You know it’s an important talk to have. But starting it can be, well, intimidating. Here are some tips to get the ball rolling.
Look for door openers
Parents should look at their surroundings and try to find teachable moments when spending time with their kids, says Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids.
For example: “You’re watching a television program, and there’s something of a sexual nature or some decision-making around having sex.” That’s a door opener to talking about sex, she says.
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While parents may experience discomfort at bringing up the topic, Flis adds, they should not ignore the teachable moment out of embarrassment or a fear of not knowing what to say.
No lectures, please
Resist the urge to get on the soapbox and pontificate.
“When everybody’s watching TV, nobody wants a lecture,” Flis says. “In fact, kids don’t like lectures at all.”
Instead of going on a long spiel, parents should ask their teens what they think about sexual situations they hear about or see on TV. Open-ended questions allow parents to gauge what their kids are thinking.
“Unless you know where their thinking is going,” Flis says, “you don’t know how to direct your conversation.”
Having “The Talk” only one time, too, does not do much. Frequent small talks spread over time are much more effective, she says.
Take advantage of a captive audience
In the years before adolescents start driving themselves around, they need mom and dad to be chauffeurs to and from school, friends’ houses and sports practices. When carting your kids and their friends around, listen to what’s going on in the backseat.
“Especially (with) middle school kids, it’s amazing the way they have conversations as if you’re not even in the car,” Flis says.
After the friends are gone, parents can ask their children what they thought about what a friend said.
Just talking is not enough
Parents should help their teens practice skills such as assertiveness and making a plan to stay safe, because words just are not sufficient.
“There’s a difference between intention and behavior,” Flis says. “We might intend to not do something, but when kids are with their friends and they’re wrapped up in the emotional moment, their behavior does not always match their intention.”
As teens change and develop into adulthood, she says, their brain functions may work against them. Teens mainly rely on the emotional part of their brain and not their frontal cortex, which controls decision-making and catches up around their early 20s.
Encouraging and strengthening those behavioral skills can help reinforce the message parents want their teens to follow.
When advising parents who search for information online, Flis warns them that they are unlikely to find a resource guide on sexual education that completely fits their values system.
“It’s just impossible,” she says, “so go with an open mind, look for the information you’re seeking, see how it sits with you and your values system – and if it doesn’t, then don’t use that piece of information.”
Websites that some may find too liberal or conservative can still hold good information that parents can use.
“You want websites that are going to give you all of the information, not just some of it,” she says.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.