How To Be The Kind Of Parent Your Teen Feels Comfortable Talking To About Sex

Photo: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock
mom hugging a teen and a tween

The other day, my teenage son got into the car with a meme to show me on his phone. Nothing new here, my kids know I love a good meme (and will openly critique a bad one).

He put his phone close to me to read it, then pulled it back, pressing it against his chest, pausing. He looked at me sternly.

“This is a joke, Mom, so don’t go all political on me," he said.

I could tell he was both joking and serious. He didn't want me to be... well, me about it, but he wanted to share it.

“OK, promise,” I vowed.

RELATED: What Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Does To Parents, Kids And Teen Pregnancy Rates

The meme, which I cannot even quote here due to the fact that this is a family-friendly publication was... ahem, graphic... and funny. It tapped into current events and then made a sex-related joke referring to women’s bodies.

Described like this, it sounds offensive, but it really wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t find it problematic at all. I laughed and called a friend and told her the joke.

My friend laughed and pointed out that it was not the type of joke most teen boys want to share with their moms.

She's right. I'm lucky.

Before I sound like I’m bragging about what a good mom I am (hint: I’m actually a total mess), I want to make clear that being open is just the nature of this particular son of mine. He’s the one that got in the car at elementary pickup and rattled off all the events of his day: who wronged him, who did something hilarious or his teacher’s most recent (perceived) transgression against him.

My other teenage son is not like this. He needs to think about the events of the day for quite a while before he’s ready to discuss — especially with any topic that feels personal or makes him feel vulnerable.

Despite the differences in how they communicate about typically uncomfortable topics — including sex — I want them both to know that they can come to me or their dad about anything. I also want to feel like I can approach them with my own questions or concerns, should they arise.

How do we go from awkward adults to the type of parent our teens open up to?

Erica Smith, M. Ed., a sexuality educator and consultant, has some words of wisdom.

“To be the kind of parent that kids want to talk to about sex, you need to start early by being a parent who talks about feelings and difficult issues,” she told me.

In other words, our kids need to have a sense that talking to us is safe and that they can ask us any question they want, free from judgment or personal criticism.

RELATED: How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex Without Shame (Or Common Heteronormative Myths!)

I want my kids to have fulfilling sex lives when they are mature enough to handle the responsibility of sex. But that doesn’t happen by accident and I cannot rely upon our school to teach them what they need to know.

So, how do we, as their parents (and generally extremely cringey Gen-X and so-called geriatric Millennials) create a home environment where our kids — regardless of their temperament — can feel comfortable talking about sex?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Here are 5 (mostly) cringe-free ways to help your kids feel comfortable talking to you about sex.

1. Choose the right setting for your unique kid.

Like I said, every kid is different. Your daughter may be open about every single kiss she has with her new partner, while your son may not feel comfortable telling you that he's dating anyone until they’ve been together for six months.

It's our job to observe the times when our kids open up to us, and try to facilitate those scenarios so they have more opportunities to do so.

One of my kids hates being cornered in the car. He gets a little carsick, and that is likely a contributing factor. What I’ve learned is that this particular child tends to talk more when we are working on something together, like grocery shopping or cooking together. The last time he really opened up to me was when I asked him to help me clean out the pantry.

So while you may love sitting down on the couch with a cup of cocoa to have a chat, your teen may find this confrontational and awkward — and when it comes to talking about sex, you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.

RELATED: 5 Absolutely Critical Things To Teach Your Kids About Sex

2. Don’t be a prude.

There comes a time in many tween and teens’ lives where they discover the joy and horror of “dirty jokes.” While it went against the very fiber of my Midwestern Dutch Reformed upbringing, I forced myself not to censor my kids' innocent "gross" jokes.

Why? Because telling kids not to talk about penises and vaginas or toots and farts is a subtle way of introducing shame around bodies and sex.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean letting our kids say offensive, hurtful or objectifying words or tell jokes that are not kind. It means that, in the right context, joking about sex or body parts is OK.

In fact, letting them make harmless so-called "gross" jokes is an opportunity to talk about the “whens” the “wheres” and the “with whoms” of sex and body talk.

Same thing goes for seeing nudity or sexy content on TV and in movies. If sex is on the screen when your teens are around, just acknowledge it and be cool. If you feel especially awkward, acknowledge that, too.

