Analysis Sexual Health

Parents and Teens are Talking About Sex. They’re Just Not Having the Same Conversation

Martha Kempner

A new study released by Planned Parenthood Federation of America found that parents and teens are talking about sex, but when asked about the frequency and content of these conversations, they have very different answers.

I waited until we knew we were having a girl before I finally told my daughter, who was age three at the time, that I was pregnant with her little sister. We had one of many talks about where the baby was, how she got there, when she was going to come out, and how she was going to get out. I told her about sperm and eggs and uteri and delivery. Relying on my sex-educator training, I worked hard to make the explanations simple and not give more information than was necessary. I thought I did a pretty good job. But for the next four months, she told everyone that her baby (yes it was hers) was in mommy’s uterus (good) and would hatch out of her egg (umm) and come out in September. Close enough? She was only age three!

When it comes to conversations about sex, parents of teens are also discovering that their kids are not hearing exactly what they’re saying. Or is it that parents aren’t saying exactly what they think they’re saying? A new study that Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) conducted, with the support of the Center for Latino Adolescents and Family Health (CLAFH) at New York University and Family Circle Magazine, found that parents and teens are talking about sex, but when asked about the frequency and content of those conversations, they have very different answers. 

Survey Results

The organizations surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,046 teens ages 15 to 18, as well as just one of their parents, for a total of 2,092 participants. The survey asked participants how often they talked about sex, how comfortable they were talking about it, and what messages they were giving or receiving. The survey found that a vast majority of parents (93 percent of mothers and 85 percent of fathers) had ever spoken to their teen about any topics related to sex and sexuality, while 83.5 percent of teens reported ever talking to their parent about any topics related to sexuality.

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Yet comfort levels with these conversations diverged greatly. About half of all parents reported that they felt very comfortable talking to their sons or daughters about sexuality, while only 17.5 percent of teens reported feeling very comfortable talking to their parents. Overall, parents recalled a far higher frequency of speaking to their teens about things like “how to say no to sex” than the teens recalled speaking to their parents, and less than a third of both parents and teens reported discussing concrete issues such birth control method.

The survey and the accompanying article in Family Circle give good examples of how parents and teens got their signals crossed when discussing sexuality. One father explained that he wanted his 16-year-old daughter to understand that “your life is in front of you, and sex should be low on the list,” but what the daughter heard was, “He never wants me to ever have sex with anyone!” Another parent described the most important messages as, “I want to relay the message that his sexual health is his responsibility, not just a girl’s. That alcohol and drugs interfere with the ability to make smart choices. Also that girls are not objects to be cast aside, but cherished.”  However, the teen son said he was told: “Use protection.”

Leslie Kantor, vice president for education at PPFA, explained: “Parents think they’re giving nuanced advice, but their teens are just hearing directives.” In fact, parents and kids seem to be on the same page when it comes to directives. The percentage of parents who “strongly disapprove” of their teens having oral or vaginal sex was about the same as the percentage of teens reporting that their parents would “strongly disapprove” of them having oral or vaginal sex.

Deborah Roffman, a parenting expert and author of the new book, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person about Sex, told Family Circle: “Most teens believe parents never want them to be sexually active.”  She suggests framing messages about sexual behavior so that they are about when, not if teens have sex.

Parents of sexually active teens were very likely to be aware of their teenager’s behavior. The majority of teens in the survey (80.4 percent) said they’d never had vaginal sex. Among those who had, however, it was very likely (81.3 percent) that their parents knew about it. Parents were less likely to know if their teen had engaged in oral sex—only 45 percent of parents of teens who’d had oral sex said they knew.

Linda Fears, editor in chief of Family Circle, said, “There is clearly a communication breakdown between what parents are trying to convey and what kids are hearing. As a magazine that speaks to moms of teens and tweens, it is essential that we help parents learn how to talk to their kids about sex in an effective way.”

Advice to Parents

PPFA, Family Circle, and a number of other experts teamed up to give parents concrete advice for communicating effectively with their teens. Some of their ideas are the same as those I try to use when talking to my first-grader, like making sure to talk often (instead of the talk), using “teachable moments” like a television show to start conversations, and answering only the question she asks (It’s easy to give too much information.) 

Experts advise avoiding face-to-face conversations with teens. Instead, have conversations in the car, while taking a walk, or while doing something else like making dinner. Kantor notes that she sometimes has better luck getting her son’s attention via text, even if they’re in the same room. This seems counter-intuitive because almost all communication advice starts with “make eye contact.” Listening is often better than talking, according to experts, because teens may need a sounding board.  

Experts say that teens need advice on how to say “no” and suggest that parents start by explaining what saying “yes” means. The article explains it this way

“That means going beyond the nuts and bolts like birth control and delving into the nitty-gritty about the feelings and changes that accompany such intimacy. Discuss: What qualities does she want in a partner, and why? How does she define a healthy relationship? How might she know when the time and the person are right?”

It also means acknowledging that there’s a lot of pressure on teens to become sexually active. Roffman says that you can help your kids develop confidence in their decision-making by thinking through with them “potentially sex-charged situations.” Ask them if they like the other person, why, and how they would feel if certain things happen or don’t happen. John Chirban, author of How to Talk with Your Kids About Sex, says that teens don’t have to share their answers:

“Simply plant the ideas so that they’ll carefully consider their actions and their consequences.”

Eventually, my daughter understood that neither she nor her sister had ever actually been in an egg. Since her sister was born, I have more clearly explained the whole sperm-and-egg thing, including how the sperm “got in there.” There are years of conversations ahead before I give her advice on her sex life. But I’m laying the groundwork by discussing the plumbing and wiring, as well as my own beliefs on the issues. I have told her, for example, that I think she should know someone really well and even live with him or her before she gets married (which shouldn’t happen until she’s at least 30) and that even though teens can have babies, I don’t think they’re ready to be parents. I’ve also explained why I don’t approve of triangle-top bikinis or high-heeled shoes for 6-year-olds, why we switched dance schools, and why she is not getting a bra right now even if Target makes one in her size.    

But this study reinforces the importance of ongoing conversations on these issues. It also reminds me that I need to  repeatedly check in to see what she’s thinking and what she thinks I’m thinking, because sometimes life is like a game of telephone.

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