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Karen L Smith MSS, LCSW
Karen L Smith MSS, LCSW

6 Openings for Talking to Kids About Sex and Gender

Don't be left out of these most important of conversations with your kids.

Source: Pixabay

As parents, a lot of us have our fingers crossed. We hope our kids won’t have sex until they are grown. And that they will land on the easiest and least controversial path possible. It is a reasonable wish, but can’t be turned into a parenting goal without shutting down all relevant communication on the topics with our kids.


We may hope our kids don’t have sexual contact or sexual relationships until they are old enough to choose wisely, safely and responsibly. But they probably will. Statistically speaking. And even if they don’t have sex or sexual contact, they are having lots of conversations about sex and have been for years. We absolutely want to be one of the people with whom they are having those conversations.

They need us to teach them how to keep safe from rape, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Not with a standard lecture that causes their eyes to glaze over, but with an interactive discussion based on the details of the party they are telling us about; where people were drinking, some people were making out in private rooms, and how they were worried about one of their friends but didn’t want to interrupt their friends “date.” THIS is the conversation we want to make sure we are available for. THIS is the conversation where we can help them think about how to keep themselves and their friends safe. THIS is the conversation we get cut out of if we have a “no tolerance” approach to sex (or to drugs and alcohol).

And this is only one of the many conversations we want in on that relate to sex and sexual relationships. We want to be one of the people they are talking to about whether or not to date this person or that person, or anyone at all. “Peer pressure” doesn’t look like their friends telling them what to do; it looks like the craving to fit in and be seen favorably, and dating impacts image. In the details related to who kissed who and for how long, and who started to feel who up, there are rich conversations about how to negotiate what we want in a relationship, and what our partner wants.

We want to help them think about which of their friends are being called “sluts” or “players,” shamed for being virgins, or embarrassed that they aren’t dating. We want to help them think about how crazy new love can make them feel, how out of control and destabilizing hormones can be, and how much relationships can hurt our other friendships if we don’t protect them.

There are hundreds of conversations about the nuances of building friendships and romantic relationships, and having sex and sexual relationships, that are key to our children’s’ development into healthy stable adults with successful love and communal life. We are reduced to unheard lectures about these topics if we can’t tolerate hearing about what they and their friends are doing.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The reason we want to know any thoughts or questions our kids have about sexual orientation and gender identity is because of the rates of suicide among young people who fear familial rejection. Regardless of whatever hopes and dreams, fears and worries, we may have about issues of orientation and identity, regardless of our political and societal views of these issues, most of us would do whatever we can to reduce our children’s’ risk for suicide.

  • Between the ages of 10 to 24, suicide is the 2nd most common cause of death at 17% of all deaths
  • Young people who are or who are questioning sexual orientation or gender identity are 4 times more likely to commit suicide.
  • Young people who are or who are questioning sexual orientation or gender identity are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide if they come from rejecting families, as compared to kids who report low to no parental rejection regarding their orientation or gender identity.

Bottom line: whatever fears or concerns you might have as a parent about your kid being gay, lesbian, trans or differently gendered, if you want them to make it into adulthood, they need your help.

So, hopefully you are convinced that you want in on all these conversations. Here are 6 openings.

First, practice your best teenage nonchalance cool. Casual, while you are chopping vegetables, or waxing the car, with minimal eye contact. All jokes aside, you are giving them space to figure out what to answer, how to answer, how to read you, to assess what you can handle hearing.

  1. Use the openings they provide. When they tell you one of their friends has a crush on someone, ask them what a crush means. When they say someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, ask them what that means; ask them what boyfriends and girlfriends do together, where they go together, how they spend time together. When they tell you about how people were hooking up at a party they went to, ask what hooking up means, who people do it with, where they do it, if they have ever done it, or have anyone they want to do it with. Be curious, be casual. This is where you get the info. It is not necessarily when you insert little thoughts, teachings, comments. But your non-judgmental, casual, conversational style will help you gather data about their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about sex and romantic relationships.
  2. Ask questions about their friends and their friends families. “Any kids at your school come out?” “Is there a Gay and Lesbian Alliance group at your school?” “Do you know any trans kids?” “Do you think Mrs. So and So is lesbian?” “How many folks at your school do you think are having sex”? “Do any of your friends have gay or lesbian parents?” “What do you think your friends would do if one of you got pregnant?” “Do any of your friends have trans people in their families?” “How does the school talk about these issues?” “Do you and your friends talk about how to have each other’s backs at parties, as pertaining to rape?” “What do you and your friends think when you talk about these issues?” Be prepared to defend your asking the questions, casually, with non-judgmental statement like “just asking,” “what is the big deal?” or “I mean, statistically some of your friends must be ….fill in the blank!”
  3. Use current events. Ask what they think about Caitlyn Jenner, or all the hoopla going on in North Carolina. Ask how their favorite TV shows deal with issues around orientation and gender identity. Or about a recent teen suicide or gay/trans bashing. Feel free to share your own feelings…as long as the last thing you say is something like “in the end all that matters is people figuring out what makes them happy,” and even better, to say clearly and directly, “you know that if you ever had questions about orientation or gender, we love you no matter what.”
  4. Use your own experiences. Try to remember the kind of relationship you had hoped to have with your kids before you had them; the closeness you had hoped for. All the ways you were going to be different from your own parents; how much more real you were going to be. Don’t cop out now. Tell them if you ever had any same sex experience, questions, or your own thoughts about gender. Tell them if you had sex before marriage or got pregnant unintentionally. Tell them how differently the world (and your parents) thought about these things and what your journey has been like to find a place where you would love your kids no matter how they expressed their gender, orientation or their sexuality.
  5. Pay attention to your language and what you are saying. When you are asking your kids if they have a crush on someone, don’t use a gender…”Anyone you are interested in?” Or better yet, try two genders. "Any boy or girl you have a crush on these days?” Same thing when you talk about the future: "Someday you are going to meet someone and…” or “someday you are going to meet and man or a woman and…” If they are questioning their gender or orientation, they are listening to you define exactly what you expect of them. We have tons of ways we tell our children who we expect from them. "When you get married...” “When you go to college...” “When you have kids...” “When you own a home...” Let’s stop that.
  6. Directly say it. Say it. Tell your kids you love them. Tell your kids that even if you hate what they need to tell you, even if it scares you, confuses you, or isn’t what you want for them, that you will love them, support them and help them build a full and content life.

I wish I had some pithy quote here about how are kids aren’t ours, but just ours to love, or how the universe isn’t as we would design it. Ultimately what I know is all of us who love our children hope that we can be there for them in hard, confusing or painful times, but that to do that, we must let them know we will lovingly receive even hard realities.

Smith is the founder/director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which offers clinical services with seasoned, cultural competent clinicians throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.

Clink on these links for other posts that might interest you:

Want to Raise a Diversity Savvy Kid? 3 Traps, 2 Solutions

Anger Matters

About the Author
Karen L Smith MSS, LCSW

Karen Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist, in practice 20 years and currently the Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice in Philadelphia.

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