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10 Conversation Starters for Talking to Teens About Sex

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.

The New Sex Talk: 3 Tips to Get You Started

The summer before I started high school, unbeknownst to me, my mother tasked my father with giving me the “sex talk” on a six-hour road trip.

I had never kissed a boy, or seen an R-rated movie. We didn’t have the Internet yet. I didn’t know that people have sex for pleasure; that would be weird and gross. I honestly thought that sex was something adults did only a couple of times in their lives in order to have children.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, my dad said something like this: “Now that you are going to high school, boys are going to try to get you on the rack. Especially the older boys. Just say no.”

I gazed out at Highway 33, near Ojai, California, where ugly oil derricks were dunking their heads below the earth. Our old white Wagoneer was making a weird noise. I had no idea what my dad was talking about. Drugs, maybe?

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll say no,” I replied, still looking out the window.

One Thanksgiving dinner 22 years later, my dad used the phrase “he’s going to try to get her on the rack” again. The memory of that road trip when I was 14 years old came flooding back, and I finally realized what my dad was talking about all those years ago. I threw my head back and guffawed. My stoic German mother, usually highly composed, came undone when I told her why I was laughing. Two decades later, she was furious that no one had ever really talked to me about sex.

Needless to say, I’ve tried to be a bit clearer in discussing the birds and the bees with my own children, all teenagers now. Experts say kids do better when parents start talking to kids about the basic biology of sex when they are very young – as toddlers.

This post is for parents of kids who are starting to be exposed to the more complicated aspects of sexuality: pleasure and romance, unplanned pregnancy, “hooking up”, heartbreak – even prostitution and pornography. Most kids will learn about puberty, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from their school’s sex ed program. But any kid who has ever seen even a fairly chaste romance movie knows that there’s a lot more to adult – and adolescent – sexuality than is taught formally at school. Part of the trick as a parent these days, I think, is in knowing what our kids are being exposed to at any given age. Here’s how to get started:

1. Ask questions and listen rather than simply sharing information. Here are some starter questions, which you’ll obviously have to modify based on the age and experience of your child:

  • “Do you know anyone who has watched porn? Where did they see it? How do you think it affected them?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘hook up’ among your friends?”
  • “How many of your friends are sexually active?” Or: “Do you think any of your friends are sexually active yet?” You could also ask if any of your child’s friends have kissed a boy or girl.

Brace yourself, and keep your best poker face on. Instead of instructing, just keep asking follow-up questions, such as “What do you think of that?” and “How does that make you feel?” If they tell you something concerning about a friend, inquire further. “Are you worried about her?” Or: “Do you think he needs help?”

Deal with discomfort by breathing deeply and slowly – not by preaching or avoiding the conversation. If we don’t stay relaxed, our kids will only remember that we nearly choked every time we tried to talk to them about sex. This will not make them likely to come to us when they have a pressing question or – heaven forbid – a serious problem in the sex department.

Times have changed, and so has how we talk to our kids about sex. Click To TweetThis new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters.” username=”raisinghappines”]

2. Foster closeness with your teen. Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex.

I try to spend a little bit of time every day alone with each of my kids, so that they always have a time when they know they can talk to me about their lives. We also have same gender “date nights” when I’ll take one of our daughters out to dinner and my husband will take our son out separately.

3. Don’t preach abstinence-only and forgo sharing other relevant information. Refrain from keeping kids in the dark about birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even if you believe abstinence is the best thing for your children.

Many parents fear sending a “mixed-message,” so the only message they send is that sex before marriage is not OK. But research clearly shows that teens in abstinence-only education programs are no more likely than those not in an abstinence-only program to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or abstain entirely from sex.

In other words, telling our children to remain abstinent doesn’t increase the odds that they will delay becoming sexually active, but it does deprive them of our guidance about sex. Instead of “Just say no,” give your kids guidelines for their sexual behavior while still giving them the information they need.

