Given that we live in a culture saturated with sexual messages, talking with your teenage kids about sex is a crucial part of supporting them in passing though the teen years as unscathed as possible. So let's say you've decided you're open to talking with your teen about sex. What next? Here are a few ideas to consider.
Teenagers deserve respect
In North America teenagers get a bad rap. They are thought of as lazy, badly dressed, devoid of musical taste, completely irresponsible, and of course, sexually out of control. But if you take the time to remember what it was like being a teenager, you'll be confronted with a very different reality. Being a teenager is arguably the hardest time your life; you have little autonomy, your days are filled with school (which often seems pointless), your nights and weekends (and days, come to think of it) are filled with an intense social pressure to conform to other peoples expectations. You probably have easy access to drugs, alcohol, random sexual experiences, but no one gives you good information about any of them. Surviving being a teenager is hard work, and you should treat your teenage children with respect not only because it’s the only way they’ll actually listen to you, but also because more often than not, they deserve it.
Teenagers are individuals not statistics
We all talk about teens as if there is no difference between a 13 year old and a 16 or 18 year old. There is a world of difference in terms of maturity, knowledge, lived experience, social skills, and more. You have to treat your teen as an individual, not a statistic that you read about in the paper. Try to get a sense of where you think your teenager is at in terms of their experience and maturity around sex. If you have other kids as a point of comparison this might be easier. If you don't, try to get information from friends who do. Talk about your experiences and use this as a guide.
Listen carefully for sexual questions
Some teens are comfortable talking about sex, asking questions, and telling you what is going on in their life. Others aren’t. Your child may not ask you explicit questions so you have to pay attention to what is not being talked about, and how sex might be raised indirectly. Stories about something that happened at school, or a reaction to a particular class where sex may have been discussed, may be their way of raising the subject with you. Don’t expect a big confession or a clearly laid out Q & A session. Try to pay attention to indirect questions and pick up on them to check in and see if your teenager has more specific questions.
Be available, not intrusive
Avoid being the “way too cool parents” who try to force the issue of sex. Part of respecting your children is giving them space to ask questions when they are ready. At the same time you want to make sure they know you’re up for the questions. It’s a balancing act being both available and accessible, but not being in their face. You won’t always keep your balance but when your kids see you trying, on some level they’ll appreciate the effort.
Cover the sexual basics in different ways
While you want to respect your teens privacy there is a lot of important health information your teen should have. If you think they might be sexually active, and aren't sure if they know about safer sex, you should ask them. You wouldn't let your teen start driving a car if they had never had driving lessons, and similarly as a parent it is your right (and probably your responsibility) to make sure they know how to keep safe with whatever kind of sexual exploration they are doing. If they are mortified by your pushiness, make sure you have a few books in the house that covers the basics, and have condoms in the house in a place where they can get them without asking you for them.
Use outside sexual health resources
Other resources might be books, local sexual health clinics (like your local Planned Parenthood clinic
), other family members, or family friends. For example, your teenage daughter might not want to talk to you, but she might be comfortable talking to her favorite aunt. The most important thing you can do for your teenager is help them get the information they need in a way that feels comfortable for them.
Timing sex talks
Try to keep in mind that your teenage son or daughter is likely juggling a hundred things you aren't aware of. Don't expect them to be ready to talk about sex whenever you are. If you want to bring up sex do it at a time and place where you both will feel comfortable and free to speak your minds. Doing it just before they're about to go out on a Friday night, or right in the middle of their favorite show probably isn't the best timing.
Sex education beyond plumbing
The two messages most teens get about sex are: don't get a disease and don't get pregnant. For those of us who made it through our teens, we hopefully know that there is a lot more to sexuality than not getting an STD and not getting pregnant. When you're talking to your teen about sex, give them some information about the great things about sexuality that are still to come for them. Talk about more than the "plumbing" of how sex works, talk about sexual thoughts and feelings, and the amazing things about sexuality as you get older. In other words, try to find a way to give them something to look forward to.
Know your boundaries and keep them
You cannot be your teenager's "buddy" or best friend. And you shouldn't feel like you have to answer every personal question your teen might ask you about your own life or history. Disclosing personal stories and lessons learned can be a powerful way to help your teen think about their own choices, but setting your own boundaries about what you will and will not talk about is equally important. You may want to share information with your teen that you wouldn't tell a friend or stranger, and if you do, make sure your child knows that. This may help them begin to develop their own boundaries, which is an important step in developing sexual health.