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Most parents want to talk with their children about sex and relationships, and most teens want to hear from their parents about these topics. But many families say that when it comes to talking about these issues, they don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it. This part of the website has lots of useful information about communicating with children. Keep in mind that only you know exactly what you want to say to your teen. But it can help to get suggestions about 1, what to say, and 2, how to say it. Click on each of the topics below to explore these two communication skills areas.

1. Communicate openly and honestly

  • Start the conversation, and make sure that it is honest, open, non-judgmental and respectful.
  • If you’re not sure about some issues, tell them about that too.
  • If you don’t know how to answer your child’s questions, offer to find the answers or look them up together.
  • Be clear with yourself beforehand about what topics make you feel the most worried, nervous or uncomfortable. Decide if you want to express that worry to your child. Be honest with yourself about whether these feelings may make your child feel judged if those topics come up.

2. Understand that teaching children about sex is a lifetime process

  • Start early and talk often.
  • Know that communicating about sex starts at birth and continues throughout your child’s life.
  • Be specific.
  • Make sure communication is age-appropriate.
  • Resist the idea that there should be just one conversation about all this — you know, “the talk.”
  • Do not wait for your children to ask questions. Be proactive in identifying opportunities to communicate.

3. Use teachable moments

Teachable moments are events that come up in everyday life to start conversations with your child. For example, a TV show or song may provide an opportunity to bring up sex or discuss dating relationships. Here are some other examples:

  1. While folding the laundry, you find a condom in your child’s pocket.
  2. You and you child are watching TV and a flirtatious scene comes on that immediately leads to the bedroom.
  3. You are in your car with your child, and the DJ on the radio is saying disrespectful things about women and their bodies.
  4. Your child comes home from school and tells you a classmate called him ‘bisexual.’
  5. You come home to find your child watching porn on the computer.

Teachable moments work best when a parent stays open and curious, tells their child that sexuality is a normal part of growing up, and does not shame or blame them for their thoughts or actions.

4. Use building blocks to communication

Building blocks to communication show that we respect, trust, and care about the person we are talking to. They include:

  • Listening
  • Praising
  • Making supportive comments
  • Asking for more information
  • Probing short answers (asking for more detail)
  • Encouraging child to participate
  • Asking open-ended questions

5. Identify and avoid roadblocks to communication

Roadblocks to communication include:

  • Dominating the conversation
  • Lecturing
  • Judging
  • Labeling or name calling
  • Shaming

Find yourself having a one-way conversation? Avoid giving:

    • Commands: “Better not bring any babies home.”
    • Threats: “If you don’t get it together, you’ll end up with an STD or worse”
    • Sermons: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…”

Take your child’s problems seriously. Avoid saying:

    • “Cheer up! You don’t have it so bad”
    • “That’s a silly question”
    • “It’s just a phase”
    • “We call it Puppy Love
    • “You’ll forget about it by next week”

(Source: The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Pontential, GCAPP)

6. Identify allies

Give your child permission to confide in other adults if they’re too uncomfortable to talk to you.

7. Be clear about your own values, expectations and attitudes

Our values are principles or beliefs that serve as guidelines to help us make decisions about behaviors or life choices. They reflect what we believe and how we feel about the rightness or wrongness of things.

As a general rule, when we act in a way that agrees with our own values, we tend to feel good about ourselves and our actions. When we act in a way that violates our values, we tend to feel badly about it.

Our personal values are influenced by many factors. Like fingerprints, no two people share exactly the same set of values. Unlike fingerprints, values may change over time. As we receive new information and experiences, we tend to review our values and modify them. What we previously thought was right or wrong in a given situation may change when we find ourselves actually in that situation.

While every parent and every family has their own unique set of values, we have found that some parents agree on a few things:

  1. They want their child to feel comfortable going to them with questions about sex and safety.
  2. They don’t want their child to feel shameful about the changes happening in their bodies or for having sexual thoughts and feelings.
  3. They want their child to know that they are loved.

Communicating with your children about sex, love, and relationships is often more successful when you are clear in your own mind about these issues. To help clarify your own attitudes and values, think about the following kinds of questions:

What do you really think about school-aged teenagers being sexually active — perhaps even becoming parents?