A good, “Well, this is awkward” crack is a great way to break the tension.

Smith has seen plenty of adults who have experienced the fallout of being raised surrounded by prudishness (or, more accurately, sexual shame and secrecy).

“I currently work with a person in their 40s who is still affected by the way his parents tried to hide any and all sexual content from him — including turning off the TV or covering his eyes anytime a vaguely sexual situation presented itself,” she told me.

“What a child needs instead," she elaborated, "is a parent who will explain to them what they're seeing, or explain why seeing it isn't appropriate for them, if applicable.”

If a younger child sees sexual content that is inappropriate for their age, it’s OK to say something like, “That might have been confusing because it was meant for older people. Did you have questions about what those grown-ups on TV were doing?”

This is a great chance to remind them that you are happy to talk about anything they see or experience that is confusing, or anything that seems weird or "off."

It's always good to issue regular, loving reminders that being honest with your family about your body or something you’ve experienced is never, ever going to get you in trouble.

RELATED: Yes, Your Kids Want Sex Ed From You (Not The Internet!)

3. Make talking about sex, bodies, and consent normal and casual.

Growing up in my house, sex education was my mom putting a book wrapped in a paper bag on my bed and asking if I had any questions. If I did, I certainly wasn’t about to ask!

But that was the best that their generation knew to offer. They likely received even less sex ed than us!

Today, we know what works better and we are equipped to provide it.

Smith explains that “being a parent who is open and honest about sex doesn't mean having One Big Conversation — it means having hundreds of little one-minute conversations over the course of your child's life.”

We can start when kids are toddlers, accurately naming all their body parts — including their genitals — in the bath. Ask for consent when helping preschoolers and other young kids with their hygiene, like wiping them on the toilet, helping them wash in the bath, or checking out their genitals if there is pain or discomfort.

A simple, "May I wipe your bum?" goes a long way in teaching them that they have the right to control access to their own body.

4. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

When talking about sex, keep it frequent but quick. Long, droning conversations where you cover everything from kissing to sex to birth control to childbirth are either going to cause a teen to zone out or reach a level of extreme annoyance (or both).

Bring up age-appropriate (or context-appropriate) subjects and talk through them casually, then move on.

After I learned this, I seized a context-appropriate moment when my teens and I saw a billboard near LAX airport that had a giant image of a condom. I said, “Yowza, that’s a big one." They cringed, appropriately.

Then I said, “Hey, I was thinking about something you don’t often learn about with condom use,” and explained the safest ways to use condoms (from when to put it on, how to know it’s on correctly, and how to “pull out” with the least risk of leaking semen).

Yes, they rolled their eyes and told me they already knew all this. But the whole conversation was no longer than minutes before we were on to discussing what type of drive-through to grab on our way home.

The idea is to remind them that talking about sex and sexuality is normal and healthy, and that you are up for the challenge.

5. Deal with your own shame.

This is the hardest one, I know.

As someone raised in an Evangelical community in the late 80s and early 90s, I had sex and body shame from the first day I started developing during puberty. I was taught that sex was only for marriage and that “sexy” women and girls were sinners, causing men to sin.

As a busty teen, no matter what I wore or did, I appeared to be tempting men to “sin” or think sinful thoughts. I was harassed and sexually assaulted in school and at my summer job, and felt inside that it was my fault simply for being myself.

As an adult, I felt extraordinary body and sexual shame alongside any desire I ever felt. I knew that before I could raise kids with healthy relationships with sex, I needed to do my own work.

I spent years in therapy and read books about trauma, purity culture and sexual shame. I feel like I'm still doing the work, but I'm much more comfortable with who I am now.

But all of this has benefited me greatly — and it’s benefited my kids even more. We are open around here, and I have made it clear that I don’t want any of my kids to feel like they have to keep secrets.

I'm sure I'm not doing any of it perfectly, which is why I'm constantly trying to learn more, but I want to do it the best way I can.

While they may not always jump at the chance to talk with me about their romantic lives or ask questions about sex, I believe they know that we will never judge them when the time comes to do so.

RELATED: 5 Ways To (Finally!) End Shame Around Your Sex — And Finally Enjoy Your Body

Joanna Schroeder is a parenting writer and media critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Vox and more. She is coauthor of "Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home." She shares her thoughts on Twitter as well.