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But we're in love: Talking to teens about sex

It’s important to talk with your teen about sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control,  recent studies show that about one third of high school students have had sex, and 9% have had sex with four or more partners-- this includes 3 percent who have had sex before age 13. Parents need to share their values about sex with their children, because teens will also get information from other kids and the media.

What to say about sex

Deciding what to say to your teen about sex is a personal decision. Regardless of what you say, be sure the information is age-appropriate. In general, younger teenagers (in about 7th grade) are concerned with puberty and physical changes to their body, the definition of slang terms, and intercourse. Older teens (10th grade) are more interested in other things. They include birth control, health risks, and communication in relationships.

In general, boys are more interested in slang terms and intercourse. Girls typically want information on health risks and communication in relationships.

To prepare yourself to answer your teen's questions, contact your local health department or speak with your physician. You also may want to ask your pastor or other spiritual adviser for guidance. You can also get free information on many issues from Planned Parenthood. Finally, check out the Related resources below.

How to talk about sex

Here are tips for talking with your teenager about sex.

  • Admit it’s awkward. It's OK to let your children know it makes you uncomfortable to discuss sex with them. They will probably feel the same. They will respect your honesty. Admitting it is awkward may make it more comfortable for both of you.
  • Know what you are talking about. Make sure you are dispelling myths about sex and sexually transmitted infections, and giving your teen the facts. It's OK to say you don’t know right now. Be sure to find the answer and tell your teen later. Again, check out the resources at the bottom of this page for more information. Listen carefully to your teen’s concerns and feelings, and respect views. Be sure to answer only the question your teen is asking. This will help prevent you from giving information your teen might not be ready for.
  • Let your teen know love is not the same thing as sex. Teenagers fall in love often and intensely. That doesn't mean they have to have sex or that they’re ready to have sex.
  • Emphasize that your teen has a choice about whether to have sex. Role play how to say "no." There are a lot of safe, intimate things teens can do without having sex (from holding hands to kissing to more intimate touching). Remind your teen that everybody is not “doing it.”
  • Don’t lecture or threaten your teen. This will discourage your teen from talking to you in the future.

Preparing to talk with your teen

You can never be totally prepared to talk with your teen about sex. Avoiding the issue does not mean your child will avoid sexual activity. Ask yourself what you would do in the following scenarios:

  • You suspect your daughter is getting serious with her boyfriend.
  • You found your son and his girlfriend home alone in his room.
  • You found condoms or birth control pills in your teen’s room.
  • You found out your daughter was pregnant.

Start thinking about these scenarios before they happen. You might not be able to control your teen's behavior. But you can prepare and control your response to that behavior.

Passing on values

You can’t control your teen’s sexual activities once he or she walks out the door. But it is possible to explain your values to your teen in hopes of influencing his or her decisions. What you believe about sex and sexuality is important to your teen. How do you feel about your own sexuality and your teen’s sexuality and sexual behavior?

Be willing to talk with your teen about what you think is right and wrong. Be prepared for your teen to disagree with you. Listen to your teen's ideas, but state your beliefs firmly. Be honest and clear about the values you hope your teen will adopt.

Related resources

Healthy Teen Network — This network promotes better outcomes for adolescents and young adults by advancing social change, cultivating innovation, and strengthening youth-supporting professionals and organizations.

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) — SIECUS was founded in 1964 to provide education and information about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health.

STDs and HIVMinnesota Department of Health — Provides information on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

It’s perfectly normal; Changing bodies, growing up, sex, and sexual health — This book, written for young people, provides accurate and up-to-date information on teen’s sexual health.

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2021

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