Sorry parents, "the talk" just got harder

There are some tasks of parenthood that all parents hate. Like cleaning up vomit, or dealing with tantrums in public places, or picking poop out of clothes during potty training, or searching endlessly for matching socks (my theory is that aliens take them). But all of these pale in comparison with giving the Big Talk. You know, the one about the Birds and the Bees.

I have bad news: that talk just got harder.

It’s hard to imagine it being harder. It’s so incredibly awkward to talk about sex with your child, especially when experts are saying we need to start early, like by late elementary school or early middle school. And it’s so hard to know what to say. We’re supposed to give them information, so that they’re hearing things from us instead of their friends. But parents can’t help feeling that when they give detailed information, especially about different kinds of sex, or about birth control, that they are somehow condoning having sex. So the tendency is to take a broad-strokes, non-graphic approach.

That’s not going to work anymore. Not that it was ever actually working in the first place.

I have some sobering statistics for you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, just under half of all U.S. high school students have had sex, ranging from a third of freshmen to two-thirds of the seniors. And do you know what else? Just over half of youth ages 15 to 19 are having oral sex.

Oral sex is the most common sexual behavior among adolescents. If you’re thinking, well, at least they aren’t having vaginal sex, think again. A study just published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that a) most teens start having oral sex and vaginal sex in the same six month period, and b) oral sex usually comes first. So for many teens, oral sex ends up leading to vaginal sex. This means that—gulp—parents need to talk about oral sex.

“We all want to think that it’s not our kids who are having sex. But do the math. We can’t all be the parents of the half that aren’t.”

We all want to think that it’s not our kids who are having sex, oral or otherwise. Our kids are listening to us when we tell them to be abstinent. It’s other people’s kids who are having sex. But do the math. We can’t all be the parents of the half that aren’t. We can hope for it, but we can’t count on it.

So parents need to sit their kids down and really talk with them. (This is much easier to do if you’ve been talking with them since they were small about bodies, feelings, values, and how all three relate—so if you’re reading this and your kids are small, don’t go thinking that you’re off the hook.)

If you’re not sure what to say, here are some talking points you can use:

  • Sexual feelings are normal. You shouldn’t feel bad for having them.
  • That said, sex can have consequences—you can get sick or pregnant, and it can change how you feel about yourself and how others think about you. You need to understand those consequences. (You can ad lib here and talk more about those consequences, based on your kid’s level of understanding and how much you want to scare them).
  • Oral sex is sex. It’s not like kissing. You can’t get pregnant, but you can still get infections, and it can still affect how you feel about yourself and how others think about you. Not only that, it can lead to other kinds of sex. (If you’ve got the fortitude, you can talk about other kinds of sex.)
  • Anyone having any kind of sex needs to be protected. I don’t want you to have sex, but I really don’t want you to get sick or pregnant. (You can talk more here about condoms and other forms of birth control if you’re comfortable, but at a minimum make sure your teen knows where and how to access confidential medical care).
  • It’s your body and your life. Don’t let anyone make you do something you don’t want to do (and conversely, don’t ever try to make anyone do something they don’t want to do).

And there’s one other thing you should say, because it really is the point:

I can’t promise you that I won’t be upset if you have sex. But I can promise you that I will always love you, no matter what.

  • Maithgoleor

    With regard to the socks:
    Call the repairman, it may be time to look around the washer drum!

    With regard to talking about sex:
    Agreed. Agreed. Agreed. I talk with my teen about sex and it makes HIM more uncomfortable than me- likely because I happily live “along de Nile [denial]”… (he is a serious recluse and geek… more concerned about online interactions, frankly) – and also because I know its important, can have life-threatening consequences, and I only have his ear another few years in my current role [as the WWofWest]. I recommend, talk to your friends to get out the “giggles” or discomfort- then get to talking!

  • Goobercpg

    My question is how young is too young? I have a very inquisitive 3 almost 4 year old and try to answer all of her questions honestly buy also simply. She knows she has a vagina and thats “how babies get out.” But recently I got the dreaded question I’ve been waiting for, “how do the babies get in?” I was stumped for an age appropriate answer. She’s too young for the whole shabang, right? So I stammered and then changed the subject and she hasn’t asked again. Later my very wise sister told me to tell her mama’s have eggs and the babied grow from eggs. This might work or lead to a new line of questions I’m not prepared to answer. She also wants to know if she grow in my belly, why does she look like daddy? hmmmm…… So this is my dilemma, I want to be honest and am sure my kids may know many of the fact at a younger age then many people would choose but 3 seems way to young. What to tell her?

    • Da

      My kid is still a toddler, but I too am interested to hear how people answer Goobercpg’s question. Thoughts?

      I plan on following Goobercpg’s path of honesty, but I don’t want to traumatize the poor kid with too much detail.

      • Happymommyx4

        I have 4 children and my 7-year-old daughter is the one that really is a challenge on this topic. She is VERY curious about everything. A few weeks ago she came home from school and told me that another boy her age had told her that “if I pee in your private parts you can have a baby.” I think I blacked out after that.

        With that particular child I have found that “lets go to the park!” doesn’t work. She will just bring it up again at the park. A different degree of honesty has worked for each of my children. I give them as much information as I think is right for their age at the time. Too often though they have heard way too much at school and because of that I have to go much further into detail than I would like to at that age, but I would rather them hear the truth from me than the stupidity shared by other children who are often misinformed by older siblings.

        I think that once you start a good flow of conversation about this topic it will be easier than you think.

  • phinndad

    Luckily I only have to worry about the socks, for now.

