In the popular sitcom Modern Family, the Dunphy’s oldest daughter, Haley, was the same age as my daughter, also named Haley. For several seasons, everything the Dunphy’s were experiencing mirrored what was happening in my home, to the point where I once looked around my living room and joked that they must have cameras hidden in my home.
When Haley Dunphy got her driver’s license, my Haley was getting hers. When Haley Dunphy was sneaking out to go to parties, my Haley got busted at her first house party. The same year 16-year-old Haley Dunphy got drunk on the family’s Hawaiian vacation, my Haley had somehow procured a daiquiri on our Caribbean cruise.
By the time her father, Phil, found out in the season 3 episode titled “Virgin Territory” that Haley Dunphy was no longer a virgin, my Haley had her first serious boyfriend and I, like Phil, struggled with how to talk with her decision to become intimate.
It’s not an easy conversation for either of you.
Discussing your children’s sex lives with them is tough, mainly because they aren’t likely to share much. Like Haley Dunphy, my daughter preempted my efforts with eyerolls and a cold shoulder. While she did not want to talk with me about her relationship, she did allow me to help her get on birth control.
Preventing unwanted pregnancy is most parents’ first concern. The days of pretending our kids will wait until marriage to have sex are long gone. Young adults are waiting longer to marry, preferring to establish careers, set up home, and enjoy travelling or hobbies before starting a family. According to the wedding site theknot.com, the average age for first weddings in 2020 was 31 for women and 33 for men.
Perhaps one day the human body will evolve to delay sexual maturation, but for now girls and boys still go through puberty and develop sexual urges at the same age as their ancestors who married and started families in their teens, so expecting our teenagers to not act on their natural feelings is unreasonable.
Research shows that about half of all students have sex before they graduate from high school. The average age for teens to begin experiencing sexual feelings is 15, while the average age for losing virginity is 17. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens tend to be slightly more sexually active than heterosexual teens.
Today in the US, less than two-thirds of states require sex education in schools and less than half specify that the information provided must be “medically accurate.” Many states push abstinence, or “sex risk avoidance,” as the primary message.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which provides research, advocacy, and communication about sexual and reproductive health worldwide, abstinence education programs stigmatize teens, ignore their health needs, and threaten their fundamental human rights by withholding accurate information.
Pushing abstinence fosters an environment of shame when teens ultimately fail to adhere to that standard. Dr. David Yarian, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and sex therapist, says teens who are taught that sex at their age is bad come to believe there is something wrong with them when they experience natural sexual urges.
In addition to the risk of unwanted pregnancy, many teens struggle with their sexual identification, with abuse and consent issues, the threat of sexually transmitted infections, and the confusing and conflicting messages in the abundance of sexual material on the internet. Now more than ever your teens need to know you are there for them, even if they put up a fight about having “the talk.”
How to broach the subject.
Sex education experts recommend that instead of focusing on giving your teen one “talk,” you think of it in terms of an ongoing discussion that happens over time. To get a dialogue started, sex educator Nadine Thornhill recommends a casual setting, such as a car ride or fixing a meal with your teenager, so you aren’t just sitting face to face with each other.
Acknowledge any awkwardness by saying, “I know this is hard to talk about with me.” Showing your own awkwardness may help your teen have courage to show theirs. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and share some of your own attitudes and feelings, or even your own experiences from when you went through puberty.
Try asking open-ended questions to get the ball rolling. Here are a few examples:
“What have you learned about sexually transmitted infections?”
“Have you and your partner talked about being intimate?”
“How would you handle it if your partner wanted to do something you didn’t?”
Keep in mind that your teen may not open up much on your first attempt, but just by making the effort, you have demonstrated to your child that you are open to discussion, that you care about their struggles, and that you value their feelings and attitudes. You are building a foundation of trust and respect.
If you’re still not sure what to say to your teen, begin with the wise words of Phil Dunphy, “Haley, I understand that sex is a part of life. I can’t say that I’m thrilled to hear this, but I’m sure that you’re being safe, and I hope that you’ll feel free to talk to me about this anytime.”