Talking about sex with your teen: It's not as hard as you think

Why you need to talk to your child about sex - and why you'll be glad you did.

By Connie Matthiessen

When was the last time you talked with your teenager about sex?

When it comes to this most charged and intimate of topics, many parents and teens engage in an uneasy conspiracy of silence. Teens don't want to talk to parents about sex any more than parents want to broach the subject. But experts agree that, no matter how awkward it feels or how reluctant your teen, you should talk about sex — early and often.

Richard Eyre, co-author of How to Talk to Your Child About Sex, believes not raising the issue with your teen is ducking a fundamental parental responsibility. "Kids these days are bombarded with sexual messages — from the movies, television, and the Internet," he says. "They're experimenting with sex at younger and younger ages. They're getting pressured to have sex to prove that they're cool. So children are learning about sex every day, and parents need to have a say in what they're learning. If you abdicate on this issue, you're leaving your child to the wolves."

Sex Ed is not enough
Many parents assume that they don't need to talk about sex at home since most teens receive sex education at school.

"I hear that excuse from parents a lot," says Marcia Zorrilla, a health educator at  Balboa High School's Teen Clinic in San Francisco. "Parents tell me, 'If the school is doing its job, I don't have to.' But health classes cover a range of topics besides sex, and the information is generic. Parents need to do the bulk of the educating at home and whatever kids learn at school should be supplemental."

Why? Because your teenager will face choices about sex, if she hasn't already. Research indicates that close to half of all high school students have sexual intercourse, and a higher number engage in other types of sexual activity. 

It's also essential to make sure your teen is informed because there is a lot of misinformation out there. "I've been surprised by the level of ignorance about sex among high school students, and the myths they pass around," says one San Francisco mother and psychologist. (One of her daughter's high school classmates, for example, assumed it was impossible to contract a sexually transmitted infection from oral sex.) This mother has always talked openly with her  two children about sex, and now that they are teenagers they still come to her with questions — and so do their friends. "I don't think parents can rely on kids getting the correct information at school," she says. "If you aren't talking to them at home, you have no way of knowing what they're hearing or what kind of assumptions they're making."

Studies also show that teens whose parents talk to them about sex are less likely to engage in early sexual activity — and early sexual activity is linked to increased risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STI's), according to the Washington State Department of Health. "The data suggests a linear relationship between how early you talk to your kids about sex, and how long they wait to engage in sexual activity," adds Eyre.

Where do you start?
Ideally, parents should talk to their children about sex well before the teen years. (If you’re the parent of a child under 10, read this article about talking to your young child. See Resource Box for more information).

When your children are approaching and beginning puberty — from about 9 to 12 — you should elaborate on the basics, and make sure your child understands what to expect during puberty (see Resource Box for more information).

Teens need more detailed information — not just about the biological facts, but sexual behavior, pregnancy, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections (STI's).

Beyond sex to the real taboo: emotions
It’s also essential to talk to your teen about the more complex and ephemeral issues of love, intimacy and relationships.

Many experts who work closely with teens every day worry about the casual way many teenagers approach sex — and the potential collateral damage of such behavior.

"Parents need to understand that it's very different today than when we were growing up," says Richard Eyre. "Kids treat sex like a recreational activity, the way they would a new video game. They have no idea of the emotional implications of what they're doing."

Zorrilla says that, in her work as a teen health educator, she sees a range of unhealthy dynamics among high school couples, including coercive sex, emotional blackmail, and verbal abuse. "It's important for parents to talk to kids about what it means to be in a relationship, how you should treat others and how you should expect to be treated in return."

Michael Riera, educator and author of Staying Connected to your Teenager, believes many parents start the discussion backwards, by focusing on sex instead of emotional and intimacy issues. "Parents will tell their teen, 'I don't want you to have sex.' Or they put condoms in the bathroom and tell their teenager to use them. But it's also essential to emphasize the quality of relationships, the process of getting close to someone, and the different stages of intimacy, and then raise the issue of sex within that context."

Of course, empathy, trust, respect and self-respect are all values that parents should be imparting from the time their children are very small, when they talk about  friendships and family relationships, but it's important to reinforce these messages for tweens and teenagers, as they begin having sexual feelings and developing romantic attachments.

Emphasize the (sex) positive
While it's essential to educate your child about the risks sex can pose — from pregnancy and STI's to emotional damage — don't forget to talk about the positive aspects of sex as well. Richard Eyre says that Sex Ed programs often neglect that part of the discussion, with the result that many kids tune out, or develop negative associations with sex that may linger into adulthood.

"It's important to convey the message that sex with the right person at the right time is incredibly beautiful and wonderful, but early experimentation and recreational sex will dilute the impact and power of that experience,” he explains. “Parents should approach the discussion with two goals in mind: to help your child avoid early, problematic sexual experiences, and to encourage them — when they're ready — to have a wonderful sex life with the person they love."

Are we really expected to talk about that?
Mortified, unnerved — and convinced your child will run in the other direction as soon as you mention  the s-word? Don't worry. You don’t need to offer explicit explanations for every nitty-gritty detail. In many cases you may not know the answers to your teen's questions, or you may find certain issues too difficult to talk about face to face. When your words fail, make sure your child has access to resources that can provide the answers to their questions — and your own. (See Resource Box). You can also arrange for your child to talk to her physician.

But they don’t want to talk about it!

Even if your teen covers his ears every time you try to introduce the subject, it's important to persist. "This isn’t a decision that should be left up to your child," says Eyre. "You're not asking them for a favor. Tell your child, 'this is important, we are going to have this talk. If not now, then we need to set a time to do it soon.' "

Pick a time when your child is comfortable, and neither of you are pressed for time. Eyre suggests introducing the subject while you're on a long drive, or you can make an occasion of it and take your child out for a meal at her favorite restaurant.

Finally, “the sex talk” is a misnomer. It isn't one conversation, but an ongoing dialogue. Zorrilla advises parents to use books, movies, news stories, and every day events as opportunities to talk to their teens, and help them think critically about sex and relationships. She recalls an interaction she and her teenage daughter observed recently at a shopping center. "A teenage boy was yelling at his girlfriend because she had his phone and he wanted it back. He was so angry that it frightened my daughter," she says. "Later on we talked about it, and I asked her whether she thought it was okay for that boy to talk to his girlfriend that way. This opened the door to a discussion about relationships in general, and what we should expect from our partners."

It's not all about the words you use, of course; your children are watching how you handle the intimate relationships in your own life. If your relationships are loving and respectful, that's the model your child will be working from — and the reverse is also true. "Like everything else in parenting, the issue of sex forces you to evaluate yourself," says Richard Eyre. "If you don't like what you see, this is the time to work on yourself, so you can set a better example for your children."

Keeping connected
In his book, Staying Connected to Your Teenager, Michael Riera says that the connection between parent and teenager is an essential ballast for the developing adolescent as she navigates the difficult passage from child- to adulthood. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining this connection with your teen — no matter how atrociously she acts or how hard she pushes you away. Talking with your teen about sex, intimacy and relationships, Riera writes, provides an important opportunity: "It isn't easy and it's worth every ounce of courage it takes to get through the anxiety, both yours and your teenager's. This is true vulnerability in the relationship, which by its very nature implies connection."

Richard Eyre agrees: "Since we published our book, thousands of people have given us feedback, and not one person has said, 'I had the talk with my child, and I regret it.' Instead, most people say it was easier than they thought it would be, and that it opened the door to a whole host of other important issues. Once you have the initial talk, you'll find that your kids feel more comfortable confiding in you about other issues as well."
 

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.