Talking About Sex With Your Teenager
The bird and bees discussion is so uncomfortable to have with your teens! To talk about sex with your teenager, you have to feel calm and prepared. Consequently, it’s my guess that many parents simply avoid the conversation.
Unfortunately, most of what teens learn about and hear about sex is from other teenagers (great source, right?). As early as 4th or 5th grade the joking starts. By 6th grade a lot of young adolescents have already heard of some friends “doing stuff” with other adolescents. At that age it is usually pretty shocking. However, within two to three years, discussions about sex are fairly commonplace at school.
You have to ask yourself where you want your child to learn about sex. At some point one of their peers is going to try and show your child a pornographic movie they’ve found. At some point one of your teenager’s friends will be “sexting” with another teen. Most likely, your teen will be told something about it. Teens will definitely hear about and be exposed to sex. The question is whether you want them to learn everything they know from other teens, or if you’d like to have input. I know as a parent I want to have input because I want to be able to let my kids know what I do and don’t think is okay.
How to Begin the Discussion About Sex with an Adolescent
First of all, how do you bring up this discussion? It’s not like it’s going to just naturally flow into a conversation. Most parents find they have to be intentional about it. To talk about sex with your teenager can feel awkward at best, and altogether dreadful at worst.
If you’re feeling avoidant about this, just imagine your teen! They’re at an age where awkward is almost a permanent state of being. So, it could help to say something like, “I’m a little uncomfortable to talk with you about this, but it needs to be done.” Then find out what your teen already knows about sex. What have they been hearing from their peers? Gently correct their misconceptions. Ask them how they think sex should be treated. Do they thing it’s something special that should wait for marriage? Educate them on how to resist situations they are not comfortable with.
The Centers for Disease Control has a simple, basic article that discusses ideas for a parent-adolescent conversation about sex.
How Much of My Own Experiences Do I Share?
To talk about sex with you teenager, you have to self-disclose with discretion. Make sure you disclose with a purpose. When you share about your teen years, whether they were innocent or wild, make sure you tie it in to your family’s morals. If you were promiscuous in your younger years, tell them what you’ve learned from that behavior.
If you have religious views about sexuality, explain the reasons for those views, don’t just tell them what the views are. For example, as a Christian I will tell my daughter that our faith teaches to wait until marriage. If she does get married, God wants her and her husband to have a bond that is completely unique and special. I will explain to her that sex within marriage is fun, sacred, and very much each couple’s own special thing. Based on my past mistakes, sex outside marriage doesn’t contain the same closeness or emotional safety, and that’s why God didn’t plan it that way. I really want her to know the why behind the views we’re teaching her, and your adolescents will appreciate knowing the why behind whatever it is you teach them.
You may also consider answering questions your teen has about the physical mechanics of sex since adolescents often hear incorrect information about this. In fact, some of the things they’ve heard are just downright hilarious (You’ll have to work hard to keep a straight face). This is a great time to talk about sexual safety. The safest option by far is abstinence. However, you can’t bank on every kid following an abstinence plan. Even religious and conservative families deal with adolescents who catch an STD or become pregnant. For this reason, most medical professionals recommend some conversation about safe sex. While this might not apply to your teenager, they may be helpful to a friend if they have accurate information.
How to Talk About Sexuality in Today’s Culture
Having a conversation with your teens about sex in general is also a great time to cover other related topics such as puberty and masturbation. Also, in today’s culture, you need to address things they hear about in media at at school like homosexuality and transgenderism. I know this probably isn’t a completely comfortable discussion for you, but it is still very important.
Your teenager is absolutely hearing about all these things, and it is important that your voice be part of the equation. Importantly, you do not have to agree with everything culture says is acceptable. For some families, daughters wearing bikinis to the beach is too sexual. However, your daughter will see their friends in bikinis just about every time they swim, so you need to have a patient and open discussion with your teenager about why bikinis are uncomfortable to you and how your teenager feels if she’s the only one covered up.
When you talk about homosexuality and transgenderism, I encourage you to listen first. Find out what your teenager already knows and what they think. Listen carefully to see if your teen is questioning their own sexual or gender identity. If they are, you are going to have a different discussion than if you are talking more about how to interact with others who question. Teach your children that no matter what, everyone needs to be treated with dignity and kindness. After you’ve done these things, then you can go on to talk about your particular moral views.
Let me just empathize with you for a minute. As a mom, I’m with you in knowing how much more challenging it is in today’s culture than it used to be. Between phones and current cultural LGBT+ awareness and trends, there is so much more to consider than when we grew up. But, what choice do you have? Your teen needs you to help them navigate the world they live in today.
Sex and Your Teenager’s Phone
Your teen has some exposure to sexual content on his or her phone. Period. When you have a talk about sex, you will also want to gently ask about what they’ve seen on their phone. This can range from friends making sexual jokes to other teens requesting or sending nude photographs to teens seeing things on TikTok to your teenager having a secret addiction to pornography. Anymore, nothing surprises me. Sometimes even the most seemingly buttoned-up kids I’ve worked with have struggled with viewing sexual content in secret on their phones.
I really wish I didn’t have to comment on this. Sadly, if you are going to talk about sex with your teenager, you have to touch on this topic too. Make certain they realize that a major factor in sexually violent encounters is one or both parties being under the influence of alcohol (see Alcohol and Research Health Article). For this reason, encourage them not to drink!
How to Talk About Sex With Your Teenager: Final Thoughts
Discussing sex with your teen simply isn’t easy. There’s no way around it. Many parents have put this conversation off while others have been talking about it at age-appropriate levels for years. Wherever you are, it’s fine to start there. Keep in mind, your teenager probably doesn’t want to have this conversation. Just be prepared to do as much listening as talking. And most of all, know that if you don’t talk to them about it, then the most important voice in their lives is absent in big part of their adolescent development.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT