If you’re a parent of a teenager, it’s likely that you’ve had or have thought about having “the sex talk”--sometimes known more ominously as just “the talk”--with your teen.

Maybe you’ve dreaded it and put it off as a result. “The talk” looms large in American culture, and a number of myths have formed around it. Luckily, many of them have been debunked by research. So as Valentines Day and (not coincidentally) National Condom Day approach, consider the opportunity to open the lines of communication with your teen. You may be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. 


Myth #1: You only get one chance to have “the talk.”

 

Despite what you’ve seen in TV shows and movies, “the talk” isn’t a one-time deal. Research shows that it’s useful to have conversations about sex and relationships early and often in teens’ lives, and the conversations should change as they develop and bring new ideas and experiences. The downside? You don’t get to have one conversation and be done with it. The upside? You don’t need to formulate the perfect thing to say, and you don’t need to worry that you’re not covering all the bases (so to speak). What matters most is keeping the lines of communication open, which goes a long way toward maintaining a healthy relationship with your teen and promoting other healthy relationships in their life.


Myth #2: Teens aren’t listening.


Though teens are bombarded with messages from their peers and the media about sex, studies show that parents are one of the most important influences on their sexual activity and that teens actually value open and honest conversations with their families about sex and relationships. So starting the conversation is a worthwhile endeavor, though it may not seem like it when teens are rolling their eyes and trying to escape the kitchen table. Ultimately, they’re going to make their own decisions, but you can equip them with the tools to make thoughtful choices that protect their health.


Myth #3: It’s all about the mechanics.


Don’t focus on the birds and the bees at the expense of broader relationship issues--for example, what a healthy, respectful relationship looks like. On the flip side, teens need to know how to identify harassment, abuse and other unhealthy behaviors. My team’s research shows that when teens talk to extended family about sex, they often cover topics like healthy vs. unhealthy relationships and sexual orientation, in addition to sexual behavior and protection. (More on extended family later.) These topics are just as important and shouldn’t be neglected. 


Myth #4: Mothers should talk with daughters, and fathers with sons.


Teens don’t only benefit from talking with a parent of the same sex. My research team has studied the parenting behaviors of fathers in particular, and how they relate to their children’s sexual risk behaviors. What we’ve found is that adolescents--no matter their gender--who perceived that their fathers would not approve of teen sex were more likely to make safer choices about sex as young adults. In other words, if a father tells his teen he thinks they should wait until they are older and more emotionally mature before having sex, they are more likely as a young adult to use condoms, have fewer sexual partners, and take fewer sexual risks overall. That doesn’t mean that forbidding teens from having sex or policing their sexuality is a healthy or effective strategy for fathers. Sharing values with your teen about sex is more effective when you have a close and connected relationship with them. Express care and concern for your teen’s health and safety, share your own values, and listen to what they have to say. It’s powerful to see that teens’ relationships with their fathers make a difference in their health years later.


Myth #5: It’s all on the parents.


It takes a village, especially when it comes to teaching teens about sex and relationships. Research shows that only half of U.S. teens talk with their parents about sex--many seek advice instead from other family members, like older sisters and brothers or aunts and uncles, who they see as easier to talk to and less judgmental. My research team found that almost half of the teens we surveyed talked to extended family about sex and relationships, and those who had conversations about protection from sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy actually had sex with fewer people. It’s clear that extended family have an important role to play in supporting teens’ sexual health, so breathe easier: you can call on your village when you need them.

    Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) postdoctoral research fellow at WCW. Her research uses quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate adolescent development, sexual health, and risk-taking, with an emphasis on family communication about sex and relationships, and contexts of teens’ environment and identity, such as gender, race, and ethnicity.