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Sex Health Blog

Discussing Sex With Adolescents

Mar 09, 2011

Think back to how you learned about sex as an adolescent.

Did one of your parents sit you down and have “the big talk”? Did they lecture? Did they ignore the subject altogether?

How about at school or activities? Were there sex education classes? What did you learn from the kids in the locker room, or at Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts?

Was the information you learned accurate? Was anything missing? What do you wish had been handled differently?

Consider these questions as starting points as you prepare to talk to your adolescent about sex.

If the idea of having the “sex talk” with your children makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Times have changed and sexual messages are everywhere – on TV, in movies, on billboards. It’s difficult for parents to know what messages are sinking in and how they’re being processed.

But there are many strategies you can use to start the conversation and keep it going throughout your children’s teenage years, helping them make responsible decisions.

Here are some points to keep in mind:

Regular, ongoing conversations about sex are more effective than one “big talk.”

Weaving sex into regular conversations shows your teen or tween that sex is a natural part of life and not a taboo subject. This can help your children understand that they can be open with you and go to you with any questions or concerns.

This doesn’t mean you have to talk about it constantly, of course. And their privacy – and your own – should be respected.

There are many ways to frame the discussion. Find openings. For example, if you and your teen are watching a TV show with sexual situations, use that episode to spark conversation. Are the characters being responsible? Are they in a committed relationship? Have they discussed birth control and STDs? How might they feel after the sexual experience?

Try to find out what your child already knows, but don’t assume that knowledge is accurate.

Teens and tweens might know some of the anatomical terms (be sure to use the correct ones in your discussion) and have a vague notion of “what goes where,” but they might be confused about other points.

For example, a teenage girl may understand, in theory, what penetration is about, but she may be mystified at how an erect penis actually fits inside a vagina. This would be the time to discuss the way a woman’s body prepares itself for sex. It’s helpful for teens to understand what happens with a partner’s body, too.

Or, a teenage boy might have heard time and again: use condoms. But he might have no idea how to use one properly. This would be the time to explain.

Remember that talking about sex doesn’t mean you’re approving early sexual activity.

Some parents worry that having such open conversations will encourage their children to have sex at an early age – or have more of it. Studies show, however, that this is not usually the case. Teens and tweens who feel they can talk to their parents about sex are more likely to make responsible decisions about sex.

Be sure your teens and tweens understand the responsibilities involved with being sexually active.

Let them know that sexual activity can have consequences. For example, not all contraceptive and safe sex practices are 100% effective. Condoms break. Withdrawal doesn’t always work. Unintended pregnancies happen. STDs can be transmitted in a number of ways, including oral sex. Also, having sex might complicate their relationships.

Prepare them for peer pressure.

Some of their friends may brag about sexual experience. Let your teens and tweens know that their friends could be exaggerating or even lying. And even if their friends are sexually active, that doesn’t mean they’re being responsible about it or even enjoying it.

Also let your teens know how to handle situations they don’t feel ready for. They have the right to say no and to leave any situation that makes them uncomfortable.

Don’t lecture or judge.

Understand that and your adolescent may not see eye to eye on everything related to sex. Trust them to make the best choices for themselves. If you have strong feelings about a topic, explain why. For example, if you think it’s best for them to wait to have sex, don’t just say, “You should wait.” You might say, “I think it’s a good idea to wait to have sex. It may be fun, but there are some serious consequences, like pregnancy, that you really need to think through first.”

If you don’t like your son’s girlfriend, don’t say, “She’s wrong for you.” Instead, explain your concerns: “From my perspective, she doesn’t respect you and may be pressuring you to do things you might not feel ready for.” Give your son a chance to respond and go from there.

Or, if you think your child is sexually active, don’t sternly say, “I hope you’re using contraceptives.” Instead, say, “It seems like you and your boyfriend are getting pretty serious. Do you have any questions about what’s happening or how you’re feeling? Do you have any questions about contraception?”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you need more information and strategies or just feel uneasy about discussing sex, don’t hesitate to get help. Reach out to other parents and ask how they handle the discussions. Read more about sex and teenagers. Some communities have intervention programs to help parents improve communication with their children. Find out what resources are available in your area.