Does the thought of talking about the birds and the bees with your kids make you wince? You’re not alone–especially if you get the feeling that your kids don’t want to talk about dating and sex, either. But for both parents and kids, these conversations are part of growing up.
So where and when do you start? For New York parents, this question can seem even more complicated when you think about everything else you have to juggle, all the information your kids have access to, and everything happening in your backyard. One way to make this process easier is to break “the talk” down into smaller sections.
“Talking with teens about dating and sex shouldn’t be one big conversation,” says Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist, workshop leader, and author based in Connecticut. “Dating and sex are complex, multi-faceted topics, and each topic merits its own conversation.”
Below are some of the topics you can use as a guide to discuss sex and dating in an informative, frank and comfortable conversation with your kids:
Learn what dating means to your teen.
Readiness to date depends on your child’s level of maturity and also what “dating” means in your community and your child’s peer group, according to Whitney. Sometimes dating means daily text exchanges and little or no time together in real life. Dating might mean going to the movies with a group of friends or spending a lot of 1-on-1 time together. A young teen might be ready for one version of dating and not for the other.
Find out what’s going on at your teen’s school.
Ask teens what they think about situations at school, Whitney recommends. What happened when those two students broke up? Did they treat each other well? What does your teen think about the sexual language or situations in music or movies? Does it fit real life? Does it reflect the kind of relationship they’d like to have? What do they think about gender roles and expectations at their school? What’s different for guys and girls? Do they think that’s fair?
The important thing, Whitney says, is “even if your teen doesn’t answer your questions, it’ll get their gears turning. It also shows that you’re willing to talk when they’re ready.”
Ask about what’s happening online.
Parents’ level of involvement with kids’ use of technology depends partly on their ages. Though you should limit your pre-teen’s Internet and technology access as well as know their passwords, as they get older and demonstrate the ability to make good decisions, they can have more autonomy. You want to transition kids to greater independence as they get closer to college or the working world.
That being said, of course, we can’t ignore that kids, especially young adults, tend to be more tech-savvy than parents. All you can do about this is realize you can’t control everything they do online. That’s why it’s essential to talk regularly about online risks and choices, Whitney counsels. Explain that while sexting may feel fun and flirty, it carries real risks. Make sure kids know that anything they post online is forever, and encourage them to imagine how embarrassing that could be. Emphasize that you expect them to treat others kindly both online and in real life.
Moreover, talk with your kids about the unhealthy tendency for all of us to be tied to devices, ask for their input, then announce limitations that work for your family. The best solution is regular device-free times in the day, where everyone, parents included, is away from their phones.
Remind your teens that friendships are important, too.
Although the idea of their kids dating can be scary to parents, dating is important for young people for many reasons. “Dating helps young people develop relationship skills and learn about themselves and what matters to them,” Whitney says. “Especially in a time where so much interaction is online, there’s real value in learning to connect offline with another person.”
To that end, remind your teenager that their friendships still deserve care and attention. As they navigate their love lives, their friendships are likely to change and go through growing pains. As they grow up, you’ll also get to know your children’s best friends. Talk to your kids about dividing their social time wisely, between their partners, friends, and whatever social activities they’re involved in.
Keep in mind the differences between sons and daughters.
Most of the messages you’ll convey about sex and dating should be the same for kids of any gender: Treat others with respect, be kind, No means No, relationships should be balanced. But given the cultural messages kids get, you’ll want to emphasize different things to boys than to girls.
For girls, stress that they have every right to say no to anything sexual or romantic that doesn’t feel right to them. They can also say yes when the time comes, but they shouldn’t feel pressured to move faster than they want to.
For boys, do what you can to offset cultural pressures to prove their masculinity by having sex and being tough. Boys have tender feelings just like everyone else—make sure your son knows it’s normal to care about romantic partners, and to be kind and gentle.
Explain dating and financial responsibility.
Okay, so now that you’ve talked to your kids about all those other difficult and thought-provoking topics, don’t forget to talk about money. Financial responsibility and dating go hand-in-hand. So whether your teenager has a job or an allowance, now’s a good time to touch base about their finances. In Eirene Heidelberger’s words, and as she might have said to her now 14-year-old son, “if you want to have this social life, you need to pay for part of it.”
Talk about how to treat romantic partners.
It’s important for parents to talk with teens about how you expect them to treat other people, especially romantic partners. My research with young adults found that teens really want guidance from their parents about this, Whiney says. Don’t lecture but do tell them what you believe and why, she advises.
Reiterate consent is everything and more.
The #MeToo movement has made teens much more aware of consent as an issue, but many of them are confused about what consent looks like in practice, Whitney says. Be sure your teen, of any gender, knows that when a partner says “no” or expresses reluctance about any sexual activity, they need to stop. Pressuring someone is not okay. Kids need to know that they have every right to say “no” and be taken seriously. Boys, especially, need to know that failing to respect someone’s “no” can have legal ramifications and does serious emotional harm to the other person, Whitney advises. If he wants to be a good guy, he needs to believe his partner when she says “no.” The time is right only when both people say an enthusiastic “yes.”
Ensure your teen knows about safe sex.
It was Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy video on YouTube, “To Our Daughter,” that led to an impromptu check-in between Heidelberger and her son about safe sex. The video, uploaded on Feb. 4, 2018, announced the birth of Jenner’s daughter with her boyfriend, Travis Scott, when they were 20 and 25, respectively.
“He was like, ‘I can’t believe they had a baby. They’re so young!’”
“I was like, ‘No kidding—you know how to use condoms, right?’”
“He was like, ‘Yeah mom, I know.’”
Heidelberger, a certified parenting coaching specialist who founded GIT Mom (Get It Together, Mom), is a mother of three sons. Her oldest, the 14-year-old, keeps his parents relatively in the loop about his weekly movie dates with his girlfriend. When it comes to talking to her son about sensitive subjects, Heidelberger has a simple approach that works for her.
“Ask one basic question, and just stop talking.” Her advice is to let them structure the conversation, and that means encouraging both their questions for you, and the information they already know. Finally, Heidelberger says, have an exit strategy! Think about the way you’d like to end the conversation, then be ready to gracefully leave the room and move on with your day.
When you start to have these important talks within your family, you will, undoubtedly, feel awkward at first. But as with everything, things get easier with practice. One way to start these conversations, Whitney offers, is to say, “I just want to be on the record that…” or “You probably already know this, but I want to make sure…” However you start, it’s much more important to talk openly than to say everything perfectly.
Growing up means something different to every new generation of young adults. As your children come of age, make your home a place where they can experience those differences without judgement—like, for example, the way they might prefer to text you rather than answer your calls. Preparing for this stretch of parenting can be stressful—but at least you don’t have to be a teenager again.