Oh, “the talk” – a topic covered in almost every sitcom, movie and after-school special involving teens. However, these portrayals are often dramatic, over-the-top and lead to the teen in question yelling something along the lines of “you don’t understand me at all!” and stomping off to have sex for the first time.
Rest assured, that’s not how this works … that’s not how any of this works. In fact, a recent study in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – showed that sexual health interventions lead to healthier practices and even better family communication.
Digging into the research
The study focused on three topics in relation to sexual health interventions – delayed sexual activity, condom use and parent-child sexual communication.
While the study found that teens who had interventions didn’t delay more than their peers who didn’t have “the talk,” it did show that they used condoms more frequently – and were more open with their parents about their choices and questions.
Talking to kids about sex also fills in the gaps that many school districts don’t cover in their sexual education programs (if the school has them at all.) According to a study by Planned Parenthood, less than half of high schools nationwide cover all 16 topics that are recommended to be covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, by intervening in your kids’ lives, you can make sure they are safe and they will know they can trust you with difficult subjects.
Tips for the talk
Even if you feel like a sex-positive parent, the discussion can be awkward and even embarrassing at first – especially if you didn’t grow up with a healthy conversation yourself. Here are a few pointers for talking to kids about sex.
1. Learn with your kid
You probably don’t know everything about sex, either – and maybe there’s even some stuff you’ve forgotten. Consider this: If kids today are often getting inadequate education, then imagine what their parents and grandparents grew up with. (Heck, the clitoris wasn’t even fully understood until 1998.) How can anyone learning about sex before then know how to talk about it?
When it comes to classrooms, a good deal of sexual education veers towards the abstinence- or anatomy-based. That means it’s parents’ responsibility to offer a safe place to talk more – and part of that is admitting that you’re still learning about sex, too.
By doing so, your teens won’t feel as embarrassed – and they’ll understand that you aren’t being judgmental or condescending. Ultimately, they’ll feel more comfortable learning along with you than from you.
2. Bring up their health class
This is the perfect way to approach the conversation. After all, you talk to them about their geology projects and their reading lists for English. Why not ask if they’re having trouble filling in their anatomy charts? Or if there are any questions they haven’t found the courage to ask their teachers?
Find out what they’ve already learned and what they wish was being covered. It’s much easier to talk to kids about sex if they’re engaged. Rehashing what their teacher has already droned on about likely won’t get you as far.
3. Be inclusive and open-minded
When talking about sex for the first time, avoid the urge to trot out the cliched, “When a man and woman love each other very much, they decide to make a baby.” The challenge with this simplification is that not all sex is heterosexual – or, in all reality, even reproductive.
In particular, LGBTQ youth are at a disadvantage when inclusive information isn’t presented in class. Even if your child is heterosexual (or not open about their sexuality), learning about alternative forms of sex and how to protect themselves is valuable.
4. Have ‘the talk’ more than once
Going back to the media tropes, how many times have you seen an actress roll her eyes and say “Mooom, I’m too old for/we’ve already had the talk?” Talk to your adolescent about different sexual topics as the time arises.
Talk to them about menstruation and their bodies frequently, talk to them about relationship dynamics and the emotional/mental side of sex, and talk to them about your family’s history as far as sexual health is concerned – breast cancer, endometriosis, testicular cancer.
The more you talk about these subjects, the less awkward it is, and the better informed they will be.
5. Get others in on the conversation
Take your teen to the OB-GYN or urologist to have conversations about the right contraceptives for their bodies, to understand the medical side of sex and to understand the process of getting sexual health check-ups.
Let them in on conversations with friends and family members about sex, and normalize those conversations. The most important outcome of talking about sex is that your teen is comfortable seeking answers.