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Talking to Teens about Sex

March 08, 2012

As an adolescent medicine specialist caring for youth at a time of life when first crushes, first dates, and first loves (and for some youth, the first time) happen, I cannot help but notice the obvious lack of communication between parents and teens about sexuality, and quite frankly, sex. For many parents, sex in the teenage years is something to be feared and forbidden and is often a source of family conflict. Many parents cringe at the idea of talking about sex with teens. And when they do talk to teens, conversations usually focus just on the dangers of sex and romance -- STDs, pregnancy and heartbreak.

But when we dramatize teenage sexuality by focusing only on its risks, we don't give young people the tools to mature into sexually and emotionally healthy adults who we hope will one day find themselves in loving, committed, intimate, sexual relationships. It is also important to note that there are many valuable life lessons for youth to learn in the context of intimate relationships: communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, and developing partnerships. However well-intentioned, messages like "teens cannot control their raging hormones," "boys just want one thing," or "sex can ruin your life" don't make for healthy conversations between parents and children.

Have you had the big talk yet?

Many parents also ascribe to the idea of the Big Talk – the one talk they have with their teens about the birds and the bees. Our youth will spend many of their teenage moments thinking about sexuality, relationships and intimacy, and clearly, a single Big Talk won’t cut it. If anything, it will cause many parents to lose out on opportunities to remain involved and engaged in the lives of their teens as they try to learn about relationships, love, and intimacy. In the meantime, today’s adolescents have unprecedented access to an incredible array of media through which they are bombarded with sexualized content and messages. The explicitness of sexual portrayals has increased over time. Yet, the lack of sexual health information directed at young audiences leaves them with an unbalanced view. A night of TV viewing of anything other than Nickelodeon will prove the same point.

Let’s start talking

How can parents and other adults talk with teenagers about sexuality, romantic relationships and sex in more positive terms?

How can we communicate our values while teaching our teens to make good choices and protect themselves against potentially negative consequences?