“Hey, son…let’s talk about condoms, ok? Oh, you’re busy…some other time then.”
Trying to figure out the best way to talk to your teen about sex? If you’re like the majority of parents, just the thought of bringing up the topic with your son or daughter makes you break out in a light sweat, remembering that day years ago when your own mother or father sat you down for “the talk.”
In fact, even in a time where sexual boundaries appear to be pushed more often and the general public seems to embrace openness about sex and sexual behaviors, more than half of today’s adolescents don’t communicate with their parents before becoming sexually active (Beckett, et al., 2010, p. 39). This statistic is frightening in light of the major life changes that come along with and as a consequence of sexual behavior. While recognizing that discussing sex with your teen is not likely to prevent them from becoming sexually active should they choose to do so, understanding the importance of providing critical information about physical maturation, the risks of sexual behavior, and responsible conduct with regard to their choices is important for parents of all children, both boys and girls.
If you’re uncomfortable, never fear – you’re not alone. More than two-thirds of parents say they have difficulty such as embarrassment and determining the proper timing of sexual communication with their adolescents (Jerman & Constantine, 2010). Even doctors have a difficult time talking to teens about sex – less than two-thirds of physicians report having discussions with their teenage patients during routine office visits (Anonymous, 2014). Much information exists in the public domain about how and when to have “the talk” with teens and it can be confusing to navigate the different pieces of advice provided by experts and laymen alike. However, there are some strategies that can help you overcome this uneasiness and help you on the road to successful communication with your child at the right time for both of you.
Tip 1: Avoid “The Romeo and Juliet Syndrome.” Telling your child about the dangers of sex and how simply staying away from that boy or girl they’re finding themselves attracted to is one sure way to make the conversation more difficult. Try to ease into the conversation at a level you know your adolescent is comfortable with based on your other, routine day-to-day interactions. Coming down too hard on a teen can make them view you as the enemy and tune out the information you are providing while attempting to plot the very next time they will escape your watchful eye and rendezvous with their beloved. Play it cool, keep the conversation light, and allow your child’s questions to guide their own learning. You’ll find the conversation easier for both of you and your son or daughter will value the information you provide.
Tip #2: Don’t leave the emotions out of it. Sex and sexual maturation are intricately tied to emotions and pretending that the conversation can be simply about biology or prophylactics leads it to feel false and shallow. Teens with raging hormones are already keenly aware of the emotions driving their sexual curiosity and your conversation will go farther if you acknowledge their feelings of love, longing, and apprehension. They have probably already dreamed of that first encounter with the other young person they’ve set their sights on and know it will be the best experience of their life. Try not to step on their fantasies, but bring them back down to earth with recognition of the way they feel coupled with the awkward reality of most initial sexual encounters.
Tip #3: Keep it real. Don’t try to be the hip parent, the one who uses trendy phrases and lingo to describe what’s happening. If you wouldn’t talk to your child in that fashion on a regular basis, avoid using such a tone for this most-important of conversations. Children, especially adolescents, appreciate having a parent who speaks with knowledge and authority. They have enough friends (many of whom may be pressuring them to just do it already), they don’t need you to be yet another voice in the crowd of many ill-informed peers. Remember, it’s likely that two out of three of your adolescent’s friends don’t have parents willing to have a sexually-related conversation with them –imagine the misinformation being shared in the lunch line.
Tip #4: The sooner, the better. While it may be tempting to wait for your child to approach you about sex, be proactive. Children mature fast in this era of instant access to a wide variety of information. Even as early as nine years old they have been exposed to many more images and text of a sexual nature than we would have seen at such a young age. Beginning the conversations early – and yes, they are conversations (plural), not simply a conversation (singular) – will help them from forming bad habits and believing what they read and hear from their peers. It will also help you, as a parent, lead in with easier topics such as physical changes and build the level of trust needed to have later, more difficult conversations such as those about contraception and teen pregnancy.
The bottom line is that an open line of communication with your child, starting with early and frequent conversations, will be the best way of ensuring your teen has all the information he or she needs when the time comes. You’re not going to be there in the moment, so be sure to provide him or her with the advice they’ll need to act maturely and responsibly when the time comes.
The Mayo Clinic’s page on sex education:
Planned Parenthood’s Talking to Kids about Sex and Sexuality:
WebMD (specific to talking to girls about sex):