If you’re reading this, I assume you want to do a great job talking to your teenager. I applaud and thank you for being an advocate for your young adult. The prospect of these conversations can make even the best-intentioned grown-ups feel afraid, awkward, ill-equipped or unsure. Maybe you’ve tried and felt like you failed at conveying the point. Maybe your teen rolled their eyes at you and put their headphones back on. It’s happened to all of us. Here’s my best advice as a health care provider with a lot of experience talking with teens about sexual health topics. To make sure I’m presenting a broad perspective and giving you advice that can be used in most situations, I’ve also talked with colleagues and friends who are male and female, cisgender and transgender, straight, gay, married, single, sexually active and not.
Let me start by acknowledging that even bringing up topics around sex can be a challenge that requires some courage. Trust is the key and if it’s not a foundation in your relationship with your teen, you might have some additional work to do. If intimidation or shame has been a way your family has approached conversations about teen sexuality up to this point, starting on a new foot may be even more challenging, but protecting your teen’s health is worth learning a new approach. If your teen is nervous about your reaction, it may take them a while to open up. Preparing yourself to hear and answer tough questions in a safe, supportive way is important so that you don’t appear shocked when your child does open up. Think about your youth; who talked to you about sex when you were younger? Did you feel prepared? If not, how do you wish someone had talked to you as a teen or preteen? Don’t be surprised if the first talk with your child is awkward. And remember, it does not and should not be one massive conversation that you have once and never again—break it up into small bits and invite ongoing discussion.
1. Honesty is absolutely the best policy.
Your discussions with your child about sex are the foundation of their knowledge base and often affects your teen’s feelings on the subject. If you feel awkward or embarrassed, try to find another adult to talk with first. Your embarrassment should not get in the way of rich discussions with your teen. If you feel like you need to read more about a subject before you bring it up or, if you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to—do some research. It is better to share factual information. Data shows that giving your kids information is not going to encourage them to have sex earlier. It’s also OK not to know the answer to every question and to let your teen know that. Helping them connect with a healthcare provider who knows the answers to more detailed questions will give them another good resource to draw on.
2. Answer questions pointedly and simply.
Sometimes a question is just a question. You may assume that when your teen asks you a question like, “what are condoms?” they plan to use them soon. You may jump to the conclusion that your teen is sexually active. This may not be the case at all. So, instead of freaking out, you might say something straightforward and simple like “a condom is a latex tube that goes over a penis. People use them to prevent pregnancy and protect from sexually transmitted diseases. Do you have any other questions?” Rather than: “Why, are you having sex??”
3. Start early.
Kids have questions related to sex often WAY before they decide to have sex or even before they may be interested in someone romantically. Issues around where babies come from (and how they get in there), body hair, body odor, voice changes, breast development, periods, erections, crushes, using makeup, body grooming, and deodorant are all things that come along before and during puberty—they and can be really embarrassing and sometimes frightening for some kids. I’ve seen kids in my clinic that come in after getting their first period worried that they were bleeding and concerned there was something very wrong. Once they realized what was happening, they were extremely embarrassed and upset that they were not better prepared and they still had no idea who to talk to.
4. Share your feelings about your expectations clearly.
Kids listen to their parents—even though you may not think so—and your advice will be absorbed along with all the other information they hear from the world around them. Say something like “My hope for you is that you find a partner who respects and listens to you. You are really important to me.” That is a truly important message. You can also be more specific: “Having sex is a big commitment to yourself and your partner. Having sex has consequences and I hope you wait as long as possible, like maybe until you are in college, to have sex and that your first time it is with someone you really care about.” Or also, “I am here as a resource if you have questions in the future. If I don’t know the answer I will find out the answer. I want you to be prepared because I care about you.”
