Talking with Your Teenager about Sex

Parenting is hard, and parenting is teenager is often incredibly hard.  Many issues present themselves during this phase of life that are uncomfortable to talk about, and also where there aren’t always clear-cut answers. Parents often struggle to communicate well with their teenagers in general, much less about difficult topics such as sexual behavior.  Further, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting a teen often involves accepting that they are in a position to make their own decisions about a range of behaviors (including sex), and that their decisions may not always be consistent with parental wishes.

There are a number of good resources out there to help guide parents with regard to communicating with their adolescents about sex. Most echo the same basic principles, including:

1. Ask questions of your teen, listen to their answers carefully, and refrain from lecturing and/or making judgments about what they share with you.  

2. Don’t assume that your teens know the facts.  Provide factual information, or help your teens find the information if you don’t know it yourself.  

3. Talk to your teen about the broader context of relationships and sexuality, not just about the biology: how to assert themselves, how to ask for what they want, how to decide for themselves about what behaviors are right for them, how to be honest with themselves and with others who are important to them, etc.  

4. Acknowledge with your teen that sex is often a difficult topic to talk about, but reassure them that you want them to come to you and that you will do your best to be open, supportive and helpful.  Provide them with other options and resources if you do run into trouble communicating: encourage them to talk with their doctors and other trusted adults (e.g. an aunt or uncle), and/or find books or resources and leave them in places that are accessible to your teen.    

For parents who are not sure how to even begin this type of discussion, here are a few thoughts:

1. Most schools provide ongoing sex education programming, beginning in upper elementary school and continuing on through the high school years. Find out when that programming is happening at your child’s school and use that as a springboard for discussion (“so, I know you talked about X today at school…” “was there anything you learned that surprised you?” “was there anything they talked about that you didn’t understand?”).

2. Sometimes teens have an easier time talking about their peers’ relationships and behaviors than focusing on their own, and asking about a friend or their peer group can be a way to segue into asking about their own thoughts and feelings.  (“Mrs. Smith told me that her daughter has a boyfriend now… is anyone in your grade starting to date? What do you think about that?”). 

3. Fictional characters’ experiences can also provide a springboard for discussion.  If issues regarding sexuality or sexual behaviors are raised when watching a given TV show or movie with your teen, ask your teen about their reactions to that plotline (“it really seemed like she didn’t want to kiss him just now…” “it looks like that girl has a crush on her best friend…”).

4. Sometimes written conversations go better than face-to-face ones.  Think about writing notes back and forth, or texting.  Also, know that you can always share information – even if you aren’t getting back much from your teen, that doesn’t mean that he/she is not listening.  

5. Most physicians will begin to raise the topic of the health consequences of sexual behaviors as children move into adolescence.  Parents can use regular physical checkups as a way both to encourage their teens to ask questions (especially if their teen won’t open up to them) and to facilitate their own discussions. 

Research suggests that open and honest conversations between parents and teens are important with regard to healthy adolescent development overall, and healthy sexual behavior in particular.  

Some additional helpful resources:

Some additional helpful resources:

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist