Tips for Parents: How to Talk to Your Children About Sex

Talking with your children about sex is important, but these conversations can be uncomfortable – both for you and for your children. Most parents want to talk with their children about sex, and most teens want to hear from their parents. It’s important to remember, you don’t need to be an expert to talk to your children about sex. Here are some other tips for having “the talk.”

Start early and have lots of discussions.

Don’t look at this as one huge, overwhelming moment. Talking to your teen should be an ongoing conversation. Ideally it should begin in early childhood with age-appropriate education and continue to take place in bits and pieces over time. Many teens want to hear from their parents, but might find the conversation comfortable for only a few minutes at a time. Having the conversation over time allows your teen time to think through what you are sharing.

Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes.

Teens say that parents most influence their decisions about sex, so sharing your values is important. Communicating with your children about sex, love, and relationships is also more successful when you are clear in your own mind about these issues. So think about the values you want to pass on to your children, and be clear about them. Keep in mind that your own behaviors and actions also communicate your values about sex and relationships to your children.

Keep your composure.

Remember that if your child approaches you with questions about sex, it does not necessarily mean they are engaging in sexual behavior. Becoming angry or overreacting to a question or mistake can upset your teen, or worse, silence any hope of future dialogue. Instead, listen, remain calm and ask open-ended questions.

Be sympathetic.

While teens may not believe that parents can relate, let your children know you understand how challenging life – with its social pressures and obligations – can be as an adolescent. Encourage your child to stay focused on school and other priorities. Being compassionate in your communication with them will encourage them to continue approaching you about tough topics.

Be present.

Parents have a lot going on these days. When you have a chance to talk with your children, try to put some of those worries and activities aside. Pay attention to the conversation and don’t do too many other things at the same time. You don’t have to drop everything; you can cook or do laundry while you talk. Just be sure to listen and make certain your children know you are hearing every word.

Supervise and monitor your children and adolescents.

Establish rules, curfews, and standards of expected behavior, preferably through an open process of family discussion and respectful communication. This includes knowing your children’s friends and their families. Supervising and monitoring your kids’ whereabouts doesn’t make you a nag; it makes you a parent.

Help your teenagers set goals for the future.

The likelihood that your children will delay having sex, pregnancy, and parenthood is much greater if their future appears bright. This means helping them set meaningful goals for the future, talking to them about what it takes to make future plans come true, and helping them reach their goals.

Emphasize safety.

Regardless of your views on the timing of sex, safety is an important part of the message to give your teen. If your teen does not intend to become pregnant, stress that using a condom plus another form of birth control together, every time, provides the best protection* against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Encourage them to plan ahead by learning about different birth control methods and choosing the method that is best for them before becoming sexually active.  Remind them that having sex while using alcohol or other drugs can cloud judgment and make it harder to voice one’s wishes and act responsibly.

Provide the facts.

Give your children complete and honest information. Make sure they understand that condoms aren't just for preventing pregnancy, but also for reducing the likelihood of contracting STIs and HIV. Make sure they know that birth control methods do not necessarily provide protection against STIs and HIV.

Don’t preach.

Resist the urge to talk AT your children; rather, share. Let them know about how you felt and the challenges you faced when you were their age.

TV and media matter.

More than 75% of prime-time programs contain sexual content, yet only 14% of sexual incidents in the media mention risks or responsibilities of sexual activity. Spend time watching TV or a movie with your children, and use the characters’ experiences as a way to start talking about the values or lessons you want your children to learn. Movies and TV shows are great conversation starters because they shift the focus away from teens to characters they might identify with.

Text your teen.

The average teen sends and receives 50 text messages a day. For teens, and even younger children, real-time text-based communications on a cell phone or other mobile device are now the norm. Send positive text messages to your teen or follow up a conversation with a text that reinforces what you just talked about.

Adapted from Conversation Tips for Parents, published by The US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health and Ten Tips for Parents To Help Their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy, published by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

Key Points

  1. Choosing NOT to have sex is the surest way to avoid unintended pregnancy and STIs.
  2. Teens have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to have sex, and whether to seek sexual healthcare.
  3. There are many free or low-cost clinics where teens can go for sexual and reproductive health services. Encourage your teen to download the Teens in NYC mobile app  or go to the NYC Teens website.
  4. Girls have many effective birth control options they can choose from, and if they’re sexually active both girls and boys should use condoms every time they have sex to prevent pregnancy and STIs.
  5. All sexually active teens should get tested regularly for HIV and other STIs.
  6. It’s not okay for anyone to touch your children against their wishes. Someone who cares about them will respect their wishes.
  7. Sex without the enthusiastic consent of both parties is rape, and rape is a crime.

Resources

For Parents

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

Planned Parenthood of New York City

Advocates for Youth

The Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health / El Centro

For Teens

This publication was made possible by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number #5U58DP002902-05 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Its contents are solely the responsibility of NYC DOHMH and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC or HHS.