Everyone knows about the “sex talk” – also known as the conversation with your children about sexual health. Some parents and guardians dive right into the talk, while others avoid it at all costs. If you’ve been practicing avoidance, which response below best describes your philosophy?
a) I’m putting it off until high-school sex education classes begin
b) I’m putting it off because I think my kids have found an “app” for their questions
c) I’m putting it off because my kids get lots of info from their friends
d) I’m putting it off because I’m afraid I won’t get it right, won’t know what to say, and will royally screw it up
e) All of the above
If you answered “e” (or a, b, c or d), then Marnie Speigel understands your anxiety. Speigel is the Coordinator of the Center for Sexual Health at Response, a program of Jewish Child & Family Services, and she’s not afraid of anybody’s sex talk because she has the talk daily. We asked Spiegel to share her thoughts with us this month, as May is a special recognition time for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
According to the Campaign, teen pregnancy and birth rates in the United States have declined by 44 percent and 52 percent respectively since the peak year in 1991, and are now at record low levels. What’s more, the campaign reports that the declines prove that progress can be made on tough issues, and that “few social problems have improved quite as dramatically over the past 20 years as teen pregnancy.”
Spiegel’s work at the Response counseling teens has no doubt contributed to the lower rates. “The way I look at my job in the context of teen pregnancy,” she says, “is that I educate youth around sexuality in general, and to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy specifically. I help educate adolescents around the consequences of teen pregnancy.”
There are two important aspects of successful “sex talks,” according to Spiegel. First, plan to have more than one sex talk, starting as early as possible. Second, understand that these talks are about more than sex alone – they should encompass every aspect of human sexuality, and the emotions tied to that, such as love, companionship, trust and intimacy.
“The biggest predictor of efficacy of preventing teen pregnancy is parents talking to their adolescents and pre-adolescents,” says Spiegel. “If parents can start having these conversations before a girl reaches her menses, then they have a greater chance of preventing her from having an unwanted pregnancy. And it’s the same for boys – the talks should begin before the onset of puberty, or around age 10.”
By proactively having the “Sex Talk,” or call it the “Relationship Talk” parents have a chance to share their own values in this area, and can be sure they are providing their children with important information not only about pregnancy prevention, but about Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s), consent and other related issues.
If you’ve been procrastinating on having a talk with your teen – be it the first or the first in a long time – Spiegel’s expertise should inspire you to stop putting it off and go forward with confidence.
If you’ve been putting it off until high-school sex education classes begin…
Teens are often overwhelmed by hormone-infused emotions that can lead to confusion about what love is, what sex means, and how it’s all connected, says Spiegel. “They need help understanding their emotions. If they are on a path toward sex, they’re more likely to stop if they realize that they are not emotionally ready, even if they are sexually and physically ready,” she says.
Don’t wait for the classroom bell to ring – get going. “If you are not talking with your kids about enthusiastic consent, or encouraging them to explore their own bodies and destigmatizing self-pleasure, then they are reliant on somebody else to talk to,” says Spiegel.
If you’re putting it off because your kids have found an app for it…
Yes, there may be an app for this or that, but you are the best operating system for helping your kids weed through information. “They are getting the same information, or misinformation if you will, that teens have always gotten, but now the information is at their fingertips, and in their bedrooms, 24-7,” says Spiegel. “Even so, it’s difficult for them to comprehend what they’re reading and apply it to their lives.”
Parents should be willing and ready to connect the information that’s in the media and exchanged among teens, with their child’s mental and physical readiness.
“Most parents don’t want to think about their children having sex,” says Spiegel.
“I understand that on a concrete level but I think what parents have to try to remember, just as children should, is that peak sexuality, sexual development and exploration occurs at a certain age, ready or not."
“There are feelings and physical and biological changes that happen at that certain age, and it’s completely normal. Just because you don’t want to imagine your child having sex doesn’t mean that you can’t admit that they are sexual beings. I encourage parents to try to separate those two things and to think about it terms of connection and intimacy and not just sex. Don’t you want your child to have that intimate connection with somebody?” asks Spiegel.
If you’re putting it off because your kids get lots of information from their friends…
There’s a time and a place for friends’ influence on your teen, but your voice should be among those your teen hears when it comes to this topic.
“Teens tend to confuse love with lust and also with sexual pleasure,” Spiegel says. “They say, ‘I’ve never felt this before and this person can get me there, so that must be what love is.’ Your conversations can help them think through these feelings.”
Empower yourself with good, contemporary information before you talk with your teen, by reaching out to knowledgeable people, such as your child’s pediatric nurse or health teacher.
“I have quite a few clients who will come in and say, ‘My parent told me that if I got on birth control, I have a higher risk of this or that’,” says Spiegel. “I tell them those used to be concerns, back when your parent was thinking about going on the pill, but the pill has changed since then.”
“Some of the conversations I have are to help the parent understand that things have changed, or to help the child teach the parent (about contemporary birth control) in a non-confrontational manner.”
If you’re putting it off because you’re afraid you won’t know that to say….
It’s OK to have bigger ears and a smaller mouth during sex talks – in other words, to listen more and talk less. After all, you want to know what your child thinks before you begin to instruct him on what you believe.
“Start by validating feelings,” says Spiegel. “Tell her it’s OK to feel a certain way. Talk about appropriate boundaries and what a healthy relationship looks like – valuing and respecting each other, and being yourself. Be open to what your teen or pre-teen is saying, and avoid being judgmental.”
Spiegel adds, “If your child comes to you and says, ‘I think I’m in love,’ you could ask, ‘So what does that mean to you? How do you know?’”
While today’s teens have school-based lessons, peers, websites and other resources to turn to, Spiegel says that nothing beats the value of a face-to-face conversation with a responsible, caring adult. The best way to prepare for a sex talk is to maintain open lines of communications. “When a child knows that you’re not going to judge them, and that your responses come from a place of concern and care and love, then that helps the child feel safer approaching you with any questions.”
Teens who need support and advocacy for tough conversations with their parents are invited to contact Response.