Talking Sex: Puberty & Beyond
What to talk about, and how.
Your once talkative and open child is about to enter the exciting and confusing teen years. Friends are becoming very important, and your teen seems to be withdrawing from you more and more. At the same time, your teen’s body is changing and the world of sex has become more interesting. Prior to adolescence, learning about sexuality was largely focused on reproduction, but now sex takes on a different meaning.
If you have been having conversations about sex and reproduction with your child up until now, good! That means you have already set the stage for openly communicating, sharing information, and instilling your values about sex, which will help you both navigate through the teen years. If you haven’t had these discussions, it’s time to start! Your teen may be less conversational than before, but will still be receptive to your messages. However, you may need to use different approaches and techniques to help your teen open up.
Throughout this article, you’ll find tools, suggestions, and answers to help you create an open and caring relationship with your young person.
Questions about puberty
All children experience physical and emotional changes during puberty (see “Everyone Goes Through Puberty”.) Understanding these changes yourself is key to answering your child’s questions and concerns; it will also help you to see things from your child’s perspective. Discussing the changes with your child before puberty or as puberty begins makes the transition easier. There are many good books and websites available that explain, for both you and your child, what puberty is all about.
Your child will have plenty of questions during puberty (see “Common Questions Kids Ask During Puberty”.) The best way to respond is matter of factly, using the proper names of body parts. Here are some examples of how you can answer your child’s questions. Adapt them to your own language and style.
Child: “What is a wet dream?”
Parent: “A wet dream is when sperm comes out of a boy’s penis when he is sleeping. Boys make lots of sperm during puberty and this is the body’s way of making room for new sperm cells. It’s a normal part of puberty.”
Child: “Why do girls have periods?
Parent: “A girl’s ovaries start to release eggs (ovulation) during puberty, and an egg is needed to make a baby. The uterus or womb builds up a thick lining of oxygen, nutrients and blood, but when the egg doesn’t meet with a sperm, that lining isn’t needed to help a baby grow, and so it passes out of a girl’s body through her vagina. This is called menstruation or a period.”
When you are talking to your child, don’t forget to discuss all the positive aspects of puberty, such as being taller, stronger and smarter. This helps to reduce a child’s worry about the changes of puberty.
Talking to teens
As kids progress into adolescence, they continue to experience many changes in their bodies. They will be curious, and will hear lots about sex from other sources, such as school, the media, or friends.
At some point, your teen might ask you an unexpected question such as, “What are condoms and why do people use them?”, or “What’s a blow job?” Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a stupid or dirty question, and the way that you respond to your child’s questions will help determine how future conversations will go.
Use these opportunities to provide the information your child needs, and to reinforce your values. Your teen may ask questions such as, “What does gay mean?” or “What is a lesbian?” Again, be honest and clear. If you hear your child using stereotypes or making discriminating comments, respond by providing the appropriate words. These are opportunities for you to help your teen become a critical thinker.
If your teen doesn’t approach you with questions, you need to open up a conversation. Keep the conversation starters open-ended and ask indirect questions: “Are the kids in your class talking about sex?” or “What do you think about kids your age having sex?” or “Are your friends worried about sexually transmitted diseases?”(See “Conversation Starters for Parents of Teens”.)
Like many parents, you may be apprehensive about talking to your teen about sex because you worry that it’s too soon, that it will complicate your teen’s life, or that it will imply your approval. It is important to realize that not knowing about sex does not prevent teens from having it. There is no way of knowing how much your teen knows, or doesn’t know, about sex unless you talk about it together.
In fact, research tells us that teens whose parents communicate with them often have less sex and more responsible sex, than teens of parents who don’t communicate. Teens may naturally withdraw from their parents and seek out new information from their friends; however, by being involved in your teenager’s life, you contribute to his/her responsible decision-making.
Discussing sexuality routinely and openly will make each conversation easier. As a parent, you have the opportunity to address issues and learning moments as they arise. Offer information in a comprehensive, respectful, and age-appropriate manner. And don’t be afraid to use humour (but not teasing). Humour can help normalize a conversation. Be sure to be supportive and honest, to answer questions fully, and to listen.
