When you're a parent of a teen, pretty much everything you do embarrasses your son or daughter, and that goes double when you try to talk to your teen about sex. Though you're probably the best source of reliable information, you're also the last person on earth (or anywhere else) with whom your teen wants to discuss sex.
Nonetheless, you should be prepared to talk to your teens about sex (whether they like it or not), because if you don't, cigarette-smoking Johnny at the skate park certainly will. So how do you talk about sex without making your kids want to hide their faces or head for the nearest exit? It's impossible. But keep reading for tips that will help you limit the catastrophic humiliation of all parties involved.
Years of on-the-job research have probably enlightened you to the fact that your teen totally tunes you out. And you've surely noticed that the degree to which you're tuned out strongly correlates to how important the topic of discussion is. You've probably also realized your teen does a lot of dumb things, no matter how emphatically you warn against doing dumb things.
When talking to your teen about sex, it's easy to start and end every sentence with "Don't!" If your style of sex education is Sunday-morning fire-and-brimstone, your son or daughter is going to nod and say "OK" while imagining him or herself to be somewhere far, far away doing something other than talking to you about that.
Even if your message is "Don't!" supported with an argument based on fire-and-brimstone, you'll want to deliver it in a way that won't make your kid tune you out. You know your teen better than anyone -- or at least you did until puberty set in -- but your teen knows you pretty well, too. Your little darling has been studying you since birth, probing for weaknesses and cataloging hypocrisies. If you start giving orders and admonitions about sex, the whole conversation will be lumped into a mental category reserved for your rants -- the one titled "disregard."
But if you take away preaching, what do you replace it with? See the next page to find out.
In the last section, we talked about trying not to "preach" to your teens when talking to them about sex. But without using scare tactics, how should you broach the topic while preventing an actual conversation? Well, you can't, and it's a good thing, because a back-and-forth conversation is exactly what you want.
Try to encourage openness when discussing sex with your teen. Instead of dictating or speechifying, try asking questions:
- Does anyone else talk to you about sex?
- What do people at school say or think about sex?
- Do you feel pressure to have sex, or to act as if you have when you're with friends?
Just get the ball rolling, and the conversation may find its own momentum. You don't have to ask about your teen's sexual history directly or reveal your own -- though you could, if you'd like to mortify them for eternity. You can simply ask questions about the topic of talking about sex.
- Have your friends had "the conversation" with their parents yet?
- What did your friends say about it?
- What do you and your friends think about the sex-ed classes at school?
This starts the conversation out on the periphery of the topic, which is safe enough to establish trust and banter.
So when should you schedule "the talk?" Keep reading for some pointers.
Talk to Them Early
Incredibly, your actions, words and presence usually don't humiliate your child during the pre-adolescent years. You haven't yet become the "worst thing ever," and you may even get away with grabbing a hand when you cross a busy street together without causing a full-scale meltdown. As such, these late preadolescent years are a fine time to talk about sex for the first time.
If you miss this window, it can still be done while they're growing through adolescence, but the awkwardness (and their periodic, intense dislike of you) will make it that much harder to bring up the subject of sex for the first time. Preadolescence is a special, cherished time when you can manipulate your children's thoughts, mold their impressions of the world and plant seeds of caution and restraint without them getting wise to your schemes, so take advantage of it.
Your preadolescent child will be receptive to what you're saying, and not embarrassed -- or at least not too much. Having laid the groundwork to a still-receptive mind, you'll be able to build upon it with greater ease once adolescence comes along and potentially swings a wrecking ball at your family's communication.
And you don't have to have just one big talk. Try periodically having small talks about sex. How periodically? Advance the conversation over time, but not so often your teen wants to melt into the ground and disappear every time you enter the room.
Next: The art of faking cool detachment.
Whatever communication style you've developed with your child will carry with it rewards and drawbacks, and likely will be the template for conversation for the rest of your lives. Ideally, your kid will believe he or she can ask you anything and get some semblance of a straight and honest answer.
