A central part of More Than Sex-Ed’s mission is to support parents in providing their children with the healthiest possible messages about sexuality—and we know that even the most caring and open-minded parents can struggle with this. The good news is, no single “talk” will make or break your teen’s self-confidence or decision-making skills; the best thing you can do is cultivate open, honest, ongoing dialogue about everything. Sex talk, when your child is ready, will grow out of that. Here are some tips we hope may be useful:
1. Not saying anything says a lot.
Children can recognize when a topic is taboo; deflecting may save you from some discomfort in the moment, but when a young person internalizes that certain body parts, feelings, or behaviors should not be talked about, it leaves them more susceptible to abuse. A simple explanation, or the assurance that a particular topic is very normal, but private, is much more satisfying to their curiosity and lays the framework for later talks.
2. Listen. Really. As much as possible.
No really, stop talking. Shhhh. Okay—you can ask questions; then wait. Showing a child that their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and ideas matter to you helps them learn that this is part of a loving, respectful relationship and that they deserve to be treated like they matter. Ask what they think about commercials on TV; ask what their friends have to say about various topics. This builds trust and sends the message that they can tell you anything without fear of judgment. So . . .
3. Withhold judgment.
Even when you know there’s a clear right answer, asking questions to help guide your child through their own decision-making process helps them hone their internal moral compass and shows that you believe in their ability to think things through. We all know how frustrating it feels to receive advice when what we really want is empathy; try holding back that advice and see if they can work it out on their own.
Adolescence are some of the hardest years of many people’s lives. Adults are really good at forgetting how horrifically painful it can be inside a teenager’s brain, exploding with new neural connections and saturated in unbalanced hormones. And most parents today didn’t have to go through those years with the added intensity of social media feeds, maintaining a curated persona around the clock and watching their social standing rise and fall with quantifiable metrics in real time. It’s brutal. Have compassion. Even—especially—when your kid is completely off the rails.
5. Be cautious of reassurance-praise.
This seems counter-intuitive, but stick with me. Self-doubts and insecurities are a natural part of the emotional rollercoaster that is the journey of identity-formation. When someone we love expresses a negative view of themselves, it’s normal to want to reassure them with praise: “no, you’re beautiful!” or “that’s not true, you’re brilliant.”
But if my arm is in pain, and I go to the doctor and she tells me, “But your arm is awesome! It’s the strongest arm I’ve ever seen!” I no longer believe that this doctor is taking my pain seriously. I’m less likely to trust her with other questions, doubts, or concerns. Instead, try replying with something like, “what makes you think that?” or “it sounds like this is hurting a lot right now. I’m sorry.” And yes, of course tell your children that you think they’re brilliant, wonderful, amazing. (Be careful with “beautiful”—see below.) Just don’t let a compliment shut down a bigger conversation.
6. Everything is role-modelling, and they’re always watching.
Your relationships—whether with a partner, co-parent, or other family and friends—are their model for relationships. Your attitudes about your body and appearance are their model for body image. Show them you value health and strength, rather than being “skinny” or “pretty”. Call attention to the times when caring, trusting, and respect play a role in any of your adult relationships. And when you screw up, and realize you’ve been a terrible role model, forgive yourself. No one talk is going to make or break your child’s future.
7. Check your assumptions about your child’s sexuality.
Humans come in a broad and beautiful rainbow of sexual orientations and gender identities; not everyone’s child is straight and cisgender, and yours may not be either. Fortunately, there are lots of great resources out there to help people educate themselves about the range of completely healthy and normal human sexual diversity. There’s no shame in not knowing something you never learned—most adults today grew up being taught that there is only a pink box or a blue box, and even with more accurate information, cultural messaging runs deep and can be difficult, even painful, to question.
The most important thing every child needs from the adults who love them is unconditional acceptance, whether or not they are the person you thought they were. You can help break down these restrictive pink-and-blue boxes by avoiding grouping their friends by gender, by questioning gender-role messages in media, and by keeping conversations about crushes and dating open-ended—just to name a few. There are hundreds of small language shifts we can make in everyday conversation, that taken together could add up to life-saving support for a youth who is struggling.
Every child deserves to feel loved, accepted, and respected for who they are. More Than Sex-Ed is honored to help support parents in important conversations, providing tools, information, and resources to cultivate healthy attitudes and send the messages you want your youth to hear. We salute your hard work, and we’re grateful to play a part in it—thanks for reading!