For many parents, thinking about having “the talk” with their children about sex is sure to induce a lot of anxiety and stress. As much as parents want to help guide their children, especially as teenagers, toward healthy decisions regarding their sexuality, there can be a lot of pressure around having “the talk.”
One of the reasons that “the talk” can be so anxiety provoking is because of how it’s conveyed as a one-time occurrence. Parents may feel like they have one chance to get it right, and hopefully it won’t be too awkward for them or their children!
What if there was an alternative to having “the talk”? What if parents could forget about having a one-time conversation about sex and move toward having a series of ongoing conversations that evolve in a way that corresponds with their children’s changing needs, questions, and developmental stages?
This alternative is exactly the approach that is best suited to help parents talk with their children and teens about sex and sexuality in today’s world. Not only do children’s needs and questions change related to this topic, but the world around us is changing as well, and there has perhaps never been a more important time for parents to be intentional about talking with teenagers about sex and sexuality.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but this year has been unique in that issues related to sexual assault, harassment, and abuse have been in the media for a prolonged period of time due to the #MeToo movement and the cascade of recent news reports of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Whether parents like it or not, teenagers are hearing about unhealthy aspects of sexuality very often, and parents can play an important role in helping their children process these news stories and learn how to build a safe, healthy sense of sexuality in today’s world.
Below are eight tips to open the door to a helpful, ongoing conversation about sex and sexuality as you parent teenagers:
- First, get clear about the values and information that are most important to you to convey about sexuality to your teen. What are your long-term goals for how you’d like your teen to understand sex and sexuality? It may be helpful to journal about this or talk with your partner or a trusted friend to help you figure this out. Although you need to address your teen’s immediate questions and concerns, it’s also important to think about your hopes for their future life and relationships, and consider how the topics you discuss today are laying a foundation for their future development as a person and in relationships.
- Second, take time to learn about the sexuality-related topics that teens today face. Although some things never change, there are a lot of new issues that parents today either didn’t face or weren’t discussed when they were teenagers. For example, today’s teens need to learn about consent and how to navigate the technology-related aspects of sexuality and relationships. Parents need to understand these topics to be able to discuss them with their teens.
- Third, let your teen know there’s an open door to talking about sex and sexuality with you. Before you even start talking about specific topics, spend time talking about how you know this is a difficult topic to talk about, but that it’s important that they know they can come to you at any time with questions or to talk through any specific situations they are facing.
- Fourth, start with some more basic, less-threatening topics to build a foundation of trust and safety for these conversations. Consider what topics are less anxiety-provoking for both of you, and start there. You don’t need to dive into really difficult conversations right away. You might start talking simply about dating relationships and what a healthy relationship looks like. These more basic conversations can show your teen that you’re a trusted source of wisdom and information on topics related to sexuality.
- Fifth, be mindful of your reactions when your teen asks questions or shares what they know. If you overreact if your teen discloses something or asks a question, that can shut them down for future conversations. Even if something your teen asks or says is upsetting or scary to you, try to respond calmly, keep listening, and not jump immediately into a long lecture on the topic. Your teen will be more likely to open up to you the next time if they see that they can talk to you without you getting upset or angry.
- Sixth, if you are concerned about your teen’s health or safety, speak up, but do it carefully. Some parents may be so concerned about shutting down a conversation with their teen that they become afraid of challenging a teen’s behavior that they know is unsafe or risky. Having an open door of communicating about sex with your teen doesn’t mean you get to let them do or say anything they want to do. If your teen is engaging in risky sexual behaviors, let them know you are concerned and the reasons for your concern. Remember that many teens have a sense of invincibility, so they may not fully appreciate what you tell them about the risks associated with their behaviors. So, you may need to share your concerns repeatedly, but you can always reassure your teen that you’re there for them, that you aren’t trying to shame them, but that you do want the best for them.
- Seventh, be willing to say, “I don’t know,” but then help find the answer. One of the fastest ways to hurt your credibility as a trusted source of information about sex and sexuality with your teen is to provide them with inaccurate information. Be willing to admit when you come to the end of your knowledge, and suggest that you and your teen search for more information together, such as by searching for information online or by speaking with a local professional.
- Eighth, address media in your conversations. Teens are heavily connected to many different types of media, including music, television and movies, and social media. It’s important to talk with your teen about how they see sex and relationships portrayed in the different sources of media they encounter throughout their days. Help them develop media literacy so they understand how what they’re seeing in the media compares to reality.
As a parent, you play an important role in shaping your teen’s views about sex, sexuality, and relationships. Although “the talk” is often an anxiety-provoking aspect of parenting teens, you can alleviate a lot of pressure by viewing it as an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time event. By keeping an open door to conversations about sex and sexuality with your teen, you are offering a foundation for them to navigate this often complicated and perplexing part of their growth into adulthood.