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How to Have the Sex Talk with Your Teen

Everything you always wanted to know about "The Sex Talk" (but were afraid to ask).

By Jeannette Moninger

The Sex Talk 1
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Illustration by Joel Holland

Your kid knows what grades you want to see on his report card. But what about your expectations around more intimate matters? "When parents talk to their teens about sex, kids wait longer to engage in it, end up in healthier relationships and are more likely to protect themselves," says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Still one in six teens say their parents have never spoken to them about anything sex related. This summer, Family Circle and Planned Parenthood partnered in a nationwide "sex talk" survey of more than 2,000 adults and their teens conducted by Knowledge Networks. What we learned will change how you communicate with your kid today.

6 Ways to Make "The Talk" More Relaxed

Our survey is the first to reveal that parents are much more at ease than kids talking about this topic. "That's important because the message needs to change," says Kantor. "It's not just about you being comfortable. You have to help your teen feel that way too." Alleviate everyone's awkwardness with our expert tactics.

1. Make it a series. The one-and-done approach doesn't cut it. "You need numerous, ongoing dialogues," says Mark Schuster, M.D., co-author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask).

2. Seize opportunities. "There are teachable moments when a couple gets intimate on TV or a suggestive song comes on the radio," says Kantor. Ask your kid, "Does that seem healthy?" or "What would you do in that situation?"

3. Stick together. Avoid mixed messages by getting on the same page with your spouse. Nearly one in four parents chatted only "a little" or "not at all" with their partner about expectations of their child's sexual behavior. "Parents often avoid sex talks because they haven't sorted out their own feelings," says John Chirban, Ph.D., author of How to Talk with Your Kids About Sex.

4. Skip the face-to-face. Teens open up more when eye contact is limited: Chat in the car, while fixing dinner or on a walk. "I have a better chance getting my son's attention if I text him, even when we're in the same room," admits Kantor.

5. Listen more, lecture less. Sometimes what teens need most is a sounding board. Let them talk. When they're finished, summarize the situation so they know you understand.

6. Ask questions. Avoid offering up TMI. Find out what prompted your kid's query and what she thinks you'll say. Then answer only the question asked.

Teaching Teens the "How," Not Just the "What"
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Illustration by Joel Holland

An overwhelming number of teens said their parents' sexual expectations for them are clear: "Don't do it" or "Wait until you're married." But one message that may be missing is how to comply with those wishes. While 42% of parents say they've talked to their teens "many times" about how to say no to sex, only 27% of teens agree. In fact, 34% of teens say they've "never" or "only once" had a chat with mom or dad about how to delay sex.

Sext Interrupted

A study showed one in three teens have sent nude photos of themselves via e-mail or text (what's known as "sexting"). Even more disturbing: Our survey found 41% of kids had "never" or "only once" discussed with their parents the risks of doing so. "We've put powerful technology into the hands of kids still learning to navigate the social world. They need guidance," says Dr. Schuster. Here's what you both must know.

There are no take-backs. Today's YouTubing, Facebooking teens embrace a worldwide audience, yet many still consider sexting with a boyfriend or girlfriend private. "Teens should consider how they'll feel when—not if—others see their photos," says Deborah Roffman, author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' "Go-To" Person about Sex. Remind her: Photos last long after a relationship ends, and she'll have no control over who sees them. If your child receives a sext, she should delete it (never share it) and tell the sender to stop.

It may be illegal. "Sexted images violate child pornography laws in some states," says David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center in Durham. Juvenile arrests are rare, but teens on both the sending and receiving end may be charged as sex offenders. At the very least, they may be kicked out of clubs or sports, or expelled from school.

I can—and will—check your phone. Discuss acceptable and unacceptable cell use, and reserve the right to spot-check their phones. "It's not a matter of trust or privacy," says Dr. Schuster. "It's about being a responsible parent and keeping kids safe."

How to Say It So They'll Hear You
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Illustration by Joel Holland

"I want my 16-year-old to make healthy choices about who she dates and have a physical relationship for the right reasons," says one mom surveyed. But all her daughter hears is "Don't do it." Why the disconnect? "Most teens believe parents never want them to be sexually active," says Roffman. Your message will hit the mark better if you consistently convey these two points about the "when," not the "if."

Explain what saying yes means. Help guide his or her decision-making process leading up to that moment. That means going beyond the nuts and bolts like birth control and delving into the nitty-gritty about the feelings and changes that accompany such intimacy. Discuss: What qualities does she want in a partner, and why? How does she define a healthy relationship? How might she know when the time and the person are right?

Tell them how to say no. Girls aren't the only ones under pressure. "There's a societal expectation that boys should push limits even when they aren't interested or ready," Roffman says. Teens who feel a sense of respect—for themselves and their partner—will be more confident drawing boundaries.

Shore up confidence by helping your kid think through potentially sex-charged scenarios like a car ride home or prom night. Start by encouraging them to think about their feelings toward a girl or boy. Why does he like her? What does she hope he'll say to his guy friends about her at the end of the night? How will he feel if certain things happen tonight?

"They don't have to share these answers with you," says Chirban. "Simply plant the ideas so that they'll carefully consider their actions and their consequences."

The Take-Home Message

Sometimes the more complex the concept, the simpler the teen take-home. One parent wrote: "I want to relay the message that his sexual health is his responsibility, not just a girl's. That alcohol and drugs interfere with the ability to make smart choices. Also that girls are not objects to be cast aside, but cherished." What the teen son said he was told: "Use protection."

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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