It may seem intimidating or uncomfortable to talk to your teenager about sex, especially if your teen would rather be doing literally anything else than having that conversation with you. But keeping lines of communication open on this important topic is an essential part of parenting.
Before I attempt to convince you why being sex-positive, pleasure and health-focused, and equitable is so important, you should know that I’m not just a sex educator; I have two kids of my own, too. There are no skills or tips that I’m going to tell you that I don’t practice myself. Hypocrisy is not my thing.
Whether we want to hear it or not: we are all sexual beings. Our children and teens are sexual beings. That doesn’t mean that they are all sexually active. It means that they all have a sense of who they are, who they may be attracted to, how they want to express themselves, and some may be exploring new relationships and desires and trying to manage how to act on those feelings.
Before the Talk, Take Stock
Don’t just dive into this conversation without doing some self-reflection. What do you want for your child? Do you want them to avoid sex until a certain magical age or formal relationship? Do you want them to make informed decisions? Do you want them to have a voice? Do you want them to avoid any negative outcome that has long-term implications? Once you’ve answered these questions, think about where your answers are coming from — are your desires for your child based on your own experience, on society’s ideas about what’s healthy or moral, or on something else?
Listen, it’s been a long time since I was a teenager. However, I do remember how overwhelming everything felt. Often, the information I tell my own kids is based on all of those things I wish that I had known or done differently. Think about it for a minute. What would you have liked to know when you were younger? How would your experiences or self-esteem have changed with different information or values? Keep these thoughts in mind and let them guide your conversations (yep, conversations plural, definitely not just one).
What the Sex Conversation Should Cover
I can write about this stuff for days (and there is so much to discuss), but I’m sure that you don’t have time to read all of that, so let’s focus on a few fundamentals. Contraception and STI Prevention. These are subjects that you don’t want to lead with (because they can often be perceived as fear-based talks), but are imperative to discuss.
Birth control: Birth control isn’t about sex; birth control is a form of healthcare. Contraception allows your child to manage their fertility and have maximum control over their bodies and futures. And as parents and caregivers, we want our children to have all options available to them, right?
If you are raising someone with a penis, this conversation may seem a little simpler because the main focus is condoms, something you can buy and hand to him. (Though if your kids are really ready to be sexually active, then they should be buying condoms for themselves!) That being said, all people should know about contraceptive options – not just one sex or gender. If you’re the parent of someone with a uterus, there are more options (a good thing!) and even more at stake. If you are the genetic parent of your child, your health history may play a role in her birth control decision. (For example, if you have a history of breast cancer, there may be some contraceptive options that are off the table.) And let’s be honest: you know your teen. Choosing the right birth control means taking a hard look at your own abilities or limitations. Some people can remember to take a pill everyday; other people want a long term “set it and forget it” method like an IUD. But unless that method is a condom, no other form of birth control will offer protection against an STI.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): This isn’t about shame or stigma. STIs happen, and if your teens are sexually active, no matter who their partners are or what type of sex they may have), condoms and dental dams are the only things that offer protection against STIs and HIV. If you want to sound really cool, start using terms like “external condoms” (formerly called “male”) and “internal condoms” (formerly called female). It will show your teens that you are working hard on develop your 2019 sexual health language. (And if you don’t know what a dental dam is, that’s okay. It’s a barrier designed to be held over someone’s vulva during oral sex.)
Pleasure and consent: Sharing your body (and your emotions) with another person should feel good, safe, and equitable. As parents, we tend to forget to lead with this information, but it is essential to understanding how to make good sexual decisions. Mutual pleasure and reciprocation is a key to healthy relationships and of course, vulnerability is a part of sex, too. This is why having partners who respect you, your boundaries, your voice (and vice versa) is such a big deal. Relationship health can be hard for parents to talk about, so if you need assistance, check out: https://www.loveisrespect.org/healthy-relationships/
If You’re Uncomfortable
If you’re uncomfortable with these conversations, own them. Be human. Explain to your children why this topic is difficult for you. Maybe you didn’t have your own role models. Maybe you don’t have lots of updated information. (That’s cool, but go get some!) Maybe you’re afraid of giving them the wrong message. (Let them know that you aren’t perfect.) Trust me, these admissions make your angsty adolescent far more likely to listen to you. And please do not conveniently “forget” to talk about pleasure. Pleasure is important and we shouldn’t be doing anything if it doesn’t feel good to us, body, heart, and soul. (If you pretend like pleasure doesn’t exist, your kids will tune you out for good.)
A few final words to the wise:
Don’t be judgmental.
Don’t make assumptions.
Listen more than you talk.
Ask your kids how you can help them.
And don’t forget that there was a time when you were figuring it all out, too.
About the Author
An internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships, Dr. Logan Levkoff is an author and educator dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality and relationships and encouraging honest conversation about sexuality and the role it plays in our culture. As a thought leader in the field of human sexuality and personal relationships, Logan frequently appears on television including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and CNN. Logan is an AASECT Certified Sex Educator and Sex Educator Supervisor and served on the AASECT Board of Directors. She received her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Life Education from New York University and holds an M.S. in Human Sexuality Education.
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