How To Talk To Teens About Sex

Awkward? It doesn't have to be! Here's how to start the conversation.

August 04, 2018

The families we meet in Unexpected never thought they'd be facing an unplanned pregnancy. In fact, the vast majority of young people say they do not intend to get pregnant at this time in their lives, and most teen pregnancies are described by teens themselves as unplanned.

Unplanned pregnancy is not inevitable. There is so much we can do to give young people the power to decide if, when and under what circumstances to get pregnant. As we follow along with each family's journey through pregnancy, parenthood and grandparenthood, Unexpected provides many opportunities to start meaningful conversations between young people and their parents, mentors and champions about how they might handle similar situations before the moment arrives. These conversations--about sex, love, relationships and their futures--are sometimes hard to begin, but they really matter to young people.

Here are some tips to get started:

Teens want to hear from you. Even if they don't act like it. Teens consistently say that parents--not peers, not partners, not popular culture--most influence their decisions about relationships and sex. Mentors and champions like aunts, teachers, and coaches also have a significant role to play in helping the teens in their lives avoid pregnancy. Many of the most effective ways to help teens make smart decisions are what parents already know from experience -- like the importance of maintaining strong, close relationships with children and teens, setting clear expectations for them, and communicating honestly and often with them about important matters. Clear, informed conversations between young people and adults they trust are key to ensuring that every young person has the power to decide if, when and under what circumstances to get pregnant. Kelsie says she got pregnant with Lexus when she was just 16, and stuck with a toxic relationship for ten years. She doesn't want to see Lexus settle. "I want her to get that sense of pride, of being a strong, independent woman. That's what I've tried to show her." Talk openly about why you think it's important to postpone pregnancy and parenthood, and what their visions are for the future.

Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes and prepare before the questions start coming. Communicating with the teens in your life about sex, love, and relationships is often more successful when you are clear in your own mind about these issues. Be clear about what you believe. Just like you have certain expectations about your teen's other behavior (attend school, don't cut classes, etc), you can and should have clear expectations for them when it comes to sex and relationships. McKayla's grandmother says "She's had kind of a rough childhood and has overcome a lot. I'm very proud of her. A little disappointed too. She's too young for this. It's going to make it really hard for her."

Start early and stay late. There's a myth that if you talk to your kids about sex, contraception and avoiding pregnancy, you might be condoning sex. The truth is that parents and their children should be talking about love, sex, and relationships all along. Age-appropriate conversations about if, when, and under what circumstances to get pregnant should begin early in a young person's life and continue throughout adolescence. Lexus, McKayla, and Lilly all started dating their babies' fathers at young ages. If you agree that your teen is old enough to date, then they are old enough to have a conversation with you about sex and relationships. Even if it's awkward. The conversation can evolve as your teen grows up, but knowing that you are an askable adult early on keeps the lines of communication open and helps prepare your teen for the future.

Get involved and stay involved. Supervising and monitoring your children's whereabouts doesn't make you a nag; it makes you a parent. Knowing who your teens' friends are and understanding their social lives signals that you are interested, and helps you understand the context in which they're making decisions. McKayla's grandmother calls herself a "helicopter parent," and McKaylay says "the helicoptering was annoying when I had bad intentions," which makes her grandma agree "oh, so I was doing my job."

Help your teen figure out what they will do in the heat of the moment - before it arrives. Whether it's how to say "no" without hurting feelings, or, if it's to say "yes," what kind of birth control to use, helping your teens prepare for the heat of the moment is key. Your answers will evolve over time, in ways that best reflect what works for your family; the important thing is to help your teen have a plan and figure out how to stick to it. Kelsie forbid Lexus from seeing Shayden after finding out she lost her virginity to him. At the doctor's office, Lexus says in front of her mom, Shayden and the doctor that she's a teen, she's going to have sex so she needs to figure out birth control. And although Kelsie and Lexus had conversations about birth control, it's also important to help your teen develop communication skills for the heat of the moment.

Let your kids know that you value education. Encourage your child to take school seriously and set expectations about their school performance. Be attentive to your child's progress in school and intervene early if things aren't going well. Offer support, guidance, and a balance between work and play so that your child can thrive in an educational setting.

Help your teenagers to have options for the future, and help them build skills that will enable them to reach their goals. Every young person deserves the power to decide if, when, and under what circumstances to get pregnant. The chances that your son or daughter will delay having sex, pregnancy, and parenthood are significantly increased if their future appears bright. Help them set meaningful goals for the future, talk to them about what it takes to make future plans come true, and help them reach their goals. The adults on Unexpected were teen parents themselves, and say they never imagined their teens going through the same thing, because they want more opportunities for their children then they had themselves. Kelsie is supportive and loves her family, but she still says it's not something you'd want for your children. Shelley had Caelan at age 19. She knows that Caelan and McKayla are each other's first loves, and just wanted to make sure they're protected. "We talked a lot about what I've been through being a teen parent, what he's been through being the child of a teen parent and a single parent." Conversations about future goals and how to reach them are important for all families.

Know what your kids are watching, reading, and listening to. Television, radio, movies, music videos, magazines, social media, and the Internet are full of material about sex and its consequences--or lack thereof. Use these examples to start a meaningful conversation with your children and to explain your family's expectations and views. Encourage your children to think critically: ask them what they think about the programs they watch and the music they listen to; or what they would do if they were in a situation that their favorite characters are facing. Many teens have never thought about how a pregnancy would affect their lives. Use our discussion guides for each episode of "Unexpected" as a way to start open conversations with young people about how the situations and personalities in the show relate to their own lives, and what they are learning from the show, and what they might do in a similar situation.

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