When my daughter and her friend were teens and wanted to attend a party, I asked them to watch a DVD on abstinence first. (Yes, I’m that parent.) After a bit of eye rolling, the girls watched the program and then correctly answered my questions. (I’d warned them that there would be a test!) Even though my daughter still teases me about it, my now-adult daughter hasn’t forgotten this outtake from her teen years.
As parents, we love our children enough to die for them. But talk about sex? Many of us would rather walk barefoot across a sheet of ice for an entire mile before talking with them about . . . that.
But we must. Not just because sex permeates so much of our media and culture, but because our teens are faced with making sexual decisions for themselves under the worst conditions: when their hormones are raging.
“This is the age when [older] teens feel invincible and on top of the world,” says Debra Taylor, a marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist. Parents, she adds, often feel paralyzed. “It is crucial for parents to start by listening, and then to engage their children in a subject that is critical to their lives.”
It starts with open communication — not just saying, “Don’t do it,” and expecting that to stick.
Influencing your teen
In a 2012 survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens said that it was parents — not their peers — who influenced their decisions about sex.
It’s true. Teens wish their parents were more comfortable talking to them about sex, Taylor says. So let them know you care and that you want to help. If your daughter is dating someone, for instance, you can say, “I know you and he are getting close. Are you feeling pressured? Struggling in any way? Are you confused about anything?”
People and places may change, but pressured situations don’t.
In a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 47 percent of teens said that they had engaged in sex. Also from the CDC in 2013, of the 20 million newly reported sexually transmitted infections that occur in the U.S. each year, half happen among young people ages 15 to 24. Sobering statistics. And not all that surprising given the popularity of “reality” shows that flagrantly toss around the details of its stars’ sex lives. Although statistics alone aren’t enough to prepare teens to say no when the time comes, says Taylor, not talking about sex with them won’t work either.
“Parents are so busy doing everything,” Taylor says, “that we don’t always prepare for this important topic. But you have to both plan time and look for opportunities.” Those opportunities can arise often and naturally — during car rides (no eye contact necessary), while watching a TV program or commercial that contains a thought-provoking scene, even while doing something routine together, such as cooking.
“Be as specific as you can,” Taylor says. “And repetition is critical.”
Challenge your teens to think about potential relationship situations that could bring about unwanted sexual pressure, such as being invited to a boy’s empty home or to a party where alcohol is being served. Ask them how they can protect themselves in these and other tough situations.
Helping them figure it out
Your teens may be willing to talk to you about sex, but that does not necessarily mean they will agree with your views. Taylor advises parents to be prepared not to overreact. Instead, they should show compassion.
This is your opportunity to ask them how they arrived at their conclusions and to let them parse through their answers. Your kids may know your views and come across as if they know their views, but many don’t know exactly what they believe and are thinking it through as they talk about it.
Parents need to be there for their kids during this important stage — the teen years. Then this ongoing conversation can happen naturally, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s good for your teens.