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Parents: worried about sending simplistic messages about sex to teens? Then don't.

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margaret asks:

My 15 year old son has a first girlfriend who is a year older. My concern is that she lives with her dad only and quite often is home alone. My son has been there twice already and one time I made him leave because the dad was not home. I am besides myself about how to handle this. He said that he is not going to have sex with her but you know how that goes. I know what I was doing at 15. Do I make condoms available? But that would be condoning it. I will have a talk with the girl about not hanging at her house. They are always welcome at mine and I will try to speak to her dad about it.

Heather Corinna replies:

I don't think making condoms available is "condoning" sex. If providing condoms, all by itself, sends any primary message, I think the message is that were he to engage in sex, you think preventing unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections is really important. I don't think not providing condoms says you think it's not okay for him to have sex, either. I think not doing that either doesn't give him any messages about sex at all or might give the message you don't think using condoms is important, which probably isn't a message you want to send.

However, I don't think it's sound to talk about what simplistic messages that one action will or won't give, because it's critically important that, as his parent, you instead have ongoing, in-depth conversations about sex, sexuality and sexual health which are not simplistic, silent gestures and which don't send simplistic messages.

There's so much more you have to offer him than the message (or lack of message) that sex just is or isn't okay, or that you do or don't care if he uses condoms if he engages in sex. By all means, if all a parent offers is condoms or the lack of them, a yes or a no to sex, a "You can be alone with her," or an "I don't trust you to be alone with her," then, yes it makes sense to think the message sent to a teen is going to be a simplistic one. But you don't have to be simplistic, and ideally, you won't be. Your son needs more from you than that, because sex and sexuality are WAY more complex than that. And you, and other trusted adults in his life, are the primary people he looks to to help him learn and understand that. And when you really invest the time into having in-depth, involved and invested discussions about sexual choices, your son is going to learn from you how to do that when he makes those choices, rather than getting the wrong idea that these choices are simple or can be made well without that kind of time and care.

So, how about approaching this holistically, with more complexity and a lot more conversation? How about if even something like the decision to provide condoms or not is something that comes with or from a larger conversation you have together to inform your choices and the way you go about making them?

I want to share one of my very favorite stories with you, from the parent of a very young boy when I was still teaching full-time in classrooms.

This parent was the parent of a younger kid, but also of a teenage guy. The teenager had a girlfriend at the time, and his mother and he had talked a great deal about the fact that he was feeling ready for sex with her for a while. Conversations about sex and sexuality had been very open in their family for all of his life, so this being something he brought to her right from the start wasn't unusual, nor was it unusual that it was something he and she were working out together. The mother's primary concern with this wasn't about her son's readiness: she felt like he could probably handle starting a sexual life well and that, in considering just where he was at, it would probably be healthy and positive for him. Her concern was about his girlfriend, who, based on what she knew, probably wasn't ready just yet and probably wouldn't have the most positive experience she could if she starting a sex life at that time. They'd had these conversations for a while, and her son was already pretty on board with her assessment, even if he felt disappointed in recognizing that yes, it would probably be better to wait a bit longer when ideally, he would have preferred not to.

The little boy who was my student and his family went scuba diving, so he had a wet suit. He liked to put it on at home for fun, but every time he did, within nanoseconds he'd be running and yelling in a panic to try and get out of it because he inevitably would have to go to the bathroom immediately after putting it on.

One day, during the time the conversations about sex and his girlfriend were winding down with the older boy, Alex said he wanted to put his wetsuit on. His mother told him that was fine, but he needed to go to the bathroom first because she didn't want to deal with the pee-panic that always ensued. He agreed. Within a few minutes, she heard him in his room talking very loudly, even though he was alone. She peeked her head around the corner and saw him pointing at his groin, saying, "Penis, you can wait."

Later that night, at the dinner table, she told her older son that something funny happened that day with Alex she wanted to tell him about. She told him what had happened. Then she said, "Alex is 4. If his penis can wait, so can yours."

Her older son's response to this was warm, full of laughter, but also full of a comfortable recognition that yes, he got it, and yes he -- and his penis -- certainly could wait until the timing and circumstances really were right for both him and his girlfriend, and that's what he really wanted. Her telling that story wasn't some kind of snarky, gotcha-zinger at her teenage son. Rather, it was a funny, relaxed punchline to a series of open, ongoing, caring and mutually respectful talks. It was a way of injecting humor into a conclusion they'd both come to that had its challenges, but was ultimately something they both had and took the care and patience to get to together. It was a ha-ha about a process where the emphasis wasn't on control or just averting the bad stuff, but on helping him make choices that were going to make sex most likely to be something he felt good about and enjoyed. None of that -- nor an earnest, not a shameful, laugh to a punchline like that -- can come from a one one-sided talk, a hard limit with no sound rationale or one simplistic gesture. Telling that story all by itself certainly would not have sufficed as a way to communicate its message well.

I also want to share a letter I got from a parent the other day with you:

Thanks so much to Heather and the volunteers at Scarleteen for your hard work and sacrifices. What an awesome site I stumbled upon years ago. My daughter has always been so open and honest with me and I was always ready with an answer... until she started asking very frank questions about sex. "What does it feel like?, Can I try it?, Who should I try it with?" What I really wanted was for her to start her sex life with pride rather than guilt and safe enjoyment rather than a risky back-seat quickie. I am a nurse so the anatomy questions are easy for me but I'm also a recovering Catholic who was taught that, "Christian men should not let the horsies out of the barn and fornication is a sin," so I had some baggage to get rid of. I poured over your site, article by article. This helped prepare me to answer her awesomely blunt questions.

Your readiness checklist helped her decide that she wasn't ready at that time. Abuse articles and the forums helped her see signs in a guy she was dating. He had been pressuring her for sex and putting her down. She broke it off with him telling him he lacked respect for her. When she did decide she was ready, it was with an awesome guy. She seems to understand her sexuality and knows what she needs to be safe physically and emotionally. She is leagues ahead of where I was when it comes to making sound decisions with guys. Your site is a treasure trove of unbiased and honest information which helps facilitate this. Thanks so much!

I think it's fantastic how this parent utilized our materials with her daughter, and how she took stock of her own baggage and of places where she knew she needed some help or different approaches than she was raised with. You'll also note that she, like you, was feeling really overwhelmed. So many parents feel that way -- it's not just you, I promise -- but that doesn't mean you can't do this well. If anything, I think having an awareness that it feels overwhelming, that you feel lost or confused, and that how you do this really matters is more likely to result in good outcomes than not having that awareness, thinking you know it all or treating this like it's no big whoop.

This likely isn't the first time you've felt lost as a parent, but since your kid has lived to become a teenager, and you've lived through 15 years of parenting yourself, you've obviously worked through parenting challenges and come through them before. You know this is important and it matters, you're invested and you're asking for help. I think you can handle this well. Let's take a look at some of the places I can help get you started based on what you've said here.

One thing you're clear about seems to be that you, yourself, were sexually active at his age. How do you feel about that? How were those experiences for you? What, for you, made them result in positives, or what in negatives? What would you have wanted to know then that you didn't?

These are things you can share with him, within healthy boundaries and also an admission that these are your own, subjective experiences. You want to be careful not to overshare -- people usually don't want to hear their parents sex stories or lots of gory details -- and also want to walk the line between sharing your feelings and making those feelings and your personal experiences seem like universals, since they're not. But you can do it: just speak candidly and from the heart keeping in mind that sexuality and our sex lives are very personal and diverse and there is no one size fits all. The goal here isn't for your experiences to dictate or become his, but for you to share them to explain some of your concerns and feelings, and as a way you can give him a perspective to consider that comes from someone he knows care about him.

You can set the stage for a positive, non-judgmental tone by qualifying you want to share your feelings and concerns, and some of how this went for you, because it's part of why you feel however you do -- as it always is -- but you're not trying to say what happened for you is what will for him, or that your right or wrong choices will be right or wrong for him. You just want to let him in on your thought process and give him your perspective to help him make his own best choices and so he can get some of where you're coming from. That kind of transparency and flexibility will serve you both well, and make it more likely he'll be open to understanding where you're at than he would be if he didn't know what's informing or shaping your feelings, reactions and thoughts. Plus, so much of the time, the conversations teens have among friends about sexual experiences can be full of posturing, pressures and half-truths, so having the chance to have an honest conversation about early sexual experiences with someone they know cares about them is of real value to young people.

I also hear you're concerned about them having a time alone because you feel that may result in sex. What are your concerns about that, specifically? Those are also things to talk with him about. For instance, since you're thinking about providing him with condoms, my guess is you are, soundly, concerned about pregnancy or STIs. So, talk about those concerns. What else? Do you feel like sex -- of whatever kind you're thinking may happen -- is something they both feel ready for? Do you feel like their relationship is a healthy one? Do you think sex together would be something positive for them as the two people they are and as a couple? Do you distrust either of them? If so, why?

These are things to talk about clearly and with specifics. With whatever those things are, what do you think would remedy them or change your feelings or the situation? These are things you can share which, again, offer them so much more than sex-is-okay or sex-is-not-okay or just a no or a yes to time alone.

I'd first think, on your own, about why it is you're worried about them being alone, and also all the things that time alone, in a safe space can offer them that are positives, rather than just going to the scary place. Try not to project you-at-15 unto him-at-15: he might be very different. Young people don't always see home-alone time as automatically being about sex. Plenty see that time as time to cuddle, time to talk for hours without worry of being overheard, time to experience being together as older couples often can without feeling like animals being watched at the zoo. Wanting privacy is a normal thing for people to want, and isn't just about sex. As well, having real time and privacy alone can mean not rushing into sex or having it be something done hurriedly -- where negative outcomes are more likely -- because they don't feel like they have to fit everything they want to do together into five stolen minutes of alone-time.

I'd suggest you reconsider making it a rule they are never alone, and also remember that controlling that doesn't mean you can control if, when or where sex is something they'll do. After all, if they do want to engage in sex, they'll find a way and a place to do it, even if it means somewhere much less private and safe than at home (which is something else to think and talk about). Too, young people, like most people, don't tend to react well to that kind of absolute control put on them, especially without sound reasons. And one part of parenting teens well is preparing them for a transition to adulthood where they will be alone with others. I think if you want to make a restriction like that, you owe them a discussion and the chance to talk about your rationales. But I also think you can probably come up with a compromise together you all will feel better about, which they'll react more positively to and which ultimately serves them better. It may even be that once you really start talking, you won't have the same concerns you do now about time they spend alone.

You say they're always welcome at your house, so if you feel better about that, even if sex is something that they eventually choose to do there, you can talk about that and why that is. Stay honest and real: even if they don't agree with you, or share your concerns, they're going to appreciate you speaking from your heart, filling them in on your thoughts and including the in your process. Bring up ways you feel able to negotiate with this: that's another skill you can also be teaching them about healthy sexual lives, which often involve negotiation.

With all of these issues and conversations with your son, be sure that you're doing at least as much listening as talking. A parental lecture series about sex rarely, if ever, offers young people anything of value. The only person that usually offers something of value to is just the parent, because then they can feel like they had The Sex Talk they are supposed to and not feel like crummy parents. Teens don't want a lecture: they usually want to really talk and be heard, even if it feels awkward.

Plus, it might be that he's nowhere near sex yet, but you're assuming that because of your teen years, his age, his gender or because he has a girlfriend. Some young people who are slower-paced with sex than their peers are or parents were can feel pushed into being sexual if everyone around them is acting like they must be or should be. I know is that for as often as a young person says they're not going to be sexual and are, a young person says they're not going to be sexual and aren't. So again, I'd avoid projections or assumptions about what your son has said based on your own teen years. It's entirely possible that -- for his own reasons, not because of what you say you allow or don't -- he may not intend to engage in sex with his girlfriend soon or just because they're alone.

So, with all of this, listen, take cues from him, and ask questions, including asking what he wants to talk about and feels like he needs right now and for the near future. Remember, these are about talks together. It may be that some of what I've brought up here to discuss isn't even near where he's at yet. If you get in the pattern of having talks like these, and just make clear he can come to you with questions or things to talk about when he needs to, you don't have to worry so much about figuring out what to say and when to say it.

These might be conversations to have with his girlfriend, too. Rather than just telling her you don't want them alone at her house, how about really speaking to your actual concerns with her and your son with all three of you around? Then both of them could have an older person who cares about them who they know is willing to help them make these choices, rather than another older person just trying to keep them from sex, or offering them little more than a no, a yes, or a bunch of condoms. Since you talk to her father, you could ask him if he'd feel comfortable with you telling her she can talk to you alone about sex if she wants to: she might really appreciate that.

It is also okay to be honest with them about feeling a bit lost or about worries that you might not do this right. You can voice that these talks are uncomfortable for you: they can feel the same way for teens, so just acknowledging you're feeling like they probably are, too, can provide some instant connectivity. In my opinion, this is one of the places where the last thing you want to do is present yourself as The Super Expert Parent Who Knows All. Because, of course, you don't. Heck, I have these conversations all day, every day, for my living and I don't know everything. Humility goes a long way with young people. They're going to tend to be a lot more willing to be honest and open with a parent who makes clear they, too, can feel confused or overwhelmed about sex and other big choices. They're going to be more willing to go through the process of working this out with you, rather than without you, when you make clear it's a process for all of you, not just them.

I'll leave you with some books I think might help you navigate your way through this. One of the books I'm including is a new book which talks about the differences between the culture of the United States when it comes to parents, teens and sex and the culture of the Netherlands in that regard, where the outcomes of teen sex tend to be a lot more positive than they often are here. The primary difference, as that author explains, is an acceptance for teen romantic relationships and sexuality as a common reality -- and something that really is developmentally sound when it's at the right pace for an individual teen, something any of us who works in adolescent development knows -- as well as an openness in discussions, just like I've talked about here. I'm also including a link to my own book if you'd like to get him a comprehensive sexuality and relationships guide for himself, and plenty in it would probably benefit you, too. Those books are:

Here are also some links lots of young people have used here to help them make sexual choices well, and which plenty of parents have also used to help them have these conversations with the teens in their lives. You can sit down and go through these together, you can read them yourself and use some of what you glean from them to lead these conversations, you can share them with your son and his girlfriend to look at before or after you have your own conversations with them: whichever feels best to you.

I feel confident that with a little help and a reminder to yourself that, gosh darnit, you CAN do this, you can do this well, and feel a lot better about all of it than you have been. I know it asks a lot of you, but as you know, parenting asks a lot of you, far more at some times than others. But you can do this thing: you can show up for your son around this place where he needs your help and support the most and knock it out of the park. If you need some support for yourself or more assistance as you go, you are more than welcome to ask for it again here. We're always happy to help.

P.S. I think one of the easiest ways to deal with the condom issue is like this: you do make clear they're available if he wants them, and if and when he does want to choose to engage in sex, you'd like him to do so responsibly, which includes safer sex and birth control. After all, whatever your son decides, you will obviously want him to safeguard his health and know that's something he needs to think about, and young people sometimes have a hard time accessing condoms. So, on top of having in-depth conversations, you can put condoms in a drawer in a shared bathroom and make clear to him where they are. You can tell him they're there for him if he does decide to engage in genital sex, and that he can choose to just take them without a discussion with you, or can discuss it with you, whichever he prefers.

written 25 Nov 2011 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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