When Melissa Graham’s son, Eric, was a junior in high school, he and his girlfriend would occasionally join Melissa and her husband in the family room for movie nights. But instead of sitting upright on the couch—preferably with a bowl of popcorn and two sodas between them—the two would often lie together, spooning.
It made Melissa deeply uncomfortable. “I am a big proponent of no big public displays of affection by anyone,” the Ohio mom explains. “It’s a beautiful thing—to be shared by two people, not the world.”
Melissa responded to the situation by doing what she jokingly called the “strong, mature parent thing”: She did nothing.
Many parents can identify with her response. We would rather run through a pile of hot coals than have a conversation with our kids about sex and intimacy. “This is tricky stuff,” says John Duffy, Ph.D., a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and host of the Dr. John Duffy podcast on iTunes. “It comes up earlier than most parents are ready for.”
Part of the hesitation in setting these dating rules comes from parents not feeling confident in their own beliefs, experts say. Like Graham, they may be uncomfortable with teen PDA—but wonder if they are being old-fashioned. Or they don’t like the idea of their child hooking up but rationalize that all the other kids are doing it, too. That makes it hard to set boundaries with teens.
Some parents worry that if they talk to their kids about sex, then they are giving them tacit permission to have it. The impulse, then, is to just keep putting the conversation off.
But silence has consequences, experts say.
“If your voice isn’t in the mix, your kid is going to make decisions independent of you,” says Duffy.
“In actuality, we have a lot of say over our kids’ behavior when it comes to sex and intimacy. But if you don’t weigh in, then they’ll just write you off and sometimes they’ll act almost to spite you.”
3 Steps for Discussing Intimacy with Teens:
1. Identify your beliefs.
In order to have a conversation with your child about sex and intimacy, parents first need to come to an understanding about what your own beliefs and stances are when it comes to issues of sex and what is acceptable behavior in their home.
The key, say experts, is not to worry about what other parents are doing or saying. Kristin Carothers, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents at the Child Mind Institute in New York, for instance, would not let her own children sit in a bedroom alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend. But she also recognizes that the parents of her kids’ partners might have different rules. When in doubt, Carothers says, “Trust your gut. You have to do what makes it easy for you to sleep at night.”
2. Talk to your teens about your values.
And while parents may still dread broaching the topic with their kids, it’s helpful to know teens are much more open and comfortable with the conversation than we often imagine them to be.
“It’s true almost across the board that it is harder for us to talk about it than it is for them,” Duffy says. In these conversations (and yes, there should be more than one conversation), it is ok—and even advisable— to be direct with your children.
“You don’t have to soft-pedal,” Duffy says. You can tell them, “We prefer that you are not alone with your boyfriend in the house.” Or, “We prefer that you wait to have sex until you are 18 for these reasons.” Duffy, by the way, encourages all of his teenaged clients to avoid having sex—though he knows not everyone will listen. “Honestly, I would argue that no one under 18 is sophisticated enough intellectually and emotionally to be involved in a sexual relationship,” he says.
3. Avoid shaming your teenager.
But if your child does engage in activity counter to your beliefs, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to avoid shaming, experts say. The child can’t undo the behavior, and teens who feel shamed are more likely to engage in other risky activities.
At that point, all you can do is arm your child with great information about consent and safety. “You might be a little disappointed or scared at first. You might even think that you didn’t do a good job as a parent. But that is not what this means,” Dr. Carothers says. “It’s natural for our kids to eventually grow up and have sex.”
And no matter how conservative or liberal you are as a parent, most everyone wants their children to eventually have healthy, safe, happy experiences with their future partners or spouses. These teenage romances are important training grounds, so it’s important to treat them as such—and to respect your teen enough to talk about them.