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How to Talk to Teens About Sex

Speaking with your teen about sex can be a daunting task for parents.

Key points

  • A parent’s feelings about intimacy and sex and the ever-changing landscape of sexual health can make a frank conversation difficult.
  • Parents can talk to young children about their bodies in developmentally appropriate ways and keep the conversation going throughout adolescence.
  • Be frank and present, providing children with the information they need to make the best decisions for a healthy transition to adulthood.

When it comes to talking to teens about sex, parents often feel inadequate for the task. A parent’s own feelings about intimacy and sex and the ever-changing landscape of sexual health can make a frank conversation difficult.

Compounding the difficulty is that the need for conversation often becomes more evident at a time in a teen’s development when they are turning away from their parents and toward their peers. No one wants to have this conversation, yet it’s one of the most important talks a parent can have with their child.

Teens, Sex, and Puberty

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexuality and reproductive rights think tank, 40 percent of adolescents between 15-19 reported having sexual intercourse. Between 89 percent and 94 percent are using contraceptives; however, only 77 percent of adolescent girls reported using contraceptives during their first sexual experience.

Guttmacher has also identified a potential link between the pandemic and increased sexual activity and sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) among teens. It may be that teens who are isolated from their peers are seeking intimacy in spontaneous relationships.

Additionally, researchers are seeing the earlier onset of puberty in girls, as early as 9 years old in the U.S. Boys are also entering puberty earlier than previous studies have shown, as early as 10 years old. This is a real concern because young people are now at risk of pregnancy much sooner.

There are other issues around early puberty. While being an early developer can be a boost to boys’ self-esteem, it can be harmful to girls. Early developing girls experience more risk-taking because they are perceived as older and tend to hang out with older males and peers. In both boys and girls, early puberal change puts them at risk for sexual activity they’re not emotionally ready for.

What are the best ways for parents to talk with their teens about sex? Here are some tips.

Start When Children Are Young

When your kids are little, it’s important to talk to them about their bodies in a developmentally appropriate way. Use the biological names for body parts instead of nicknames. Get used to saying “penis,” “vagina,” “urethra,” “labia,” etc. Talk about appropriate touch, and teach children to trust themselves if they feel something’s not right. I recommend Debra Haffner’s book, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children–From Infancy to Middle School, as a source of guidance.

Keep the Conversation Going

This is not a “one and done” talk but an ongoing discussion that grows as your child matures, both physically and emotionally. As children near puberty (which, remember, can be as early as a third or fourth grade), add in discussions of these changes to help them understand how their body is preparing them for adolescence and adulthood. As children enter adolescence, it’s time to discuss reproduction.

Look at the process as building a scaffold. First, we talk about body parts and inappropriate touch. Then we add on changes such as menstruation, body hair, and secondary sex characteristics. Be open to answering questions, and be frank if you don’t know the answer. It’s really okay to say, “I’m not sure about that,” and sit down at the computer and look up the answer on a reputable site. (See the list below for parent resources.) The more that parents and their children can explore these concepts together, the more they can talk about what they’ve learned and reflect that.

Be Frank About Risks

By the time children enter adolescence, the sex talk is less about sex and more about – everything else. Risk-taking behavior. Impulsivity. Peer dependence. Romantic partners. Sexual pressure. Sexual violence. Contraceptives, pregnancy, and STIs.

In my work I’ve presented some of these concepts to young people, and they have responded, “I wish I’d known about this! I could have made better choices!” Adolescents are often hungry for accurate and honest information about sex. They want to know how to protect themselves.

This is also the time when parents should be ramping up their teen’s independence in an age-appropriate way, but with the caveat that they may have to pull back if it’s not working.

This may be the scariest part of the job for parents – when and how to let go, and how much? Here’s what we saw during the pandemic. Although teens were in lockdown with their parents and isolated from their peers, at the peak of the pandemic, a third of youth ages 13-17 were still seeing friends in person. At the same time, parents as essential workers, working overtime and without childcare, were more likely to leave their teens unsupervised. As a result, the typical development of teen autonomy was disrupted, and youth risk-taking, including that on social media, will likely show an increase.

Sexual health is also a continuing conversation. It can take place in the car, while watching TV, or listening to the news. Take advantage of these open doors. Share your own experiences as appropriate – be a parent, not a buddy.

Talk to Your Sons

So much of the discussion of teen sexuality centers on girls, because they bear the brunt of unplanned pregnancy. Parents also need to talk to their sons. Boys need role models who can talk to them about the emotional and intimate aspects of sex. They need to be able to understand how to be respectful in a relationship and protect themselves from health risks.

While all teens should be taught about bystander intervention, in which they can step in and say, “hey, this doesn’t look safe,” this is an area where boys can be particularly helpful in promoting safety. It could be a way for them to understand their responsibilities in sexual situations, especially in light of media and societal messaging that sex is only for pleasure.

Boys, especially those who identify with the LGBTQ community, are also vulnerable to sexual violence and unwanted sexual experiences and need to understand how to protect themselves.

Note: Parents should talk to both sons and daughters about alcohol and drugs. Alcohol is not a cause of sexual violence but is frequently a contributing factor. Both victims and perpetrators can black out due to alcohol, leading them to behave in ways that are out of character and/or remembered.

Be Present

It’s the natural order of things that teens pull away from their parents and increase their connection to their peers. But your job as a parent isn’t over. Continue to be present for your teens as they become more independent, and keep providing them with the information they need to make the best decisions for a healthy transition to adulthood.

Keep the lines of communication open, listen to what they’re saying, and provide advice and guidance – not lectures – when needed. If discussing sexual health topics remains challenging, parents can begin by sharing their values and expectations about romantic relationships, family formation, and safety, as the life values of teens tend to mirror those of their parents.

Resources

The following are resources for parents and teens to discuss sex, sexuality, reproduction, intimacy, and other topics.

Guttmacher Institute, Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health in the United States

National Coalition for Sexual Health, The Sexual Health of Youth in the United States

Planned Parenthood, For Teens

Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, Sexual & Reproductive Health Resources for Adolescents and Young Adults”

References

https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/american-teens-sexual-and-reprodu…

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7323157/

https://www.webmd.com/children/news/20200210/puberty-starts-a-year-earl…

https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/130/5/e1058/32…

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