How can you talk to teens about sexuality in a healthy way?

Many parents avoid talking about sex and sexuality with their teens, basically leaving their children alone in front of a topic they have a lot of questions about.

MOST TWEENS, teens and young adults grapple with negative feelings about their changing bodies. (photo credit: TNS)
MOST TWEENS, teens and young adults grapple with negative feelings about their changing bodies.
(photo credit: TNS)

I will never talk about this with my parents!

Cards with different subjects written upon them are scattered throughout the room, and I ask the teens I guide to choose a subject. The answers to my question are almost always the same: they want to ask about masturbation, about sexuality and sex, about pornography and sexual assault. I’m sure that many parents reading these lines are now cringing in a chair, or perhaps actually releasing a sigh of relief. "Wow," they think, "it embarrasses me too," or "I really don’t know what to say.”

Even for very involved parents, talking about sexuality is still taboo, a subject we’re afraid to handle. The emotional challenges of today's youth are greater than ever, and discussing issues related to sexuality often requires us to be in an exposed and vulnerable position, sometimes hesitant.

Many parents are confused and helpless regarding the many complexities their children have around issues related to physiological development in appearance, social networks, exposure to sexual content, sexual experiences and more. When parents lack knowledge, they tend to leave this important role to other people like a high school counselor, educator or even a peer group. We don’t know how and when to intervene, or what exactly to say.

Even if we choose to talk about sexuality, it will usually take place "without choice" - at worst, if your teen is sexually assaulted, or around first relationships. At its best, it’s a conversation about the importance of having protected sex and the intention to use contraception. This discussion is primarily technical, and certainly doesn’t address the range of emotional complexities of having sex. Protection, both emotional and physical, should be a main issue of discussion, of course.

Talking about sexuality should start from a young age. Of course, for each age its emphasis and attitude is different, but the sooner we teach our kids to know their body, to love it and respect their own and the other's boundaries, the less we risk them getting hurt and we increase their chances for a natural, safe and healthy experience.

Messages from infancy

Our sexual behavior is a product of our environment. The messages we receive from infancy from home and society largely shape how we grow to relate to our body and sexuality: to messages we hear. For parents, it’s crucial that our kids grow to relate positively to their own and the other's body, and whether their sexuality is experienced as a positive source of pleasure and enjoyment, or with shame and fear. An example that can help and illustrate this is what language we call our genitals.

Stop for a moment and think: what do you call your genitals? Is it "penis" or "vagina", or maybe another word? What meanings are derived from it, and is it the same name by which we call the genitals of our boy or girl? If not, at what age does it change and why?

This may sound like a marginal example but it’s important to try and understand our relationship with our sexuality, and how we communicate it to our kids. The way we choose to talk (or not talk) about the genitals can hint at the hidden messages that go through it. Are these messages of concealment and shame? Maybe of affection? Maybe even respect? What will kids grow up understanding about their sexual organs? And more importantly - what will they understand from this about communicating with their parents?

Talking about sexuality doesn’t center on the genitals, of course. Our sexuality is made up of a variety of biological, social and emotional characteristics. Discourse on sexuality is a discussion about boundaries, touch and intimacy, about managing emotions, the body, tendencies and identities, etc. So it’s a conversation that unfolds as our kids mature. Their curiosity and innocent experience changes and they want more clarity. Sexuality begins to connect with pleasure, fantasy and attraction to the other. As is well known, things start to get complicated, and in the absence of a significant adult who will direct and mediate the many sexual messages that flood them from all sides, natural and healthy experiences can take on an inappropriate and even offensive tone.

Let's learn together

Many parents are afraid of being perceived as "unprepared" and therefore don’t initiate this conversation. But whether we like it or not, at some point we  have to deal with questions that come up, so we should do research and have cohesive information. That's right, we don’t and won’t have the answers to all these questions and there are issues that we’re still confused about, but this is an opportunity to study together. The teens I meet are confused, overwhelmed and thirsty for information and guidance. Wouldn’t we like to be the address for them for any question or difficulty?

Even if we don’t always have the answers, our goal is to help them reach a reliable source who will give them the tools and knowledge they need. When we don’t talk to our kids, we leave them to deal alone and internalize all the problematic messages we want to ward off, from negative body image to violent and abusive sexual practices. When we convey to them that we’re there for them on these issues as well, we also spread a network of protection and security for them, but also show them that talking about sexuality is natural and it’s important that it be open. What will they learn from this about conduct within their relationships?

It’s possible to break the barrier of embarrassment

Now, I ask the teens I’m leading which topics they want to discuss. Guess which cards the boys and girls are choosing now? True, exactly the same things; the issues that really concern them are also the issues that they don’t want to talk about with us. Many parents will be surprised to find that when they cross the initial embarrassment barrier this creates an opportunity for intimate and special communication that gives our boys and girls the feeling that there is someone to trust, that the door is not closed in their face and that we’re an address for shared thought and consultation.

Remember that talking about sexuality is talking about values. Just as we want to teach our children to act with compassion and sensitivity and to act out of critical thinking, so too in the sexual realm we want to educate them to listen to themselves and others, and to promote their and the environment's protection.

Sexuality is a natural and wonderful thing. It’s a whole and wonderful world to discover and it invites exciting and enjoyable feelings and fun experiences. We as parents have the responsibility to help our teens put boundaries in the right places so that they can explore and experience with pleasure and safety.

The author is a mother of two and a consultant, content developer and educator for healthy sexuality and gender equality.