So your daughter just hit double digits. She still sleeps with stuffed animals but is also pestering you for a cell phone and spends hours giggling with her friends about boys. Is she a little girl or nearly a teenager? Then there's your 14-year-old son who just started going "steady" with his first girlfriend. How much information does he need at this stage? When is it time to have "the talk"?
The answer is … it's never too soon to talk to your children about sex. In fact, it's quite likely you've been having just such a "conversation" with them for several years without you even knowing it. That's because kids learn best by observing. If they see you in a committed, healthy relationship then they learn how to engage in such a relationship themselves. Conversely, if they see you in an abusive relationship with your partner or sleeping with nearly everyone you date, they may learn to view sex as unimportant, expendable or undesirable.
The fact is that kids today are surrounded by sex and sexually oriented messages. They are inundated with information from television, movies, the Internet and their friends. By the time they hit high school, they've probably already learned where babies come from through a sex education class in school.
They are also quite likely to engage in sex. Government statistics show that 30 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 and 31 percent of boys in that age range have had sexual intercourse. The percentage doubles by the time they turn 19. The good news is that those figures are down considerably from just a few years ago.
Nonetheless, most kids still aren't getting the information they need from the source most qualified to give it: you.
Numerous studies find that parents—not friends—have the greatest influence over a teen's behavior, whether that behavior has to do with schoolwork, drinking, drugs or sex. But you can't influence your teen's behavior if they don't know where you stand on the subjects. So here's how to start:
- Understand their world. Watch the TV shows they watch, see the movies they see, check their computers and see which Web sites they've been visiting. And, get to know their friends and, if possible, their friends' parents.
- Educate them about potential “cyber” dangers. Talk to them about the negative consequences of sharing sexualized language and/or images online or through texting—that whatever they put online or text to a friend can circulate forever and may come back to haunt them when they apply to colleges or look for jobs years later.
- Understand your own feelings about sex. If you're not sure what to say or how you feel about your own sexuality, let alone your child's, do some reading and thinking. A good Web site to visit is https://www.talkwithyourkids.org/. The messages (both verbal and nonverbal) you received as a child may still be with you and may limit your ability to communicate as effectively as you would like. But, don’t let them prevent you from talking to your teens.
- Pick your moment. That would not be hijacking them in their room and saying, "Come downstairs, I need to talk to you." Instead, bring up the topic while you're driving them around town, during a commercial in a television program that depicts sexual activity, even during dinner. For instance, the Grey's Anatomy episode in which half the cast gets syphilis is the perfect time to talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the importance of monogomy and safe sex. Tell them a story about a sexual situation between two kids or discuss a real-life example they may know about at school. Seek their advice on the matter. It will tell you a lot about their decision-making capabilities concerning sexuality.
- Don't preach. The best way to ensure that your daughter has sex before she's ready is to forbid her to do it. You can't control everything your teenager does nor will you know everything he or she does—nor should you want to. The key is to teach your children the values you hope they'll live by and then provide the moral structure and strength to adhere to those values.
- Listen! You should do half as much talking as you'd like and twice as much listening. Don’t ignore their questions just because they are embarrassing or uncomfortable.
- Hit the high notes. That would be about the importance of sex in a relationship, how sex should be more than just a physical thing, how sex extends beyond intercourse (yes, oral sex is still sex). It also means having a serious discussion about the risks of sex: pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Make sure your teen understands that not all STDs can be cured (think herpes and HIV) and could be with him or her for the rest of his or her life. Discuss how life changes when you have a baby to care for and where you would hope they would be in life before considering a child.
Other key points to hit:
- Waiting is OK.
- Intercourse should be special, especially your first time and, ideally, each time thereafter.
- Love is a reason to have sex, not pressure.
- Intercourse should not be painful. If it is, there's something wrong.
- Sex should be your decision, not anyone else's.
- Sex should never be forced. That's called rape.
- Sex should not occur in the presence of alcohol or drugs. They cloud your judgment.
- Attraction to another person of the same sex is possible. It may or may not mean you're gay. Either way, reassure your child that he or she is still loved.
- There are many sexual behaviors to share with someone that are pleasurable and that minimize exposure to STDs or the risk of pregnancy.
- Be specific. Don't just tell your daughter she has the right to say "no." Brainstorm with her on specific options. For instance, she could excuse herself and call you for support (and a ride home). If you think your child has become sexually active, don't just talk about the importance of contraception and safe sex; buy a box of condoms and show him or her how to use them, using a prop—a cucumber, for instance, so there’s no confusion about how to use a condom properly.
- Be realistic. If your teen does as you asked and comes to talk to you before becoming sexual active, recognize whether this is something you can influence. If you sense that your child is going to have sex regardless of what you say, then at least do what you can to prepare him or her to ensure some measure of safety.
- Encourage openness. At some point, your teen will be faced with the "do-I-or-don't-I" moment. Let your child know that you are always there to listen and promise not to judge or get angry
As you may already be painfully aware, your child is yours only for a few more years. She or he is moving into early adulthood. In the end, all you can do is hope that you've built a solid foundation. The actual construction is up to your teen. So relax, and keep the lines of communication open.