Sex education: Talking to your teen about sex
Date Updated: 09/07/2022
Sex education basics may be covered in health class. But teens might not hear — or understand — everything they need to know to make tough choices about sex. That's where you come in.
It can be awkward, but sex education is a parent's job. By connecting with your teen early and often, you can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy sexuality.
Breaking the ice
Sex might be hard to talk about. But it's even harder to avoid. Sex seems to be everywhere — news, entertainment, social media, advertising. But you can use that to get the talk going and keep it going.
Here are some ideas:
- Seize the moment. When sex comes up in a show or song, use it as a way to start a talk. Everyday moments — such as riding in the car or putting away groceries — are often the best chances to talk.
- Talk early and often. A one-time "birds and the bees" talk isn't enough. Start talking to your teen about safe sex during the preteen years. Continue the talk into early adulthood. Change the talk to suit growth and development.
- Be honest. If you're uncomfortable, say so. But keep talking. If you don't know how to answer your teen's questions, offer to find the answers or look them up together.
- Be direct. Clearly state your feelings about sex. Give facts about risks such as emotional pain, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy. Explain that oral sex isn't a risk-free choice instead of intercourse.
- Think about your teen's point of view. Strict talks and scare tactics can stop connection and encourage rebellious, risky behavior. Instead, listen to your teen carefully. Understand the pressures, challenges and concerns that teens have.
- Move beyond the facts. Your teen needs to know the facts about sex. But it's just as important to talk about feelings, attitudes and values. Teens are more likely to adopt family values when they understand their parents and feel understood by them.
- Focus on well-being. The teen years are known as a time of risk-taking. But they're also the time when healthy self-care behaviors start. Besides talking about risks, model and express the value of healthy relationships and choices.
- Invite more talks. Let your teen know that it's OK to talk with you about sex when questions or concerns arise. Reward questions by saying, "I'm glad you came to me."
Addressing hard topics
Sex education for teens includes not having sex (abstinence), date rape, gender identity, sexual orientation and other hard topics. Be ready for questions such as:
- How will I know I'm ready for sex? Many issues, such as peer pressure, curiosity, and loneliness, might lead teens into early sexual activity. Reassure your teen that it's OK to wait. Sex is an adult behavior. But there are other ways to connect with someone. Explain that intimate talks, long walks, holding hands, listening to music, dancing, kissing, touching and hugging are safe ways to share affection.
What if my partner wants to have sex, but I don't? Be clear that no always means no. Sex should never be pressured or forced. Any form of forced sex is rape, whether it's done by a stranger or someone your teen has been dating.
Point out to your teen that alcohol and drugs can weaken peoples' decisions. And they can make people think less clearly. Date rape and other dangerous situations become more likely when alcohol and drugs are involved.
What if I'm questioning whether I'm lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ)? Many teens wonder about their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Help your teen understand that teens are just beginning to explore sexual attraction. These feelings may change as time goes on. And if they don't, that's fine.
A negative answer to your teen's sexual orientation, gender identity or expression can have negative effects. LGBTQ youth have a higher risk of STIs, substance abuse, depression and attempted suicide. Family acceptance can protect against these risks.
Above all, let your teen know that your love is unconditional. Praise your teen for sharing their feelings. Listen more than you speak.
Healthy versus unhealthy relationships
Dating violence occurs more often than many teens or adults may think. About 1 in 12 teens has reported facing physical or sexual dating violence. So it's important to get the facts and share them with your teen.
Watch for warning signs of dating violence, such as:
- Alcohol or drug use
- Staying away from friends and social events
- Excusing a dating partner's behavior
- Acting scared around a dating partner
- Loss of interest in school or activities that were once fun
- Suspicious bruises, scratches or other injuries
Teens in abusive relationships have a higher risk of long-term effects. These include poor grades, binge drinking and suicide attempts. The emotional impact of early unhealthy relationships may also set the stage for future unhappy, violent relationships.
Talk with your teen now about the importance of healthy relationships. Model healthy relationships through the way you connect with your teen and others. The lessons your teen learns today about respect, boundaries, and understanding what is right and wrong will carry over into future relationships.
Responding to behavior
If your teen is sexually active, it may be more important than ever to keep the conversation going. Even if you don't think your teen is ready, be open yet honest in your approach. Remind your teen that you expect sex and its responsibilities to be taken seriously.
- Stress the importance of safe sex.
- Contraception. Make sure your teen understands how to get and use contraception such as condoms and birth control.
- Promote exclusivity. An exclusive sexual relationship supports trust and respect while lowering the risk of STIs.
- Set reasonable boundaries. Enforce curfews and rules about visits with friends. This is especially important if you notice sexual attraction between your teen and certain friends.
Your teen's health care provider can help too. A routine checkup can give your teen the chance to talk about sexual health to only the provider in private. The provider can help your teen learn about contraception and safe sex. The provider can also help you build your skills to teach your teen about safe sex.
The provider may also stress the importance of routine human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. This vaccine protects people of all genders against genital warts and cancers of the cervix, anus, mouth and throat, and penis. People can usually get the vaccine between ages 9 and 26. But it is sometimes available for people older than age 26.
Your guidance is key to helping your teen become a sexually responsible adult. Be honest and speak from the heart. If your teen doesn't seem interested in what you have to say about sex, say it anyway. Your teen is probably listening.