Trying to talk to your teen about sex? This is why you’re getting it wrong

Ask yourself, what kind of adult would you like your child to be?
Ask yourself, what kind of adult would you like your child to be?

You’re not sure how to bring it up, how to correctly phrase your descriptions and if your teen even wants to hear about this from you. 

As a parent, you probably also think that your own bias and insecurities will likely shine through your carefully prepared explanation of the ins and outs, ahem, of this stage of life, essentially making you the least qualified person to have this conversation. 

Teenagers have a way of seeing right through their parents; they will know you don’t practise what you preach and it’s not fun to be in your teen’s searchlight. 

Well, according to research, you’re not wrong about that. But you are wrong about having to sit down and have this most awkward of conservations. 

How did the 'talk' go with your teen? Was it as bad as you thought it was going to be? Share your story with us by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

The Harvard Graduate School of Education says that parents assume kids learn to love naturally, that they will organically figure this out. Richard Weissbourd, the lead author on a recent study entitled The Talk, says many parents assume kids don’t want advice from them or think their own failed relationships render them unfit to offer insights.

Additionally, the study revealed that adults worry about youth and the “hook-up culture”, when in fact teens are not nearly as sexually active as we think they are. Weissbourd explains how the research actually shows that teens are struggling more with “forming and maintaining healthy and fulfilling romantic relationships and dealing with widespread misogyny and sexual harassment”. 

70% of the 18 to 25-year-olds surveyed reported wishing they had received more information from their parents about some emotional aspect of romantic relationships, and 65% indicated that they wanted guidance on some emotional aspect of romantic relationships in a health or sex education class at school. We know that this is a not a topic in the limited sex ed provided by South African schools, so the bulk of this falls to parents to teach. 

We talked to local sex educator Kate Rowe who agreed in part with the study’s findings. She says local teens are as sexually active as teens in the US and UK, and that kids are definitely looking for more info on relationships. 

Also see: It’s never too late to have the (sex) talk

Allow teens the space to make choices

Rowe is the founder of a local business, Explorare, that offers courses to educate parents and kids on these tough topics. She says that in her experience, parents are not understanding the importance of having ongoing conversations about the dynamics of relationships.

Teaching teens about sex isn’t limited to one awkward sit-down conversation, but in fact should be an ongoing part of the parent-teen relationship. “It’s lots of little things mentioned often, not one big talk”, Rowe says.  

Parents must move away from the outdated idea that teens must be dictated too and that they don’t want to talk about their feelings. It is time to learn how to create supportive boundaries which encourage good decision-making and allow teens the space to make choices.

Modern teens are bombarded with an influx of messages and media from a variety of media devices, and often they have not yet developed the EQ to deal with this overload and the many risks that social media and the ‘always-on’ culture poses. 

It is the parent’s responsibility, Rowe explains, to cultivate their own EQ and then to model the desired behaviour. “Often it’s a case of being open to learning and growing with them, but since teenagers are meant to separate from their parents, keep in mind this move to independence,” she says. 

Also ask yourself, what kind of adult would you like your child to be? Give them space, see where the conversations take you and allow them to develop their sense of self, she advises. 

Teachable moments

It’s also a good idea to watch for ‘teachable moments’, defined as “a time at which learning a particular topic or idea becomes possible or easiest.” This might be during an uncomfortable scene in a movie, when coming across an advert that borders on explicit, or when witnessing an awkward encounter between others. 

Rowe offers these steps as a practical way for parents to create an opening for conversation when faced with a teachable moment. 

1. Notice how you are feeling.

2. Share how you feel, instead of dictating or instructing the teenager on how he or she should respond. 

  • a. Explain what you are feeling, and why.
  • b. This may be via an experience you have had or linked to a value you hold. It can be in response to a situation you are witnessing or something you have seen/watched online, in a series or an advert.

3. Stop here. Generally, you will have two options going forward:

  • a. Say nothing further.
  • b. If your teen responds, acknowledge or validate the response (without using a question). “That is interesting.” “I agree.” “I had not thought of it in that way.”

4. If it opens into more conversation, great. If not, that’s still great. Either way, you have created a meeting point and an opening. Be curious about what can flow from here. Small conversations often are the most effective.

How did the 'talk' go with your teen? Was it as bad as you thought it was going to be? Share your story with us by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

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