Whenever your kid brings up a topic you'd rather talk about later, it's easy to deflect the touchy subject by saying, "We'll talk about that when you're older." Do it too often, though, and you'll quite likely not be asked again. In fact, you might not be welcomed to share your thoughts on that matter at all.
Always attempt to answer your kids' questions to the best of your ability (making concessions for age and maturity), so that they'll keep asking those questions as they grow older. And as your kids grow into teens, pay attention to whether they're still asking questions.
If the unexplained relief you've been feeling lately is because you're no longer being asked far-out and discomfort-inducing questions, that's not a good thing. Keep your thoughts accessible to your kids, and if you don't know the answer, help them find it.
The next aspect of talking to your teen about sex without embarrassing them is totally going to embarrass them.
Let Them Know They're Sexually Normal
When adolescence strikes, thoughts suddenly turn from playgrounds and imaginary friends to sex and imaginary sex. Your teen's waking (and sleeping) hours are largely consumed with thoughts of sex, being sexually appealing and hoping you don't try to initiate a conversation about sex.
Your household mirrors are likely being French kissed, pornographic contraband is being smuggled into your house (or out of your room), and your sofas, showerheads and most everything else are being used for entirely new purposes. And the whole time, your teen is wondering if he or she has lost some marbles along the way. The short answer is "Yes."
However, all of this is normal in every household with a teen. Without calling them out on the increased demands for tissue paper in your home, find ways of letting them know that adolescence -- under the most normal circumstances -- is a somewhat abnormal time.
Their increased interest and exploration of sex (and themselves) is going to carry with it shame, guilt and regret, and this is a heavy load to carry around. Don't treat their questions or accidentally discovered behaviors as shocking or immoral -- they can't help themselves. It's a crazy, confusing time for teens, and you can tell them so.
Should you stare at the ceiling while you discuss sex? We'll talk about that next.
Be Comfortable with the Subject
Usually, the reason your teen is totally embarrassed when you talk about sex is that you're clearly embarrassed when you're talking about sex. It's not a parent-teen conversation you want to jump into without some planning and thought. Also, it'll help matters a great deal if you know what you're talking about.
Read up on the subject so your own questions are answered before talking with your teen. Learn what they've been taught in sex-ed classes at school so you're not trumped during your conversation, losing authority on the subject forever.
Let your teen know that talking about sex isn't easy for you, but that you think it's important that information about sex come from you. Give it a practice run with one of your friends or siblings just to get the words out of your mouth for the first time. Better yet, tell your own parents about your plans to talk to your teen, and note the numerous occasions when you feel deep embarrassment discussing this with them. Because if you act or behave as if you're uncomfortable talking to your teen about sex, your teen's going to end the ordeal just to help end your own embarrassment.
Next: There's more to cover in the sex talk than just the scary stuff.
Don't Focus Just on STDs and Pregnancy
Though your main concerns regarding your teen and sex likely are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy, focusing exclusively on these two topics won't get you terribly far when it comes to talking to your teen about sex.
If you start with these topics, your teen may just mentally retreat to some imaginary desert island that features promiscuous, repercussion-free, unsafe sex. While you certainly want to cover these topics, approach them in a manner that empowers your teen to make smart decisions. Attempting to use STDs and pregnancies as arguments against sexual behavior will likely fall on deaf ears, and these topics are too important to be ignored.
Don't make the risks of STDs and unwanted pregnancies the sole focus of the conversation.
Instead, present these topics well into your discussion about sex, as natural conversational topics that stem out of the subject as a whole. Let them know that ultimately they will be responsible for their own decisions about sex, but also that there's nothing terribly sexy about visiting a health clinic or dropping out of school to raise a baby.
Hold off on drilling your teen for information until you read the next section.
Not the Spanish Inquisition
When talking about sex with your teen, it's easy to make the jump from conversation to interrogation. Lead with an aggressive line of questioning, and you'll be met with lies, silence or outright hostility.
