How to talk to teens about sex

Two doctors offer advice on how to approach topic

At the heart of parents’ concerns about teens and sex is the desire to protect their children. For perspective and guidance, we turned to Neil Bernstein, a clinical psychologist and Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician. Both have written books based on some 20 years experience with teens. These experts offer their advice for parents on how to communicate with their teenagers about sex. Adapted from Neil Bernstein’s "How to Keep Your Teenagers Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t" (Workman Publishing, 2001)

Ten keys to effective communication

  1. Enter their world be curious about their interests (music, sports, movies, etc.) Let them educate you (even if you find their choices a bit offensive.)
  2. Get to know their friends and remember just because someone has blue hair and an earring – it doesn’t make them an ax-murderer. (Remember Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver.)
  3. Be sure you have their attention. Don’t try to talk to them on the run.  (eg: Catch them when they’re captive in the car, having a late night snack, etc.)
  4. Start conversations on a positive note. Use a compliment (eg: You know I really enjoy your sense of humor, you’re a neat kid, etc.)
  5. Match their moves. If they’re really down about something or excited get into it with them.  (eg: a cute guy just called them on the phone.)
  6. Ask questions which promote discussion. (eg: How did you feel about your friend getting suspended from school for making out in the hallway?)
  7. Tell stories about yourself. Share some embarrassing moments relevant to their experience.
  8. Make sure your conversations are give and take.  That is, your teenager should talk roughly as much as you do. (A one-sided parental lecture is not a good conversation.)
  9. Remind them that you care about them even when they have made a mistake.
  10. Try to spend at least ten minutes a day in active conversation

Adapted from Meg Meeker’s "Epidemic: Raising Great Teens in a Toxic Sexual Culture" (LifeLine Press 2004)

  1. Know that they want to hear from you! Teens say their parents have the greatest influence on their sexual decision making; more than friends, teachers, and the media.
  2. Let your teen know that you like her. (They all believe that their parents love them out of obligation, but she will open up to you more if she knows that you like who she is as a person.)
  3. Talk less, listen more. Don’t know how to start conversations? Ask questions about his friends. Let him know that you’re genuinely interested and then listen when he responds. Eventually move toward asking questions about his own feelings about a variety of issues. And listen when he answers.
  4. Don’t use every conversation to "teach" or "prove" a point. Sometimes it is important to simply hear him out.
  5. Make eye contact frequently. This lets her know that you are really listening.
  6. Sit down when you need to have a heart to heart. There’s nothing more inviting to a teen (or anyone else) than to see a loved one taking the time to sit and listen.
  7. Don’t interrupt. You don’t like to be interrupted, neither does he.
  8. Establish early on in the conversation that you are on her team. You are not the enemy. This bears frequent repeating throughout the teen years.
  9. Be honest about how you feel about him being sexually active. If you feel he should wait, tell him so in a positive, compassionate way. Let him know that it’s tough, but that you believe in his ability to have self control
  10. Don’t be anything other than who you are. Teens hate dishonesty and when adults try to act like kids, they shut down. They won’t trust you. So, if you’re not cool, don’t try to act like you are. Then, he’ll really listen.
  11. Prep yourself. When it’s time for tough conversations, about sex, drinking, etc, have a conversation with yourself first, to get a few things straight. First, remind yourself of the reality that she really wants to hear what you have to say and furthermore, she needs to know how you feel. Believe it or not, teens really do want their parent’s input!
  12. Don’t always disagree. Find common ground in your conversations whenever possible. Tell him that he had a great idea. Compliment him on thinking of a terrific plan or what he thought about a movie. This will make him want to talk with you later.

"There’s "no one-size-fits-all" approach, says Lisa Miller, psychology professor at Columbia University."

"We’re parents, so we need to try to find the right words even though we’re never entirely sure what those words are. We try out words experts give us; sometimes they work. Other times, we rely purely on our instincts. After all, we know our kids and what they need. And if we’re lucky, we get it right most of the time. "

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