Talking to Teens About Sex
Parents are the most important sexuality educators of their children. For 25 years, a growing national coalition of organizations has worked to promote family communication about sexuality through helpful publications and vital community programs. To learn what may be available in your community, contact Planned Parenthood or any of the agencies on the national coalition.
Talking about sexuality with your children can be a challenge. Sometimes parents are fearful about saying too much too soon (although there's no evidence that this should be a concern). Some parents feel they don't know enough to be a reliable source of accurate information. But no parent needs to be an expert on sexuality to have meaningful conversations with their children, and every parent can share their values about sexuality, relationships and respect for others.
Many families belong to particular religious denominations, while others have a strong sense of spirituality without belonging to an organized faith community. Still others talk about values and beliefs without discussing religion or spirituality at all. Whatever your relationship to religion, it's important that you talk with your child about sexuality in the context of your own personal, moral views. Most faith traditions talk about sexuality as a gift of God — as something to be respected and in which to find joy.
While it does take some forethought, parents can provide accurate information to their children about sexuality, and reinforce their spiritual or religious values. Here are some tips you might consider when doing so:
Be clear about your values. Before you speak with your child about sexuality, think about what your values are. What do you believe? What does your faith tradition say? It is important to give your children factual information -- and to be very specific about how your beliefs either agree with or differ from science.
Talk about facts vs. beliefs. Sometimes, factual information can challenge a personal belief or what a faith community believes. This can provide an opportunity to make sure that your child both has accurate information and hears what your values are relating to it. It also provides an opportunity to explain that there are different beliefs in the community — that people are allowed to disagree with each other, and that differing views should be respected, as long as those views are based on ethics, responsibility, justice, equality and nonviolence.
Practice what you preach... Young people often find it confusing when parents talk about a value regarding sexuality and then act in a way that does not support that value. Some common values about sexuality and relationships that most people support include honesty, equality, responsibility and respect for differences. Acting on your values and being a good role model are powerful messages for your children. On the other hand, your beliefs will not seem very important or valuable to your children if they don't see you respect and abide by them yourself.
...But don't preach... Have a conversation with your children -- don't talk at them. Find out what they think and how they feel about sexuality and relationships. Then you will be able to share information and respond to questions in ways that will resonate with the belief system they are developing for themselves.
Encourage a sense of pride. All children deserve to be wanted and loved, and parents can reinforce this message. Let them know you are interested in what they think and how they feel about any topic, whether it is sexuality, school, religion, the future or whatever. When your children share feelings with you, praise them for it. Correct misinformation gently, and reinforce your values whenever possible.
Keep the conversation going. Too often, parents think they need to wait until they collect enough information and energy to be prepared to have "THE TALK" with their children. However, sexuality is a part of every person's life from the moment he or she is born. It is important, therefore, to start the conversation early, and to make it clear to your children that you are always willing to talk about sexuality -- whenever questions come up for them, or when a "teachable moment" occurs.
Keep your sense of humor! Sexuality, in most of its aspects, can be a joyful topic for discussion in the family.
American Association of Pediatricians statement about HIV.
Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Fostering Your Child's Healthy Sexual Development in Today's World. Beverly Engel, M.A., MFCC. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.
Five Hundred Questions Kids Ask About Sex: And Some of the Answers. Frances Younger. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1992.
From Diapers to Dating. Debra Haffner. New York, NY: Newmarket Press, 1999.
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health. Robie Harris. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 1994.
It's So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Robie Harris. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 1999.
Keys To Your Child's Healthy Sexuality. Crystal De Freitas, M.D., FAAP. New York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1998.
Kids Are Worth It: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. Barbara Coloroso. New York: W.W. Morrow, 1994.
Now What Do I Do? SIECUS, 130 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036-7802.
Open Up, Listen Up! A collection of pamphlets, activities, multimedia reviews and resource listings to answer parents' questions about talking with adolescents about sexuality. Advocates for Youth, 1025 Vermont Ave., NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005; 202-347-2263.
Sex is More Than a Plumbing Lesson: A Parent's Guide to Sexuality Education. Patty Stark. Texas: Preston Hollow Enterprises, Inc., 1992.
Ten Tips for Parents. A compilation of suggestions for parents of teenagers, although most of them are appropriate for discussions with children of all ages. This brochure describes other helpful resources for parents. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2100 M Street, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20037.
Reprinted with the permission of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. 2008 Palo Alto Medical Foundation. All rights reserved.
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