Talk With Teens About Sex and Sexuality
Some of the most important and influential discussions we can have with our children involve sex and sexuality. It is important, therefore, to be thoughtful and intentional about our approach.
You may be fortunate enough for your tween to come directly to you with questions. More likely, you’ll need to seize opportunities to start the conversations. It might be while you’re listening to a popular song about a relationship breakup. Perhaps it’s when you notice the twinkle in your tween’s eye when she sees somebody she’s attracted to. Or maybe it will be when you’ve discovered a condom in a desk drawer. (But hopefully you’ll have started the conversation sooner!) It might be when you learn that the topic will be taught in health class, and you want your child to know you always remain a trusted resource as well. Once you get started, each further discussion will feel more comfortable.
It’s Not a One-Time Event
Even as we acknowledge the critical importance of conversations about sex and sexuality, let’s not pretend that they’re super comfortable to get started. That’s why we’re writing this article . . . to make it a bit easier. Remember this: This should not be “The Talk.” That implies a one-time event — that once it’s over, you’re done. That puts way too much pressure on the topic. Talking about sex and sexuality should be an ongoing conversation. One that unfolds comfortably over time and where your values about healthy sexuality are consistently reinforced.
It’s important to make sure young people learn not only the correct facts about sexuality, but also how to make healthy and safer decisions about sex. Research shows that parents who talk openly about sexuality to their children have more influence over their child’s sexual behaviors as they grow.
Let’s clarify: Sexuality and sex are not the same thing. Sexuality is about a broad range of issues that include healthy regard for our own bodies and respect for others’ control over theirs. Healthy sexuality is interwoven with human relationships. Sex, on the other hand, includes physical acts that when experienced thoughtfully at the right time, with the right person, can be a wonderful part of the human experience. Adolescents need to learn about both in order to launch into a healthy adulthood.
10 Pointers to Help Communicate About Sex and Sexuality
1) Get comfortable with yourself and with the facts
Everyone’s comfort level is different when it comes to discussing sexual health issues. It’s okay for us to acknowledge that it’s awkward to talk about sex, as long as we also own up to the fact that we pass along our discomfort. The more you can get comfortable yourself, the easier it will go, and the more comfortable your child will feel coming to you. Remember also that sex and sexuality include a wide range of issues. It is ok to only cover some issues yourself and rely on other trusted adults in your community, including professionals, to cover those issues beyond your comfort level.
One way of increasing your comfort level is to know the facts. Younger children need to learn the basic facts. As they near adolescence they have to be prepared for the changes in their own bodies, emotions, and sexual feelings. There are a variety of well regarded, accurate, resources, that will teach you how to offer developmentally appropriate information for young people of different ages. Remember that there are some things books can’t teach in which you are already an expert. These aren’t “facts,” but they are critically important. Your values. Your community. Your child. Your life experiences –- mistakes, recoveries, and all.
While it is important to talk with your child, it is also important to know yourself and what is emotionally healthy for you. If your own sexual history involves situations or decisions you now regret or that are emotionally hard to revisit, know that your discussions may be more complicated. Take care of yourself by talking about the things you can. Remember you can involve others in your social network (co-parent, grandparent, friends) to talk with your child about things you have difficulty discussing. And, there are professionals in your child’s life, like teachers, counselors, doctors, and nurses, who are well-versed on these topics.
2) Start talking early and keep the conversation going
We need to begin talking with our children early and keep the conversation ongoing. Even young children need to learn about self-respect, appropriate touch, and regard for others’ feelings and limits. When these topics feel like an important part of the values you routinely discuss, it will be much easier to discuss them as your children enter puberty and sexual feelings emerge.
In general, it is easier for teens to discuss topics that involve values and safety as an ongoing conversation rather than a talk held in reaction to an event. In other words, you’ll be much more comfortable — and your adolescent will be much more receptive — if your conversation is not launched before a first date or prom night. Ongoing conversations feel like education and can be cherished as opportunities to clarify values and think through how to make decisions. “Emergently” held conversations can feel like they come from a place of fear, and can be misinterpreted as “controlling” or “demanding.” As such, your best intentions can backfire.
[In the event you are reading this before an “event” and you don’t have the luxury to turn back the clock, just emphasize the why behind the conversation. You are not imposing “rules,” you are discussing important topics that will keep them physically and emotionally safe.]
3) Make it about values
There are a lot of places your tween or teen can learn about the mechanics of sex, or the details of puberty and development. These include health class, books, and the internet. You need to be sure they learn the values around healthy sexuality from you. If you and other caring adults don’t address these topics they’ll absorb their values from the internet, television and music. In the worst-case scenario, they’ll learn from internet pornography and be saddled with harmful, and unsettling, depictions of sex and sexuality. They’ll also learn from their friends – and those values may be good, but they won’t be seasoned with life experience.
4) Make it about mutual respect, and include discussions about safety
We know that adolescents value their parents’ guidance, and that parental wisdom is critical to preparing young people for a successful future. We also know that teens reject parental input when they think it strays into their personal business, whereas they value it when it prepares them to safely and wisely navigate the world. This knowledge is critical in helping us shape our conversations about sex and sexuality – which undoubtedly can feel very, very personal. So . . . if you talk about specific relationships you’re likely getting too personal. Similarly, if you ask about your teen’s specific sexual behaviors you’re likely getting into an uncomfortable zone and may trigger a rejection. On the other hand, keeping conversations general allow you to more effectively and comfortably have very serious conversations. Young people think it is parents’ job to keep them safe, and there are many safety issues that are central to our discussions about healthy sexual behaviors. Emotional safety is also at stake. These emotional issues include how to “wisely navigate the world.” We should discuss self-respect and mutual respect. Boundaries and personal limits. Listening to others’ spoken and unspoken signals so that you do not stray into behaviors the other person does not desire.
