Talking to Your Teen About Sex

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on March 29, 2016

Is your teenager sexually active? Does he know how to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? Does she feel she can talk to you about it?

“Parents tend to be really uncomfortable with that conversation,” said Brooks Michael, a Carilion Clinic adolescent health educator who also teaches parenting classes. “As a result, most teens are not talking to their parents about sex.”

Instead, they learn from peers and the media.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests starting there: a neutral place to open a dialogue with your teen is by discussing how sexuality is portrayed in movies, television shows and music—and how realistic those portrayals are.

“Students I talk to are shocked when they learn how much money they would need for a baby’s first year,” said Michael. “The average baby uses 3,000 diapers in year one; all-told you would need about $10,000. It’s an eye-opener for them.”

When To Start
The AAP recommends beginning to talk with your child before you even suspect he might be sexually active. Although it may be uncomfortable, the AAP article, “Adolescent Sexuality: Talk the Talk Before They Walk the Walk,” suggests that discussions with teens about sexuality become easier and more open the more frequently they occur.

What To Say
Be honest about your discomfort. When you say “this is difficult for me to talk about with you, but it’s important,” you signal to your adolescent that you value her well-being more than your own comfort. That makes it easier for her to speak openly in response.

Allow the conversation to flow to seemingly unrelated topics such as overall health and wellness. Many sex-related topics have broad-ranging importance in teens’ lives:

  • Finances: having a baby as a teen makes high school challenging and going to college nearly impossible
  • Physical health: teen mothers are at higher risk for hypertension, preterm labor and toxemia
  • Mental health: teen parents are often isolated from their peers and often shunned by their families
  • Relationships: only two of 10 teen couples marry when they become pregnant

What Not To Say
Try not to be critical. Your teen may have more knowledge of, or experience with, sexual activity, pregnancy and STDs than you realize. If your teen sees you judge a person in the media harshly, he may believe you will judge him harshly too and be reluctant to share. Approaching the topic as a team working together to ensure his well-being will be more effective than approaching it as a set of rules to be followed.

Finally, don’t consider the conversation finished after one or two talks. Sex is a complex subject with many facets to it, and keeping the door open for ongoing discussion will help your teen navigate the path to adulthood.

See also: What Does a Healthy Relationship for Teens Look Like?