Inside this post: Talking to teens about sex can be hard and embarassing and awkward. And if your teen reacts negatively, you may take that as an out to not have this important conversation with you. But, your teenagers actually wants–and needs–this information. You just have to know when and how to approach it.
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 to turn away from parents as sources of information and connection and turn toward their peers, media, and the Internet.
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 an independent, separate adult individual.
When the topic is sex education, there also can be an “incest taboo.” It’s deeply ingrained in humans (for sound evolutionary reasons) that there are some people you just shouldn’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. More importantly, they desperately need you to do it.
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. It’s totally normal for tweens and teens to have a healthy curiosity about sex, and it’s important that we don’t inject shame into the conversation.
In researching a 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 weren’t 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 and access to resources. 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.
Some parents wait until their child is involved in a romantic relationship to talk to their child, and that is too late.
Talking about sex shoulding be just one big information dump, but instead a series of age appropriate conversations starting out around age five with a discussion about body parts, etc. and then moving on to more age appropriate conversations.
Keep in mind that research, such as this study out of the UK, tells us that 48% of boys 11-16 have watched porn. Young people can receive infromation about sex from us, or they can receive it from the outside world.
Here’s how to talk to your teens about sex 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, staying safe, and prioritizing their sexual health. 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).
While many health classes may discuss issues like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sex-related infections, birth control, consent, etc., your tween/teen still probably has specific questions.
Sometimes movies, television shows, or social media can be a springboard to these important conversations. See a show about high school students drinking and then having sex? This can be a launchpad to discussing alcohol and consent. Watch a movie where there is a lot of sexual activity? Take the time to address how peer pressure plays a role in when teens first start having sex.
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, and usually nothing like the sex most people have in real life. They may or may not know it’s unrealistic.
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. The goal is to highlight the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, talk about the importance of boundaries, and educate them on how to have a sexual relationship that works for them when they are ready.
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?
Do they know about how to prevent unplanned pregnancies through birth control and condoms, that oral sex can be dangerous, and the many ways couples can participate in sexual intercourse.
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.