I get asked a lot about how to talk to kids and teens about sex. Unfortunately, I can’t make it less awkward for you, though if you’re comfortable with your own sexuality first, that can help, but I can give you some points to make so that you and your child know exactly what sex is and what to think about when they want to have it. My hope for you is that this discussion can bring you and your child closer together rather than farther apart when it comes to sex, even if they choose to follow a different value system than your own.
I get questions all the time about how to talk to kids and teens about sex. It always seems awkward and uncomfortable, and that’s ok. My best advice is to get comfortable with your own sexuality first. When you are comfortable with yourself, it won’t be quite so uncomfortable to talk about it with them. But if you aren’t there yet and the conversation needs to be had, then I’m going to give you some tips today about how to do that. Just remember that it’s ok for it to be uncomfortable. Do it anyway! Sometimes it’s best to just admit that up front to yourself and to your teen.
“We are going to have a conversation today that might be uncomfortable and awkward for you. It kind of is for me to. But I love you and I think it’s important enough to have, despite the discomfort.”
So whether you are talking to your teen about sex for the first time, the hundredth time, they know nothing or they are already engaging in it, these conversations are important and need to be had. But talking to them about sex in general maybe seems easier than talking to them when you suspect or you know they are engaging in sexual activity, so we are going to address that today.
A few months ago, a friend of an acquaintance of mine reached out to me on Facebook asking for advice about her teenage daughter having sex. This girl was 16 years old and her parents were obviously not happy about this. They had cut her off from seeing or speaking to her boyfriend because they did not feel that this was appropriate behavior for someone living in their home. This girl was depressed, angry, and really struggling because of the punishment her parents had given to her. She had withdrawn and was refusing to speak much to her parents. The mom was also struggling seeing her daughter struggle but she was firm in her position.
A follower on Instagram reached out to me asking for advice because her fourteen year old daughter was engaging in some sexual activities. Not full on intercourse, but other activities that were concerning to her. She wanted to handle it in the best way she could. She wanted to keep her daughter safe but also create more connection with her.
When engaging with teenagers about sex and sexual activity, my suggestion is always to take an approach that promotes health and safety as well as talking about value systems. In Episode 94, I talk about the six principles of sexual health by Doug Braun-Harvey and the Harvey Institute. These six principles are the way that I frame conversations with my teens about sex. Let’s review these six principles with examples:
First, consent. Is consent happening? Did these girls fully consent to having a sexual relationship with their boyfriends? Did he pressure her? Did she pressure him? Proper informed consent is clear, conscious, and continuous. It is not consent if you are being manipulated, pressured or threatened to say yes. It is also not consent if someone is unable to legitimately give consent, which includes being asleep, unconscious, under the influence of conscious-altering substances or not able to understand what you are saying yes to.
Make sure your children fully understand consent. That it must be given and it must be received before anything happens. You can start teaching your children consent at a very young age. Letting them know it is their body and they can consent or not to anyone touching them at any time. Do they give their consent to grandma giving them a hug? Do they give or ask consent to hold hands? Kiss? This isn’t just about sex.
Second, exploitation. Is your teen exploiting or being exploited? Is there an imbalance of power between the two people to force or entice someone to engage in sexual activity in return for something? You want to look for power dynamics. Is it someone older? Someone in authority?
Third, honesty. Are they being honest with their significant other about themselves? Are they sharing anything that should be shared with a sexual partner (like previous experiences or sti’s?) And most importantly is she being honest with herself about what she wants?
Fourth, shared values. Now this is the big one. As parents we have values around sexual activity. Most often these values come from what we have been taught at church. So for most of my audience, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we value the Law of Chastity in that we should not have sexual relations with someone we are not married to because we value the sacredness of procreation and life. Now this is the hard part for a lot of teens and parents. Your teen may not have the same values that you do. They may have the value that sex should be between two people who love each other and they don’t need to be married. We also have to remember that values are different than behaviors. So this is where most of the conversation with your teen needs to be. Helping them understand your values and why you feel the way they do, but also taking the time to listen and understand their values. What are their values when it comes to sex? Why do they feel that way? Are they just doing what feels good in the moment or are they living in integrity with their value system even if it’s different than yours? This can be really hard for parents, but it is the best way to understand your child and why they are doing what they are doing.
Notice how I am not bringing morality or right and wrong into the conversation? Most likely your child knows how you think and feel about sex before marriage. The last thing they want or need is your judgment or shame. They don’t need a lecture. They need love, compassion, and understanding. This is where connection is built.
If your child is living outside of their value system, they will most likely see it and want to rectify the situation. If they truly feel they are living within their value system, then it’s time to move on to the next step.
Step five is protection from STI’s and Pregnancy. First and foremost, you want to make sure your child is safe. While there is always the atonement and repentance, there are often consequences from sexual activities that are lifelong or even eternal. You can’t repent away an STI or a baby. Making sure your child has adequate knowledge and protection to keep them safe is so important. As much as we’d like to often lock our children up in their room and throw away the key until they are older, this isn’t possible. It is so hard to see our children use their agency for things that we think will harm them, but it is part of God’s plan. So we just need to do our best to keep our children safe. If that means buying them condoms and/or putting them on birth control, then do that. By doing this, it is not giving them permission or condoning their behavior. I’m sure they are well aware of how you feel. But this is about keeping them safe. Period.
Sometimes we need to do things that our children don’t like in order to keep them safe. I’m not a huge fan of locking your 16-year old up so she can’t see her boyfriend. But I am ok with doing things to keep contact limited if you truly feel your child is not safe. I think it’s important to look at your own motivations behind what you are doing. Are you scared about what is going to happen and fear is your primary motivator? Or is it about love? Are you doing what is truly most loving and compassionate. And don’t delude yourself. Be honest when you look at your motivations.
The sixth and final thing is mutual pleasure. Your children need to understand that sex and sexual activities should be pleasurable for both parties. If it’s one sided, that’s not ok. This is a great segue into helping children know that sex is a wonderful part of a marriage. It can be a blessing to both the man and the woman and is a blessing for the marriage. If it’s not about mutual pleasure, then it truly isn’t the sexual relationship that it could be.
So hopefully that gives you some ideas of how you can frame conversations with your teens around sex and how to possibly handle some scenarios with teens in these kinds of situations.
After I talked to the mom of the 13-year old about these, she and her husband took my advice and their daughter realized she wasn’t behaving in a way that was in alignment with her values, even though it felt good, and she decided she needed to make some changes in herself.
The mom of the 16-year old let her fears take over and continued to restrict her daughter. I’m not sure what happened after that, but I fear it was more of the same. More punishment, more disconnection. But I hope that things will change for them in the future.
We are going to be having some discussions on Instagram this week about talking to your teens about sex. Join me for an Instagram Live on Wednesday, March 30 at noon MT to get all your questions answered.