As a VIP in your child’s life, you are their number one source of information, support, and encouragement. However, sometimes parents struggle to communicate with their teens. Teenagers are naturally wanting to carve out some independence for themselves, while parents are naturally wanting to stay connected. It’s easy to become distanced from your teenage children and wonder what happened to those cute little kids you used to have.
There are many benefits to your involvement in your children’s sexual health education. Because children grow up in “nested systems,” parents are highly influential and can significantly affect health decision making. This puts parents in a unique position of being able to impart critically important medical information alongside their personal values. Unfortunately, parents are rarely the main source of information about sex for their kids; peers and the media are the main sources. Even so, research shows that teens still want their parents to talk to them about sex and would be more likely to approach their parents if they felt their parents were knowledgable enough.
The benefits to child/parent sexual health communication are numerous and important. Communicating to children about sex results in delayed sexual initiation; increased use of condoms and birth control; decreased risk of STD and fewer sexual partners; better communication between adolescent romantic partners; and improved general communication between parents and their children.
Despite the importance of communicating with their kids about sex, parents struggle in several ways: you are certainly not alone in this struggle. Experts recommend several best practices for parents communicating with their kids about sex. First, parents should include positive topics like love and pleasure, rather than just negative consequences of unprotected sex, and should be prepared to talk about all types of sex including masturbation and abstinence, using anatomical accuracy. Conversations about sexuality should be regular, frequent, and ongoing and should start in elementary school. Some research suggests parents share their own personal experiences with their teens.
So, how can you as a parent become more “askable” and reconnect with your teen?
- Get prepared.
- Study information about sexual health topics from reliable sources that are up to date and accurate. This will help you feel equipped to talk to your child about sexual health and answer their questions.
- Learn the correct terms for body parts and their functions. This will cut down on confusion when talking to your teen.
- Think through your own feelings about love and sex. Your values are important. Think ahead of time about how you might answer values-based questions. Remember that your child is an individual who might not always agree with you. They are developing their own value system.
Research shows a main reason teens do not talk to their parents about sex is that they feel they will be judged. Try to approach each conversation from a neutral position. The goal is to keep the communication going.
- Talk with your child.
- Try to listen as much as you speak.
- Don’t worry about being embarrassed. You might both be embarrassed. However, the reproductive system can become diseased or damaged just like any body system. And relationships… well, they are an important part of life. Even if it’s awkward, your child wants to hear from you on these topics.
- It’s okay if you don’t know an answer. You can say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”
- Your child may ask questions that make you realize they know more than you thought. This can be shocking. Try to conceal your shock or anger, and recognize that your child is asking you this question because they trust you. Do your best to answer calmly and accurately, without judgment or criticism.
- Remember that you were a teenager once, too. You might share some of your experiences with your teen if you feel it’s appropriate to do so. Your teen will appreciate knowing that you went through a lot of what they’re going through.
This blog post was contributed by Katie Mitchell of SexEdVA, a division of James Madison University working to support sexual health education, family life programming, and positive youth development across Virginia. To inquire about partnering with them or to find out more, visit www.sexedva.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other sources of information for this article:
Ashcraft, A. M., & Murray, P. J. (2017). Talking to parents about adolescent sexuality. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 64(2), 305–320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2016.11.002
Dinaj-Koci, V., Deveaux, L., Wang, B., Lunn, S., Marshall, S., Li, X., & Stanton, B. (2015). Adolescent sexual health education: Parents benefit too! Health Education & Behavior, 42(5), 648–653. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198114568309
Malacane, M., & Beckmeyer, J. J. (2016). A review of parent-based barriers to parent–adolescent communication about sex and sexuality: Implications for sex and family educators. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 11(1), 27–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/15546128.2016.1146187
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Widman, L., Evans, R., Javidi, H., & Chouclas-Bradley, S. (2019). Assessment of parent-based interventions for adolescent sexual health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(9), 866–877. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.2324