Who is responsible for setting limits in a relationship and how is that done, realistically?

Were you sexually active as a teenager and how do you feel about that now?

Were you sexually active before you were married? What do such reflections lead you to say to your own children about these issues?

Is abstinence best for teens? What do think about teens using contraception?

Tell teens candidly and confidently what you think and why you believe what you do.

8. Understand how to be an Askable Parent

  • Parental caregivers should talk with one another about the messages they want to give their child about sex to ensure that their messages are consistent and that each parent is prepared to respond.
  • Anticipate sexual questions and behaviors and be prepared to discuss and address them.
  • Answer questions as they arise.
  • Be honest about your feelings, values, and emotions. (For example, “This is hard for me” or “That is a good question and one that makes me feel a little embarrassed.”)
  • Answer questions with simple answers, especially for younger children.
  • Seek to understand what your child already knows.
  • Let your child pace the conversation.
  • Initiate discussions. This tells your child that you are open and honest about talking.
  • Use everyday events as conversational topics (Teachable Moments).
  • Don’t be surprised if your child asks you the same question over and over again.
  • Take responsibility for and apologize when you’ve said something hurtful, untrue, or unkind. After you apologize, ask your child how your words made him/her feel.

9. Provide resources

Provide pamphlets, books, and other age appropriate, medically accurate materials. Providing your child with non-judgmental and medically accurate information helps to make sure that they are getting good information. Reading about sex, sexuality and safety before a teen starts having sex helps them to stay safe and make better choices once they are ready.

10. Talk about their friends

  • Sometimes talking to your child about their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about sex can make them very uncomfortable and make them close up. However, kids often love to talk about their friends or talk about favorite TV or movie characters. These events are great opportunities to find out your child’s opinions about sex and teenagers.
  • You can ask whether friends are kissing people yet, ask about friends who have boyfriends or girlfriends, and what their opinions are on these friends’ behaviors. And remember not to assume sexual orientation when asking about who has a boyfriend versus a girlfriend, just stick with the word “dating.” Without directly asking what they are doing or what they think, you can learn a lot about their environment and views.

Here are Some Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Do I help my child focus on their strengths and build on them?
  • Do I notice what they do well or do I focus on their mistakes?
  • When I was their age, how did my family communicate about sex?
  • Does my child know that I want to answer their questions about sex?
  • What’s the topic that I’m most scared they’ll ask about?

Some basic active listening skills, as described by teens

  • Was patient, didn’t rush me
  • Let me talk, did not interrupt
  • I know he or she would not gossip and would be confidential
  • Was not judgmental
  • Was calm, warm (body language, tone of voice)
  • I could trust the person
  • Made good eye contact with me
  • Nodded his or her head when I was talking
  • Understood my feelings (for example, “It sounds like you are feeling worried.”)
  • Made sure he or she understood what I was saying by repeating back or summarizing what I said (for example, “So let me see if I understand. Your friend said she would call you back, but it’s been three days and you haven’t heard from her.”)

What is the opposite of using active listening skills?

Communication behaviors that are definitely NOT active listening include:

  • Interrupted, did not let me talk
  • Used uninviting body language (harsh tone of voice, closed body posture, no eye contact)
  • Laughed at me
  • Minimized what I was saying (for example, “All kids go through this. It’s nothing to worry about.” Or “You are only a teenager. How stressful can your problems be?”)
  • Advised or told me what to do without listening to me (for example,  “If I were you,
    I would …”)
  • Put me down, insulted me (for example, “That’s a stupid idea.”)

Some things can make it hard to use active listening skills

  • Don’t know how to listen
  • Don’t have time to listen
  • Not understanding someone because of language, unclear messages, crying, etc.
  • Feeling tired or sick
  • Feeling distracted by other problems on their mind or by things going on in the background like a phone ringing, baby crying, etc.
  • Wanting to “solve” the problem in order to be helpful
  • Wanting to redirect conversation about themselves instead of staying focused on the person talking and their story

Here are some tips on things to do or avoid doing to show
that you are listening and hearing what your teen is saying:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nod occasionally in the affirmative
  • Don’t interrupt

Remember, that communication is about both what you say and what you do. Check for understanding of thoughts and feelings.