5. Talk about consent.
In the state of Oregon, the “age of consent” to have sex is 18. However, that does not mean that a 16-year-old having sex is doing something illegal. If their partner is within three years of their age (so as young as 13 or as old as 19!) they are within their rights to have sex with that person. If their partner has greater than a three-year difference, the older partner in the relationship could get into legal trouble if the relationship is reported. It usually does not go well and statutory rape allegations are not great to have on one’s record. Because of this, it is important to talk to your teens about the law and consent. I say something like, “if you have a partner and you want to move to the next level with them (like from holding hands to kissing or from kissing to touching) do you have a conversation with them? Do you give the other person permission beforehand? Giving permission is really important when you are getting more serious in a relationship. And if someone does not have your permission, that’s not OK. It is also really important to ask for permission if you want to do something new to someone else.” Remind them that consent is an ongoing process and no one ever, ever, ever (ever ever ever!!) has a right to do anything to them to which they do not agree.
Also, speaking of consent, in the state of Oregon a child of ANY age can be seen for contraception or STD testing without their parent’s permission. Teens over the age of 14 can consent for their own mental healthcare (without parent permission). And teens 15 or older can consent to all their own medical care (without parent permission).
6. Laugh a little.
Sex is awkward and at times it can be downright hilarious. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There is no place for shame or judgement in this conversation.
7. Bring up the stuff in the middle between kissing and sex.
One of my friends commented that when she first heard about oral sex it was referred to in the common vernacular as a ‘blowjob;’ she was convinced for years that she had to blow on her partner during sex. No one told her about it and she was totally unprepared when facing the possibility of giving one later in life. There is a huge spectrum of what people consider sex. Kissing and sexual intercourse are only two things people do. Masturbation, oral, anal and manual stimulation often are ignored in these conversations. And these little-discussed topics are more common that you might expect; there is data out there that shows teens are having more oral and less penetrative sex than before.
8. Porn exists.
Technology exists. Kids can find out a lot on their own. This is terrifying for us to think about as parents and its better if you can share your insight before they start searching things out on the internet. You can use media as a great conversation starter. If you see something on a television show or hear something in a song, you can try asking your teen what they think about that particular topic to start a great conversation. Teens who are exposed to porn might have unrealistic expectations for relationships and body image and this is another topic you could bring up.
9. Talk about pleasure and romance and the joy of good, healthy relationships.
A lot of people I asked commented that this was something that was totally ignored and they had no idea how to find an appropriate partner. As an adult, you probably know teens engage in sexual activity because it’s fun and it feels good. But we worry a lot for our kids. We want to warn them about the dangers of having sex, including the real risks of getting or passing a sexually transmitted disease or getting someone pregnant or becoming pregnant. So we might focus on the scary aspects of sex to make it sound worse in hopes that our teens won’t try it. But statistics show that about half of 17-year-olds in the US have had sex. And this awesome resource on adolescents and sex from the National Coalition for Sexual Health shows that in a survey of 15- to 17-years-olds, half of them have never had a conversation about sex with their parents! Try to flip your mindset. If your teen decides to have sex, wouldn’t it be more pleasurable if they didn’t have to worry about STDs or getting pregnant? This could be a great intro to bringing up the subject of using condoms effectively or using a birth control method.
10. Don’t assume.
Just don’t. Love is love as long as it’s consensual and safe. Your teen is likely not thinking about hurting your feelings when they make their sexuality decisions. Curiosity is normal.
As always, if you’re not sure how to answer a question, or you need clinical services for your teen (like getting them access to birth control, the HPV vaccine or STD testing) make them an appointment or teach them how to make their own. Much of my career has been spent talking to teens about sex and I am happy to see them in my practice.
Lastly, I trust the resources below and give them out knowing they are evidence-based. Do feel free to look at these resources yourself to see if you can feel good recommending them based on the age of your teen and their maturity level. They can also help you find out the answers to questions you may get asked.
- Bedsider, a website about birth control and STDs
- Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book (and now an organization) around for decades, revised often
- Sex Etc, a website for teens, by teens
- Scarleteen, a blog about lots of topics for teens
- This great article from the Mayo Clinic
- Advocates for Youth, online resources for parents