You’d think it would be easier for us post-sexual-revolution parents. We have no problem explaining to a three-year-old how babies are born, so shouldn’t we take it in stride when it’s time to talk to our teens about sex? But as Sue McDonald, a community health nurse with Vancouver Coastal Health, has discovered, parents still find it difficult to talk to young teens about sex. In focus groups she held with parents as part of her master’s thesis, she found that embarrassment is only one factor.
“Parents are confused about what their own beliefs and values are right now. They don’t know what they should tell their children. And they don’t feel they are up to date on all the current information.”
To add to the challenge, those “difficult” questions we worry about answering are not likely to be expli-citly asked, not unless you have already established a comfortable and freewheeling climate for discussing sex with your child. “Teens are at that point where they want to tune out the parent and they’re uncomfortable talking about that sort of thing,” says McDonald. “But they want — and need — the information.” She adds, “We know that supportive parental involvement helps teen practise healthy behaviours.”
Really, it would be much easier if your child did come up to you and say, “So what do you think? Is oral sex really sex, or is it more like advanced necking?” Then you’d have no choice but to step up to the plate and do your best. But just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean they aren’t wondering, and sexual health educators agree it’s up to parents to open the discussion, and keep it open. Read on for some tips.
Share your values “At school they get the physical information about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, but they’re not getting the information about how to make healthy decisions, about what a healthy relationship is, about peer pressure,” says McDonald. That’s where parents come in. “Talk with your child about what you are watching together on TV, or what you read in the paper, and what the family’s beliefs and values are about that.”
Be respectful Your teen may not share all your values or agree with everything you say. He needs to know you will listen to his point of view with respect. “At this age, you can garner some trust,” says Kelli Dilworth, interim executive director of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health. The kid who learns at 12 that he can be honest with his parents without getting jumped on is the teen who may confide in you about something really important a few years from now.
You don’t have to know everything Accurate information is important, but that doesn’t mean you have to have encyclopedic knowledge. “Find out where to get good answers, even if you don’t know the answers yourself,” suggests Dilworth. And then let your child know that you are open to any follow-up questions he might have, at any time, and that if you don’t know the answer, you will help him find out.
Lighten up “One thing we put on a lot of our information is ‘Get ready to blush and laugh!’” says Dilworth. You’ll both be more relaxed if you can acknowledge your awkwardness with a bit of humour.
Have lots of little talks The parents in McDonald’s survey who felt comfortable talking about sex with their teens discussed a wide range of issues, but not all at once. Instead, they talked about looking for “teachable moments, anytime, anyplace.”
Be positive Often what pushes parents to talk with their kids is “when something negative has happened to one of their friends,” says McDonald. And then it becomes a cautionary tale of what not to do and how that friend screwed up. But if your teen interprets that as criticizing her friends, you’re not going to gain much ground. “It’s better to try to talk to a teen about an issue in a more positive manner,” suggests McDonald. They will need to know how to have healthy, respectful, responsible, enjoyable sexual relationships, not just what to avoid.
Provide healthy resources McDonald points to research showing that boys in grade eight get a lot of their information from porn websites “and they think that’s normal.” Kids of both sexes are bombarded with unrealistic and exploitive sexualized images in fashion ads and music videos. It’s important to debunk these images, but also to provide accurate and healthy alternatives, be that books or websites.
Resources for kids and parents
vch.ca/teensexualhealth Vancouver Coastal Health has a website, Teen Sexual Health, with a great list of Internet resources that parents and teens can share. And explore the rest of the site for more useful info.
cfsh.ca The Canadian Federation for Sexual Health site offers basic sexual health information (including straightforward information on safer sex, sexual orientation and sexual pleasure) and a section of tips on talking with teens about sex.
parentbooks.ca Offers a pre-screened selection of informative books on sexuality and talking to kids about sex; click on Browse Booklists, then select Sexuality. Parentbooks is a Toronto-based bookstore specializing in parenting, child development and education, and will fill online or phone orders across Canada.