Talking with Your Teenager Honestly About Sex
Most teenagers are not thrilled about talking with their parents about sexuality and dating. If we’re honest, most parents are equally apprehensive about discussing it with their sons and daughters. More often than not, the parents we’ve encountered take one of three approaches to talking about sex:
- They don’t. Ever. It’s a taboo subject in the home and comes up as often as quantum physics or the migratory patterns of arctic waterfowl. Or maybe less often than that.
- The sex talk. Puberty happens. When it does, these parents talk about sex one time with their kids. One. Singular. Uno. It’s essentially an awkward anatomy lesson about what parts ﬁt where.
- The reluctant-yet-explosive reaction. There’s talk about sex only when the parents are angry about their teenager’s decisions regarding sexuality. The tone is entirely negative and occurs after reaching a dramatic climax. (That innuendo was unavoidable, right?)
We’d like to propose an alternative to these three common approaches: Create a culture of honesty with your teenager.
The word honesty is related to honor, and goes far beyond “telling the truth.” It encompasses morality, integrity, and a healthy respect toward the subject and person. It’s having a relational vibe that says, “Yeah, we can talk about this. I know that I won’t be judged or rejected, and that I’ll learn and grow from this conversation.” And it is a conversation, a dialogue between two (or three) human beings. This isn’t about learning how to talk at your teen, but with your teen about sexuality and dating. There are a few ways to foster this sort of relational ethos with your teenager:
Listen and Learn
Fostering a culture of honesty is entirely built upon trust. Teens are asking, “Can I trust my parent(s) with this decision, question, or feeling about sex and dating?” If they don’t trust that you will respond with grace, understanding, and compassionate wisdom, then the conversations surrounding sexuality—and, really, anything—will feel stilted and shallow.
Empathize with your teenager’s experience without projecting your own experience upon theirs. Listen to their stories. Really listen. Become a student of youth culture. Know what messages the media are sending your teen through television, ﬁlm, music, and the Internet. This will require a posture of humility and appreciation.
Share Your Story
Building trust requires vulnerability and ﬁdelity on your part. Being vulnerable requires sharing your own story about sexuality and dating. Even if your story is ﬁlled with mistakes and heartache, share honestly about your ﬁrst dating experience and your sexual journey. You don’t have to be explicit or graphic, but you can humbly offer your experience. Empathize with their struggles, too. If you know what it’s like to have your heart broken after a dating relationship falls apart, share that. Talk about the consequences of your own decisions—good, bad, and ugly. Teenagers need to hear how others’ experiences went down and where choices ultimately led.
Hear us: This doesn’t mean that you project your story on your teen’s story. Remember that he or she is a unique individual created with the imago dei. God is shaping their story in unique and beautiful ways. Share in order to empathize and normalize their experience, recognizing that your stories will be—and should be—different.
Initiate and Engage–Ask Open-Ended Questions
Choose to engage with your teenagers without waiting for them to approach you on the subject. This doesn’t mean diving into the deep end of the conversational pool right away. (“Hey, how was your day? Have any sexual experiences?”) It simply means choosing to get over the social insecurities we have and initiating conversations with our teens.
A huge piece of initiating and engaging is learning how to ask good questions. Most teenagers aren’t going to offer a long commentary of their thoughts on sexuality on their own. Parents need to ask, but not with a demanding tone. This is a healthy curiosity and interest, not an interrogation. Ask open questions that go beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
When you watch a movie or TV show together, notice the messages being sent about sexuality and romance. Point them out casually afterward, and ask your teen if they noticed or thought about them. When a school dance is coming up and your teenager’s friends are talking about dates and romance, ask what your son or daughter is thinking and feeling about the whole thing. Look for opportunities to make teachable moments and conversation starters out of everyday life circumstances, often without a neatly concrete platitude from you.