Talking With Your Parents About Sex: Why It Can Be A Good Idea
Originally Published: October 9, 2018
Revised: January 3, 2019
Anxious about talking to your parents or caregivers about sex? Join the club. There is often stigma and shame around sex, enough to prevent us from having these conversations. Whether you have questions about a relationship, you’re questioning your sexual orientation or dealing with a sexual health concern, it can feel embarrassing to bring up anything related to sex, especially if it hasn’t been openly discussed in your family. While decisions about sex are personal, involving trusted adults such as your parents or caregivers can be helpful. They can often offer good advice based on life experience.
To find out more about why teens might be nervous to talk with their parents and caregivers about sex and sexuality, I talked to a range of young people from around the U.S. I also spoke with Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator who has written several books for parents and teachers about sexuality education, to get her expert advice on the subject.
Why Teens Are Nervous
There are several reasons why teens worry about being honest with our parents or caregivers when it comes to sex. We may fear being criticized or even punished. Noah, 18, of Atlanta, says, “I feel awkward talking to my parents about sex, even when I am at the doctor’s. I have to ask them to leave because I’m afraid they will judge me for having sex.”
If my mom had talked about safe sex or healthy relationships before I started dating, it would have helped me feel more confident about what I did…
Casey, 16, of Fresno, CA, says, “I feel like I might get in trouble with my parents if I tell them I want birth control or that I am sexually active.”
In these cases, Noah and Casey want to know more about sexual health concerns but are nervous to open up to their parents.
I asked expert Deborah Roffman why she thinks many teens struggle to talk with their parents about sex. “Many teens can’t even imagine what a conversation with a parent about sex would look like or they may be too overwhelmed by feelings of embarrassment and discomfort to bring it up,” she says. “Most of all, while they might hide it, teens deep down don’t want their parents to be disappointed in them, and they’re afraid parents might become judgmental or react negatively to their interest in sexual issues or the fact that they may be involved in some type of sexual activity.” Yes! This is so true. A lot of teens want our parents to approve of us and are worried about losing that approval.
How to Approach the Topic
Since it can be so difficult to approach parents about sex, I wanted to know how teens overcome this. Gabi, 16, of Katy, TX, says, “I generally avoid talking about sex with my parents because I feel like our relationship is not that intimate.” However, she also says, “If I was having a medical emergency, like I thought I had an STI (sexually transmitted infection), [I feel] I would have to tell my parents.”
Some teens hesitate to bring up sex with their parents but try to think of creative ways to manage their anxiety. For instance, Gabi says, “I’ve never brought up the topic of sex with my parents, even though I really want to go on the Pill. I want to bring it up so I’m going to practice talking in a mirror if I get too nervous.”
Deborah Roffman also has some insight on how to approach your parents. “I think that the best way to bring up a potentially uncomfortable topic is almost always to express the discomfort up front,” she says. “It alerts the other person to the fact that you want and need to be listened to, and it allows you to help shape the conversation. Here’s an example: ‘So Dad, I want to talk to you about something that’s hard to bring up, and I’m afraid you might get upset or mad or something. Please hear me out because I really need your advice.’”
This makes so much sense! It lets your parents or caregivers know you’re nervous but still coming to them because you care about their opinion. This hopefully lets them know that anger or judgment are not what you’re looking for, but you do need someone to listen and share some advice.
I was curious what advice Deborah Roffman would give to parents for talking with their kids about sex. Here’s what she had to say: “Raising sexually healthy children is about way more than providing information. It’s about helping young people know how to apply values like caring, empathy, trust, affirmative consent and fairness in their relationships; understanding that ‘safety’ goes way beyond knowing all about condoms and birth control pills; appreciating that all sexual behavior is powerful and therefore requires careful and considerate decision making; and knowing that, no matter what, parents will always be there to support them.” Teens can benefit on so many levels when their parents are open when it comes to sex and sexuality!
Casey says, “If my mom had talked about safe sex or healthy relationships before I started dating, it would have helped me feel more confident about what I did and didn’t know about sex and even communication with my boyfriend….I would have felt secure about her being there for me in case something happened or if I was confused.”
When Your Parents Aren’t an Option
While it can be a good idea to communicate directly with your parents or caregivers, sometimes it’s not safe to be open about sex or sexuality. For instance, Dylan, 15, of Albany, NY says, “Being a member of the LGBT community in a family that is not accepting of it is very difficult when it comes to honestly discussing sex. All I have gotten is poorly conveyed, heterosexual sex ed for two weeks in a public school. I didn’t know where to go for sex ed on LGBT issues besides the internet.”
Unfortunately, it’s not always in a teen’s best interest to be open with their family. Deborah Roffman offers advice on what you can do if you don’t have parents or caregivers you can open up to. “Today, very thankfully, there are many opportunities—through local and national organizations as well as individuals living right in a teen’s community—to find the support systems they need and deserve,” she says. “Those people and groups can often serve as a bridge between teens and their parents by helping to create comfortable and safe ways for them to communicate.” For example, the organization PFLAG is a good resource for LGBTQ teens and their families, and The Trevor Project is available to help LGBTQ teens who feel isolated. If you need sexual health information, Sexetc.org is a great resource. If you’re looking for adults who can answer questions, health care providers, counselors or health teachers who have proven they care and are open to listening are also good options.
Adults don’t often make it clear they are open to answering our questions about sex and sexuality, but there are adults—parents and caregivers—we can trust who are willing to listen and provide the information we deserve. As scary as starting these conversations may be, they are important and can make a big difference. As Roffman says, “There’s no substitute for learning about sexuality in the same way young people learn about all other important aspects of life—in organized, proactive, ongoing ways from parents and teachers who care deeply about their health and well-being.”
The next time you have a question you may feel embarrassed about, you may want to try running it by your parent or caregiver. The results might surprise you.
For more tips on talking with adults about sex and sexuality, use our Communication Tool.
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