Talking to teens about sex is something most parents do not look forward to. While many may have walked their young children through the basics of how babies are made, often parents avoid the topic of sex in the teen years, either relying on schools to do this, or assuming that their kid will know what is acceptable behaviour in their family.
“I grew up in an evangelical Christian family. As a teen, my understanding about sex was that sex means intercourse which happens between a man and woman after they are married. I came to understand that sexual arousal or desire was the same as lust and was always sinful. I was told that, as a female, it was my job to ensure that if things ever became physical between myself and a male, it was my job to stop things as I, apparently, had a much lower sex drive (or lust) than any male.
The instruction about how to manage lust was to distract ourselves, with the leader encouraging us to “think about pink elephants” when feeling “tempted.”
There was no talk about birth control. The assumption being, that, if I waited to have sex until marriage, I wouldn’t need birth control.
Consent was never taught. The only discussion I remember about ‘sexual assault’ or rape was at camp where the leader told a horrific story of a teen boy’s participation in a rape. I think the lesson was supposed to be, “don’t rape, you will regret it.”
Many families in North America today, align themselves with a particular faith, religion or belief system. The way religion plays out in each family is as diverse as there are families. Many families have concerns about what is taught in school about sex an opt their children out of the lesson. Whether your child participates in school programming or not, it is important having a conversation with your teen about sexuality even if you think they already understand the basics of how babies are made and even if sex ed is provided in your faith community via youth groups or other events. You need to communicate that you you are a safe person to talk to about these things an your teen needs to hear that through your example, not just by telling them that they can talk to you about sex.
Before you have a conversation, with your teen about sex, here are a few things to consider:
Your personal beliefs
It is important to examine your own beliefs and values about sexuality. Many people assume their beliefs match every other persons,’ in their faith community. In my experience, peoples beliefs and values vary even within small faith communities. You need to think about what you believe about sexual desire in various genders, about sexual development norms at various ages, about what you feel is morally permissible and what is not? Consider any biases you might have towards individuals who enjoy sex a lot. In what context do you believe that this is natural and normal, and in what context do you believe that too much desire is abnormal? Compare your beliefs across genders. Is there a difference? Why do you think that is? Think about where these beliefs came from, what or who influenced them? Who benefits from them and who could be harmed by them? As the parent, it is your beliefs and your understanding and interpretation of those held by your faith that will influence your child one way or another.
Your History of Sexual Experiences
Like all parenting, the way we approach our kids is often colored by our own experiences, fears and biases. The best place to start in any area of parenting is by doing an assessment of yourself, your ideas, experiences and fears. (See Parenting Teens).
If you’ve had negative sexual experiences in your life that you haven’t given much attention to, or, are not happy with your current sex life, it might be time to pay some attention now. You might do this by journaling, talking to a trusted friend or family member, or talking to a counselor.
While it may, or may not, be appropriate to share your own experiences with your teen, being honest that you have had negative experiences that influence your feelings about sex and sexuality, will go a long way towards building relationship with your child while navigating this sometimes difficult terrain.
Religion & Sex
For some parents, their religion may give very clear guidelines about what sexual activity is permitted and what is not, particularly in regards to sex outside of marriage. When thinking about your beliefs, consider what role your religious beliefs play in your ideas about sexuality? Are these beliefs shared by your religious community? If you are unsure, you may want to check to see what they are, and if you agree with them. What impact do you feel these beliefs had on you as a youth (if you held them then) both positive and negative? How do these beliefs compare to what is considered ‘normal sexual development’ according to developmental sciences? (See Sexual Development and Behaviour).
If your religion prohibits sexual behavior that is considered developmentally normal, according to developmental psychology, and you plan to impose these rules on your child, there are some things to consider:
CHOICE- What amount of choice do you think your teen should have? Most parents want their children to adopt their own values, beliefs and/or, religion, but want the child to ultimately choose this. Some parents allow teens to decide about their participation in various religious activities, others let their teens know that they expect participation and conformity for as long as the teen is within their home.
