I don’t have any kids yet, so at first glance, I might not be the obvious author of a blog post about how to approach the world’s most cringe-worthy, heart-stoppingly awkward topic with your teens. But as an editor at Seventeen, I spent more than four years doing research into the psyches of teen girls and guys and talking with high schoolers (I’d say almost daily) about their biggest questions, fears, confusions and regrets about sex. There was always a certain trust there—I’d say I probably fell somewhere between a big sister and a cool Mom, without having any reason to blab to mutual friends or secretly judge them—so I got a good deal of seriously interesting insight. And as a thank-you to all the teens who got real with me over the years, I’d like to get real with you.
You’ve got to have this conversation. And the sooner it happens, the better.
Why bring this up now? October is Let’s Talk Month, a yearly reminder to parents everywhere to rip off the Band-Aid and get that discourse going. But before you rush into it (and risk hastily word-vomiting about the birds and the bees or getting all lecture-y), take a few minutes to really think about how you’ll come at the conversation. I can’t tell you exactly how to do it (I believe it’s pretty personal), but hopefully keeping these points in mind will help:
1. Remember: Sex is their decision. I know, I know. That’s a scary thing to accept, but ultimately, you can’t control whether or not they do it. So empower them. If you start your conversation by acknowledging that you’re not going to tell them exactly what to do—because you think they’re mature enough to make smart choices on their own—they’ll be more likely to value the advice (about waiting for love, or using protection, or thinking about how pregnancy could impact their future) that follows.
2. Think beyond body parts and biology. The nuts and bolts of sex work pretty much the same way for everyone, but the emotions that go along with it all? Well, those are crazy, complex, personal, and confusing. So speak from experience, and ask yourself: How can I enlighten them in a way that their Health class, their friends, or the Internet can’t? Your teen doesn’t need to know that your first time was in the back of a black Chevy after a homecoming dance, but you can say, “Here’s what I wish I knew about love at your age,” or, “It might not seem like it, but you can always say no.” This is a great way to start a dialogue about relationships, which can eventually develop into a more natural openness about sex.
3. Take off your parent hat. No, seriously—did you even know you were wearing it? As I alluded to earlier, with a topic that’s so charged and where the stakes are so high, it’s easy to slip into lecture mode. That’s why I’d encourage you to take some time and get into their zone, if you will. It’s full of things like raging hormones and confusing first love and weird feelings about their changing bodies. If you really want to connect, you owe it to them to try to understand where they’re coming from. (A great place to start, if you’re having trouble: HuffPost Teen’s Teen Sex: It’s Complicated, an excellent ongoing series of essays by real teens that highlight the way they think and feel about sex. You might also want to check out this video series by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, where teens tell you exactly what the want to hear from you.)
I know that’s a lot to throw at you, but in closing, I’ll leave you with this: The most meaningful conversation you can have with your teen might not even use the words you’re dreading saying out loud. Showing them that you trust them—and teaching them what it means to be respected, by themselves and others—will be way more influential than one hard-and-fast opinion on the topic.
Now, tell us: Have you talked to your teen about sex? What worked for you? What didn’t?