While ideally we would all know what our teens are up to at every second, they put a lot of effort into making sure we don't. If your teens looks like they're hiding something from you, it's because they are. What they're hiding, however, may have nothing to do with sex.
When you talk about sex with your teens, don't give them the third degree. You don't want them to think they're in trouble, so don't take that tone or be quite so serious about it.
Be calm and act as if it's any other conversation. Make sure they're paying attention, however. And even though you would prefer that your kids accept and act on your values, ultimately you'll have to accept that decisions about sex are up to them. It's your job to provide realistic information that helps them make the best decisions, and it's their job to stonewall you as soon as you use an accusatory tone.
So how do you prevent a scenario in which you're asking questions and getting a bunch of embarrassed-for-you looks as answers? See the next section to find out.
Make Sure It Isn't a One-way Conversation
It's weird -- you're talking, and your teen appears to be listening. You're so impressed, and before long, you've run out of things to say. But the only thing your teen's paying attention to is an attempt to wind this conversation up as quickly as possible without learning too much in the process.
During "the talk," it's easy for a teen to pipe down (for once) and let you carry the conversational load. Your kid's trying to run out the clock -- if he or she sits there and nods in agreement long enough, at some point this ordeal will be over, freeing up your teen to go hide under a rock and die of embarrassment.
Set a give-and-take tone for the conversation that allows your teens to broach subjects or ask questions they've been wondering about. Listen to them, and make sure you're providing them with a chance to talk and ask questions.
It's important not to concentrate solely on plowing through your prepared PowerPoint presentation. Pay attention to their murmurings or mutterings, because they may provide you with the opportunity to get their actual thoughts on the matter.
Next: Your teen's pretty sure you're not the brightest bulb around.
Provide Educational Resources
No matter what you plan to say when you talk to your teens about sex, you're going to forget to mention something important, or you may decide in the moment to skip a planned discussion topic. On the other hand, they're not going to give you 12 hours of their time for a record-breaking attempt at "Longest Embarrassing Talk in Teen History."
Seek out solid sources of information before talking to your teens about sex, and make these available to them. Start off with a talk, and afterward, provide them with (age-appropriate) written information about sexuality. Later, discuss the materials and content with them. However, be sure to discuss sex with your teens instead using educational literature as a stand-in.
By doing this and the other tips we've discussed, there's a very strong chance you'll be able to talk to your teens; however, you'll probably still embarrass them. It's unavoidable. Hopefully, these tips will ensure that an actual conversation -- and some sex education -- occurs in the midst of that mortification. Give it your best, because your teens will carry forward your knowledge, wisdom and advice about sexual relations, and they'll know that if they can survive "the talk" with you, they can survive any talk with you.
See the next page for lots more information about talking to your teen about sex.
As The Who would have said, the kids are all right. See the results of a survey on teen behavior at HowStuffWorks.
- Allen, Kim, Ph.D. "Talking with Teens about Sex." University of Missouri Extension. May 27, 2009. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://missourifamilies.org/features/adolescentsarticles/adolesfeature12.htm
- Children Now. "Talking with Kids About Tough Issues: Sex & Relationships." 2009. (Oct. 22, 2010) http://www.childrennow.org/index.php/learn/twk_sex
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Sex education: Talking to your teen about sex." Nov. 14, 2009. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sex-education/CC00032
- Morales, Tatiana. "Talking to Teens about Sex." CBS News. Sept. 26, 2005. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/09/26/earlyshow/living/parenting/main885473.shtml
- MSNBC. "Experts: How to talk to teens about sex." Jan. 26, 2005. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6870839/
- Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "Talking to Teens about Sex." 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010) http://www.pamf.org/teen/parents/sex/talksex.html
- Planned Parenthood. "Info for Teens." 2010. (Oct. 22, 2010)http://www.plannedparenthood.org /info-for-teens/
- Walsh, David Allen and Nat Bennett. Why Do They Act That Way? -- A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen. Free Press. 2004.