10 Tips for Parents: Talking With Your Teen About Sex

February 23, 2000
News Office: Leslie Harris, Rebecca Higbee (415) 885-7277

Parents often complain of not knowing enough about their teens' habits and lives to know when their children are taking unhealthy risks, such as using drugs, drinking alcohol or having early or unprotected sex. Among teenage girls, unhealthy sexual risk taking is particularly damaging because it can lead to pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease or unfulfilled education and development.

Dr. Lynn Ponton, a psychoanalyst and UCSF professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, profiles 20 teenagers in an upcoming new book, "The Sexual Lives of Teenagers" (Dutton Penguin, August 2000), which takes a closer look at why some teens fall into a pattern of negative behavior leading to dangerous outcomes. She says that for any unhealthy risk behavior, it is crucial that parents maintain an ongoing, open dialogue with their teen about their feelings and behaviors.

Ponton offers 10 tips for parents in talking to their teens about sex:

Speak directly to your teen, using simple language to describe feelings and activities

Conversations need to start early. Don't wait until your child is a teenager to talk about sex. Ideas for earlier discussions include biology, inquiring about and exploring language your child may hear outside the home, and observing and discussing messages around sex in the media.

Remember that sexuality is confusing for teens. Talk to them about the extremes in our cultural attitudes toward sex, from Victorian embarrassment to sexual exploitation.

You don't have to discuss your own sexual experiences. Instead, talk about feelings and lessons you've learned without describing specifics. Exploring stories about other teens can also promote discussion, and ask your child for her/his opinion and ideas.

Maintain an ongoing dialogue, and communicate morals, values and examples.

Understand that all teenagers have sexual lives, whether with others or through fantasies - this is an important part of adolescence that helps them to discover and develop their individual sexual identity, a vital part of one's overall identity.

A wise parent recognizes that adolescence is about taking risks, sexually and in other ways, and will want his or her teen to have safe, healthy options, even if she/he is engaging in a behavior that runs counter to parental values. Encouraging your teen to talk with other trusted adults about sexuality is important.

Red flags to dangerous sexual risk-taking can include unprotected intercourse, repeated exposure to victimization in unhealthy or dangerous sexual relationships, or a history of sexually abusing others. Other more general psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-mutilation, and clusters of unhealthy risk-taking might occur at the same time.

Educate yourself about the spectrum of adolescent sexual behaviors. Enforcing rigid gender roles or sexual orientation can be extremely damaging.

Parents communicate values and morals best by example. It's important to be aware of how you speak and act concerning sexual and gender issues in front of your teens. Adolescents respond best to suggestions rather than directives, highlighting the importance of the parent's role as guide during these crucial years.