CONSEQUENCES- In some religions, breaching rules about sex carries much stronger consequences and responses than other breaches. This may be particularly strong if the child does not identify as heterosexual. (See Parenting – Sexual & Gender Identity Development for more on this). If this is your experience, in your religion, I encourage you to look into the reasons for this and consider if this matches your own values. Check out historical and cultural influences. It is important to examine this before deciding what consequences are fair for a teen who breaks your rules. There are few rules governing kids or teen behavior which are as strongly tied to religion as sexual behavior.
(NOTE: Severe consequences for behavior that is developmentally normal will not change natural impulses and may result in psychological damage to your child. Tangible and measurable impacts of your child’s behavior should be considered when deciding on consequences). See Too Many Sticks & Carrots for more on limits and consequences.
GUILT-For a child who shares your beliefs, you may find yourself having to support them when they feel they have done something that is in opposition to their beliefs. Let them know that it is sometimes difficult to follow your beliefs, particularly when natural impulses don’t always match up. Most religions embrace concepts of forgiveness, grace and mercy. This would be a time to help your child learn to be gentle with themselves as they struggle to follow their own values and beliefs imperfectly, like we all do. If teens are punished harshly for something they already feel badly about, there is a risk of causing psychological harm. Shame, depression, self harming and suicide are some ways that teens respond to the punishment of impulses which are natural to them and which they may have difficulty controlling. Again, consider what kind of reaction you might have to any other instance in which your teen broke a rule impulsively, and then showed remorse for this. If it was not about sex, would your reaction be different?
SAFETY – Providing your teen information about safety in sex to prevent STD’s and/or pregnancy will not encourage sexual activity. It will, however, protect them in case they ever give in to impulsivity, curiosity and their own developing independence, like teens do in MANY areas of life. (See documentary “Surviving the Teenage Brain” for more on normal teen behavior). Like toddlers, teens are curious and don’t always take parents rules or concerns at face value. They don’t have enough life experience to always think through to consequences or keep values and beliefs in mind, when their natural sexual urges take over. Your consequences for ‘rule breaking’ are more than enough. Your teen does not need a life-long, or life ending sentence for their activities.
Note: “Scare parenting” your teen away from behaviour will not necessarily protect them from that behaviour (See documentary Surviving the Teenage Brain for why this is type of parenting is ineffective when dealing with a teenager’s brain). Also, teens today, often have access more information than you do about risks of various behaviours. If you are unsure what the risks are don’t make them up. If you are found out, you may lose your teen’s trust in your reliability.
Teach your teen about consent, how to give, deny or ask for consent in ANY activity involving their own body or another person’s body. This is not only about intercourse it is about hugging, holding hands, kissing, taking pictures, sharing food, you name it. Check out the “Consent and Tea” video. Watch it with your teen.
Beyond the Rules
Whatever you expect, or hope for your kids, it is never okay to shame a child or a teen for developmentally normal feelings related to sexuality.
Kids experience arousal from infancy on. This increases during puberty. Masturbation is also a normal developmental activity for both boys and girls from infancy on up. Learning about, looking at, and being interested in, one’s own body, figuring out how it works, is also normal and appropriate behavior for any human being. During puberty, kids may be distressed by the intensity of their feelings, the types of feelings they have, and changes in their bodies. They may have fantasies or dreams. Hormones are at their peak.
Acknowledging and normalizing these experiences will help your teen to know that they are ok and that there is nothing wrong with them.These are not sins. When they feel your support, they will know that they can come to you when they need to. Increasing connection with your teen is the best way to ensure their safety.
For more on teens, check out:
You might also check out Are the Kids Okay? – Children & Mental Health
For parents who are unhappy with their sex life, check out Sex – How Much is Enough?
For limit setting and boundaries, check out Where Do I Draw the Line?