Talking to teenagers about sex has to be the most potentially embarrassing challenge of parenting—for both parents and kids. As a result, there is very little conversation about it in many families, even though teenagers are sexually active at younger and younger ages.

The Freedom Institute in New York, which runs workshops for both parents and kids, often talks to teenagers about what counselors call sexual decision-making and recommends that parents do the same thing.

Caroline Miller of the Child Mind Institute sat down with four expertsDonna Wick, Katherine Prudente, Tessa Kleeman and Kathryn Crosbyto talk about what teenagers tell them and the importance of parents’ sharing their beliefs about relationships and sex with their kids, even though kids may not behave exactly as their parents might wish.

TESSA KLEEMAN: If you ask a group of eleventh graders, or even tenth graders, “How many of you can think of a situation where you felt regret, when it came to using alcohol?” Probably all of them raise their hands. And then if you ask, “How many of those situations involved a hookup?” All the hands go right back up. They already know that there are emotional consequences to sharing physically without trust that’s been built, without communication.

CAROLINE MILLER: Can these kids articulate what it is they regret?

KLEEMAN: It could be that somebody did something physically that they felt really uncomfortable about the next day. Or maybe they lost a friend because they crossed a boundary that they didn’t know how to handle the next day. We’ll give them the scenarios that we know that they’re experiencing, and ask, “What would you do differently?” And a big part of that conversation is also reminding them that just because something happened already doesn’t mean every time now you’re with somebody, that has to happen again.

KATHRYN CROSBY: In our population, I worry about girls in particular, because they are under just as much pressure to achieve and perform as boys are, but they still also are expected to be nice and kind. The need to be nice, not to hurt anyone’s feelings, can be very problematic in navigating sexual situations. We call it “the tyranny of nice and kind.”

KLEEMAN: That’s right. When girls talk about doing more than they thought they were going to do, it often comes down to worrying that if they say no they’re going to be rude, that they’re not going to be nice. And the boys have tended to reinforce that—that it would be rude if a girl started something and didn’t finish it. So that needs to really be challenged.

CROSBY: The earliest kind of sexual experimenting—eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade—is most likely to be girls servicing boys. So in terms of “what can we do about it,” there’s value in trying to delay that sexual activity, because by eleventh and twelfth grade, girls and boys, I think, are having relationships. Giving some guy a blow job, fairly common at this point, does not have to be your daughter’s first experience of sex.

MILLER: So that’s less likely to happen if kids are starting later, if you can push it off a little bit.

CROSBY: And to some extent, that’s inextricably linked to experimentation with substances, too. To push that off, too, is a goal. At eighteen it’s still illegal, but it’s infinitely better than to experiment at thirteen, including the sexual consequences.

PRUDENTE: I recall, I was with an eighth grade class, all girls, and they said, “What can you do if a boy asks you to do something you don’t want to? Can you just say no?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s important to let them know that they don’t have to justify it. You don’t need a reason to say no. You just don’t want to, and that’s really okay. We stress that they’re on their own timeline for all of this. They’re not on someone else’s timeline. And it’s going to be different for everyone in that room, too.

MILLER: It’s just really hard to say no if you like the guy, and you want the guy to like you.

PRUDENTE: Some of the girls have said, “Well, if the boy pressures you, then maybe you shouldn’t like him, or find someone else,” but it’s really hard to think that way.

MILLER: How do you address it?

KLEEMAN: We use the phrase getting your needs met, and helping them to understand. We mean that in the biggest sense of the word, too. Maybe it’s something that they identify as a social need, or an emotional need, or a physical need. Boys and girls will talk about this differently, too. I think boys will much more readily talk about a physical need, and they know that that’s okay for them to talk about. Girls are very reticent to talk about any physical needs. But it’s been very striking how hungry they are for that opportunity to think about what they believe and what they want for themselves.

MILLER: Should parents have these kinds of conversations?

KLEEMAN: It seems to me that they are not having them enough. I continue to be surprised how hungry these kids are for a conversation with an adult about sex and what it means. Because we are at a day and age where there aren’t all the social rules and guidelines that there used to be, and so it’s like, is there any meaning? And they need help understanding what it means to be physically connected to someone else, and parents are the ones that that’s going to come from best.

DONNA WICK: The way kids begin to build their internal sense of what’s right and wrong is from their parents. And they use that as a springboard to develop their own identity. So kids need to have these conversations with parents early in the game. They’re not always going to continue to believe what their parents believe, but they have to internalize something from their parents.

KLEEMAN: One of the first conversations that we have in the sexual decision-making curriculum is what the expectations are from them from these different institutions when it comes to sex. We talk about school, we talk about religion, media, parents, friends, grandparents. And there’s usually an incredible continuum in any given classroom. There are usually kids whose religions really factor in profoundly there.

PRUDENTE: Or the grandparents have a lot of clout. Because grandparents are more comfortable saying no.

WICK: Right, in a way that parents often aren’t.

CROSBY: That, I think, is one of the things that is unique to this population, that troubles me and that I worry about a lot. I see a lot of parents who want to be their kids’ friend. Or even more dangerously, their kids’ best friend.

PRUDENTE: Because they’re so afraid the kids won’t speak to them if they’re not.

CROSBY: And it’s so dangerous for so many reasons, but among them is the sense that kids need something to hold onto. Kids need a parent. They need a set of standards and ideals and beliefs and expectations. Inevitably, they will buck up against those, but if they don’t have those and there’s nothing to buck up against, then they have to go find it elsewhere.

MILLER: How much of that is implicit? Do you think that kids get those things mostly from watching the way their parents behave, rather than being verbalized?

PRUDENTE: I can’t put a percentage. I just know from working with the students in classrooms and privately that they talk about seeing their parents. They look at all of our behavior, and if kids see parents misuse alcohol, for instance, then it sticks. But whether that is more powerful than discussions, I’m not sure. I think that discussions are just as powerful, because it allows parents to clarify things. To say, “No, this is how I think for you. I don’t want this to happen to you. Your older sibling is different. Your younger sibling is different. This is for you.”

WICK: I think it’s enormously valuable for parents to sit down and have explicit conversations with their kids about what they believe in, what they think, what’s important to them, their own experiences, how they grew up, their experiences with their own parents. Because kids do watch our behavior closely, but that doesn’t mean they always understand it.

KLEEMAN: And in terms of the sexual decision-making piece, what is important is really framing those conversations as about the value of relationship. That’s where the starting point is, because then what you’re presenting is that the primary value is the relationship, rather than sexual behavior.

WICK: What kids also need is real relationships with their parents. We see so many parents who are afraid to be parents, afraid to have their kids “be mad” at them, or “not like” them, that they’re abdicating their parental authority. Any time I hear either a parent or an adolescent say the other is their best friend, alarm bells start going off in my head. It’s catastrophic for adolescents. Whether it’s sexual decision making or drugs and alcohol, adolescents need a parental perspective on their experience or they just get lost. They end up feeling abandoned and overwhelmed. Which, effectively, they are.

Read More:
Teens and Romantic Relationships
Talking to Kids About Alcohol and Drugs
Tips for Communicating With Your Teen