Let’s talk about sex: teaching teens to negotiate sexual intimacy

Parents can support young people to develop healthy, respectful and consensual sexual relationships. Ed Yourdon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Talking about sex, intimacy and risk-taking with adolescents is not as easy as busting out a Salt-N-Pepa classic. Catchy lyrics aside, parents may be grappling with a number of questions: Is my adolescent ready for sex? Are we equipped to open this can of worms? How will my teen respond to me discussing sex?

When it comes to talking about the “birds and the bees”, parents tend to focus on the risks of unprotected sex and the practicalities of safe sex. But if we only discuss the potential consequences of sexual activity, adolescents are likely to be less receptive than a bigger-picture approach.

If we acknowledge that sex can be a positive experience, we are better able to portray sex and intimate relationships as something worth waiting for, rather than something to rush into.

We can balance our discussions about sex and relationships with a “sex positive” dialogue. This means:

  • Acknowledging young people will choose whether or not to be sexually active. This is a normal and healthy part of adolescence.

  • Recognising that adolescence is a time of sexual development and potential experimentation.

  • Referencing a variety of sexual preference(s) in a positive way throughout all conversations.

  • Supporting the right of young people to develop healthy, respectful and consensual sexual relationships.

Some of these concepts may not be covered in school-based sex education, so parents need to facilitate their adolescents’ sexual decision-making behaviours.

Why is collaborative decision-making important?

The old model for sexuality education doesn’t work: we cannot have one conversation with our kids about sex and expect them to lead happy and healthy sexual lives.

Young people who openly communicate with their parents are more likely to delay sex. Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

There is consensus among experts that dialogues about sexuality need to occur between parents and their children early and often. But that doesn’t mean most parents know what to say, or how, or when to bring it up.

When parents and young people have good communication, along with appropriate authority, adolescents report less depression and anxiety and more self-reliance and self-esteem. They also report having their first intercourse at an older age and report a lower frequency of sex during adolescence than their peers.

Putting it into practice

Here’s our take: foster and facilitate decision-making skills from a young age.

Rather than telling your child what to do, from toddler age, have them share in making the decision together. It can be simple at first: what vegetables are we having with dinner? But, as the decisions get more complicated, it’s important to have your child talk through the decision’s pros and cons.

Let’s break it down further. Say your adolescent wants to stay out an hour past their normal curfew. Have them talk through each option fully. For example:

If I stay out an hour later, I get to see my friends longer, I won’t miss out on what happens at the party. But I might end up getting in trouble if the party gets busted, there’s a higher risk that we might get in an accident on the way home, and I will be super tired for the next morning’s activities.

If I don’t stay out an hour later, I will still have gotten to go to the party, and I’ll be more likely to get home safe and then be able to get up in the morning. But I may get made fun of for leaving the party early and may miss something really good that happens.

And then have them talk about the importance of each of those things and have them make a decision alongside you.

The trick to this type of parenting is that you need to start it from a young age, and guide your child through it. By starting with the decisions that aren’t as potentially dangerous (such as which vegetable), you build in a safety net for them to start to trust that you trust their decision-making skills. And that trust will foster their skills further.

Your adolescents won’t always make the decision you want but it’s important to create opportunities to make collaborative decisions. Kate Sumbler/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

There is also the possibility that they won’t always make the decision you want. But allowing adolescents to make a few mistakes along the way is part of how they will learn to make good decisions and develop an autonomous identity.

So what if you haven’t been doing this all along? Well it isn’t too late to start, but maybe don’t start with the “can my partner stay over tonight?” decision.

You can create opportunities to make decisions collaborative. For example, when your adolescent wants to go to a music festival you’re nervous about, resist the urge to make it an authoritative yes or no. Maybe position it as a “yes with these conditions” decision, where they are in charge of setting up some safety precautions that you both feel comfortable with.

Where to now?

When navigating discussions about sex, relationships, and intimacy with adolescents, it is important to recognise that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. But ignoring these topics can contribute to negative psychological, social and health implications for adolescents in the future.

Bottom line? The more often you initiate collaborative health and risk-taking decision-making with your adolescent, the more practice you are providing for your adolescent to make healthy, autonomous and effective choices for themselves. And, you know what they say: practice makes perfect … or, at least better.

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