Sex Talk – Talking To Your Teenager About Sex

parent to child conversation cartoon

Image © Phil Spratt

As the cartoon above illustrates, because of technology young people are more exposed to sex than ever before. But are they more knowledgeable? Yes and no. While teenagers are watching lots of porn, they are receiving few alternative perspectives about what a consensual, constructive and fulfilling sexual relationship looks like.

Whether or not you’re OK with your teenager engaging in sexual behavior now, surely you want them to have a healthy shame-free sexual relationship with someone at some point in their adult life. Preparing them for that starts with supporting healthy, shame-free, and realistic attitudes about sex when they’re young.

At some point, your child will become curious about their changing body and sexuality, and they might come to you with questions. They might not even be a teenager yet. One important thing to always keep in mind is you only have to answer the exact question they are asking. Try to answer as honestly as possible, and then let them either decide whether that’s what they needed, or they need more information. Also, you might not think they are listening, but they are. Answering the exact questions builds trust, if you try to avoid responding or find a scapegoat for it, they will sense your trepidation and not believe your answer.

If you are so uncomfortable with the question that you are unable to answer or you have some story in your mind about what will happen when you tell them (for example, that if you tell them about something they will go out and do it), share your concerns with them. Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to sharing with your kids. If it were to come down to the fact you feel so uncomfortable answering, ask a close friend of yours to talk to your child about the question. Although, you might want to consider yourself lucky that your kid came to YOU.

Here are some things you can do:

Be a good listener. Don’t back down on what you believe. Admit when you don’t know. Show unconditional love.

Explain peer pressure and consent and boundaries, or bring them to a trusted person who they might feel more comfortable discussing intimacy with (counselor, sex educator, therapist, etc.). Just because “everyone is doing it” that doesn’t mean it’s OK. If someone is trying to coerce or manipulate them into doing something, or it doesn’t feel right, tell them how to get out of that situation safely. But go on to explain the positive side of boundaries too. Help them to start to understand that sexual play is about pleasure and connecting with their partner. Both people’s pleasure is equally important and they are responsible for sharing with their (eventual) partner what it is they like and want more of.

Be someone they can trust: Let them know they can use you as an excuse to get out of a situation they don’t want to be in. We can’t tell you how important this is. Before they go to a date, party, or to an event that runs late, them them know they can call you if they need to be picked up (maybe even come up with a code word) and they can blame their “Evil Mother” or “Evil Father” for making them come home early or that “Dad will kill me if I try this” or “do that.” They will appreciate how much you care and feel less pressure from their peers. You may also want to show them the site That’s Not Cool. Run by Futures Without Violence, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, and the Advertising Council, That’s Not Cool has made a series of digital “callout cards” intended to help young people draw the line when they feel unwanted peer pressure in texts or online.

Teach them about birth control, what safer sex is, as well as the difference between safer sex and smart sex; move beyond facts and statistics and discuss feelings, priorities, and values. This podcast by Jennifer Roback Morse, a Catholic and author of Smart Sex, is relevant for religious as well as non-religious parents and teens. Dr. Morse brings up good points about intimacy, the hook-up culture and how people bond to their sex partners via hormones released during sexual play and intercourse, trust between the sexes, and what creates and stifles a fulfilling long-term relationship.

Another great article to read and possibly share with your teen is Dr. Laura Berman’s interview on Oprah with a teen couple and their mothers. Dr. Berman asks Courtney and Pierce (the couple) to think through the emotional changes that come with sex. “The first time, it comes with intense emotions, intense feelings—especially afterward,” she says; adding questions they need to consider, in addition to safer sex practices, are:

  • What does this mean for who I am as a person?
  • What does this mean for my body?
  • What does this mean for my relationship with this person?
  • What happens next?

Download Dr. Berman’s handbook for advice on talking with your kids at every age here.

Use TV shows and movies as launch pads for discussion. TV programs are great opportunities to raise issues about responsible, safe, and sane sexual behavior. Objectively observing situations together can take the pressure off the teenager’s specific behavior, desires, and interests and instead open up a discussion about sexuality or decision-making around sexual behavior.

Porn and Disney

Talk about porn. Talk about porn and how, just like Disney Movies, online porn is also not realistic. Mention arousal addiction and how porn can have unintended psychological, social, sexual consequences. Oral sex and anal sex – two sexual acts that are popular in porn and on the rise among pre-teens and teens – may not result in pregnancy, but still carry the risk of contracting an STD. Explain to boys that the average man does not have a huge penis and does not last hours, and women do not look or sound like the actresses in most porn videos. For girls, instill dignity and a positive body image right from the beginning, emphasize qualities other than beauty that attracts partners, and talk about other traits to look for in a man beside performance (financial, social, and sexual). Help both sexes develop expectations and a sense of what they really want in the long-run (not what “friends”/ media/ porn tells them they should want) so they do not settle for whatever’s offered.

Make your teen feel that they have value. We’re not talking empty praise or participation awards. Rather, something more along the lines of establishing romantic standards and respecting their body because it’s the only one they’ll ever have. As Dr. Phil says, “You must help your child love themselves. You must help him or her value their worth and identity. You have to instill standards by which to live their lives. If they have these standards in place, when someone approaches them about oral sex [or whatever sex act they may or may not be ready for]… they will be able to say no.” Having a high sense of self-worth means having higher standards. Teaching your kids how to cope with loneliness and sadness in productive ways like sports, reading, playing music, or helping others also helps them develop a sense of worth on their own. Let them know loneliness happens to everyone and it always passes. Knowing they are loved by Mom and Dad makes a huge difference.

Be a positive role model. Having a role model in the house is a great way for kids to learn about how they might want to behave or interact with their eventual partners. Making things gender specific – like Mom will talk about this, Dad will cover these topics – could work well in some families, but not as well in other families. Some families do not have both parents around or have a different situation or preference altogether. If your family is lacking a proper role-model, find one for your teen.

Be direct about the risks, but don’t use scare tactics. We know you want your kids to be safe. If you frighten them into thinking they will get pregnant or an STD the first time they play around with someone as a way to discourage behavior, chances are it won’t have the desired effect. They might not ever come back to talk with you again or seek other educational resources. Give them accurate advice and if you don’t know an answer, go to the computer together and look it up with them. Planned Parenthood has designed 9 digital tools for mobile devices that encourage teens to talk with their parents and make healthy decisions. Scarleteen, Respect Yourself, and Advocates for Youth also offer great information and resources.

Don’t shame your teen for masturbating. Parents often avoid discussing masturbation, yet masturbation is the surest way to have long-term, risk-free sexual fulfillment. Try not to demonize personal sexual exploration.

This can be an embarrassing topic for any parent. Don’t beat yourself up if you have been cringing all the way through this article. We suggest you reach out to someone close to you and share with them all your fears that you have about your child growing older, becoming an adult and learning about sexuality.

– Keeley & Nikita

Further reading: This Is What Sex-Positive Parenting Really Looks Like

What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is About Pleasure?

#BeingThirteen documentary