The 6 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make When Giving ‘The Talk’ to their Teens

What does your child’s school teach them about sex? If you’re like many Americans, the answer is ‘very little.’

In fact, a recent study from the Texas Freedom Network has found that four-fifths of school districts offer no sex education or only teach abstinence in Texas. This is problematic for many reasons. First, because we know that comprehensive sex education courses result in a 50% lower risk of teen pregnancy and that sex education has led to statistically significant declines in HIV and other STIs.

But, the sad fact is that parents cannot depend on schools to provide their children with everything that they need to know about sex. Yes, talking about ‘the birds and the bees’ can be awkward for some families, but as I discuss in my book Talking to Your Kids About Sex, your children absolutely need and desire your guidance. Yes, they may squirm or roll their eyes or harrumph into their hair, but trust me, they are listening. Your words hold weight. Your values reign supreme in their minds.

However, even well-meaning parents can make mistakes when talking to their kids about sex. Here are the top missteps I see moms and dads making when they talk to their children about intimacy:

1. They pretend like sex is bad, dirty or dangerous. Here’s the thing: Sex is great. In fact, that is the FIRST thing I say to teens when I talk about sex. “Sex is fun. It’s amazing. When you do it under the right circumstances and at the right time, it can be one of the best feelings in the world.”

Now, am I insane for telling a group of hormonally-charged kids that sex is fun? Hear me out. Your kids KNOW sex is fun. We live in a culture saturated with sexual messaging, from cheeseburger commercials to pop songs on the radio to the simple fact that hey—Mom and Dad like to be alone sometimes, and when they come out of their bedroom, Mom is giggling and Dad looks like he just won the Superbowl Ring.

That being said, it’s important to tell your children that there are risks to having sex. But they also need to know and understand that sex is a gift as well. You won’t get very far just using scare tactics. They don’t work in the long run and they also set your child up for sexual inhibitions and anxiety later on. Eventually, you do want your child to have a healthy sex life at the right time and in the right relationship.

Suffice it to say, kids know sex is fun. Their minds are likely already beginning to burgeon with some fantasies of their own, even if it is just sharing a makeout session with the guy from the latest John Greene novel. So, I find that if I can be honest with kids from the get-go, they will instantly perk up and begin to listen to what I have to say. And here’s another thing—honesty engenders honesty. I believe that a huge part of the reason why teens are so resistant to talking to their parents is because they don’t trust their parents to be “real” with them, to give them truthful information, and advice that comes from a place of love rather than a place of fear and shame.

So is sex fun? Yep. But is it also overwhelming, messy, complicated, and hugely important? Yep. Is sex fun when you aren’t ready? Nope. That’s the whole honest truth, and teens can respect that.

2. Speaking of shame, here is another big mistake parents make: They let their own baggage mar their child’s introduction to sexual education. What do I mean by baggage? It could BE something related to personal trauma, but I tend to find that most of these negative messages are societal trauma. Things like “Boys won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free” and “Guys only want one thing” aren’t just scary for girls to hear, they are completely unfair to boys too. It does them a disservice by making them think “Oh, I guess I shouldn’t be sensitive or into romance or being with just one girl. I should try to hook up as much as I can and brag about it, in order to be seen as a ‘real man.’”

Here’s the thing: It’s perfectly okay and reasonable for you to share your fears with your children and warn them about the risk of being used or taken advantage of by sexual partners. But we can do so calmly, fairly and without resorting to old gender tropes about “nice girls” and “bad boys.”

3. Parents make harmful jokes that can harm their child’s sexual development. I know it’s tempting to make jokes about your teenager’s crushes or to even share it at the family dinner. After all, it’s all in ‘good fun,’ right? Not really. When parents mock or pry into their teen’s first forays into dating, it can do a great deal of damage to the parent-child bond, as well as to the child’s confidence. We all deserve to be treated with dignity, and no one likes to have their finer feelings trampled or used as a punch-line. Okay, it might be weird that your teen writes lovey-dovey fan fiction about One Direction or that they cry over a ‘break-up’ for a relationship that lasted longer than the avocado in your fridge. But if you want your teen to trust you, save your smiles for when you are alone in the bathroom, and instead just offer them the same loving kindness you would offer them if they skinned their knee or were treated poorly by a friend.

4. Resist the “My daughter can’t date till she’s 40 years old” or “No one will ever love a son like his mommy.” The intention behind these remarks is sweet (you love them and want them to remember that, no matter who might hurt them), but that’s the problem: Don’t plant the idea in your child’s mind that they are going to be hurt and that you are the only one they can trust. You want to be the ever-present, ever-constant guiding North Star that your child can rely on when he needs help steering his ship…not the backseat captain grabbing the wheel and screaming, “Love is scary! You are going to get hurt! Stay home with me and watch reruns of Shark Tank!”

5. Parents don’t permit and discuss self-exploration. Masturbation is healthy, normal, and 100 percent safe. You don’t run the risk of pregnancy and STIs, and it is also a great way for teens to get acquainted with their own bodies and sexual response. So, I am all for teaching kids that masturbation is okay, and that it is nothing to be ashamed of. I even know some parents who actually buy their kids sex toys, and I am all for that too…because I have heard too many horror stories of teens trying to ‘DIY’ their own sex toys from things like household produce and electric toothbrushes. Yep, for real. Even if it is just in the interest of being hygienic, it is better for your teens to have access to sex aids that were made for that purpose, which can be cleaned, stored, and kept private.

6. Parents don’t discuss consent. This is a huge one! Your kids NEED to have this conversation with you, boys and girls alike. You need to tell them:

a. Consent is not the absence of a no. Consent is an enthusiastic “yes” from a sober person, as well as from a person who is of legal age to consent. (This one is important because sometimes an 18-year-old will date a 14-year-old, and age of consent can vary state-to-state.)
b. You can say ‘yes’ to one sexual act, without it meaning you give consent to ALL sexual acts. Just because you say yes to oral sex doesn’t mean you ‘have’ to have intercourse. Just because you said yes to sex one night doesn’t mean you have to have sex again the next weekend. Just because you sent a nude text doesn’t mean you want to have sex. (But, really, tell your teens NO NUDE TEXTS!). A yes is only a yes when it is given in the moment, to the specific act at hand.
c. Boys can be raped too. If a guy passes out at a party and wakes up to a girl on top of him, that is rape. It needs to be taken seriously and not made a joke of (‘what a lucky guy!’). Everyone needs to give consent, whether they are boy, girl, gay, straight, trans, etc.

There you have it! What do you think? Did you have the sex talk with your kids? Are you dreading the day you might have to? Any pointers for me?