My mom didn’t talk to me about sex that much growing up. In fact, I think she spelled it out in hushed tones until I was 18, and then we barely acknowledged it again until my thirties.
When it did come up when I had a more serious boyfriend, she would say things like, “You know, once you have (whispering) s-e-x, you can’t take it back.” Or, “If you get pregnant, regardless of your decision, it will change your life forever.”
Having conversations about sex is difficult for almost every parent
I grew up with an amazing mom, but many women in her generation did not know how to openly discuss sex. And it IS hard. I don’t think there is a young person out there who wants to imagine their parents “doing it” or a mom or dad who wants to bring it up at the dinner table.
But here’s the thing: I had no idea what a healthy sexual relationship should look like. I didn’t know the rules, or even if there were any. Besides the threatening encouragement to wait until I was married or not be stupid and get pregnant, I didn’t get it.
Why is it so hard to talk to your teens about sex?
Most parents in my mom’s generation felt like any talk about sex would actually encourage their kids to have it. There was no mention of the way sex should feel or how to know when you may be ready, or even that sex can be fun if with the right person.
Instead, the messages I received from the outside world told me that sex was sinful, that the onus was on me not to lead a guy on, and girls who had sex were not the marrying kind.
Sex and intimacy were something I feared. It became something I wanted to control and something incredibly difficult to discuss.
There were times alcohol became liquid courage to reduce my inhibitions, and there were times I probably went farther than I wanted to simply because I was embarrassed to say anything to my partner.
And now here I sit, raising three teenagers in what’s known as the “hook-up generation”—and I’m terrified that my daughters may feel as confused, scared, and ashamed as I did when talking about sex.
Most teens want sex education from informed sources
I recently read an article about how the Dutch approach sex education. I was amazed to find out that simple sex ed begins as early as kindergarten.
Boys and girls are taught about menstrual cycles and wet dreams, and all the other awkward conversations at an extremely early age.
And guess what? They have among the lowest incidences of teenage pregnancy and STDs in the world—and the average age of the first sexual encounter is much older than in the United States.
We need to demystify sex and encourage our kids to have important conversations BEFORE their first encounters instead of trying to teach them to learn from their mistakes.
It’s never too late–or too early–to talk to your kids about sexuality
There are always age-appropriate ways to discuss any topic. While I don’t think you need to talk about intercourse with a six-year-old, they should start to understand the correct names of body parts, appropriate versus inappropriate touching, and honest answers to questions they may have.
On the flip side, tweens and teens should have access to information that can help them make informed and appropriate decisions about sex. We can’t be so naive to think that our big kids won’t be put in precarious situations.
Teens need more than just our opinions and judgments about when they should have sex. They need information and resources about sexual health, such as how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and HPV/PID, birth control options, how to talk about sexual history, and how to identify and report abusive relationships.
Six things I told my daughters about having a healthy sexual relationship
I opened the dialogue about sex when my kids were between 10 and 11. In middle school was when they started hearing discussions about things such as “blow jobs,” “69,” and other sexual innuendoes.
It was so uncomfortable to describe these acts, but I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be for my kids not to understand them. I also worried that their friends would give them misinformation.
Parenting tip: I would talk to my teens for a brief amount of time, and then encouraged them to read certain articles I found on those topics, encouraging them to ask me any questions afterwards. I also said we could exchange notes, texts, etc. on any topic. I didn’t care how they communicated with me, as long as they communicated.
So here’s what I shared:
Sex and intimacy can be the best part of a relationship. It can be fun and satisfying and pleasurable and healthy when both people are on the same page with what they are doing. To enjoy it, however, there must be a foundation of mutual respect, trust, and ultimately, love.
If you are embarrassed to talk about sex with someone, you probably shouldn’t be having it. There should be clear discussions (and agreement) on what aspects of sex you are willing to participate in, what precautions you need to be taking, and that at any time, ANY TIME, in the process, either one of you can change your mind.
Consent is a discussion you should have over and over with your teens. I want them to know that regardless of what they are wearing, regardless if they went into someone’s room, regardless if they have been drinking, regardless what their friends have done sexually or what they think they should be doing, sex should always be an agreed upon action between two people.
Be prepared for anything. While I want my daughters to be the type of girls to stand up for themselves, I also remember getting myself into some precarious situations in high school and college. When your child is in the throes and worried that backing out can make someone volatile or vengeful, it’s OK to have some excuses at the ready. “I just got my period” or “I just remembered that I have to drive my friend home” may help to defuse a tough situation.
On the flip side, I also make sure condoms are readily accessible in my home in a place they can access without me knowing, and talked to them about other forms of birth control and how to obtain it. Knowledge is power.
Sex will change a relationship. I want them to know that while sex can be amazing, it should never be a decision they take lightly. While it can deepen the connection of a relationship, there are times that sex can also change the trajectory of a relationship in a negative way. This is why it’s important to know why you want to have sex, understand your needs in the process—and be comfortable enough to discuss them.
There is no benchmark for when you should have sex with someone. There are no milestones you need to meet or conquests you need to achieve. There is no right age to when you have sex. There is no amount of dates or time that goes by that says, “Now it’s okay to have sex!” It is deeply personal and unique to every relationship.
And I want them to know, I really want them to know, that shame shouldn’t be a part of a sexual relationship. If something you have done or someone makes you feel ashamed, it’s time to make a change and think about what’s best for YOU. Shame comes into play when one person forces the other to go farther using guilt or fear tactics, such as saying, “If you really loved me, you would do it,” or, “I have needs, and if you can’t fulfill them, I need to find someone who can.” Sex isn’t a bargaining chip.
On the flip side, you shouldn’t feel shame discussing sex with anyone. Not doctors, friends, your significant other, or even your parents. If someone is making you feel ashamed about your sexual history, it’s about their preconceived notions about sex, not yours. It’s okay to wish you did something different, but you should not be ashamed that you made a mistake.
Sex should make you feel good—about yourself and about your relationship. If someone mocks you, shares intimate details, or breaks your trust, it’s time to rethink your relationship.
One last thing: when in doubt, waiting until the next day can change your entire perspective.
You will never regret having these hard discussions with your teen
I get it. Talking with your teen about sex can feel excruciating for all involved,
But demystifying sex and remaining open to their questions is a great way to show love and respect for your child, to remain their safe place, and demonstrate that you believe they deserve the best.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
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