Most days it feels like your teenager doesn’t want to talk with you about anything.
The grunts, the eye-rolling, the “OMG, Mommmmm!”
Their attitudes don’t invite conversation about much at all.
So when it comes to something super-awkward like sex, of course they don’t want to talk to you. Right?
Well, not so fast…..
On the one hand, it’s normal for teens to pull back from their parents. Developmentally, it’s appropriate for teens tend turn away from parents as sources of information and connection and turn toward their peers.
This can be really hard for parents.
We go almost overnight from knowing everything to knowing nothing, from being the center of our children’s world to being an annoyance on the periphery of their lives.
It’s not a fun place. But it helps to remember that the work of adolescence is becoming a separate adult individual.
When the topic is sex, there’s also an “incest taboo.” It’s deeply ingrained in humans (for sound evolutionary reasons) that there are some people you just can’t have sexual feelings for, especially your parents, your children, and your siblings.
We have such a strong visceral reaction about this that even talking about sexual topics can trigger a reaction. This is especially true for teens, for whom sexual energy is powerful.
But yes, they still want to talk to you about sex.
They still want your input.
Awkward as it can be, they know we have information they want, and they value our opinions—provided we convey them carefully.
In researching the book I’m writing, I surveyed 900 young adults on how they learned about conception, puberty, relationships, and sexual decision-making. Those whose parents had been helpful said repeatedly how much they appreciated their parents for talking with them about sexual topics, even though it was awkward at times.
Those whose parents hadn’t been helpful wished they had been. Those young adults often seemed sad that their parents hadn’t been open enough to raise the subject and said it created a wall in their relationship.
Some of them were angry that their parents hadn’t cared enough to teach them. Many said they wished for more guidance. As I read their comments, hearing the longing in their voices broke my heart.
If you want them to really open up to you, how you talk to them matters.
Here’s how to talk to your teens so they won’t tune you out.
Make it a conversation, not a lecture.
No one likes to be lectured to, teens least of all. If it’s all about you telling them your superior knowledge, they won’t feel respected. Teens, even preteens, know a lot about sex; they just don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t have much context.
You can and should impart information, especially about how bodies work and staying safe. But also be curious about what they already know, what they’re confused about, and what they think about sex and relationships. Even if they’re hesitant to tell you, it’s respectful to ask (in a non-pushy way).
Provide information to counteract what they learn from pop culture and pornography.
Much of what kids learn from peers is wrong or confusing. Most of what they see in porn (and most teens do see porn) is unhelpful—often demeaning and violent, usually nothing like the sex most people have in real life. They may or may not know it’s unrealistic; you can tell them.
You can tell them stories of inaccurate information you heard on the bus or at camp when you were growing up and ask what “people they know” are confused about.
You’ve had decades to learn and think about sexuality; of course you have opinions about it. You may have clear ideas about what’s right and wrong. You can express your beliefs and values about sexuality and sexual decision-making—in fact, the young adults I surveyed wanted to know what their parents believed.
Just don’t insist that your views are the only possible correct beliefs.
Get them thinking.
The wide world is full of sexual behavior and innuendo, but there isn’t much focus on being thoughtful about sex and what it means. You don’t have to have all the answers (who does?) but you can get your kids thinking.
What do they think a healthy relationship looks like? What do they hope for sexually when the time comes? What do they think about gender differences like the double standard or the focus (especially in porn) on male pleasure only?
Don’t expect kids to answer these sorts of questions; it’s enough to plant the seeds that these are topics worth thinking about.
When you do, you become the sort of parent that they may later look back on and think, “I’m glad my folks made the effort to help me learn about sex and relationships.”
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.