What to talk about
Your discussions about sexuality will equip your teen with the information and skills to protect him/herself from abuse, unplanned pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections. Other things you’ll want to discuss include healthy relationships, implications of substance misuse, sexual expression, and the rights and responsibilities of sexual behaviours.
Young people need to develop social skills, decision-making skills and refusal skills around sexuality. They need to understand their own boundaries and also respect the boundaries of others. Provide the clear message: “don’t pressure others to do something they don’t want to do, and don’t let yourself be pressured either.” Encourage your teen to seek trusting, healthy relationships.
Help your teen set out his/her future life course. When young people are aware of future opportunities, such as employment, education and community involvement, they are motivated to delay pregnancy and parenting. Build your teen’s self esteem by noticing and commenting on personal strengths, offering praise and encouraging him/her to evaluate achievements. Help your teen set achievable goals that are within reach. Be supportive of these goals by offering suggestions and encouragement.
If your teen does decide to become sexually active, s/he needs to know about protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. Although there are many infections transmitted through sexual contact, most young people think, “it won’t happen to me.” Parents may be uncomfortable discussing condom use or providing access to condoms, however encouraging condom use 100% of the time is important in order to prevent STIs.
Let your teen know that some STIs such as herpes and genital warts (HPV) can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, meaning condoms are not 100% effective.
Your teen also needs to understand the health implications of pregnancy, and to receive accurate information about birth control. There are many contraceptive options. Common methods used by teens are the birth control pill, the patch or vaginal ring, injectable depo and condoms. Typically, condoms are only about 85% effective, so encourage your teen to use condoms along with hormonal birth control.
If you really are not comfortable talking about these topics with your teen, you can always ask for help from another adult or professional that you both trust.
Keep things positive
You are your teen’s best source of information about sexuality and research says that teens want their parents to be involved in their lives. So keep your relationship with your teen positive. Express concern without criticizing, be alert to things s/he may be sensitive about, and look for helpful ways to problem solve together. Stay interested in what s/he is doing and be available, but also respect his or her privacy without hovering. And finally, always show love, even if your teen doesn’t seem to care.
Create trust so your teen will feel comfortable when discussing sex. Take the initiative and bring up the subject of sexuality from time to time so your teen will know that s/he can approach you about the topic as well. Stay knowledgeable about sexually transmitted infections, relationships, and birth control. It is okay if you don’t know all of the answers; be honest when you don’t know (your teen will know when you aren’t), and help your teen find the answers s/he is looking for.
Everyone Goes Through Puberty
It’s a tough stage to go through, but you can help your child to cope by providing information on the emotional and physical changes that occur during puberty. Here’s that information in a nutshell.
Emotional Changes: During puberty, children may have mood swings. They have an increased need for independence, and being popular with peer groups.
Physical Changes: Boys and girls alike start to develop hair in their underarms and around their genitals. Body hair may also become thicker and darker. Boys start to develop facial and chest hair. Skin gets oiler which leads to pimples and a blotchy complexion.
Young people sweat more during puberty, which can cause body odour. It is important to talk to your puberty-aged child about the importance of showering or bathing, washing their face and using deodorant. Voices deepen for both males and females, although this is more noticeable in males.
Both girls and boys experience a growth spurt during puberty that can sometimes lead to challenges with coordination. Puberty happens at different times for different people and can take several years.
Boys at Puberty
♂ chest will get broader
♂ penis and testicles will grow
♂ testicles will start to produce sperm
♂ wet dreams (nocturnal emissions) may occur
♂ masturbation, which is normal, may become more frequent
♂ breasts may becoming puffy (this will go away once their hormones settle)
Girls at Puberty
♀ breast tissue starts to develop
♀ periods (menstruation) begins about one year later
♀ hips widen
♀ ovulation starts (the ovary releasing an egg)
♀ a white mucus is discharged from the vagina for about one year before a female starts having periods.
♀ once ovulation begins, fertilization can occur.