Sex education: Talking to your teen about sex
Medically reviewed on Aug 2, 2017
Sex education basics may be covered in health class, but your teen might not hear — or understand — everything he or she needs to know to make tough choices about sex. That's where you come in.
Awkward as it may be, sex education is a parent's responsibility. By reinforcing and supplementing what your teen learns in school, you can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy sexuality.
Breaking the ice
Sex is a staple subject of news, entertainment and advertising. It's often hard to avoid this ever-present topic. But when parents and teens need to talk, it's not always so easy. If you wait for the perfect moment, you might miss the best opportunities.
Instead, think of sex education as an ongoing conversation. Here are some ideas to help you get started — and keep the discussion going.
- Seize the moment. When a TV program or music video raises issues about responsible sexual behavior, use it as a springboard for discussion. Remember that everyday moments — such as riding in the car or putting away groceries — sometimes offer the best opportunities to talk.
- Be honest. If you're uncomfortable, say so — but explain that it's important to keep talking. If you don't know how to answer your teen's questions, offer to find the answers or look them up together.
- Be direct. Clearly state your feelings about specific issues, such as oral sex and intercourse. Present the risks objectively, including emotional pain, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. Explain that oral sex isn't a risk-free alternative to intercourse.
- Consider your teen's point of view. Don't lecture your teen or rely on scare tactics to discourage sexual activity. Instead, listen carefully. Understand your teen's pressures, challenges and concerns.
- Move beyond the facts. Your teen needs accurate information about sex — but it's just as important to talk about feelings, attitudes and values. Examine questions of ethics and responsibility in the context of your personal or religious beliefs.
- Invite more discussion. Let your teen know that it's OK to talk with you about sex whenever he or she has questions or concerns. Reward questions by saying, "I'm glad you came to me."
Addressing tough topics
Sex education for teens includes abstinence, date rape, homosexuality and other tough topics. Be prepared for questions like these:
- How will I know I'm ready for sex? Various factors — peer pressure, curiosity and loneliness, to name a few — steer some teenagers into early sexual activity. But there's no rush. Remind your teen that it's OK to wait. Sex is an adult behavior. In the meantime, there are many other ways to express affection — intimate talks, long walks, holding hands, listening to music, dancing, kissing, touching and hugging.
What if my boyfriend or girlfriend wants to have sex, but I don't? Explain that no one should have sex out of a sense of obligation or fear. Any form of forced sex is rape, whether the perpetrator is a stranger or someone your teen has been dating.
Impress upon your teen that no always means no. Emphasize that alcohol and drugs impair judgment and reduce inhibitions, leading to situations in which date rape is more likely to occur.
What if I think I'm gay? Many teens wonder at some point whether they're gay or bisexual. Help your teen understand that he or she is just beginning to explore sexual attraction. These feelings may change as time goes on. And if they don't, that's perfectly fine.
A negative response to your teen's questions or assertions that he or she is gay can have negative consequences. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth who lack family acceptance are at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse, depression and attempted suicide. Family acceptance can protect against these risks.
Above all, let your teen know that you love him or her unconditionally. Praise your teen for sharing his or her feelings. Listen more than you speak.
Healthy vs. unhealthy relationships
Teens and adults are often unaware of how regularly dating violence occurs, so it is important to get the facts and share them with your teen. Parents also should be alert to warning signs that a teen may be a victim of dating violence, such as:
- Alcohol or drug use
- Avoidance of friends and social events
- Excusing a dating partner's behavior
- Fearfulness around a dating partner
- Loss of interest in school or activities that were once enjoyable
- Suspicious bruises, scratches or other injuries
Teens who are in abusive relationships are at increased risk of long-term consequences, including poor academic performance, binge drinking and suicide attempts. The emotional impact of unhealthy relationships may also be lasting, increasing the likelihood of future unhappy, violent relationships.
The lessons teens learn today about respect, healthy relationships, and what is right or wrong will carry over into their future relationships. It's important to talk with your teen now about what does and doesn't constitute a healthy relationship.
Responding to behavior
If your teen becomes sexually active — whether you think he or she is ready or not — it may be more important than ever to keep the conversation going. State your feelings openly and honestly. Remind your teen that you expect him or her to take sex and the associated responsibilities seriously.
Stress the importance of safe sex, and make sure your teen understands how to get and use contraception. You might talk about keeping a sexual relationship exclusive, not only as a matter of trust and respect but also to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Also set and enforce reasonable boundaries, such as curfews and rules about visits from friends of the opposite sex.
Your teen's doctor can help, too. A routine checkup can give your teen the opportunity to address sexual activity and other behaviors in a supportive, confidential atmosphere — as well as learn about contraception and safe sex.
The doctor may also stress the importance of routine human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, for both girls and boys, to help prevent genital warts as well as cancers of the cervix, anus, mouth and throat, and penis.
With your support, your teen can emerge into a sexually responsible adult. Be honest and speak from the heart. If your teen doesn't seem interested in what you have to say about sex, say it anyway. He or she is probably listening.