Scarleteen Confidential: "The Talk"
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If you're caring for a young person, then the question of when and how to have "the talk" with them has likely crossed your mind. For anyone not familiar with the concept, "the talk" is the apparent moment where you sit a child down and explain all the whys and hows of sex in one fell swoop. It's generally understood to be one of the more dreaded moments of raising a young person, because it's awkward for everyone involved and seems like an awful lot to have to do all at once.
But it doesn't have to be an awkward, embarrassing, weird metaphors about birds and bees filled discussion. And it not only doesn't have to be all at once, it shouldn't be. Yes, if you follow our simple, 7-step plan, talking with teens about sex will be easy and fun!
Okay, maybe not. It's understandable to wish for a single, magical process that will make talks about sex and sexuality a breeze. But there is so much cultural weirdness, so many hang-ups and conflicting messages that we all get around sex, it's hardly surprising that talking about it with young people feels daunting. In many cases, even if you're pretty savvy about the topic and comfortable discussing it, it will still be at a little awkward. That's something to make your peace with, and to start thinking about ways to minimize the awkward and maximize the openness. While there may not be a simple solution, there are some steps you can take to make the talk more painless.
The first is to not plan on having a single talk in which you cover everything related to sex and then never speak of it again. Instead, start thinking about it more as an ongoing conversation.
Sex and sexuality encompass a huge range of topics. It's not realistic to think that you can say everything that needs to be said in one session, nor that even if you could, someone could process and absorb all that information at once. That just puts undue pressure on you to try not to miss anything important and on a young person to try and remember it all or get all their questions in to you at once. If you aim instead for multiple chats, you'll take some of that pressure off both of you. You'll also find that the moment feels less like a big important lecture and more like a natural conversation, which can relax both you and the teen you're talking to.
Try to keep yourself as calm as possible. It can be nervewracking to talk about sensitive subjects, especially with your children. But if you're radiating anxiety, the person you're talking to is going to pick up on that, which can exacerbate the awkwardness. The more you're able to project a casual, cool demeanor, the more likely it is that everyone will feel more comfortable in the conversation.
"My parents talked to us about sex in much the same way as they talked to us about anything else, casually, during whatever we were doing and like it was no big deal. As I got older these occasional mini-conversations became more awkward, but mostly I think this was influenced by the societal expectation that talking to your parents about sex is a big deal."
Another way of making these talks more casual and less emotionally loaded is to do something else when you're having them (this tip comes courtesy of Dr. Karen Rayne). The classic image of the talk involves sitting down face to face and conversing in a serious, deliberate way. While this may work in the "very special episode" of a T.V show, it's going to make the average kid feel cornered and uncomfortable. Going for a walk, cooking a meal, knitting, fishing, anything that has you side by side is going to seriously lessen that tension and make it easier for both of you to say what you feel.
Pop culture is also your friend when having these discussions. Books, movies, T.V are all packed with examples (both good and bad) of relationships and sex. Those stories can create a starting point for talking about healthy relationships, safe sex, pregnancy, identity, etc. They can also provide examples and context for topics that you might otherwise struggle to explain. And they can make it easier for a teen to relate to what you're talking about. Odds are you'll have far more luck asking them their thoughts about a particular plot-line or relationship in a story than asking about something more abstract like "What do you think a healthy relationship is?"
If you're in a talk and sense that the person you're talking to is getting uncomfortable, or isn't really responding? Then it's time to check in and say "If you're feeling uncomfortable, we can stop talking about this and pick it up another time." If you force the conversation, the person you're talking to is going to check out and not really listen, or engage as little as possible, which defeats the purpose of having that conversation. It's okay to stop and change the subject and have another go again another time. Ditto if they express feelings of discomfort with a certain topic. It's true that sometimes people need to confront new, uncomfortable information in order to learn and broaden their horizons. But if a young person speaks up and says they'd really rather not hear about that right now? Please respect that: they're demonstrating something as equally important to their future sexual well-being as knowing what a condom is -- the ability to assert and defend their boundaries.
Better yet, do what you can to make it so that they're steering the conversation, not you. Make it clear that the teen you're talking with is welcome to ask questions or initiate these conversations with you. Odds are they do have questions about sex or relationships, they're just not sure if it's okay to ask them. If you set the pattern of sex being something you can discuss together without pressure or judgement, they're more likely to come to you with questions. Too, while it's helpful to have some topics that you want to discuss, if their questions or thoughts are leading the conversation in one direction, don't try to force it back towards your talking points. Letting it flow naturally will help them feel like they're getting talked to instead of talked at.
It's also okay to call for a break in the conversation on your own behalf. If you're feeling unsure about how to proceed, or need a chance to go look up the answer to a question that was asked, that's something you get to do. In that vein, don't be afraid to bring in reinforcements if you're unsure about a certain aspect of sex or sexuality. You can use our handy toolbox to find some reference resources for yourself or for them. And of course, we're always here for their questions as well.
"My mother did give me a book for Christmas when I was 12 or 13, about puberty and sex and Becoming a Woman. I remember finding that very helpful and having it by my bedside for a year or two."
I can't stress the usefulness of a good reference book when it comes to bodies and sex. Our Bodies, Ourselves from The Boston Women's Health Collective, Doing it Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices about Sex by Bronwen Pardes, and our very own S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College are all great books for teens. Robie Harris's It's So Amazing and It's Perfectly Normal are good for pre-teens. Books like these can help with understanding the more technical details of sex, and are great if a teen has a quick question that they don't feel like getting into a bigger conversation about. They can also be a lifesaver for teens who are on the shyer side. Let's face it, even if you do a pretty darn good job of creating a casual, judgement-free space for talking about sex, sometimes a teen would rather consult a book about, say, their vaginal discharge than talk to you about it. And that's okay too, as long as they have a reliable resource to take those questions to.
Ideally, you'll start these conversations earlier rather than later. There are resources for talking about bodies, boundaries, and feelings with younger kids that can help you lay the groundwork for the more detailed conversations to come. Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU by Cory Silverberg and It's Not the Stork by Robie Harris are both excellent books for that purpose. By starting to talk early, in ways that match what you know about the development and personality of your child, you normalize talking about bodies and, eventually, sex. It won't feel like an awkward anomaly when you start to talk about it with them as teenagers. It will feel like a natural progression of an ongoing conversation.
There's no guarantee that these steps will result in easy, stress-free conversations about sex. It's a sensitive topic, one that many of us have deep feelings about. But the more you work to approach it in a casual, open, and informed manner, the less "the talk" will seem like a dreaded cultural rite of passage, and the more it will feel like a version of The Great Conversation, and just one more part of raising a kick-butt young person.