Part of you wants to talk with your teen about sex, to make sure they have information and support. But part of you just wants to put it off til, I dunno, next month? next year? forever? Forever sounds good….
What it is about sex that makes even smart, caring parents freeze up? When you’re a capable parent in everything else, why do you feel like a blithering idiot when it’s time to talk about sexuality?
If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. Almost every parent feels awkward and hesitant when it comes to sex-related talks. Even I had to take deep breaths—and I’m a therapist with years of experience and a Human Sexuality course under my belt. It is just such an awkward—and important–topic. We don’t want to mess it up, but we don’t know where to start.
The Reasons “Birds & Bees” Convos Are Hard
The most obvious reason it’s hard to talk about sexuality is that your parents probably didn’t do it, or didn’t do a good job. You don’t have a reference for how these conversations should go. With other subjects, you have some place to build from. About sex…crickets. Or negativity and shame, which isn’t the way you want to go.
On top of that, we seldom talk about sex even with other adults. In most social circles, it’s not dinner table conversation, especially in mixed-gender groups. We just don’t get much practice saying sexual things out loud.
And when it comes to talking with teens, there’s the added complexity of what psychologists call “the incest taboo.” Because there are good evolutionary reasons for not having sex with close relatives, we’ve evolved an internal “yuck” response to anything sexual involving our kids. Unfortunately, that biological imperative spills over into even talking about sexual topics. That’s a big part of what it is so. dang. awkward.
Making Talking About Sex Easier
But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Talking with kids about sexuality and relationships is a skill like any other. You can learn it. And you don’t have to do it “perfectly” (whatever that means) for it to be valuable.
The keys are preparation and practice.
Learning from Your Parents’ Mistakes
Think about when you were a teen or preteen. What did your parents do or say that was helpful or unhelpful?
Did they give you information you needed? What were you confused or blindsided about? Did they make you feel ashamed about your body, sexual feelings, or behaviors? Did they model healthy relationships? Did they help you think about sexual and relational choices?
All that gives you hints about what not to do with your kids. Probably there are also some elements in there that your parents did well with.
Ask yourself: How do I wish my parents had handled sex-related talks? That vision becomes your personal template for handling the birds and the bees.
Remember that Information Is Not Erotic
We tend to lump everything sexual into a single category. Really, information about biology has nothing to do with eroticism. (Like, is there anything less sexy than a pelvic exam?)
You don’t want to expose kids and young teens to erotic materials like porn or, heaven forbid, sexual contact they’re not developmentally ready for. But no harm will come to their innocence for learning facts about how babies are conceived and born, the changes of puberty, or how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Those are just biological facts. There’s also nothing erotic in talking about healthy relationships, include respect and consent.
Small Chunks Are Easier for Everyone
Somehow people often think there should be one big “The Talk.” But that’s super-stressful for both adults and kids. Parents feel so much pressure to pick the “right” time and say “everything,” and kids feel completely overwhelmed.
Take the pressure off by giving little bits of information at a time, especially when situations come up naturally. After you chat with your pregnant neighbor, talk to your kids about pregnancy, or delivery, or maybe contraception (at least the idea that people have some control over when they get pregnant). When a sexual word or theme appears in a song or movie, talk about what it means. When there are sex scandals in the news, ask kids what they think the people involved were feeling. All of this adds up to an ongoing, not-very-stressful conversation about various aspects of sexuality.
Acknowledge the Awkwardness
It’s fine to be awkward talking about sex. It’s an awkward topic.
What you don’t want to do is avoid the topic or get angry—those reactions shut down conversation. But stammering, blushing, taking several deep breaths…that’s all fine. You’re not going for perfection; you just want to try to do an okay job being there for your kid.
And you can say you feel awkward: “This is a little uncomfortable for me” or “Let me take a moment to think how to answer that.” Your kid can see that you’re awkward; they probably feel awkward too; and it’s actually nice to admit that you’re in the awkwardness together.
Practice with Your Friends or Partner
Team up with another parent and practice saying out loud anything that makes you uncomfortable. What are you having the hardest time saying? What are you afraid your child might ask? Role-play a little. Once the words have come out of your mouth a few times, you’ll find talking with your child gets a bit easier.
Start, and Build from There
Challenge yourself to have one, small birds-and-bees conversation this week. Start with something biological like puberty, maybe, or with something in the news. There are loads of opportunities in daily life. Once you get started talking with your kids about sexual topics, it really does get easier.
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.