Listen to what your tweens and teens have to say about sexuality. The more they confide in us, the more we’ll be able to guide them towards developmentally appropriate solutions regarding sex. Listening to our teens is key in getting them to talk to us. Sometimes less words coming from us mean more words coming from them.
Encourage them to talk. If they ask a question, ask them what they already know or have heard about the topic. Take a listening stance that’s non-judgmental. Be factual in the responses you give them as well. Take note of the reactions to your responses. If you are asked a question you’re not prepared to answer right then and there, say you’ll work to get the right information and follow up with them another time.
6) Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume that just because the world seems to be moving so fast, that young people know it all or have heard it all. Sexuality is vitally important and our kids deserve accurate information delivered with clarity and steeped in the values of self-protection and mutual regard. When we assume they know too much, we deny them the basic knowledge that serves as the foundation of healthy sexuality. This means that we have to start with how our bodies function, and the understanding both of the beauty of loving relationships and the potential of manipulative or exploitative ones.
Don’t assume that just because a question is asked, that they’re doing it. Plenty of teens may ask questions about sex, sexuality, contraception and more, simply because they’re curious or they heard something about it. Young people ask questions to get trusted information or clarification. It’s important they get accurate information. Information can be a great conversation starter.
Don’t assume that children understand everything we’ve told them or that we understand everything they’re trying to communicate with us. Always ask teens to repeat back what they’ve heard (and vice versa). If something seems unclear, ask for further clarification and be ready to repeat and reframe information in ways they’ll better understand.
7) Use the media to create teachable moments
There is plenty of sexuality in the media these days. While that may bother us, we can actually take advantage of this. Television shows, movies, websites, books and magazines can be a springboard for educating young people about sexuality. And because the “storylines” are about people other than themselves, our teens may be more apt to ask or answer questions. That’s because it’s a discussion about other people that they don’t actually know. Topics we should easily be able to find include where babies come from, romantic attraction, LGBTQ issues, dating practices, breakups, crushes, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and body changes during puberty.
8) Don’t Lecture; explain the whys
We need to support our children to learn to make their own wise decisions. When we tell them what to do or warn of dire consequences through an emotion-driven lecture we can push them away from us and sometimes towards the very behaviors we fear. There are two key reasons that lectures don’t work. First, they tend to be too abstract – they often offer complicated connections between a string of actions and a scary outcome. Second, because adults often give lectures during heated moments, young people hear the anger and feel the fear, but do not benefit from the thoughts. We can learn to offer the same information in a way that allows our adolescents to calmly absorb the information and allow it to shape their own conclusions. When young people figure things out on their own (even when guided by us!!), they are more likely to follow the solutions and hold the values as their own.
A starting point is to discuss rather than demand. Let your children know that talking with them is your way of helping them to learn to make responsible choices. When we make demands to teens, we sometimes push them towards rebellion. On the other hand, when they understand clearly that our goal is to keep them safe and moral, they appreciate both our guidance and the boundaries we set for them.
Make sure your kids understand why you’re asking them to do (or not to do) certain things when it comes to sexual behaviors. This will help your teens better understand your own values and attitudes towards sexuality and the reasons why certain behaviors will help keep them healthy. Talk to them about sex in the larger context of relationships – not only as part of a safety message to them. That will also help them understand the whys driving your guidance. This will prevent them from feeling controlled; it will help them understand your goal is to protect and guide them.
Tips for Talking About Sex and Sexuality
Talking about sex and sexuality can feel awkward. But conversations with your teen are important and shouldn’t be avoided out of discomfort. Click through to learn effective strategies for making these talks as productive as possible.
Be Honest with Yourself
Conversations are easier when your child senses you’re open to having them. Know yourself and what your comfort level is before starting the conversation.
Even young children can learn essential lessons about self-respect, appropriate touching and setting limits. Make discussions developmentally appropriate. But know that it’s never too late -- your communication about sex makes a difference in your teen’s choices.
Talk about Safety
Your teen will absorb concerns more easily when you make your point of view about safety.
Talk about Values
Conversations shouldn’t just be about the mechanics of sex. They should also be about healthy relationships, self-respect and the beauty of mutual love.
9) Paint sexuality as a healthy, beautiful part of being human
Too often, when we talk with our tweens and teens about sex, we only talk about the dangers and consequences of sexual behavior. But what about all the positive aspects and feelings surrounding sexuality? Do you remember the butterflies in your belly from your first “crush”? What about the happiness you experienced discovering that someone you liked, liked you back? Or the rush of joy after experiencing a first kiss? Our teens need to hear from us as loving adults about the pleasures of sexuality. We need to teach them to appreciate the bodies they have been given, to be sure they understand what their bodies can do and how to keep them healthy. You can discuss with your child the safety and emotional benefits of choosing to be abstinent, while still discussing all the normal feelings that surround a developing awareness of one’s sexuality.
10) Trust professionals
You are not alone. Your role as parent is critical, and you are certainly a valued and trusted guide for your teen. But, the most highly effective parents work in partnership with other trusted adults to create a multilayered blanket of protection for their adolescents. Even in families with the most comfortable and open communication, adolescents will still seek guidance from other adults. Sex and sexuality, in particular, are topics where young people seek privacy, while still needing guidance. Parents are irreplaceable in discussing values and mutual respect, while professionals might more comfortably offer specific messages around self-protection.
Teens say parents, not friends, influence their decisions about sex more than anyone, but only if their parents talk to them. So as tough as it may seem at times, having open and honest conversations about sexuality allows us to shape our teens into adults who will be better prepared for healthy, meaningful relationships.
The intent of this article is to give you general strategies for talking about healthy sexuality. For more detailed information about sex and sexuality, see our Resource List.