Today, more than ever before--and at earlier ages than ever before--our kids are consistently receiving information about romance, dating, and sex from multiple sources besides parents. Television, the Internet, and peers can all contribute to ideas about sex that may be inaccurate or incomplete. And today's reality is that the traditional view of "The Talk" assumes that young people are almost completely ignorant about sex and sexuality. Well, they aren’t. But parents need not panic! Remember that you know your kid better than anyone. No one can tell you with any certainty what’s best for you to say, or decide the right time for you to say it. Here are some essential guidelines to help you start thinking about the conversation. Read more >
1. Ask What They Already Know
I recently ran across the vlog of a 13-year old girl talking about a phenomenon known as “slut shaming”. The fact that she was thirteen and even used the word “slut” got my attention – I don’t recall having had any concept of what that was when I was thirteen. So I watched. And as I listened to this remarkably articulate young woman define a term I had never heard, (“slut-shaming is degrading or mocking a woman because she dresses in tight or revealing clothing, enjoys sex, has a lot of sex, or is rumored to be sexually active” – who knew?) it occurred to me that it's time for parents to start taking a different take on the traditional view of "The Talk".
See for yourself in the video below.
As I watched the rest of the video and listened as she went on to list the attributes of healthy sexual activity: “If you’ve given your consent...if you’re using proper protection...if you’re emotionally and physically ready for it, and if you feel safe and comfortable with your partner,” I thought to myself, That’s as complete a list as I could have come up with myself.
And then I remembered: this young woman is only thirteen, and there are many miles of distance between having the intellectual capacity to understand something, and the practical tools to navigate it on your own. Bottom line: Your "smart middle-schooler" probably knows more about sex than you think he or she knows, but will still need your guidance in this important area of life.
2. Talk About the Emotional Consequences of Sex
Forming healthy, caring relationships outside of your immediate family is an essential developmental milestone for your kids. It will help them decide who they are, and how to set and manage interpersonal boundaries. Still, there is no denying that young teens don’t have the experience, the information, or the judgment to make some of the decisions they will face in the coming years. That’s where you come in. Your teen should feel safe confiding in you about her emotions. One way to build her comfort level is to talk about your own experience with a first boyfriend or girlfriend. Reassure your child that you understand how exciting these new feelings are (and that it’s okay to talk about them with you). Bear in mind that your kid is receiving information from multiple sources besides you: television, the internet, and peers. Much of that information may be inaccurate, or incomplete. If you lay a solid foundation of trust, she is more likely to seek you out to confirm things she may have heard and to help her make momentous decisions later, including the decision about whether to become sexually active.
3. Talk About the Physical Consequences
On average, young people are about 17 years old the first time they experience sexual intercourse, and only 13 percent of teens will have had sex by the time they are 15-years old. But if they are sexually active without protection, there is a ninety percent chance that a pregnancy will happen within a year. (Guttmacher Institute, 2011) Still, pregnancy is only one consequence. Teens are more susceptible than adults to some STIs like HPV and Chlamydia, which can lead to sterility in both males and females.
Get more tips for preventing early sexual activity >
Talking to your young teen about valuing their bodies and safeguarding their health is a vital part of helping them become well-adjusted adults. Invite them to ask questions and give clear, candid, and accurate responses. If they aren’t comfortable talking to you, give them the option of talking to another trusted adult, or your family doctor.
4. Talk About the Practical Consequences of Serious Romantic Relationships
True confession: I was the girl who would practically cease to exist when I was attached to a boy. Friends, extra-curricular activities, schoolwork, and family: all were given short shrift. I blame it on a steady diet of Sweet Valley High romance novels. You can guess at the consequences – late assignments, tearful conversations with parents, sulking, promises and temporary reform. One way to avoid that pattern is to talk to your tween about balance, moderation, and responsibility. Show them that they can introduce new people and experiences into their life without allowing other things to suffer. Set boundaries on telephone and computer time and keep a rein on whether, or how often they go on outings with their boy/girlfriend.
5. Talk About your Values
Think about some of the values you want to instill in your kids as they develop interpersonal relationships outside of your immediate family. It could be based on religious faith, or simply a hope that they will always maintain their self-respect and respect for others. Use these values to inform what you want to say about dating and the possibility of sexual involvement. A strong value system can act as a guidepost. It won’t answer every question that may arise, but it will give your kids a point of reference at a time when increasingly you will not be there to make decisions for them.
A final piece of advice: consider the time and place for "The Talk". Make it someplace where your child is comfortable, and where you will not be interrupted for at least 30 minutes. During a drive is one good option. Do you take them to school? Pick them up from soccer practice? If so, maybe you’ve got your chance.
Tell Us: If you’ve had “The Talk” with your middle-schooler, we’re curious, how did it go?
1. Facts on Teens Sexual and Reproductive Health, (Washington D.C.: Guttmacher Institute, 2011) at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-ATSRH.html
2. 11 Facts About Teens and STIs, DoSomething.org.
3. Bill Albert, With One Voice: A 2009 Survey of Adults and Teens on Parental Influence, Abstinence, Contraception, and the Increase in the Teen Birth Rate (Washington, D.C.: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2009).
4. Early Sexual Activity: An Introduction, ParentFurther.com, (Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute, 2010).
6. Image via erin leigh mcconnell on Flick'r.