Teens don’t need a talk on the facts of life. They know how sex works, many of them have experimented with it, or watched porn web videos or pirated DVDs. But they still seek parental guidance, they just never admit it—or they’re frustrated by the kind of guidance we give.
Most parents tell their children to wait until marriage but never explain why. Other teens complained that the “sex talk” consisted mostly of thinly-veiled threats. “They said they’d disown me if ever I got anyone pregnant,” 17-year-old Harry said. He just made sure to use condoms—or, in the case of the 16-year-old Eunice, do “everything but penetration.” All of them felt that their parents didn’t understand them.
The problem? Our typical “sex talk” deals with very clinical/medical information (STDs, pregnancy) or abstract lectures such as religious beliefs, etc. We forget how, at that age, sex is entangled with many intense, difficult emotions that tens are just too young to understand.
So most of them brush off what they feel. Rachel pushed back the shame of the morning-after by thinking. “Oh, it’s just sex. Everybody’s doing it.” When they broke up, and she started seeing other guys, she barely noticed the shift in her personal standards. “I kept dating really lousy men. But sex wasn’t anything special anymore,” she said.
This is what our teens are going through. This is what they want us to understand.
It’s tough for us parents to broach the Sex Talk. Sometimes we stick to clinical facts because it’s the least uncomfortable thing to do. “My parents never talked to me about sex. I came from a conservative family and it was just assumed that we knew that we should wait till we’re marriage,” said Janice, now mother to two teenagers.
Other parents are afraid that free discussion might make teens think that sex is okay. “I just want to send one message: don’t do it,” quips Monica, though you can tell she’s not entirely kidding.
Well, ignoring the topic won’t make the problem go away. In fact studies show that talking honestly about sex can help delay intercourse and prevent teen pregnancy.
But we can’t stay in that comfort zone. Parents can give guidance that teens won’t find from friends, magazines, or even their school’s sex education program. They also need to feel that after we’ve set the guidelines and rules, we’re there for them, even as we let them make their decision, but only because we can’t watch them 24 hours a day, and locking them up will only make them rebel even more.
But what do we say? What do they need to hear? And how do we start the conversation without embarrassing ourselves or alienating them?
- Don’t try to get too chummy in an attempt to be cool.
Talk to your teenager as a mom. Don’t ask her, “So, is he a good kisser?” Most kids find that really weird. We have to remember that there is a fine balance between getting involved and respecting their privacy.
Let’s say your daughter and her boyfriend look like they’re getting serious. She’s probably confused about where to take it. Ask her how she feels about the relationship. “He sounds like he’s very special. What makes him different from the other guys you met?” Notice: you’re helping her process the situation, but you’re not dictating what she should do. In fact, you’re doing most of the listening.
Once she feels that you’ve heard her out, then talk about what “serious” means and why it may bring about new levels of intimacy.
- Reinforcements. Kids may have misconceptions about sex, i.e. “I can’t get pregnant if I do it during my period” or “I won’t get STDs if there’s no penetration.” You don’t want to handle this talk with your daughter (she’d be afraid to ask you questions, anyway.) Instead, bring her to your ob-gynecologist. She needs a check-up anyway once she reaches sexual maturity, and she’ll be more comfortable with a doctor anyway. How to guide the conversation? Brief your OB-gyne beforehand. “I told her what I wanted them to discuss—diseases, pregnancy, etc—and asked her to please reassure my daughter that I respected their doctor-patient confidentiality,” says Lilly. She then left the two alone, and never asked what happened behind those doors.
Your doctor can also give objective and credible reasons why your teen shouldn’t engage in casual sex. “It’s like having sex with a person and his/her previous partners. That’s why it’s important to know your partners. That’s why it’s important to know a partner’s sexual history.”
- Don’t be a prude. Sex is not a bad thing. Avoiding the topic, or treating sex like it’s a sin, will make teens feel ashamed of very natural human needs. Instead, talk about sexuality in a positive way. “You’re a woman, and an adult. You are in charge of your body. Don’t let anyone cheapen you or treat you with disrespect.” This makes them feel proud their sexuality without encouraging wanton promiscuity. In fact, you can remind them that people who are too “liberal” are just using sex to satisfy other needs—fitting in, hiding insecurity. “You can’t use your body to fix an emotional problem. The problem will still be there when you wake up, and you’ll feel worse.”
- Be clear about rules. “Don’t have sex” is pretty abstract and all-encompassing. Make it easier for them to keep that rule with clear, concrete rules that prevent them from being overwhelmed by hormones and temptation. Can they bring their boyfriend/girlfriend inside the house? Are they allowed to go on out-of-town trips with friends?
- Role model a healthy, happy relationship. It’s not just about sex—it’s being intimately involved with someone. And they get their attitudes about that from you and your husband. Don’t show double standards. Be careful of jokes and stories that give the impression that sex is okay for boys but not for girls. Both have to be sexually responsible.
- First listen, then talk. Ask them what they think before giving your decision. The irony about teens is that the more you treat them like adults the more they’ll respect the rules that you do give. Also let them know they can come to you with questions anytime. That includes not freaking out when they open up, and spending regular one-on-one time quality time with them where they can blurt out what they think.
- Talk about values in a way that they’ll listen. It’s not enough to say “Save it for marriage.” Explain why you chose this for yourself. Impart your values, not impose.
- Find everyday teaching moments. Latest issues, showbiz news can be a good springboard for relationship talks. A nice and easy way to start talking about making smart choices in relationships.
- Take off the pressure from yourself. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for talking about sex with your teen—you really have to go with the flow. But the good news is that even if you stumble through the “Big Sex Talk” there are plenty of other opportunities to send your message across. Plus, teens are more insightful and forgiving than we give them credit for.
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