    • Newdawn

      My boyfriend jokes about that every time I wash a load of socks, as I have two boys, almost 16 and 13. Haven’t found any socks (that I know of, thank God!), but they spend a LOT more time in the shower! But that would be my fault, because I suggested if they needed a “release” that they could privately take care of it in there. Little did I know that my water bill would triple, lol.

  • Carleen_meseck

    Ive had the talk four times….ages are 24,22,21 and 18..now i have a 13 year old that we have started to discuss the consequences with….then there are 5 more little boys aged 8,8,6,3, 11 months…..im getting to old for the talk..All you teens out there…i have birth control….come watch these five little boys and abstinence will be your future…this goes for boys or girls!!! p.s 5 of these were adopted children….the last was my surprise…..lol My older children roll their eyes now if i even mention sex….lol

  • guest

    Many of us with children at Children’s have kids with special needs, medical concerns and unusual situations. Do we deal with any of this differently? delayed onset of puberty, immuno compromised social awkwardness of health issues, scars….. it makes all this all the more challenging.

  • Claire McCarthyMD

    To Goobercpg and Da: 3-year-olds are not usually looking for in-depth answers and are easily distractible. You can use both to your advantage. A simple answer to the “how do the babies get in” question is “Mommies and Daddies make them together,” which surprisingly is often adequate. If you’re asked how, you can say something like “They get close in a very special way” (which can be followed up with “that only Mommies and Daddies do.”). Then, as you did, change the subject (“Hey, let’s go to the park!”). It’s also okay to say, “I’ll explain more when you’re bigger.” Little kids get that there are things that you need to be bigger to know and understand.

    A book I really like is It’s So Amazing by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley. It’s geared toward elementary school kids, but they also have books for younger (It’s Not the Stork) and older (It’s Perfectly Normal) kids.

    To guest:You do have to deal with it differently…and how you deal with it will depend on your child’s particular needs and challenges. The basics of wanting to be loved, wanting to be attractive, and wanting to fit in are universal, as are sexual feelings—it’s a matter of translating it all into your child’s life.

    Your child’s doctor—or doctors—can help you. Don’t be afraid to ask them for information and advice on this—it’s an important topic!

  • http://www.youngwomenshealth.org Erica

    I just read Children’s Hospital Dr. Claire McCarthy’s Thrive blog about parents talking to teens about sex – oral sex in particular. I’m quite unsure about how I feel about it. I’m 20 years old, and the truth is that I still don’t feel comfortable talking about sex with my mom. I think it’s awkward when she asks me if I’m having sex, so I know it would be even more embarrassing if she tried to talk to me about the details of different types of sex. I know parents think it’s hard to talk to teens about sex but guess what – it’s hard for teens to hear it too.

    I definitely agree that teens need to know about sex and I absolutely think that they should start learning about it at an early age, but I don’t think sitting down with mom is going to do it. For the most part, teens probably won’t answer their parent’s questions truthfully (if they are having sex – they’ll probably say they aren’t), and another thing is that chances are, they’ll tune out of the conversation to make things less uncomfortable (by using the smile and nod technique).

    Instead of sitting down for “the sex talk”, parents can give information to their child by bringing up general sex topics. Obviously though, it has to be during a relevant conversation; you can’t be talking about food and then say “oral sex is sex too” – that’s just random. You could say something like “sex is something serious and can have negative consequences”. Mention that although you can’t get pregnant by having oral sex, it’s still considered sex. However, don’t get into details and ask if they are having sex or spend too much time on the subject all at once. I feel like this approach might work, because it then gives teens the option to speak up if they actually want to have a conversation about it. Another good idea for parent(s)/guardian(s) is to remind your teen(s) that they should be truthful with their health care provider (HCP) so they can get the best medical care. That way if they have questions, they can always go to their HCP for the answers.

    The health information on our website (youngwomenshealth.org) is very helpful, but it doesn’t replace a conversation with your teen. Parents – try and understand that your kids are just as uncomfortable talking about sex with you as you are with them.

    -Erica

    Youth Advisor, Center for Young Women’s Health

  • Fran

    Went through this talk 4 times. Of course I got the rolled eyeballs and “Mommmmmmm” opinions but I didn’t give up. I work in an OB/Gyn clinic and see the results of this sex vaginally and orally. Many young moms and many girls with oral infections. What is scarey is the young girls with HPV and they don’t follow up. Yes, we see them later with cervical cancers at young ages. Keep educating your kids. It’s for their health.

  • Newdawn

    Having grown up with a single mother (me), my sons have always been very open with me about all sorts of topics. At almost 16 and 13, they still are. Whether it is sex, sexual feelings, body changes, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, bullying, self-esteem issues, we have talked about just about everything. But oral sex we hadn’t talked about… this topic will be coming up shortly… I guess I just plain forgot it. Wasn’t trying to avoid it, I just didn’t think of it, not really sure why. I am so glad I came across this article, because this a very important and relevant issue.

    I think you have to be honest. My mother handed me a little booklet to read, minutes after I got my period and though I was bleeding to death. A book, seriously? I wanted my sons to feel comfortable taking to me about ANYTHING. If you can’t be honest and open with your kids, what gives you the right to ask that your kids are going to come to you when they have questions.

    I now have a 10 month old little girl and I plan on being just as open and honest with her. In this day and age, there is so much out there for them to experience, and I want her experiences (and the boys’, too) to be positive ones. Rest assured, she won’t be reading about the ‘birds and the bees’ from any booklet.

    Talking to your kids about sex doesn’t make them want to do it, it just makes them more prepared to deal with it when a situation arises. Teach them about making good decisions, hope they hear you, and pray they make the right decision for them when the time comes along.