Here is May’s installment of “Ask Shelby” with Chester County’s own Marriage and Family Therapist Shelby Riley:
My daughter is 15. I know she has had sex ed at school, and she has never come to me with any questions about sex. I also know kids these days are exposed to so much more, and they know far more than we did when we were kids. Do I really need to talk with her about sex, or can I assume she knows what she needs to know and leave it at that? I don’t want to embarrass her.
Signed, Avoiding Awkwardness
Dear Avoiding Awkwardness,
Talking about sex can be embarrassing for both the parent and the kid! I think it’s hard for most parents to talk about sex with their kids. I agree with you that your daughter probably doesn’t need a talk about the mechanics of sex…at 15 she probably does know most of the facts of how it works, the risks of STDs and pregnancy, and what several birth control and safer sex options are. (Although most kids and teens still have some facts wrong and believe some of the stranger stories that circulate about sex).
I would still encourage you to have conversations with her about sex. Kids need to know their parents can handle talking about sex, so that if they do have any questions, they know they can turn to you. Also, they need to hear what their parents values are about sex. Do you see sex as a natural part of growth and identity development, something to be explored freely? Do you see sex as something sacred between two people in a long-term committed relationship? Share your ideas about what healthy sexual expression looks like. Kids might not choose to adopt their parents’ value systems, but most would like to know what their parents think about these things.
Also, be aware that we have been commuting these values all along to our kids, without being aware of it. I had a 14 year old client that told me she always heard her mom complaining to friends about how her dad wanted sex too much and she didn’t like it. This girl got the idea that sex is something a wife gives out of duty, but doesn’t really enjoy. You have the opportunity to communicate intentionally with your daughter what your value system is around sexual activity.
Try to avoid using terms like “condone” and “permission.” Kids are aware that their bodies belong to them and they don’t need your permission to use them. Kids hear words like “forbid” and “permission” and sometimes take them as a challenge to assert their free will and individuality from the family system. I have found phrases like, “What my hope for you is,” and “What I want for you” to be very helpful. They allow you to be clear about your values without making demands on your teen. Try to include the idea that sex is a healthy part of life, that it can be a beautiful, fun, exciting part of a relationship. Acknowledge that your teen will make her own decisions and let her know that you will always love her no matter what decisions she chooses around sex. I always like to include a piece about self-respect and making choices from a place of love for self, not from a place of fear or peer pressure.
And lastly, remember that this shouldn’t be one giant, heavy conversation. Ideally, this type of conversation would start when your child first asks about sex, or around 11 or 12 if they never ask, and continue through the rest of their lives. They can be short and casual. If your teen is open and interested, they can be long and intense. The most important thing you can do is create a feeling of safety and acceptance, as well as offer guidance and information without sounding scared, judgmental, or controlling. (A tall order, I know—but you can do it!)
**Remember to check out Shelby’s website, Family Help Today, for a variety of useful information for couples, individuals, families, and kids. You can also find out more about Shelby’s AWESOME e-books on her site.