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Modern Love: Talking to Your Teen About Sex & Relationships

Face the Discomfort

Yours, that is. And theirs. Nobody said this was going to be easy, but it doesn't have to be torture either. Accept that you're going to have some missteps -- and that you can always backtrack and make corrections. More important than being perfectly poised and absolutely articulate is giving kids essential info, listening, talking about why we have the values we do, and keeping the conversation going.

Give Males Equal Time

Adults used to think these issues mattered more for girls. But parents need to reject that stereotype, along with the "boys-will-be-boys" attitude. "Not talking to guys sends the message that girls are the only ones responsible for keeping it all safe," says Casparian. What's more, adolescent males need help dealing with huge pressures from peers. "They're afraid their male friends will call them a 'wuss' if they turn down an interested girl," says Stepp. Similarly, a boy may have to deal with a girl who thinks provoking his interest in her will prove she's valuable and attractive. "Parents often don't recognize how sexually aggressive some girls are," says Rosalind Wiseman, a Family Circle contributing editor and author of Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads (Crown). "Boys need to be clear that saying no is a real option and that it doesn't mean that there is something wrong with them."

Exploit the Media

Headlines about public figures, reports about teens and STI's or pregnancy, and local stories about kids in trouble for sexting are great conversation-starters. Call attention both to positives (loving, respectful behavior) and negatives (thoughtless, abusive, or irresponsible actions). "Two-thirds of teens report that television shows and characters make them think about the consequences of sex," says Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "Use it to your advantage." As in, "What did you think about that girl's decision?" "How do you think that boy handled that situation?" Music lyrics are also useful, says Molly Love, outreach coordinator and social worker at Teen and Young Adult Health Connection, in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Keep the car radio tuned in to their favorite station and ask your teens what they think of the lyrics," she says.

Believe In Your Kids

I have great faith in my two -- and in kids in general. If they get the information they need, I really do think they can learn to make good decisions.