Homework assignments. Favorite video games. Friends at school. The latest Snapchat filter. Those kinds of discussions are easy for parents to have with their tweens and teens.
But when it comes to tackling more sensitive topics, like sex and teen pregnancy, the conversation can become awkward and difficult for parents to initiate – and for kids to participate in.
Yet those conversations are so important not just for avoiding teen pregnancy, but also for helping guide tweens and teens toward a positive, responsible approach to sexuality and intimacy.
Dr. James Fitzgibbon, director of adolescent medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital, shares some insights on how to start the conversation.
“Making the leap to talking about pregnancy with kids is difficult – and I’m not convinced it’s helpful,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon. “What I recommend instead is for parents to talk to their children about sexuality in stages.”
For example, as children enter puberty they’ll naturally begin to have questions about how their body is changing. Parents can let kids know that they’re ready and willing to answers those questions they may have about breast development, pubic hair and feelings of attraction.
“Start getting used to having these conversations so children feel comfortable coming to you,” Dr. Fitzgibbon said. “Talking about sexuality and preventing teen pregnancy isn’t a one-time discussion, it’s an ongoing one.”
Find teaching moments
Look for times and places where it’s easier to chat about sexuality.
“If you’re watching TV and a couple disappears into a bedroom, kids have an understanding of what’s going on,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon.
Or maybe it’s a song lyric or news story that brings up the topic of couples and intimacy. Ask your child a simple question to get the conversation going, such as, “What do you think about that?”
Try to get your child’s point of view and then share your own.
Shift the conversation
Pregnancy prevention is part of a larger conversation about sexuality and intimacy.
“Intimacy is a natural part of being human – and it’s part of relationships, but intimacy isn’t just sex,” Dr. Fitzgibbon said. “There’s a whole middle ground that I think kids need to think about way before the discussion on condoms or birth control.”
Conversations around intimacy might begin with your child discussing a crush she has on someone else. Parents can point out that these feelings are natural – and even positive.
Once your teen starts dating, you can have regular check-ins about what to expect on their date and what kinds of limits they want to set on physical displays of affection, like when it’s okay to starting holding hands or having a goodnight kiss.
“There’s a specialness about intimacy and sex that seems to be getting lost these days,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon. “And parents can help kids understand that sex is something special and it’s not like what they see portrayed in movies or TV.”
Share your thoughts on contraception
By having ongoing discussions on intimacy, it’ll be easier to transition to teen pregnancy.
“Every family needs to decide how they want to discuss contraception with their child, whether that conversation involves abstinence, birth control or some other form of contraception,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon.
For teens, birth control and condoms are just one part of pregnancy prevention and they aren’t foolproof so parents may want to discuss additional options.
Your child’s pediatrician can be a resource for both of you. You might consider setting up an appointment for your child to talk to their pediatrician about contraception or have them bring it up during their regular well-child visit.
While having conversations about sexuality may be uncomfortable, they give parents an opportunity to guide children toward making decisions about their relationships and their bodies that they can feel good about.