What do you most want your teen to know about sex? What are your expectations for them? You can give them information and still send a very clear message about what you think is best for them. Here is what I said to my kids once they got into high school: “I feel strongly that having sex while you are still a teenager is not likely to be in your best interest. That said, I want you to have information about birth control and STD protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have sex, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.”

This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters. Kids need our wisdom about how to know when they are ready for sex, and our advice on birth control. They need to talk to us about what they are seeing in the media, and how they experience their own sexuality. We need to talk to them about the pornography they’ve been exposed to. And they can benefit from hearing about our own experiences, both good and bad.

Just as we need to teach kids how to take care of their physical and emotional health, we parents need to teach our teens how to be healthy sexually. It’s hard to talk about sex with kids. It’s also the right thing to do. If you feel like you’re going to chicken out, simply take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. You can do it.

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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.

FREE Live Webinar: Awakening Joy in Kids

Mark your calendars! I’m hosting a free, 45-minute online webinar on January 10, 2017 with James Baraz and Michele Lilyanna. We’ll be talking about their new book Awakening Joy For Kids and sharing our top tips for resolving the issues that parents struggle with most. During this free, 45-minute webinar you’ll learn how to:

  • Support kids who are down or anxious.
  • Foster gratitude instead of entitlement.
  • Incorporate habits for more fulfilling parenting and happier kids.
  • Get kids to do boring but necessary tasks (like chores!)

Wouldn’t you and your family benefit from a little more joy? Learn more or register here.

My children and stepchildren

Why Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

Though you probably didn’t realize that today is a national holiday celebrating blended families (who knew?), I’m taking a moment to relish being a stepmom. I absolutely adore my stepchildren, and I’m grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity to become a much better mother.

Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a  professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.

So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.

The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for seven years. I’ve loved and supported them, but from a distance — we didn’t really live together until a few years ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.

But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.

I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.

For example, I recently had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who is in 11th grade, and my 8th-grader, Molly, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.

I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.

My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.

It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.

It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,

Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.

However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.

After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:

  1. Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Instagram than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “But I need some help with dinner or we are going to be late for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.

None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.

As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, recently explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Step Family Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.


Happiness Tip: Have a Family Game Night

Want to boost your mood this week? Challenge your family members to an old-fashioned board game.

A whopping 91% of families who play games report that playing games together improves their mood — even for 13-17 year olds — according to a recent survey (commissioned by Hasbro but conducted by an independent research company). Additionally, the survey found that the more a family plays games together, the more satisfied parents tend to be with their family time.

Here are four tips for making a family game night count:Twister night

1.) Don’t keep score or automatically let kids win.
Although rivalries can be really fun (47 percent of those polled said the fiercest rivalries were between parents and kids during family game play) they can obscure the benefits of family game night. Once everyone is enjoying the process and fun of playing games together — without obsessing over who is winning or losing — then go back to keeping score, to teach the important skill of winning and losing gracefully.

2.) Don’t feel compelled to play games that bore you. Make sure you have a selection of games that work for everyone in your family, no matter their age. Family game night can be fun for everyone.

3.) Be the fun family in your neighborhood. As kids get older, time with their peers becomes more important to them than time with their family. Don’t let these priorities conflict! Instead, encourage kids to invite a friend or two to come to your family game night. Let the teens choose the food and the music (but check their smartphones and devices at the door!). On weekends, plan for game night extensions, allowing teens to continue play without parents and younger siblings.

4.) Have a board game date-night. My husband and I used to love to play dominoes after the kids would go to bed. Even if you don’t have kids at home, or if they are too young for a family game night, turning off the TV and tuning into your partner for a fun game can lift your mood.

Take Action:
Decide which day of the week will be your weekly game night, and then be consistent so that it becomes a ritual anticipated by everyone.

Join the Discussion: What games do you love to play? Inspire others by leaving a comment, and be sure to mention the ages of your children if you’ve got them.