birds and beesRecently a friend described how she’d had ‘the talk’ with her teen son. She felt it was time to sit down and talk specifically about relationships (including sex) because her son has a girlfriend and they spend a lot of time together. Our conversation about her experience was entertaining and enlightening. She described how it was awkward for her, but she knew she needed to get her concerns out in the open. She also recognized that ‘the talk’ is really just the start of an ongoing dialogue about relationships and intimacy. Here were some of our take away tips for parents of teens who may be reluctant to talk about sex, feelings, and romantic encounters.

The Talk is a misnomer. Teaching our teens about healthy relationships is an ongoing process. As parents we do this in so many ways. Our kids watch our behavior, they see how we treat our spouse or significant other; they listen to how we communicate with friends and family. All of these behaviors shape how our children behave in their own relationships.

Use teachable moments to your advantage. She likes to use road trips as an opportunity to talk about sex and reproductive health because neither of them can leave the area! If it feels awkward to talk about sex directly, use media as a starting point. Ask if they noticed a song lyric that had sexual innuendo; mention the commercial that used sex to sell a product. Ask open ended questions (questions where the response isn’t yes or no) and spend time listening.

Don’t assume anything. Our sexual attractions can vary. Don’t assume your teen is attracted to the opposite gender. Instead talk about relationships in general terms. Each individual involved should feel respected. Ask if your teen knows who they’re attracted to yet. This can be as simple as stating something like “when I was your age, I had a crush on a friend. Tell me about a crush you may have had. What did you do? How did they react?” Leave gender out of the questioning until your teen establishes who they might be attracted to.

Sex is normal. But encourage your teen to think about what to do if they’re presented with an opportunity. When I meet with patients, I normalize sex. If no human ever had sex, our species would be extinct! It is supposed to feel good and has natural benefits and consequences (pregnancy, feeling emotional connection, even sexually transmitted infection). Unfortunately, if a teen doesn’t know how to prevent pregnancy or infection, they may end up being faced with the consequences. The emotional attachment that can happen may also take a teen by surprise.

Do talk with your teen AND listen. Discuss how sex should not hurt, they should not feel forced, and their partner (if they chose to have sex) should respect their decisions involved in the intimate contact (such as insisting on condom use, using contraception, using comfortable positions, foreplay, etc). Abstinence (not having sex) is the only way to fully avoid the natural outcomes of sex, but abstinence is not the norm (by the end of high school 60% of teens have had sex) and relying on abstinence alone has not been proven effective long-term.

Discuss your family values (such as waiting until committed relationship or waiting until marriage). Your expectations and recommendations carry a lot of weight. Have ongoing communication about your personal family’s values.

Talking about sex will not make your teen have sex. It’s not giving them permission to become sexually active. What these discussions will do is offer a chance for your teen to ask questions and for you to dispel myths about sex. Good parental communication is associated with teens waiting to have sex.

This is not an exhaustive list of tips, but they can get the conversation started.