10 Conversation Starters for Talking to Teens About Sex

Rather than broaching the topic just once, it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue.

Personally, I would love it if we could just have one “sex talk” with our kids and be done with it. Or, it would be great if they could just learn what they need to know about sex from their school’s puberty unit in science class.

But no such luck. Experts recommend that we talk to our teens regularly about uncomfortable topics such as masturbation, pornography and the dangers – and, perhaps even more awkwardly, the pleasures – of sex.

The stakes are high. We parents understand that there are risks related to rape, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and that we need to make sure our kids have information about how to avoid these risks. But we also want more for them than to just avoid the bad stuff. When the timing is right for sex, we want it to be a positive part of their lives – one that brings more love, connection and pleasure than regret, pain and embarrassment.

So I’m mustering the courage to talk with my four teens more often about sex and sexuality. Here are the 10 topics I’m covering, along with some approaches I’m using:

1. Pornography: Research catalogued in the book “Your Brain on Porn” finds that in the last 15 years the rate of sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction, has increased nearly 1000 percent in young men under the age of 25, and that this is related to pornography usage. Ask your kids how prevalent they think porn viewing is among their friends, and if they understand that although it can be very hard to look away from, it can really hurt them.

2. The upside of sexual activity: Kids often learn about the risks related to early or unprotected sexual activity at school, but they don’t tend to learn much about the joys of human sexuality. They know that there is something awesome about sex. So we lose credibility when we make it seem like it is nothing but dangerous. When we talk to them about the upside of sexual activity, we prompt a process of weighing the benefits with the risks. We want kids to think critically about sex, rather than just acting emotionally and impulsively. Ask your son or daughter, “What do you think the benefits are to being sexually active as a teenager?” Similarly, you might ask what they think the benefits of being sexually active are for college students as well as for adults.

3. Not everyone is doing it. In fact, more teens aren’t than are. Teenagers need to feel like they are with the majority, that they aren’t being left out. So it’s important for them to understand that, surprisingly, “hook-up culture” isn’t as big a thing as they think.

Here’s a conversation starter: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of high schoolers have never dated, “hooked up” or had a romantic relationships with someone. Other research shows that 59 to 84 percent of teens ages of 15 to 17 have never had sex. At age 20, one-quarter of young adults are still virgins.

4. What you want your child to learn from your own experiences: This one is personal. My kids have listened with rapt attention when I’ve spilled the beans on myself. For example, I was date raped on a graduation trip after I’d been drinking. This happened to so many of my friends we wrote a book about it.

5. What do they desire sexually and romantically? Ask your teen, “Have you ever articulated for yourself or a partner what you want to feel or do when you become sexually active?”

Personally, I’ve found this conversation to be easier in the hypothetical, and my advice is to start having this conversation before your kids have boyfriends or girlfriends, if possible. The point is not to get teens to tell you their sexual desires (um, yuck), it’s to get them to think about it on their own, and to define it for themselves, and later, for their partner.

6. Consent is the wrong criteria. Although it is, of course, very important to understand that consent is mandatory, I’m with psychologist Lisa Damour in thinking that consent is an exceptionally low bar.

Here are some starter questions if your teen is potentially sexually active: “Have you asked what your partner wants sexually?” “How do your partner’s desires line up with your own?” Ask also if they’ve talked about only pursuing those activities where you have common desire, or “enthusiastic agreement,” as Damour calls it.

7. Rules of thumb: Help your teen establish these. You might start by asserting that if a person is too embarrassed to ask their partner intimate questions, about what they want out of a relationship or about their sexual desires, they aren’t ready for the intimacy of sexual activity. Then ask your teen if he or she disagrees and what your teen thinks are other good rules of thumb to keep in mind regarding sexual activity.

8. Good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active: Research finds that one-quarter of young women regret losing their virginity to the “wrong” partner, and that one-fifth have significant regrets about having unprotected sex or progressing too quickly sexually in a relationship. Ask your teen, “What do you think about that?” “What do you think are some good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active?”

9. Drugs and sex don’t mix. Sex is obviously much riskier – and also less pleasurable – while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and hopefully our kids know that we don’t approve of underage drinking or drug use, ever. But most kids need this spelled out for them repeatedly.

Ask your teen in the hypothetical about peers who engage in sexual activity while under the influence. What do they think about using “liquid courage” to do something they’d be too anxious or uncomfortable to do sober? Show them their inconsistencies – gently. For example, your teen may say it’s normal for college kids to have sex while under the influence. But asking if you could share your perspective, you might say, “You’ve decided that you only want to be with someone who is really into you. It seems like that would be hard to really know if there is drinking involved.”

10. Subtle – and not so subtle – sexual references: If someone tells a joke or you hear a song on the radio that refers to something sexual, ask your kids if they know what it refers to. If they say yes, ask them to tell you “what kids think that means these days,” as though the meaning might be different for their generation. If they don’t really know, explain what the reference means using plain language. In my experience, this has the nice side effect of making my kids not want to listen to sexually explicit music in the car or kitchen with me.

With all this, we need to try our best to ask lots of open-ended questions. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt them to elaborate. These conversations about sex are difficult – at least for me – and they require courage. But it’s better to suffer through the discomfort than to regret later not having had a handful of awkward conversations.

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If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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  • Porn Watcher

    (I am a guy so I will talk about a male perspective; I have little information about women and their view of porn apart several of my female friends who seemed so shocked to learn that so many guys do consume porn regularly). Hi, the “porn is bad for you” part does not seem realistic to me (a bit like an “abstinence only” talk). I suspect that “not all porns are created equal”. 20 years ago, when I was a teenager, *all* my guy friends were watching porn (at first I did not suspect it, but once we would get close enough to talk about it, I was quite surprised to see how prevalent it was). This was before streaming media, so we had to be more creative to find it… I suspect the fact that it was much less hardcore than what we can easily find online today might have be “less harmful”. In my case, I never had any erectile problems nor any other sexual dysfunction — I had a pretty happy sex life with women, even though I did consume a fair amount of porn (and still do). I understand I am just one sample point though. But another piece of information is that I do find the “modern” porn way too hardcore to my tastes; I do not like how women are treated / portrayed, and it does not match my own sexual fantasies which were built prior to porn-streaming era. So two questions for you:
    1) Are there studies which are also looking at the *qualitative nature* of porn and its effects rather than just a blanket “any porn” category?
    2) As a middle ground (as an alternative to just “do not consume porn” which does not seem realistic in my experience of discussion with many guys), aren’t there suggestions of “ethical erotica” which could be suggested as healthy arousal tools for teenagers? Where we also know the actors are treated well; that it provides healthier examples of sexuality, as well as better examples of interactions with women? Perhaps proposing this alternative to the so-easy accessible streaming porn seems a more pragmatic (and healthy) path… What do you think?

    • Christine Carter

      I don’t know the answers to the questions, but I would love to know! I’ll dig around a little and see what I can come up with. I think you make some important points. As a porn consumer, what can you tell parents about where they might find “ethical erotica”? Have you heard of “Make Love Not Porn”? Does that meet the criteria for you? I think it is probably fairly important for parents of older teens who are using porn to point them towards less harmful varieties. (Though this will make many parents beyond uncomfortable; I think most of us would prefer to stay in denial. But this is likely one of those cases where the hard thing is, in fact, the right thing…)