Believe It or Not, College Kids Want to Talk to Their Parents About Sex and Relationships
Some of us might assume that our job description as a parent includes talking to our kids about sex when they reach middle or high school. And indeed, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that parents talk with their children about sex “early and often.” But research shows that these conversations don’t end at high school graduation–nor should they. Parents’ talk with their college-age kids about sex and relationships can make a positive difference in their health, and in fact, emerging adults appreciate having these conversations.
I’m a research scientist who studies how families communicate about sex and relationships, and my team recently looked at communication between parents and children about sexuality over three time points, from early adolescence to emerging adulthood (age 18-25). Between 2012 and 2019, we interviewed 15 parents when their child was in 7th grade, when their child was in 10th grade, and after their child finished high school. We found that parents continued to talk with their emerging adult children about sex and relationships, but what they talked about and how they talked changed over time.
Emerging adults have high rates of sexual risk behavior. This makes sense, as they’re at a point in their lives when they often explore relationships and sex, and are exposed to new people and experiences, especially at college. However, research shows that talk with parents about sex and relationships may reduce this risk by supporting emerging adults’ sexual health and self-esteem.
Emerging adulthood also involves changing relationships with parents–both growing autonomy and increased mutuality and connection, as you may be pleasantly surprised to discover. While you may need to let go of the idea that you can control their decisions and behaviors, you may also find that you can talk more as peers, which opens up opportunities for more honest discussions about sex and relationships.
These conversations will be different from the conversations you had with them when they were younger. They may be less abstract and more specific, like zeroing in on how to deal with specific issues in their current relationship. They may continue to focus on avoiding pregnancy, while also exploring parenthood options. In any case, you’ll want to meet your child at the developmental stage where they are.
It’s surprising to some parents just how much their emerging adult children appreciate having conversations about sex and relationships. Research shows that these discussions are important to emerging adults. They want their parents to talk openly with them about sex and relationships, including topics like sexual orientation and sexual assault, which parents often avoid discussing.
Still, it’s not all smooth sailing. They may have a positive reaction one moment–asking questions, sharing details of their lives–and a negative one the next–avoiding you and rolling their eyes. Avoidance of talk in one moment does not necessarily mean they don’t want to talk at all or suggest that they won’t respond to a conversation later. Be persistent and tolerant of mixed messages, and look for opportunities to talk about sexual issues. Notice what opens things up and shuts things down in your conversations. You may find that certain topics, like their sexual behavior, are more likely to shut a conversation down, while following up on a comment they made about their relationship may open up a longer conversation. Also, be patient with yourself and tolerant of your own discomfort.
Gender can also play a role in our comfort level; for example, some mothers are uncomfortable talking with their emerging adult male children about these topics, because it may feel awkward or intrusive. Although many studies explore gender differences in talk with adolescents about sex, there’s still a lot to learn about the role of gender during emerging adulthood.
Talking to our emerging adults about sex and relationships can be challenging–or it can be easy, or awkward, or rewarding. Or it can be all of these. One thing is clear: our kids need our support when it comes to their sexual health, and the need for that support doesn’t end after high school.
Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research and action institute at Wellesley College.