Talking to Teens About Sex

Oh, no… “the talk”.  I don’t think there’s an adult around that feels really excited to discuss the “birds and bees” with a child. But our children need us to be responsible adults and teach them so that they can grow and act responsibly too.

Here are a few myths often sited by parents about “the sex talk”:

j03961551. Kids don’t care anymore what their parents tell them. Not true! The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has conducted periodic national public opinion surveys on a variety of topics. A decade-plus of polling has made one thing crystal clear: teens say parents most influence their decisions about sex – more than peers, popular culture, or the media.

2. I’ve already talked to my child once about sex. They got it – we don’t need to rehash anything again. Also not true! About 90% of parents nationwide say they’ve spoken to their teens about sex, according to a 2006 ABC News poll. But something is getting lost in translation, because only half of their teens agree. These study results were validated by another survey last year by O Magazine.

3. My child is too young to be engaged in sexual activity; we’ll talk when he or she is older. This is also not true. First of all, we need to be keeping the doors to communication open by having smaller, developmentally appropriate talks throughout your child’s life, rather than just one big sex talk at a certain age that you think covers the basics.  Additionally, children are engaging in sex much earlier than ever before. A new Iowa State study of nearly 1,000 low-income families in three major cities found that one in four children between the ages of 11 and 16 reported having sex, with their first sexual intercourse experience occurring at the average age of 12.

There is so much anxiety surrounding this talk – both from the parents and the child – that sometimes some of the most basic things are missed. For example, parents should not be talking about only S-E-X with their kids. They should be talking about the relationships that surround sexual activity. For example: We take for granted that children know what dating is. But on movies, two people meet and quickly become intimate. Parents need to combat that message and explain that in real life there is time to get to know each other – time to hold hands, go bowling, see a movie, or just talk. Children need to know that this is an important part of a caring relationship.  Shouldn’t we also help young people understand the characteristics of a healthy relationship and the warning signs of an unhealthy one?

Try to help your sons and daughters focus on the value of the relationship, rather than the issue of sex. Tell them that if they are considering dating someone, they should ask themselves these questions: Do you respect each other? Are you honest with each other? Do you communicate well with each other? Do you have friends in common? Do your trusted friends like and trust this person? Do you have shared interests? Answering these questions honestly can go a long way to helping young people decide whether their potential partner is worthy of dating.  Additionally, these critical-thinking skills about relationships will help them long into the future.

Be prepared for your talk. This will help both of you feel more at ease. You should be able to clearly explain your own sexual values and attitudes. You should also have answers to common questions that kids ask:

  • How do I know if I’m in love?
  • Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • How will I know when I’m ready to have sex?
  • Should I wait until marriage?
  • Will having sex make me popular?
  • Will it make me more grown-up and open up more adult activities to me?
  • How do I tell my boyfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him or hurting his feelings?
  • How do I manage pressure from my girlfriend to have sex?
  • How does contraception work?
  • Are some methods better than others?
  • Are they safe?
  • Can you get pregnant the first time?

Try role playing with your teen. Explain that it is not unusual for teens to find themselves in a sexually charged situation, and that they need to think about how they will handle it in advance. Encourage them to make a plan with you. Ask them: Will you say “no”? Will you use contraception? How will you negotiate all this?

According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, research makes clear that young people who finish high school; wait until their twenties to marry; and have children after they marry are much more likely to achieve their life goals than those who do not follow this sequence. Teach your children about this “success sequence” and make clear to them that education is a priority in your home. Help your teenagers have options for the future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood. The chances that your children will delay sex, pregnancy, and parenthood are significantly increased if their future appears bright. This means helping them set meaningful goals for the future, talking to them about what it takes to make future plans come true, and helping them reach their goals.

Here are three online guides for talking to your teens about this difficult issue:

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