How to Talk with Your Teen About Sex

by Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Even though it might make you a bit uncomfortable, you’ve probably realized that a key part of your role as the parent of a teenager is talking with him/her about sex. The next important step is figuring out where to even start. While you may have addressed the subject in the past, talking to a teen about sex can pose an additional challenge. Here are some practical tips:

  • Just do it. This is the hardest part. Find a time when you can be together without a lot of distractions–riding in the car, for example. Take a deep breath, and then simply let your child know that you want to talk about sex. If saying the words “I want to talk with you about sex” makes you cringe, find your own words that make you feel more comfortable.
  • Be a good and respectful listener. Once you’ve brought up the subject, you need to resist the temptation to lecture. Teens get lectured a lot, and they become expert at tuning out. A better strategy is to ask questions, then listen carefully to the answers. Even better, wait until your teen opens the door for a discussion about sex without your prompting him–anything from a casual reference to someone dating or some sexual gestures in the latest music video. Or simply let your teen pick out a PG-13 movie at the video store for you to watch together. You are sure to find ample opportunities to talk about sex, and you may even share a laugh or two.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what your teen knows. Don’t assume that s/he already knows everything about sex, or that s/he knows nothing. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
  • Be prepared for resistance. If you are fortunate enough to have an unusually communicative teen, you might do well with a simple opener, such as “What sorts of things are you thinking about sex these days?” More likely than not, however, this line will be met with a single syllable such as “nothing” or “ugh.” It’s natural for teens to want to preserve their privacy, particularly when it comes to their parents. So you need to reassure your teenager that you are not trying to pry into the deepest recesses of their soul. Confine your interest to a more factual level–that is, what s/he knows and doesn’t know. Make it clear that you really don’t intend to probe their secret desires and anxieties, but that you are interested in their thoughts and ideas.

Some specific questions to get you started

Many teens need a specific, concrete question to get them started. Here are a few to try:

  • Have you had sex education in school this year, or last year? What did they teach you?
  • What sorts of things are your friends saying about sex these days?
  • What do you think about Hollywood stars who have children without being married? What about “normal” people having sex before marriage?
  • What would you say if some boy (or girl) wanted to get you to have sex?
  • What questions do you have about birth control? What do you know about herpes? HIV?

Your teen’s answer to any of these questions can be the starting point of an important discussion. Rather than challenging what s/he says, first of all try to make sure you completely understand the point s/he’s making. Restate, in your own words, what you think is the point. Make sure you get a signal that you understand before moving forward. Given the choice between asking a further question or launching into a speech, ask the question.

Once you’ve heard what your child has to say and you’ve weighed in on the issue, acknowledge that ultimately the decision whether or not to have sex is their to make. You can lay down the law, but you cannot control your teen’s every waking moment. Once you recognize that you are not completely in control and make it clear that you’ve put your trust in your child, the likelihood that s/he will listen to you and share their thoughts actually increases.

Specific topics
Sex is a big topic. You don’t have to talk about everything in one day. Eventually, however, you’ll want to make sure you’ve touched on at least the following:

  • Abstinence: why and how to say “no” (or “no, thanks”)
  • What, actually, is sex? (Many teens don’t count oral sex as sex, for instance, although there are some real medical risks with oral-genital contact.)
  • Why it makes sense to be older before starting. You may have strong feelings about your child engaging in sex during the teen years. But values aside, it is a matter of fact that teens who wait until they are older have a lower risk of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Contraception (for example, many teens think that the Pill prevents sexually transmitted diseases–it doesn’t)
  • Emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of sexuality. Much of this wisdom your teen will need to gain through experience. But you can help point the way by sharing your own convictions and, most important, listening to your teen, trying as best as you can to understand their point of view.

David Britton, Roberta Lester-Britton,Sarah Press,and Michael Sherman all specialize in dealing with teen related problems.

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Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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