Getting Teens to Talk (Eww) About Sex
There are effective ways to talk about sex with your teenage son or daughter. That's not one of them. Many teenagers, of course, don't like to talk to their parents about sex at all, and researchers say that's because some parents have the same light touch as an '80s hair band.
Christopher Daddis, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, tells The New York Times parents can't just bring the subject up out of the blue.
"If you haven't been talking to your children about their daily lives all along, asking about sex isn't going to elicit any information," Daddis tells The Times.
Daddis led a study about why adolescents don't talk to their parents about sex. Previous studies have been limited, Daddis tells the newspaper, as they often ask just one question: "Do you tell your parents about dating?"
"Obviously there's a lot more that can be asked," Daddis tells The Times.
So, Daddis asked 222 Ohio teenagers a wide range of questions about their romantic lives and how much information they are comfortable sharing with their parents. He also asked how they perceived the consequences of kissing and telling.
The results of the study are published in the Journal of Adolescence in an article titled, "Dating and Disclosure: Adolescent Management of Information Regarding Romantic Involvement."
He tells The Times kids and parents inevitably clash over the former's amorous activities.
"Dating and romantic relationships are issues over which both adolescents and parents claim decision-making jurisdiction," he tells The Times. "It's not that teenagers are being selfish by not talking. They're actively trying to figure out what's their own business, and what Mom and Dad should know about."
Daddis found girls are chattier than boys, and both genders are more likely to talk to their mothers than their fathers. Still, he tells The Times, teenagers generally avoid the subject entirely.
Unless parents discover teens canoodling on the couch, he tells the paper, they probably will not have a clue what the mice are doing when the cat's away.
So what's a parent to do?
Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist in Southern California who writes the "Ask Advice Mama" column for ParentDish, says getting kids to talk about sex is a like a lot of things in parenting: We lead by example.
"In general, we teach our kids what they can and cannot talk to us about by our reactions," Stiffelman tells ParentDish.
When parents react like prissy old school marms whenever the subject of sex comes up, Stiffelman says, kids know parents are going to do more judging than listening.
"Kids are going to step back and take things underground," Stiffelman says.
Instead, Stiffelman suggests parents do what she calls "listening with a quiet mind."
Really hear what the teen is saying, she says. Don't use it to gather ammunition for the next rule you want to lay down.
"Avoid dramatic one-liners that impose black-and-white rules," Stiffelman suggests. "All the stuff we're talking about and want to know is in the gray areas."
For example, Stiffelman says, ask a daughter how she feels about a boy she is attracted to rather than tell her she cannot date until she's 16.
And, as Daddis says, Stiffelman agrees sex cannot simply be dropped into the conversation from out of nowhere. Parents need to have a constant conversation with their kids on all aspects of their lives, she says. Sex should be part of a seamless web.
But expect children not to communicate, Stiffelman says.
"Our kids are suspicious of us," she says. "The whole journey of adolescence is getting our voices out of their heads."
Talking to kids about sex -- or anything -- comes from building a long-term relationship and a history of casual, nonjudgmental sharing.
"You need to let your child know, 'I can handle the truth,' " Stiffelman says.
Related: Are Your Friends Really Having More Sex Than You Are?
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.