Sex education: Talking to your teen about sex

Sex education is offered in many schools, but don't count on classroom instruction alone. Sex education needs to happen at home, too. Here's help talking to your teen about sex. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Sex education basics may be covered in health class, but your teen might not hear — or understand — everything he or she needs to know to make tough choices about sex. That's where you come in. Awkward as it may be, sex education is a parent's responsibility. By reinforcing and supplementing what your teen learns in school, you can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy sexuality.

Breaking the ice

Sex is a staple of news, entertainment and advertising. It's often hard to avoid this ever-present topic. But when parents and teens need to talk, it's not always so easy. If you wait for the perfect moment, you might miss the best opportunities. Instead, think of sex education as an ongoing conversation. Here are some ideas to help you get started — and keep the discussion going.

  • Seize the moment. When a TV program or music video raises issues about responsible sexual behavior, use it as a springboard for discussion. Remember that everyday moments — such as riding in the car or putting away groceries — sometimes offer the best opportunities to talk.
  • Be honest. If you're uncomfortable, say so — but explain that it's important to keep talking. If you don't know how to answer your teen's questions, offer to find the answers or look them up together.
  • Be direct. Clearly state your feelings about specific issues, such as oral sex and intercourse. Present the risks objectively, including emotional pain, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. Explain that oral sex isn't a risk-free alternative to intercourse.
  • Consider your teen's point of view. Don't lecture your teen or rely on scare tactics to discourage sexual activity. Instead, listen carefully. Understand your teen's pressures, challenges and concerns.
  • Move beyond the facts. Your teen needs accurate information about sex — but it's just as important to talk about feelings, attitudes and values. Examine questions of ethics and responsibility in the context of your personal or religious beliefs.
  • Invite more discussion. Let your teen know that it's OK to talk with you about sex whenever he or she has questions or concerns. Reward questions by saying, "I'm glad you came to me."

Addressing tough topics

Sex education for teens includes abstinence, date rape, homosexuality and other tough topics. Be prepared for questions like these:

  • How will I know I'm ready for sex? Various factors — peer pressure, curiosity and loneliness, to name a few — steer some teenagers into early sexual activity. But there's no rush. Remind your teen that it's OK to wait. Sexual activity is for mature individuals. In the meantime, there are many other ways to express affection — intimate talks, long walks, holding hands, listening to music, dancing, kissing, touching and hugging.
  • What if my boyfriend or girlfriend wants to have sex, but I don't? Explain that no one should have sex out of a sense of obligation or fear. Any form of forced sex is rape, whether the perpetrator is a stranger or someone your teen has been dating. Impress upon your teen that no always means no. Emphasize that alcohol and drugs impair judgment and reduce inhibitions, leading to situations in which date rape is more likely to occur.
  • What if I think I'm gay? Many teens wonder at some point whether they're gay or bisexual. Help your teen understand that he or she is just beginning to explore sexual attraction. These feelings may change as time goes on. Above all, however, let your teen know that you love him or her unconditionally. Praise your teen for sharing his or her feelings.
Nov. 18, 2011 See more In-depth