeps them from coming to you when they need you the most.
- Be Clear that Safety is Nonnegotiable. Think about your bottom-line priorities for your children. Chances are nothing matters more to you than their safety. Be very clear, and repeat often, that nothing matters more than knowing they are going to be okay. Establish a code word they can use to get your attention and help when they need to get out of a potentially dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Set a standard for protecting themselves from disease and unwanted pregnancy regardless of whether you agree with their decision-making about sex. Make sure that they know they can come to you for help if something goes wrong.
- Find Other Trusted Adults. Talking about sex is difficult. When necessary, identify and encourage them to ask for help from other trusted adults; it doesn’t always have to be you.
- Build Your Own Toolkit. Create a list of Web resources about sexuality that you believe offer sound information and advice. Consider keeping books at home that support your values about sexuality while providing accurate information. Find resources in your community, such as clinics, hotlines, therapeutic specialists, and support groups, in case you or your children need more help. Some of the information from this discussion is sourced from the American Academy of Pediatrics – Making Healthy Decisions About Sex.
For information about talking with your younger child (preschool/elementary age) about sex, visit our blog on this topic.