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Start the Conversation: Talking with a Sexually Active Teen

Sex. You want to talk about this uncomfortable but important subject with your teenager, but you aren’t sure what boundaries are appropriate. We asked psychologist Suzanne Schneps for advice on having conversations with your teenager about sex.

Q: How do I tell a sexually active teen they don’t have to have sex with their next partner?

Schneps: Teens respond negatively to parental comments that suggest a demand for future actions or a judgment about past actions. Using a light and informal tone, you might say, “Every relationship is different and leads to its own set of choices and experiences. And each new relationship allows you to chat about topics like who pays for dates, who drives and whether to have sex.” With these words, you are letting your teen know that change is possible.

Q: How do I tell my teen to wait?

Schneps:  It’s best to discuss sex and intimacy before your teen is involved in a relationship. Teens are more likely to hear you when you bring the discussion to a more neutral playing field. Teens may translate the phrase, “I wish you would wait,” as a challenge, so try a different approach that facilitates a discussion about their thinking and reasoning. Begin your comments with, “Have you thought about ….” Then, listen to their pros and cons. Your teens have fascinating ideas to share.

Q: If my teen says, “Please don’t tell Dad,” what is my response?

Schneps:  When a teen begins, “Don’t tell dad or mom,” you don’t know what information will follow. The comment can be the preamble to a D on a history test, but it can also be the lead-in to a serious suicide attempt. Teens can understand that you will try to keep their confidences, but if there is a safety issue for either them or another family member, you may need to share that information.

Q: Is there a way to sound nonjudgmental without sounding permissive?

Schneps:  Yes, parents want to communicate their views regarding sexual behavior. But, as a parent, first tell your teen how much you love them. “Though I may not support your behavior, I will always love you and am always willing to help you resolve any complicated situation.”

Q: When your teen asks about your life as a teenager, do you share your past?

Schneps:  Don’t get caught in the bind of “How can I ask my kids to be honest, if I am not going to be sharing.” It’s all about boundaries. Boundaries create respect. You need to respect your teens’ boundaries and they need to respect your boundaries.

You will want to avoid being angry, defensive, or insulted. Instead, with a light but clearly firm tone, tell your teen, “We are not going there.” Use some humor such as, “That was the dark ages, anyway.” Conversations need to move to other topics.

In reality, discussions about your past or present sexual behavior will make your teen very uncomfortable. By not equivocating, you will give a clear message that you won’t answer these questions. Remember, answering one question is the gateway to encouraging many more private and personal questions!

Still worried? Here's more advice:

Likewise, you want to respect your teens and their need for you to have some boundaries. You certainly don’t need nor should you ask details about your teen’s sexual behavior. Your job is to keep them safe. Your job is to create the environment that reflects that you respect your teen and that they respect you.