S-E-X. For some parents this can be a really hard and uncomfortable topic. Yet, you want your children to feel at ease coming to you, because if they don’t, they will get the information they need from friends or the internet.
As your teen enters high school, health classes may be much more sophisticated and detailed than the “birds and bees” talk you had when your child was younger. According to Cathy Swanson, a counselor with Youth Eastside Services who works a lot with teens and their parents, “Health class is sometimes the impetus for your teen asking a question. Other times it might be something she overheard a friend say, saw on TV, or while out and about.”
So how can you be a resource for your teen, without embarrassing both of you or alienating your child? First, though it may be uncomfortable, it’s actually a good thing when your teen comes to you with questions about sex and relationships. It shows a level of trust that is important as your son or daughter matures.
Swanson notes that teens will very often test the water to see how a parent is going to react. “Your daughter may come to you and ask about French kissing. Depending on how you react, she may continue to come to you with questions, or decide to seek information elsewhere,” says Swanson.
“This is a time to take a deep breath, be courageous and calmly respond — even if you’re screaming inside,” explains Swanson. “Your teen will be watching very closely for your reaction, and it’s critical that you come off as open and available. Keep body language in mind too — if your words are calm, but your face and shoulders are tense, it will show.
Reactions that feel like the third degree may make your child shut down. Take a deep breath before using comments like, “Where did you learn about that? Have you done it? Why are you asking me?” If you express dismay, shame or punish a child who admits to sexual experimentation, it’s highly unlikely he or she will open up to you again.
It’s also not a good idea to put a child off; avoid comments like “We’ll talk about this when you’re older.” If your teen is asking now, it’s because there is interest now. Know that if you don’t answer the question, most teens will go elsewhere for answers — and you might like that even less.
Robin Wallace-Wright specializes in helping parents talk to their kids about sex and their changing bodies through her company The Wright Conversation. She recommends asking clarifying questions. For example: “That’s an interesting question — what brought this up for you?” or “I just want to make sure I’m clear about what you’re asking, so I need a little more information from you to make sure I’m answering the right question.”
Wallace-Wright also says parents shouldn’t feel like they need to disclose personal information. If your son or daughter asks about your sexual behavior or experience, answer with something like “Let’s talk about the general topic versus my personal specifics. I’m going to model for you how sexual experiences are a private matter which one can choose to talk about or not.”
When you talk with your teen about sex, don’t just focus on your fears, such as pregnancy and infection prevention. Also include the important components of relationships related to emotional intimacy and your family values. For example, “I truly feel you are too young to be engaging in sexual behavior, but I am glad you came to me.” Take this opportunity to guide your teen through critical thinking, with open-ended questions such as, “It might be helpful to think about how a person knows they are physically and emotionally ready. What would be good to consider? What could be some outcomes?”
Countless research has shown that when parents openly share their values and expectations around sexual activity, their children are likely to consider it in their decision making. On the other hand, forbidding sexual behavior can backfire. Your teen is understandably curious, and your strict reply could turn sex into more enticing “forbidden fruit.”
“Ultimately, parents can’t control their children’s behavior; however they can guide better choices by helping teens understand family values and expectations,” says Wallace-Wright.
If your child is going through puberty and not asking questions, don’t be surprised; many kids at this stage feel awkward about the subject. If you haven’t talked with your puberty-aged child about their bodies and the changes they can expect, it is important to do so. As mentioned before, you want your teen to hear accurate information from you. Talking about hygiene or acne first (“above the waist” topics) can be a great place to start. But if your teen is reluctant to talk, try leaving a book out.
Sometimes a movie or television show may open the topic for you. Take advantage of those freebies to explore the issue with your teen. “What did you think when the leading man invited his girlfriend to spend the night?”
Another option Swanson recommends is signing up for a class on puberty and sexuality; many hospital community education programs offer these. They are divided by girls and boys and are very fact-based. “These classes are a great tool to open the discussion, and especially valuable just as puberty starts.”
Even if you are approachable and your teen is asking questions, Swanson reminds us that kids will not come to parents for everything: “Teens will rely on friends for a lot of information, and that’s okay.” She recommends checking in with your teen now and again about what sort of conversations are going on with friends about sex and relationships.
Finding out your teen is gay
A critical component of any teen’s development is their sexual orientation and gender identity. Youth and parents have varying experiences; for some families this is not difficult to navigate. For others, when parents learn their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or otherwise — it can come as a shock and can be a challenge. “Your response as a parent will make a difference in helping your child feel unconditionally loved and supported as he or she navigates societal prejudice, and it can be an opportunity to draw you closer,” says Swanson.
Swanson recommends that parents who feel overwhelmed or strongly emotional about their child’s coming out seek outside help. “Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor for a recommendation to a family therapist, or call on an organization that works with youth. ”
YES is one organization that offers individual, family and group support to youth around issues of gender and sexuality. PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is another organization that provides local support around issues of gender and sexuality to parents specifically.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services (YES). YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to be strong, supportive and loving. While YES accepts insurance, Medicaid and offers a sliding scale, no one is turned away for inability to pay. For more information, visit YouthEastsideServices.org.