The Biggest Mistake Parents Make When Talking To Their Kids About Sex
Parents, you're busy—I feel you. That's why it's no surprise that we sometimes welcome an opportunity to quickly blow through a parental duty without much of a second thought. The checklist items do, after all, add up. It's not that you don't want to show up for your kids but rather that you don't mind a chance to "easy button" it every now and then.
But when it comes to having the talk—you know, the talk—you're going to want to take your time on that one. As a matter of fact, a new study1 suggests you're going to need to do it more than once.
"Our current culture is highly sexualized, so children are learning about sexuality in a fragmented way from an early age," said Laura Padilla-Walker, Ph.D., the study author and a Brigham Young University family life professor, in a news release. "Research suggests that parents can be an effective means of teaching their children about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner, but that does not occur if parents only have a single, uncomfortable, often one-sided talk."
It's ongoing family dialogue about sex that leads to young adults having safer sex at age 21, according to the research.
For the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Dr. Padilla-Walker evaluated 468 adolescents ages 14 to 18 (52 percent female and 67 percent white), along with their mother and father. She then contacted the families every summer over the course of 10 years to evaluate their efforts at communicating about sex. What she discovered was that in many instances, both teens and parents reported not having a lot of conversation about sex—and the teens, especially, said they hardly talked with their parents about it. But the more often they did talk, the more adolescents felt safe going to their parents with questions about sex. And not only did those conversations improve the parent-child bond, but they also resulted in those teens having safer sex when they did become sexually active.
"Whether or not parents think they are talking about sexuality often, children are generally reporting low levels of communication," said Dr. Padilla-Walker. "So parents need to increase sex communication even if they feel they are doing an adequate job."
But how do parents navigate regular conversations if the first birds-and-the-bees talk made them feel uncomfortable enough? You'll want to start with the basics starting when the kids are young, holistic relationship and sexuality coach Emily Dixon tells mbg. Name their genitals correctly—just call it a penis or vagina—and avoid judgment when kids come to you with questions about sexuality.
"It's easy to shame a child around sexuality just by being uncomfortable and avoidant, particularly if your child is of a different gender or sexual orientation," Dixon says. "Even if you are not comfortable about knowing what's going on in your child's sexual development or peer group, ask questions with an open mind, and listen."
The same goes for teens, but you should be a little more explicit and honest about what they are likely to see, and you'll want to provide good and bad examples, DATE SAFE Project founder Mike Dormitrz tells mbg. If you need help engaging them in conversation, then try together writing down some ways friends might influence your child's dating life, he suggests. Then work together to discuss how you might thwart those bad influences.
This is one of those parental duties you won't want to phone in. As tricky as it might seem, building a solid foundation of sexual awareness, knowledge, and empowerment for your child is something you and they can do as a team. The more you both talk about sex, the easier it'll get. Not only will your child benefit immensely from your willingness to guide them as they navigate this intimate part of their life—but you'll be closer to each other as a result.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik is a Pittsburgh-based writer, the author of The Gluten-Free Revolution, and a certified holistic health coach and pilates instructor. She has a bachelor’s in journalism from Point Park University and received her health coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is a regular contributor to Women's Health and Tonic, and her work has also been featured at The Cut, Narratively, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Yahoo. She is a mental health advocate and currently writing a collection of essays. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.