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.

Experts who talk to teenagers about what they call “sexual decision-making” recommend that parents do the same.

In workshops that focus on social-emotional wellness and decision-making, therapists with the Freedom Institute meet with many high school students to discuss issues that include substance use and sexual activity. They report that students regularly express uneasiness about some of the things they’ve engaged in, and ask for guidance about how to decline sexual activity they don’t want or don’t feel ready for.

Regrets over hookups

“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,” reports Tessa Kleeman, a Freedom Institute therapist. “And then if you ask, ‘How many of those situations involved a hookup?’ All the hands go right back up.”

Kleeman explains that the regrets she hears range from doing something sexually that they felt uncomfortable about the next day to losing a friend because they crossed a boundary that they didn’t know how to handle. “They already know that there are emotional consequences to sharing physically without trust that’s been built, without communication.”

One important thing for adults to stress to students, she adds, is that just because something happens once, it doesn’t mean that every time you’re with that person the same thing has to happen again.

Why do girls find it hard to say no?

Girls are especially at risk of sexual activity they may regret because they worry about hurting someone’s feelings if they say no. “Girls are under just as much pressure to achieve and perform as boys are, but they still also are expected to be nice and kind,” notes Kathryn Crosby, a licensed clinical social worker. “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.’”

Girls express the concern that if they decline sexual activity, or say they want to stop before a sexual encounter goes any further, it would be rude. And boys often reinforce the notion, Kleeman adds, “that it would be rude if a girl started something and didn’t finish it.” She recommends that parents challenge that idea.

Another issue for girls who want to decline sexual activity they’re not ready for is the sense that they have to give a reason, which is embarrassing.

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?’ recalls Katherine Prudente, a Freedom Institute counselor. “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.”

Girls say they find it particularly difficult to say no if they do want to have a relationship with the boy — they’re just not as ready for sex as he is. “Some of the girls have said, ‘Well, if the boy pressures you, then maybe you shouldn’t like him, or find someone else,’ Prudente notes. “But it’s really hard to think that way.”

It can be helpful for parents to acknowledge the pressure teens can feel to go further than they want to sexually, and offer support for the notion that a partner who pressures you to do things you’re not comfortable with is not a healthy choice for a relationship.

Why it helps kids to delay sexual activity

The earliest sexual experimenting by teenagers — eighth, ninth, tenth grade — tends to be girls servicing boys by giving them blow jobs, Crosby reports. There is nothing reciprocal about it, and girls’ needs — physical, but also social and emotional, are not part of the equation.

“There’s value in trying to delay that sexual activity, because by eleventh and twelfth grade, girls and boys, I think, are having relationships,” she explains. They are more likely to be communicating and respecting each other’s limits and preferences.

Delaying kids’ experimentation with substances also helps delay sexual activity, she adds, since so many kids find themselves engaging in unwanted activity because their judgment is impaired by drinking or using recreational drugs.

Why parents should talk about sex

The absence of clear social mores and guidelines about when sex is appropriate can leave teenagers confused about how to behave. “They need help understanding what it means to be physically connected to someone else,” Kleeman adds, “and parents are the ones that that’s going to come from best.”

The Freedom Institute counselors, who also work with parents, find that many parents are reluctant to convey their values and expectations to their children, in part because they don’t want to encounter resistance. They may think, and hope, that they communicate their values adequately just by their own behavior.

“Kids do watch our behavior closely,” observes psychologist Donna Wick, “but that doesn’t mean they always understand it. 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.”

Pointers for parents

The Freedom Institute counselors note that families vary widely in their beliefs about sexual behavior — when and under what circumstances sex is appropriate, satisfying, or moral. So no one but parents themselves can decide what they want to communicate.

But they urge parents to express their values as clearly as possible. 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,” says Dr. Wick. “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.”

And they note that a talk about sex isn’t just about sex, but about relationships. “That’s where the starting point is,” says Kleeman, “because then what you’re presenting is that the primary value is the relationship, rather than sexual behavior.”

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