How to Have "the Talk" with Your Teen
It can be awkward. Maybe a little embarrassing. Uncomfortable. Yet essential. Having “the talk” with your teenager about sex is an important job of parents. Ideally, the subject should come up before your child becomes a teen.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines, parents should introduce the concept of sex and sexuality in a developmentally appropriate way as early as toddlerhood.
“It starts with using appropriate names for genitalia with toddlers,” says Sarah Tycast, MD, a pediatrician in the Adolescent Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Use opportunities with younger kids to introduce subjects about sex. Talk about what they saw on TV, words they come home with from the playground, and if there are pregnancies in the family, ask if they know how the baby got there.”
She says by the time children are teenagers, it’s safe to assume they know some things about sex.
“There’s lots of sex on TV, the Internet, and in movies and music. They’re getting information from somewhere—hopefully it’s at home,” she says. “Parents’ opinions and thoughts are the most important ones to teens when it comes to making decisions about sex.”
At the same time, Dr. Tycast cautions parents about telling teens to “do this and don’t do that.”
“Sexual curiosity is a normal part of adolescence, so you don’t want to close off their behavior,” she says. “They’ll think you don’t get it and won’t talk to you about it.”
The goal for teens is for them to not have sex until they’re ready, she says.
“But a lot of teens are having sex before they are ready; 100 percent abstinence doesn’t happen,” Dr. Tycast explains.
Dr. Tycast says more girls today are initiating sex, which is why it’s important to talk to both boys and girls about pressuring someone into sex.
“They both need to know it’s never okay to pressure someone into sex and that it’s always okay to say no,” she says.
When many adults were teens, they never had a conversation with their parents about sex.
“It can be uncharted territory for parents to talk to their teens about this subject,” Dr. Tycast says. “Think about what conversations about sex you wish your parents would have had with you. Talking about sex with your teen may be uncomfortable, but you still need to do it.”
Here are some tips to open the lines of communication about sex:
- Before the conversation, take time to think about your own values and beliefs about sex.
- Find an event, such as an ad or a movie, that gives you an “in” to bring up the topic of sex.
- Keep your ears open to find out what behaviors your teen’s friends are engaging in. Use this as an opening for a discussion about sex with your teen. You can ask questions to get started, but let the teen guide the conversation.
- Make conversations open and honest to build trust for future talks.
- Talk about what sex is and what behaviors put teens at risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Set a reassuring tone so your teen will feel comfortable and safe coming back to you to talk about things. It’s important for teens to know their parents will still love and support them no matter what decisions they make about sex. Leave judgments at the door.
- Key points to cover include STDs (explain what they are), condoms and birth control options. Abstinence should also be part of the conversation. Read up on all the subjects before you talk about them. More information than ever is available online and in books.
- Make sure teens know they can still get an STD through behaviors such as oral sex, even if they don’t have sexual intercourse.
- If your teen has a question and you’re not sure how to answer it, tell him or her you’ll find out and will talk the next day about it. Make sure you follow through.
- Don’t assume your teen is heterosexual. It may become apparent he or she isn’t.
- If you’re absolutely not comfortable talking to your teen about sex, find another adult who is, or ask your pediatrician or adolescent doctor for help.
- Turn to resources for help. Some useful books to guide conversations include The Teenage Body, or Our Bodies, Ourselves. You can also go to the teen section of the AAP’s Web site, healthychildren.org.