"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.