Talking sex with your teen - 4 helpful hints!
Back in December, I posted Part A of this two-part blog on talking to your teen about sex. I discussed how overwhelming and difficult it can seem at times. Today, I am taking you one step further so you can see that success doesn’t rely on getting the questions right. Success is just having the conversation! I’ll give you four helpful hints to make it easier.
I want to remind you how important it is to first take a step back and reflect on how much fear and/or uncertainty you and your teen are likely BOTH experiencing. For a refresher on this important point, you can re-read Part A of this series - Talking sex with your teen - what is that awkwardness REALLY about?.
I have a lot of experience meeting one-on-one with teens to discuss safety around sex, and even I experience some anxiety and nervousness. I’ve been doing this work for 15 years as a sexuality educator and as a therapist who provides individual therapy and couples counseling. Each teen is different, every family has a different culture, and each story is unique. In the past my anxiety could lead me to doubt myself or my ability to answer their questions effectively. Given my extensive experience, it it safe to say these self-doubts have a way of creeping in, regardless of how often I have a great conversation with a teen about sex.
And these aren’t MY kids. These are YOUR kids. It makes so much sense that as a parent, your self-doubt and anxiety are exponentially higher than mine. The fear of failing your child in these important moments is real. The risks feel high if you get it ‘wrong’.
When I talk to parents about this topic, I hear ‘I know this is a healthy part of life and I want to talk to my child about this but I don’t know how’ and ‘what if I don’t have the right answers?’. These are all, of course, normal questions and feelings. Each one reminds me how much you care, and inspires me to put your mind at ease by offering some guidance. Here are four helpful hints to getting it right!
First: Take a step back.
Before you talk with your teen about sex or safety around sex, first, take a step back. Imagine your teen’s perspective for just a moment. These are young people filled with questions, but their embarrassment can overtake their curiosity. They are very often stuck in a mindset of fearing they don’t know as much as they should. They deflect your attempts to talk to protect themselves from feeling ‘stupid’ or ‘not normal’.
As their parent, you might struggle to see this perspective for two reasons. First, they are really good at hiding it with typical teen sarcasm, eye rolls, or snarky comments. Second, you are distracted by your own internal battle of inadequacy and fear!
So pause. Notice your own thoughts, assumptions and feelings and how they might be blocking your ability to really connect into the young, developing teen brain that resides inside your child’s head. This is important for you to remember because it sets the stage for a more helpful conversation.
Second: take your time
I realize it seems there is a lot of material to cover about sex and safe sex. Combined with all of the emotions we just talked about, this topic can feel overwhelming. Take your time. You don’t have to cover all of it at once!
Relationships, safety, consent, and values are indeed all linked. However, it can be really helpful to break them down into separate conversations. This provides time for your teen to take new information and think about it, before embarking on learning more (which can quickly lead to their overwhelm and shutdown). Slowing it down helps you with that fear of ‘what if I don’t have the correct information?’ . Slowing it down also allows you to hear your teen’s perspective and questions in bite-sized pieces so you have time to read, talk or explore answers to their questions in the future. Insider hint: you don’t actually have to have the answers! Nope! You just have to fight through your own feelings so you can show up for your teenager and have this conversation!
Third: Delivery Counts….and leaving room for interpretation
How you facilitate this conversation and the way you offer information matters.
Consider this: when your sincere feelings of concern for your teen’s safety are expressed by “I just want you to be safe”, your uncomfortable teen may translate that into ‘they just don’t understand me”. When your desire to ensure they understand the potential outcome of having sex is expressed as “sex can lead to pregnancy or std’s” your nervous teen may interpret this as “you assume I am going to have sex just because I’m curious about it”. Your effort to empower your child with ‘it’s okay to say no’ could be heard by a fearful teen as ‘you are judging me’.
Their internal fears and confusion act like a radio signal scrambler. Your beautifully worded concerns can get misinterpreted by their fears; causing a negative response to you! This is when it is really important to take a big breath, slow it down, and stay focused on how you are showing up in the conversation. Your continued focus on understanding your teen is the most important component in that moment. WHAT you say next matters much less than how you say it. Your teen will appreciate you and will slow down with you.
Fourth: share the fears:
We talked about the fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing an answer. Too often parents try so hard to ‘get it right’ (for good reason!) that you miss an opportunity to have a meaningful experience with your teen. Instead of hiding your fear, share it! Speak honestly about the emotions you are really feeling. Hearing you say ‘This is a scary conversation for me too.’ will open up a door with your teen. The realities of ‘I’m not sure how to talk about this’ and ‘I don’t have all the answers but it’s important that you hear these from me because I love you’ will help your teen get in touch with their own emotions of fear and frustration.
So there it is. Four helpful hints to guide you through a successful conversation with your teen about sex. I remind you - you don’t need to have the ‘right’ answers because your teen likely doesn’t have well formed questions! By stepping back, taking your time, noticing how you are talking to your teen and being honest about your own experience, you are setting the stage for your teen to share theirs with you.
As a couples therapist, it isn’t usual to hear from couples who want my help in preparing for these conversations. I also encourage some families to seek the support of family therapy if this conversation is just too difficult to have at home without the support of a trained marriage and family therapist.